Dennis Pierce: Halibut in San Francisco Bay

Until 2 a.m., on the road by 3 a.m., meet at Lincoln at 4 a.m., and set out at Berkeley Marina by 6 a.m. You really have to go halibut fishing to keep this schedule.

All spring halibut migrate from the Pacific Ocean through the Golden Gate to spawn in the shallow flats of San Francisco Bay. I’ve fished the deeper parts of the bay for strip lines in the past, but this was my first trip specifically to shallow flatfish for halibut. Berkeley Flats are located miles outside of the marina in either direction. Depending on the tides, the water is eight to 16 feet deep with a silt bottom agitated to stain the water a muddy brown.

First light on Sunday morning the wind was calm and the sea flat. There were dozens of boats around us ranging from single kayaks to party boats with dozens of anglers. I was more surprised to see small aluminum canoes at home on the Sierra Lake than on the San Francisco Bay. As long as they are close to the marina, they can set off when the daily winds blow. The best view of the bay area is from the water. If I lived here, I would have had a boat because being in the bay is an effective way to escape the land congestion.

The standard technique for trolling through flats is to pull a 12 to 16 ounce weight along the bottom using a lure that is a foot or more in height. We were cruising around in a seemingly random pattern with binoculars, looking for nets used on other fishing boats. These demersal fish tend to congregate. When a net goes out, it is an indication that there may be more near you and it will attract other boats. The stealth technique consists in landing fish of a modest size without the net so as not to attract other boats.

In the first few hours we caught a fish occasionally. The regulations have a minimum size of 22 inches to keep the halibut thick. And by far, the majority of halibut in the bay falls under the 22-inch mark. By mid-morning, the winds from the Pacific Ocean were rising and the bay was violent. We heard on the radio that the water was calm south of the bay bridge and that the fish were gnawing. We swerved and headed south.

I thought the apartments off Berkeley were big and had quite a few boats so we went south of the Bay Bridge. There were more miles of water to fish and the number of boats was relatively greater.

Gulf halibut populations depend on migrating fish to spawn and then return to the sea. They will come from late March to June. With the number of anglers they target, each fish over 22 inches high is placed in the box. During this day, 15 fish were lowered into the water, only three of them were breeders. It is the new migratory fish that keep the catch going for three months.

Of particular interest on the trip was the chance to try fly fishing on halibut. Jason Lay, the boat owner, gave me carte blanche to fish a side of the boat with my flying gear. The other side was created with frozen herring, which is a regular in the bay. To the amazement of everyone on board, flies caught herring that day. I caught halibut on flies in Alaska, so I knew it could be done. The problem was the murky brown spot on the water. There was only a few inches of visibility near the surface and conditions were probably worse along the bottom. Whatever the reason for success, I will not question it.

The wind blew at midday, and it blew in typical San Francisco fashion for the rest of the day. Judging by our mileage from the house, we weren’t inclined to get out of the water below the limits of the halibut. We stayed until 4pm, a 10 hour day on the water. This was followed by an hour of reloading the boat, washing salt from the boat and fish fillets.

One of our party generously offered fish fillets at a beach side cleaning station. During this process he was under constant watch by present day seagulls and other shore birds. After the job was done, he realized he needed more zip-lock bags and walked away to get them. During his short absence, the halibut fillets had disappeared. I knew the Bay Area had a high crime rate but this was the first time I had fallen victim. Possible culprits had criminal foreheads, guilty expressions, and white wings. Be on the lookout if you make it to Berkeley Marina with your fish.

After we left the boat away, we headed back to Lincoln where I left my truck. I drove home and arrived at 10pm on the 21st which was made possible by a kind invitation from Jason Leigh and Cal Harris. If you have any desire to see San Francisco, do so from the water during halibut season.

Dennis Pearce writes a fishing column for the federation’s Outdoors division and hosts “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report,” which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830 AM Radio. Contact him via his website

The city as seen from the bay on the Jason Lay boat.
Photography by Dennis Pierce

The guard of the halibut and the fly that deceived him.
Photography by Dennis Pierce

One of the suspects in the theft of halibut. Note the guilty expression and the criminal front.
Photography by Dennis Pierce

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