Denis Peirce: Spring halibut in San Francisco Bay |

Denis Peirce: Spring halibut in San Francisco Bay


Up at 2 a.m., on the road by 3 a.m., meet up in Lincoln at 4 a.m., launching at Berkeley Marina by 6 a.m. Fishing on the Berkeley Flats at dawn. You really have to want to go halibut fishing to keep this schedule.

Each spring halibut migrate from the Pacific through the Golden Gate to spawn on the shallow flats in San Francisco Bay. I have fished the deeper parts of the bay for stripers in the past but this was my first trip to specifically fish the shallow flats for halibut. Just out of the marina for miles in either direction are the Berkeley Flats. Depending on the tide, the water is eight to 16 feet deep with a silt bottom that gets stirred up to stain the water a muddy brown.

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

The standard technique is to troll across the flats dragging a 12 to 16 ounce weight along the bottom with bait a foot or so above. We trolled in a seemingly random pattern with a pair of binoculars in use, looking for nets being used on other boats to land fish. These bottom fish tend to congregate. When a net comes out, it is an indication there may be more close by and it will attract other boats. The stealth technique is to land modest sized fish without the net so as not to draw in other boats.

In the first few hours we picked up an occasional fish. The regulations have a 22-inch minimum size to keep a halibut. By far, the majority of halibut in the bay are under the 22-inch mark. By mid-morning the wind coming in from the Pacific was picking up and the bay was getting rough. We heard on the radio that south of the Bay Bridge the water remained calm and fish were biting. We reeled up and headed south.

I thought that the flats off Berkeley were large and had quite a few boats until we went south of the Bay Bridge. There were more miles of water to fish and the number of boats was proportionally larger.

The halibut population in the bay is based on fish migrating in for spawning and then heading back out to sea. They will come in from late March into June. With the number of anglers targeting them, every fish over 22 inches when boated is put in the box. During the course of our day on the water we landed 15 fish, of which only three were keepers. It is the new fish migrating in that keeps the fishery going for three months.

Of particular interest to me on the trip was an opportunity to try my trolling flies on halibut. Jason Lai, owner of the boat, gave me carte blanche to fish one side of the boat with my fly gear. The other side was set up with frozen herring, which is standard fair in the bay. Much to the surprise of all on board, the flies out fished the herring on that day. I had caught halibut on flies in Alaska, so I knew it could be done. The problem was the turbid brown stain to the water. There was only a few inches of visibility near the surface and probably worse conditions along the bottom. Whatever the reason for success, I will not be questioning it.

The wind picked up midday, and it blew in typical San Francisco style for the rest of the day. Based on the distance traveled from home we were not inclined to get off the water with less than limits of halibut. We stayed until 4 p.m., a 10-hour day on the water. This was followed by an hour of reloading the boat, washing the salt off the boat and filleting fish.

One of the members of our party generously offered to fillet the fish at a shore side cleaning station. During the process he was under constant surveillance by the ever present seagulls and other shore birds. After completing the task he realized that he needed more zip lock bags and stepped away to get them. During his brief absence the halibut fillets disappeared. I knew the Bay Area had a high crime rate but this was my first time falling victim. The likely perpetrators had criminal foreheads, guilty expressions and white wings. Be on the lookout if you get to the Berkeley Marina with fish in your possession.

After getting the boat squared away, we drove back to Lincoln where I left my truck. I drove home and arrived at 10 p.m. A 21-hour day that was made possible by the generous invitation of Jason Lai and Cal Harris. If you have any desire to see San Francisco, do it from the water during halibut season.

Denis Peirce writes a fishing column for The Union’s Outdoors section and is host of “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 at

The city as seen from the bay on Jason Lai's boat.
Photo by Denis Peirce
A keeper halibut and the fly that fooled him.
Photo by Denis Peirce
One of the suspects in the halibut robbery. Note the guilty expression and the criminal forehead.
Photo by Denis Peirce

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