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I believe my fishing passion has taken a fairly typical path. It started with a desire to simply catch fish. At first, it didn’t matter how I caught them, but gradually I began to focus on catching them in an interesting way – namely, with a fly rod. Now, among other things, I like to catch unusual and particularly difficult fish with a fly rod. One of my current passions is catching halibut on a fly.
The fight of a halibut on a fly rod is phenomenal. Even a smallish fish (20 pounds) will bend a 12-weight rod double. A 100-pound fish seems impossible to land.
There are several keys to fly fishing for halibut: timing, location, technique and tackle. Halibut spend the winter in deep water (500 to 1,500 feet) where they are unreachable. They begin moving into shallow water in June and July when salmon move into creek mouths. The halibut will pick off both fresh salmon and, later, carcasses.
The best fly fishing is in the mouths of creeks that have significant salmon returns and a gradually sloping bed, preferably with a muddy or soft bottom. Locations like this are few and far between. Halibut can also be caught on the fly in a bottle-neck at an inlet entrance where bait is funneled through on the push or pull of a tide. Finally, you can also catch them in more traditional halibut humps and pockets, but these tend to occur in deep water. Fish in this kind of habitat are more difficult to catch.
Halibut key on scent. “Keep lines in the water because it keeps scent in the water,” is an expression you hear often from Alaska halibut guides. A fly, of course, does not have any scent, so that means chum is almost necessary. While it is certainly possible to catch halibut without chum, I like to catch lots of fish, so I usually use chum. With conventional tackle, I used to put small bait bags on my anchor line, letting the tide drift the scent back to my jigs. When I began fly fishing, I stepped things up a notch by attaching five-gallon bags of ground salmon on two downriggers. The reaction you get from doing that can be phenomenal. At times, it will seem as though you have every halibut within miles under your boat. In addition to halibut, I have caught 11 different species of bottom fish on a fly from one location. I realize some anglers may frown on the use of chum. To each his own. It is simply a fact that using chum can make shallow-water fly fishing for halibut as productive as fishing for them with traditional gear.
As for fly presentation, I try to set up so I can cast up-tide as far as possible, letting the fly sink to the bottom quickly. As the tide drifts the fly by the boat, I jig the fly on the bottom, much as you would with traditional gear. Then, as the fly continues below and past the boat, I feed fly line to maintain a dead drift and keep the fly on the bottom. I have caught halibut on the strip back to the boat, but it is rare.
Halibut in shallow water full of seals and sea lions tend to test fly tackle to the extreme. They are noted for strong reactions close to the boat anyway, which can be tough on long rods. I have two 12-weight rods I use on halibut. One of them is a Sage Xi2 that I have already broken once on a 100-plus-pound fish.
Halibut fishing demands a large-arbor reel with plenty of backing, especially if you are targeting large fish in shallow water. I use a Galvin Torque T-12, with 300 yards of Micron backing. In shallow water (20 to 50 feet), I use a Rio Deep Sea Line. In deep water (50 to 120 feet), I use a Scientific Angler Deep Water Express Shooting Head, ST 850, followed by Sunset Amnesia Shooting Monofilament, 30-pound test, followed by 300 yards of Micron backing. For tippet, I use three to four feet of 50- to 80-pound Maxima Fluorocarbon.
There are some charter captains up here in Alaska who will help you catch a halibut on the fly. Three I know are: Captain Chaz Glagolich of Chazman Charters out of Kodiak; Josh Cozby of Black Rock Charters out of Gustavus Alaska; and Luke Woodruff of Searunner Guide Service out of Juneau. Note that you’ll have to bring your own gear if you want to fly fish for halibut with these guides.
(Postscript. Along with his report, Sullivan sent directions for tying what has to be one of the heaviest flies on the planet. As he puts it: “These flies are so heavy, if they hit you in the head you stand a good chance of seriously injuring yourself.” We’ve uploaded what he sent us on this fly to the home page of our web site. Click on “BigAss Halibut Fly.