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March 25, 2008

British Columbia's Bent-Rod Bonanza

Downsize your tackle and get more bang for your buck

Big Baits for Halibut
Having conquered some salmon, we wanted to put our gear to the test the next day on the halibut grounds - a long run to the south. The area preferred by lodge guides consists of a large plateau of relatively smooth bottom in 240 to 350 feet of water. Here, they can be sure of putting anglers on halibut - not barn doors but the best-eating "chickens" of 10 to 25 pounds, generally. We followed four other lodge boats south (two with guides and two "companion boats" since each guide is typically responsible for two boats, alternating his time aboard each) through the "back door," as the scenic but rocky 3-mile channel leading to open water is called, and then on to the halibut area.

Fortunately, the weather had cut us some slack, the morning dawning hazy but calm. We didn't connect with halibut larger than chicken-size (which were indeed abundant on the grounds), and that didn't offer much challenge for even our minimal gear, so we headed back toward a spot along the coast with tremendous habitat - rocky reefs and ledges and pinnacles with areas of smoother bottom between. 

After running for 20 minutes or so, we stopped to drop lines midway along a sharp slope that the depth sounder showed rising from 260 feet to 90. I had elected to fish a 9-inch Storm Wildeye Swim Shad, a big bait with lots of great action, but one that wouldn't be nearly heavy enough to reach bottom in deep water with conventional halibut gear - trolling reels filled with heavy mono or 100-pound braid. But using just 15-pound braid and with the ability to cast the lure well up into the gentle drift, the plastic bait touched down easily. 
I hadn't been working it for long when something took off with my lure in a powerful surge. The reel complained but stayed smooth. I'd chosen a Pflueger Supreme spinner in part to see if anglers could tap into this North Pacific fishery without spending many hundreds of dollars on reels. In fact, I think most decent reels in the $100 to $200 price range designed for light salt water should do the job.
Whatever I'd hooked wasn't coming in quickly or easily. Consistent pressure kept it headed the right direction, though several times I could do nothing but hold on as it streaked back down toward bottom. Finally, with Sharman ready on the gaff and Jackie clearing the deck, we brought a halibut weighing 55 pounds to the boat, a great size for eating - and for battling on light gear.

Nonstop Action
Later, as the west wind came up and the sea grew choppy, we headed up toward Cape Mark on the southwest corner of Wurtele Island. (The lodge is tucked into the northern end of Wurtele.) I consulted the chart I'd brought to see that Providence Rocks represents the tip of a small reef rising abruptly off the cape from deep water all around it. We found the reef and had a ball jigging plastics and metal around the edges of the slope, starting in 250 feet or so and fishing up to 70 to 100 feet. 
For the next couple of hours, we caught and for the most part released fish after fish after fish. The action proved truly ideal for any lover of light-tackle action at its best. At least for this ADHD angler, that means a great combination of action both nonstop and varied. We brought in lingcod to 30 pounds, feisty vermilion rockfish to 10 pounds and other rockfish including yelloweye and surprisingly tough bocaccio to 15 pounds. Sharman even lost a nice salmon boat-side that had engulfed a 6-inch Gulp! tail on a lead-head jig.
Many of these fish can be more or less cranked up, albeit a bit grudgingly, with standard tackle. But against the light braid, they gave us a good tussle and sometimes more than that. Both bocaccio and vermilions made some good runs and larger lingcod even more so. And releasing lings of 25 or 30 pounds in open water on the same sort of baitcaster favored by anglers customarily targeting 5-pound largemouth bass is pretty cool. Neither lings nor halibut have swim bladders; both are amazingly tough customers and of hundreds I've released, not one has failed to swim away strongly and immediately, even when taken from very deep water.
Thanks to our light lines, we had little trouble reaching bottom in well over 300 feet, dropping jigs or plastic baits of just 2 or 3 ounces. I suspect 15-pound braid in reasonably skilled hands is enough to get the better of almost any ling hooked, even a 40- to 50-pound female, because they rarely run right into bottom as do grouper and many snapper. The odds of landing 150-pound halibut go down, though it has been done on surprisingly light line. The big barn-door flatties are far less common, but they're not as good eating as the "small" 20- to 100-pound fish and really should be released to spawn many   generations of progeny.
The bottom line really is that for anyone planning a trip to fish the British Columbia coast, few game fish can't be landed on downsized tackle with light braided line, and all of them will provide a bit more thrill and bang for your buck.

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