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Pacific Halibut

The Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis was called "haly-butte" in Middle English, meaning the flatfish to be eaten on holy days.
(In Alaska known as Barn Doors Or Butts)

General description

Halibut are large flatfish found on the continental shelf from California to the Bering Sea. Halibut have flat, diamond-shaped bodies, can weigh up to 500-700 pounds, and can grow to nine feet long. Halibut are more elongated than most flatfishes, the width being about one-third the length. Small scales are embedded in the skin. Halibut have both eyes on their dark or upper side. The color on the dark side varies but tends to assume the coloration of the ocean bottom. The underside is lighter, appearing more like the sky from below. This color adaptation allows halibut to avoid detection by both prey and predator.

Halibut`s Life history

Spawning takes place during the winter months with the peak of activity occurring from December through February. Most spawning takes place off the edge of the continental shelf in deep waters of 200 to 300 fathoms. Male halibut become sexually mature at 7 or 8 years of age, and females attain sexual maturity at 8 to 12 years. Females lay two to three million eggs annually, depending on the size of the fish. A 50-pound female can produce about 500,000 eggs, while a female over 250 pounds can produce four million eggs. Fertilized eggs hatch after about fifteen days. Free-floating eggs and larvae float for up to six months and are transported up to several hundred miles by currents of the North Pacific. During the free-floating stage, many changes take place in the young halibut, including migration of the left eye to the right side of the fish. During this time the young halibut rise to the surface and are carried to shallower waters by prevailing currents. In the shallower waters, young halibut then begin life as bottom dwellers. Most young halibut ultimately spend from five to seven years in rich, shallow nursery grounds as in the Bering Sea. Younger halibut, up to 10 years of age, are highly migratory and generally migrate in a clockwise direction east and south throughout the Gulf of Alaska. Halibut in the older age classes tend to be much less migratory. Older fish often use both shallow and deep waters over the annual cycle however they have much smaller “home range`s” than younger, more migratory fish. Research indicates that there may be small, localized spawning populations in deep waters such as in Chatham Straight in northern Southeast Alaska. However, because of the free-floating nature of eggs and larvae and subsequent mixing of juvenile halibut from throughout the Gulf of Alaska, there is only one known genetic stock of halibut in the northern Pacific. Halibut live quite a long time, but their growth rate varies depending on locations and habitat conditions. Females grow faster and live longer than males. The oldest recorded female was 42 years old and the oldest male was 27 years old. Halibut are the largest of all flatfish.

Food habits

Adults halibut are carnivorous. Being strong swimmers adult halibut prey on cod, pollock, sablefish, rockfish, turbot, sculpins, other flatfish, sand lance, herring, octopus, crabs, clams, and occasionally smaller halibut. Sometimes halibut leave the ocean bottom to feed on pelagic fish such as sand lance and herring. Halibut are sometimes eaten by marine mammals, but are rarely preyed upon by other fish.

Commercial halibut fishing

Commercial halibut fishing probably began in 1888 when three sailing ships from New England fished off the coast of Washington state. As the industry grew, company-owned steamers carrying several smaller dories, from which the fishing was actually conducted, dominated the halibut fishery. Subsequently, smaller boats of schooner design in the 60- to 100-foot class were used in the fishery. These boats carried crews of five to eight and, specifically designed for halibut fishing, were very effective. Today, many types of boats are used in the halibut fishery. Most of the old-time halibut schooners have been replaced by more versatile craft that are also used in commercial salmon seine, troll, gill-net, and crab fisheries. Halibut gear consists of units of leaded ground line in lengths of 100 fathoms, which are referred to as “skates.” Each skate has approximately 100 hooks attached to it. “Gangens,” or the lines to which the hooks are attached, are either tied to or snapped on to the ground line. A "set" consists of one or more baited skates tied together and laid on the ocean bottom with anchors at each end. Each end has a float line and a buoy attached. Hooks are typically baited with frozen herring, octopus, or other fresh fish. Depending on the fishing ground, depth, time of year, and bait used, a set is fished 2 to 20 hours before being pulled. Longlines are normally pulled off the ocean floor by a hydraulic puller of some type. The halibut are cleaned soon after being boated and are kept on ice to retain freshness.

Sport Fishing Halibut

Sport fishing for halibut in Alaska is a very popular activity, with over 65 percent of the effort and harvest occurring in Kachemak Bay, Southeast Alaska, the Kodiak area, and near the mouth of Deep Creek in Lower Cook Inlet. The halibut taken by sport anglers are generally 20 to 25 pounds in weight; however, fish over 150 pounds are frequently caught. The current Alaska state record for a sport-caught halibut is 450 pounds, and a fish must weigh at least 200 pounds to qualify for the state`s trophy fish program. Anglers use stout saltwater fishing gear to harvest over 1.5 million pounds of halibut annually. The effort and the interest in catching these delicious fish on a increasing each year. In Southeast Alaska halibut fishing is second only to king salmon in sport angler preference. Halibut, along with salmon, provided subsistence for several Pacific Coast native groups. Much folklore is found concerning the halibut. Each fishhook used by the Indians was carved with special designs to bring good luck and large fish. The halibut were smoked and dried for winter use.

Seward Alaska Halibut Fishing

Pacific halibut are most often found on or near the bottom, over sand or gravel beds. While halibut have been recorded to depths of 3,600 feet, most are caught at depths of 90 to 500 feet. Although a few halibut over 350 pounds have been caught in or near Resurrection Bay, fish in the 10-35 pound range are more common. Most sport-caught halibut are taken from the southern portion of Resurrection Bay and waters further from port. Relatively very few halibut are taken from the upper reaches of the Bay. Halibut can weigh up to several hundred pounds, so most anglers use a stout 5-7 foot rod equipped with a level-wind, star-drag reel capable of holding up to 300 yards of 30-80 pound test line. Large 4/0-12/0 jigs or circle hooks baited with octopus, salmon heads, or whole or cut herring are typical. 24-32 oz. Of weight is needed to hold the bait on the bottom, depending on the depth, speed of the current, and the tides. Although drifting is popular, anchoring is also effective because the bait creates a scent trail in the current that attracts fish. The best time to fish for halibut is just before, during, and after slack tide, since this is the easiest time to keep the bait on bottom. Halibut are available inside Resurrection Bay, but fishing is best outside the Bay at Cape Resurrection, Chiswell Islands,and the waters from Day Harbor east to Montague Island.

Alaska Halibut Fishing near Anchor Point, Deep Creek,
Ninilchik, and Whiskey Gulch

Alaska Halibut fishing Deep Creek, Ninilchik, and Anchor Point. Halibut are usually found throughout lower Cook Inlet, but they do migrate in- and offshore, depending on the time of year. Halibut are more readily found in Cook Inlet from April through September. They feed in relatively shallower near shore waters of Cook Inlet in the spring and summer, and more back to the deep waters of the Gulf of Alaska in the fall. In early spring, anglers and charter boats target halibut in those areas seasonally open to halibut fishing near the beaches of Deep Creek, Anchor Point and Whiskey Gulch.

Herring is the most popular bait for halibut fishing, but jigs also work well. Halibut weigh up to several hundred pounds, so use a stout rod and reel with line testing at 60-100 pounds. The amount of weight required to hold the bait on the bottom is usually 12-32 oz., depending on depth and speed of the current. To avoid using heavy weights, many people fish only during slack tide. Drifting is popular, but anchoring is often more effective. Holding the bait in one spot distributes a scent pattern down current that attracts halibut.

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