Halibuts are formidable foes of the sea. Not only are they supremely powerful and equipped with a set of sharp teeth, but they’re also huge. Some halibuts can grow up to eight feet long and five feet wide and weigh up to a jaw-dropping 500 pounds!
The best way to land a halibut is by gaffing it into the boat. However, gaffing a halibut—or any large fish, for that matter—isn’t as easy as how the pros make it out to be.
Don’t fret, however; this article guides you through a step-by-step process on how to gaff a halibut in the most effective way possible. So let’s dive right in!
How to Gaff a Halibut: A Step-by-Step Guide
Once you’ve caught and secured the halibut, follow these steps to gaff the fish:
Step 1: Reel the Fish In
Before gaffing a halibut, reel it in against your boat. Not only will this give you maximum mobility, but it’ll also allow you to stabilize yourself as you prepare the pole. If the halibut is too far from you, you won’t be able to safely gaff the fish. Also, you might fall in the water. You don’t want that to happen!
Step 2: Let the Fish Tire Itself Out
When gaffing a halibut, patience is key. If you don’t perfectly time it, you’ll likely lose the fish you tried so hard to catch. To avoid this, wait until the fish exhausts itself so you’ll have a better aim. If you try to gaff a halibut when it’s still fighting, it’ll more than likely unhook itself and swim away.
Step 3: Align Your Gaff
Once the fish is exhausted and doesn’t fight as much, start to align your gaff. Be careful; you don’t want your gaff to catch the leader line and break off the fish!
Take a long look at the fish. If you’ve caught a chicken-sized halibut, a 20 pounder or so, you can forgo the gaff entirely and scoop it in your boat using a decently sized salmon net.
Don’t attempt to lift the halibut from its mouth unless you’re wearing thick gloves; halibuts are noted for their sharp teeth, and they won’t hesitate to bite when you lip them.
Top Tip: Gaffs are ideal for medium-sized halibut, usually weighing between 20 to 50 pounds.
If the halibut you caught weighs under 50 pounds, the gaff hook should be around two to three inches long to effectively catch the fish. If the halibut weighs over 50 pounds, it should be gaffed using a three to four-inch hook.
Also, you need to make sure the length of your gaff is appropriate.
Gaff length is usually determined by the size and gunner height of your boat.
If you’re catching halibut on a kayak or small boat, use a gaff that measures about two to four inches in length. This will help you catch the fish close to the water.
For medium-sized skiffs and boats measuring 18 to 30 inches, the gaff should be at least four to six inches.
For boats above 30 inches, use a gaff that measures six to eight inches in length.
Step 4: Gaff the Fish
We’ve now reached the fun part: gaffing the halibut!
Using your dominant hand, hold the back most grip of the gaff to reach as far as possible. Stick it up and over the side of the boat, close to the halibut.
Then, lower the gaff and position it right behind the halibut’s gills, about 1/3 of the way back from the tip of the nose—right under the dorsal fin.
Don’t go for a headshot unless you’re absolutely confident of your aim because if you miss, you might break the line and knock the fish off the hook. Gaffing the fish behind the gill is the most risk-free technique.
Some anglers hook the gaff from the side of the halibut’s belly or tail. I recommend against this.
Although you’ll slice through prime fillet when shooting through the back of the gills, there’s less of a chance for the fish to go gung-ho and rip itself apart just as you’re landing it.
Step 5: Lift the Fish Into the Boat
Once you’ve gaffed the fish, pull and lift it up with one quick motion. Doing so allows the hook to penetrate deeper into the halibut, firmly securing the fish.
When you’re absolutely sure it’s properly hooked, grab the front grip of the pole using your other hand and drag the fish in. This should all be done in one fluid motion, taking no longer than 20 seconds. If you’re pulling in a large halibut, ask for a friend’s assistance so you can both pull the fish in.
Author Note: Once the halibut is on your boat, keep it calm by turning it on its back and covering its eyes. If a net is required, use one made of rubber mesh instead of abrasive nylon. Don’t put your finger in the halibut’s gills or eyes as they’re extremely sensitive and may cause undue pain.
Safety Tips to Follow When Gaffing a Halibut
Gaffing a fish, although relatively straightforward once you get the hang of it, doesn’t come without its risks. To safely gaff a halibut and other similar-sized fish, follow these important tips:
Don’t Gaff the Fish Near the Tail or the Belly
As discussed earlier, you should only gaff a fish near the back of its gills.
Gaffing a fish near the tail or belly opens the probability of the fish hurting someone due to its thrashing. This is especially true for halibuts, as halibuts have sharp teeth.
Don’t Be a Lone Hero
You can’t reel the line and gaff the fish by yourself. In total, you need four hands. This means that you have to have at least two people on the boat. Three, if possible, in case you catch a 50 pounder or more.
One person leads the fish on the pole, and the other person gaffs it. The third is for “just in case” situations.
Flying Gaffs for Large Fish
Gaffs come in multiple shapes and sizes. For large fish—and I mean really large, like over 100 pounds or so—use a flying gaff instead of a traditional gaff.
Author Note: Flying gaffs are longer and sharper than regular gaffs. Usually, the “head” of a flying gaff is cleated by a 15-foot line and separates from the pole. This design not only stabilizes the gaff but also puts the strain off the angler and distributes it to the pole.
Properly Store the Gaff Once You’re Done Using It
Gaffs are equipped with sharp hooks. To avoid any sort of accident, make sure to properly store the gaffs in a secure area when you’re not using them. Also, don’t forget to cover the sharp tips with a PCV tubing, a safety spring, a cork, a tennis ball, or even just a piece of thick cloth.
Where’s the best place to fish for a halibut?
The most popular areas for halibut fishing include Alaska, southern California, and along the coasts of Russia and Japan. Halibuts are typically found throughout the Northern Pacific Ocean and North Western United States.
When is the best time to catch a halibut?
Halibuts are year-round fish. However, they’re at peak abundance during spring and summer.
In the US, the halibut season begins in mid-March and runs through early November. If you’re planning to catch a halibut, do it during slack times—that is, two hours before and after high and low tides.
Are halibuts expensive?
If you’re fishing to sell, you’ll be glad to know that, yes, halibuts are quite expensive! Usually, they sell for around $30 per pound. Not only because they’re difficult to catch but also because they’re tasty.
Do gaff hooks hurt fish?
Yes, sometimes, but it really depends on your gaffing technique.
Gaffing a fish in the back of the gaff hurts less than gaffing from beneath. More often than not, the fish will feel the gaff before it penetrates it.
As soon as it does, it’ll likely struggle and attempt to escape, heavily injuring it.
Therefore, it’s more of a question of how much pain the fish will feel rather than if the fish feels pain at all.
Hooks, in general, hurt fish. Some believe that fish don’t experience pain. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. As such, we, as anglers, are responsible for making the catch as painless as possible.
Should I gaff a fish if I’m planning to release it?
If you’re planning to release a fish, it’s best not to gaff it. The gaff’s sharp hook can mortally injure a fish. Only gaff a fish if you’re planning to keep it.
Gaffing a halibut is a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s exciting, exhilarating, and supremely satisfying—but only if done right!
If it’s your first or even fifth time gaffing a halibut, don’t be discouraged if you accidentally miss or catch the leader line, causing the fish to escape. It happens to the best of us!
With the steps above, paired with enough practice and confidence, you’ll master the art of gaffing halibut in no time.