Big Halibut at Leo Carrillo! - Spring, 1996
---By Mark Theobald

For several months now we have been enjoying these fantastic, flat calm mornings out on the kelp beds off Nicholas Canyon. We have been launching from the free parking area just east of the Leo Carrillo State Beach and camp area, and paddling about 3/4 miles further to the east until we are 1/4 mile offshore and at the outermost kelp beds of the Nicholas Canyon county beach.

This was the kind of beautiful morning from which any pictures taken surely would have made it into my book, however, on this day we were not here to take pictures. We were not here to catch lobster, shoot Calico, or find rock scallops either. We were here for one purpose, aside from another great kayak diving excursion, halibut - California Halibut to be precise. We were anchored in 50 feet of 65 degree water with visibility ranging from 20 to 35 feet... not bad, but we've seen better this late in the Spring season.

There were 5 or 6 of us, each on our own Scrambler XT, this fine morning. I might have otherwise dove solo as I often do when I am hunting, but today, and on previous weeks, I have buddied up with my neighbor and good friend Dave. Dave is an avid diver and a strong swimmer, and has no problem keeping up with me for the long distances I like to cover when searching for halibut. Dave is also new to spearfishing in this year and is still in the watch and learn stage. He is also very good at staying up beside me so I don't have to do a barrel roll whenever I want to see where he is.

As a scuba diver in the Pacific I have never felt the need to use a spear-gun. Today is no different and I am using my trusty pole-spear complete with trigger-handle and two rubbers. I use a cutting tip with extra long double-barbs. I have never shot a halibut with a speargun, and, I don't think that I would ever want to try to take one of these big boys with a gun. I don't like the idea of a slightly wounded fish with this much power taking off with nothing but a nylon string between my gun and the shaft in its body. The only way I would want to shoot such a fish with a speargun is with a free shaft tied to a float line. I have taken over 25 halibut in the last four years with this same pole-spear and very happy to say I have never lost a single fish that I have speared. More on this in a moment...

Dave and I finalize our dive plan, which is for him to follow me wherever I go. ;~) Actually, it is to zigzag out to the headwaters of the kelp bed and back as we move towards the west. This way we are mostly swimming into the current and hence into clean undisturbed water during the dive. We'll also end up up-current at the end of the dive which will allow us to drift back during our safety stop.

I am still doing the anchoring for the entire group these days so we descend on the anchor line and check the placement of the anchor. I move it ahead a few yards to keep it out of the kelp and then we head south for open water. We are not diving with a one-track mind so we do slow down at times to enjoy exploring the pinnacles along the way. We make a few practice grabs at some undersize (and out of season) lobsters and I feign a few shots a some 14-16 inch Calico bass. We reach the outside reef, check our depth, 55-60 feet, and turn back to the north-by-northwest for the second zag of the dive. We continue on like this for the first 1500 pounds (about 25 minutes) of the dive.

We're on one of our N-NW tracks now and have crossed the outer reef and moving over the silty grayish-brown sand that lies between the outer and second reef. This is prime halibut country - a few rocks here and there for them to snuggle up close to and signs of Angel Shark and Bat Ray landings. We have yet to see one stinkin' halibut though, not even a shorty. OK, so by now the anticipation of an eminent halibut sighting has worn off a bit for Dave. He's sticking with me but not necessarily watching every inch of ground in front of us. Then...

I think I might have seen what we are looking for! Off to my left was the strangest looking piece of kelp sticking straight up form the otherwise barren sand that I ever saw - it deserves a second look. I circle to the left and back to see that it is the pectoral fin of a halibut. Still no clue to the halibut's size or orientation under the sand but I am instinctively coming away from the bottom as I approach it to give myself the angle I need for a shot - a shot I'm not even sure I'll be making at this point.

I always say, as you approach a large halibut you have only 3 to 4 seconds at best to make your shot before the fish disappears in the blink of an eye. I give myself no more than 3! In this 3 seconds you must, first and foremost, ascertain that the fish is of legal size. I do this by ignoring any halibut that appears to be less than 28 inches (the legal limit is 22 inches). Then, you must figure out how the halibut is situated under the sand and where the 'kill' shot is to be made. If it happens to be buried very well, this can be the most difficult part. For this particular fish it was extremely difficult. At first I only saw the pectoral fin and then the tip of the tail several feet behind. As I approached for the shot, and my heart rate soared at the apparent size of the fish, I finally caught sight of the eyes barely peering from out under the sand. A split second later I made my shot and all hell broke loose!

Dave later recalled, "I wasn't watching when you made the shot but by the time I turned my head All I saw were your fins going round and round at the extent of a huge ball of silt. Until I caught a glimpse of the halibut I thought you were in trouble with some other type of large sea creature!"

What Dave saw was my efforts to keep the halibut pegged to the ground as I pushed my pole-spear deeper into the sand. This technique explains why I have never lost one of these bad boys! I keep the spear tip in the dirt until I can reach down under the fish and grab hold of the shaft on both sides of the fish. Meanwhile, keeping all body parts out from between the needle-sharp teeth of such a fish, I tuck the upper part of the pole-spear under my arm or between my legs and attempt to quickly remove the gills from the fish with my free hand.

Probably one of the most disappointing things (for me) that can happen when I shoot a large halibut is for the fish to die instantly. I'm not really a cruel person but I do enjoy a good fight with these big halibut. I especially enjoy it when I have a good hold on the pole-spear above and below the fish when it comes back alive and decides to head for the open sea. I have had 'sled' rides up to 75 feet with the larger ones. This halibut did not disappoint me - before it finally gave up I got a sled ride of nearly 50 feet. Dave was amazed!

Getting the only halibut of the day between five divers only made this victory that much sweeter. This California Halibut measured out to 44 1/2 inches and weighed just over 30 pounds! Before the month was out I would take another just like it at Pt. Dume! If you take a close look at the pictures, you will notice that the Leo Carrillo fish is a "righty" (it lays on its' right side), and the Pt. Dume fish is a "lefty". I still haven't figured out if there is any rhyme or reason as to this sidedness as I have taken both male and female fish with both sidednesses(sp?).

L E F T Y !

Here are a few of the things I have learned about halibut over the years:

---Halibut will come in on the tide and bury themselves to wait in ambush of their intended prey. They love smelt, mackerel, and squid.

---They often hide in the sand in a channel between two large rocks that might direct prey their way, and they seem to like the silty soft sand that is easy to bury in.

---Halibut will often settle near the anchor chain of a large commercial boat. Is it the clinking noises they like? I don't know but be sure to check this area at the end of the dive and certainly just before the boat departs. Dive masters will often tell you of their luck as they make their dive at the end of the day after all the passengers are done.

---Halibut will "ambush" you on your kayak too if they can. I know a few people that have been bitten by a landed halibut they thought was dead or nearly so.

---When caught on a fishing line, they will often come to the surface with relative ease only to explode with power when they catch sight of the sunlight. A gaff or large strong net is an absolute must for landing a halibut taken by line.

---Halibut are often found in the same vicinity as Angel Sharks and Bat Rays, and where there's one there are usually more!

---Large halibut will rarely give you more than a few seconds to take your shot as you approach them, especially if you are looking straight at them.

---And finally, they are often extremely difficult to see buried in the sand. Sometimes, all you will see are their eyes and maybe the outline of a tail. In one instance I didn't even see the eyes until they twitched as I passed the fish by. It turned out to be a 39 incher - and tasted great!!!

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