Alaska halibut fishing HALIBUT BIOLOGY and life-history of the Alaskan North Pacific Halibut is as follows:

HALIBUT BIOLOGY
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Hippoglossus stenolepis - Halibut Biology from Egg to Maturity.

North Pacific Halibut, a member of the Flounder Family of fish, are unique because they have a biological characteristic that only the Flounder Family has. When they are first hatched from the egg they swim upright and have one eye on each side of their head like all other species of fish. At about five weeks of age and one inch in length, one eye "migrates" over the top of the head so that both eyes are on the same side of the head. At this time the juvenile Halibut "lays over" on its' side with both eyes on the upward or top side. As the fish grows the under side becomes white, the top side becomes a mottled darker variation of colors resembling the sea bottom, and their body flattens into an oval shape: thus the nickname "Flatfish". The Pacific Halibut, upon becoming a mature spawning adult average about 25 to 30 pounds in weight. They spawn during the winter months in about 1,200 feet of water. The males range upward to about 60 pounds and the females range upward to about 600 pounds in weight. Huge Pacific Halibut, known as a "Barn Door", can attain a length of over 8 feet and a width of over 5 feet. They have a button-sized calcified deposit in their head called an Otolith or "Ear Bone" that forms an annual growth ring. The age of an individual fish can be determined by counting the number of growth rings as you would age a tree. They can attain a lifespan of over 30 years. Halibut are predatory feeders that eat almost everything that swims
in the sea. Their snow-white flesh makes excellent table-fare. This makes them a very popular game-fish species with deep-sea fishermen. The Official State Record Halibut is 459 pounds-0 ounces.

Life Cycle

Halibut spawn at depths of 600 to 1,500 feet from November through March. Female halibut release anywhere from a few thousand to 4 million eggs, depending on the size of the fish. About 15 days later, the eggs hatch and the larvae drift with deep ocean currents. In the Gulf of Alaska, the eggs and larvae drift in a counter clockwise direction along the coast.

As the larvae mature, they move higher in the water column and ride the surface currents to shallower, more nourishing coastal waters.

Although age at maturity varies over time, about half of male halibut are sexually mature by 8 years of age, while half of the females are mature by age 11.

     Eye Migration

The larvae start life in an upright position like other fish, with an eye on each side of the head. When the larvae are about one inch long, the left eye moves over the snout to the right side of the head. At the same time, the coloration on the left side of the body fades. The halibut end up with both eyes on the pigmented (olive to dark brown) upper side of their body, while their underside is white. By the time they are six months old young halibut settle to the bottom in shallow, nearshore areas.

    Diet

Halibut feed on plankton during their first year of life. Young halibut (1-3 years old) feed on euphausiids (small shrimp-like organisms) and small fish. As halibut grow, fish make up a larger part of their diet. Besides pollock, sablefish, cod, and rockfish, large halibut also eat octopus, herring, crabs, clams, and smaller halibut.

    Size and Age

Halibut are the largest of all the flatfishes. Some halibut exceed 400 pounds, including the 459 pound state record fish caught during 1996 in Unalaska Bay.

Female halibut grow faster and are typically larger than males of the same age. Most halibut taken in the sport fishery are 5-15 years old. Males rarely reach 100 pounds.

Halibut age is estimated by counting growth rings laid down in the fishes' "otolith," a bony structure in the inner ear.

    Where to Find Them

Halibut can be found throughout most of the marine waters of Alaska - as far north as Nome, along the Aleutian Chain, and throughout the waters of the southeastern Alaska panhandle. Halibut can also be found along the continental shelf as far south as southern California, as well as along the coasts of Japan and Russia.

Halibut are usually on or near the bottom over mud, sand, or gravel banks. Most are caught at depths of 90 to 900 feet, but halibut have been recorded at depths up to 3,600 feet. As halibut mature, they migrate in a clockwise direction in the Gulf of Alaska, countering the drift of eggs and larvae. Halibut tagged in the Bering Sea have been caught as far south as the coast of Oregon, a migration of over 2,000 miles.

Halibut also move seasonally between shallow waters and deep waters. Mature fish move to deeper offshore areas in the fall to spawn, and return to nearshore feeding areas in early summer. It's not yet clear if fish return to the same areas to spawn or feed year after year.

Management of the Halibut Fisheries

Since 1923, both the sport and the commercial halibut fisheries have been managed under a treaty between Canada and the United States.

   The Role of the International Pacific Halibut Commission

The treaty established the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), which is charged with the conservation of halibut. The IPHC conducts research and sets the allowable catches for each of ten regulatory areas from Oregon to Alaska.

   The Role of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council

Sampling HalibutThe NPFMC is one of eight regional councils established by Congress in 1976 to oversee management of the nation's fisheries. The Council has eleven voting members, six from Alaska, three from Washington, one from Oregon, and a federal representative, the Alaska Regional Director of NMFS. The Council's office is in Anchorage, Alaska.

Once the IPHC has set the allowable halibut catches for each area, it is up to the Council to portion out the harvest between sport, commercial and subsistence users who fish U.S. waters. The Council can also set daily bag and possession limits for halibut in U.S. waters.

   ADF&G's Role

ADF&G collects sport fishery data and provides it to the IPHC and the NPFMC to help them in making management and allocation decisions.

   Your Role

You can ensure that management agencies are using the best possible information by responding to surveys, providing accurate information if interviewed by fishery technicians, and by allowing your fish to be measured.

Sport Fishing for Halibut

 

    Tackle

Stout tackle is preferred for these large, strong fish. Most sport anglers use a heavy-action 5-6 foot rod equipped with a reel capable of holding up to 300 yards of 60-100 pound test line.

The most popular method uses circle hooks baited with herring, fished on the bottom with cannonball weights up to 36 oz. on a slider. You can also use the head, tail, fins, and/or viscera (but only these parts) of sport-caught salmon as bait. Halibut eat almost anything they can catch, so jigging with J hooks baited with octopus or whole herring, or with lead-head jigs or other artificial lures is also effective.

Halibut that are small enough to be lifted aboard can be gaffed. Avoid using a gaff with a straight hook. Stick the gaff in the fish behind the gills and above the gut cavity and pull the fish into the boat in a continuous motion. Be ready to subdue the fish with several good whacks above the eyes and bleed it by cutting a few gill arches, the caudal peduncle (narrow part in fron of the tail), or both. Never gaff a halibut you intend to release.

Very large halibut can be shot in the brain with a .22 caliber pistol or small shotgun, but make sure you have control of the fish before doing this. The brain is located just behind (toward the tail) the upper eye. Large halibut can also be harpooned or stuck with a shark hook attached to a bullet buoy. The harpoon head must penetrate the fish completely in order to hold reliably. Large halibut can also be subdued without bringing them aboard by tying them to boat cleats with a tail loop and another loop of rope through the mouth and gills. The fish can then be bled outside the boat.

    When to Fish

Success rates vary widely from vessel to vessel and from day to day, but good catches are made from mid-May through mid-September throughout Alaska.

Many believe the best fishing is just before, during, and after high slack tide. This is the easiest time to keep your tackle on or near the bottom. Use modern, small diameter lines to minimize stretch and drag when fishing deep or in heavy currents.

    Halibut Charters

Charter boats are available throughout the state. Although ADF&G cannot recommend a particular charter, we do maintain a listing of registered guides on our website at www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/statewide/sfguides/html/index.cfm Weather and tides are always major factors, but charter fishing often provides more success than unguided fishing.

Other good sources of information are local chambers of commerce and charter boat associations. You could also search the Internet for booking information.

Full-day trips are the norm, but many operations offer half-day trips at a reduced rate. Bait, tackle, and lunch are generally provided. Processing and shipping of your catch is based on weight, and is usually usually arranged separate from your charter operator.

You should always be prepared for a cool, damp day on the water. Wear layers of good outdoor materials such as wool or fleece. Bring rain gear or a waterproof shell for rain and spray. Long underwear, light gloves, and rubber boots or shoes are a good idea also.

    Regulations

  • Most anglers 16-59 years old must have a current year's Alaska sport fishing license. There are two exceptions for Alaska residents:
    1. Alaska resident anglers 60 and older must have a free ADF&G Permanent ID Card.
    2. Alaska resident disabled veterans (50% or greater) must have a free ADF&G Disabled Veteran's Permanent ID Card.
  • Resident and non-resident anglers younger than 16 do not need a sport fishing license.
  • The open season for halibut is February 1-December 31.
  • The bag limit is 2 fish daily and 4 in possession.
  • There is no size limit.
  • When a fish is landed and killed it becomes part of the bag limit of the person originally hooking it. Once you have attained your bag limit, you are not allowed to catch and keep halibut for anyone else on the vessel that same day.
  • Possession of sport-caught halibut: a) No person may possess sport-caught halibut aboard a vessel when other fish or shellfish aboard the vessel are destined for sale, trade, or barter; and b) until brought back to shore and offloaded, no person may fillet, mutilate, or otherwise disfigure a halibut in any manner that prevents the determination of the number of fish caught or possessed.
Frequently Asked Questions

    How old is my halibut?

Females grow faster than males, but just like people, there is a lot of variation between individual fish. Check the chart for average ages at selected lengths.

How Big Was That Fish?
Length
in Inches
Average
Round Weight
in Pounds
Ages of Male Halibut Ages of Female Halibut
25 7    
30 12 6-12 4-12
35 19    
40 29 10-22 6-15
45 43    
50 60   8-18
55 82    
60 109   10-20
65 141    
70 179   12-23
75 224    
80 277   14-25
85 337    
90 405    
Average weights are based on International Pacific Halibut Commission data

    How do I tell the sex of halibut?

Examine the gonads located on either side in the tail end of the gut cavity. In females, the ovaries appear as triangular, hollow pinkish sacs. In males, the testes appear as solid (not hollow) gray or light brown, rubbery-looking masses of tissue, not unlike earlobes.

    What is "chalky" halibut?

It is not a health hazard. The flesh of chalky halibut is a bright, opaque white color, rather than translucent like normal flesh. When cooked, chalky halibut is drier, but has acceptable flavor and higher oil and protein content.

Chalkiness is rarely visible when the fish is boated but develops over a period of hours. It is caused by a buildup of lactic acid, which reduces the ability of flesh to retain water. Important factors may include exhaustion, water or air temperature, and handling. Chalkiness is also more prevalent in August. Overall occurrence in Alaska is about 5%.

To minimize chalkiness, kill and ice your fish promptly upon landing.

    How much edible meat can I expect to get from a halibut?

This depends somewhat on the skill of the filleter, but your skin-on fillets should be 50-60 percent of the weight of the fish. Don't forget to remove the cheeks, they're great!

    How well do halibut survive catch-and-release?

Halibut do not have a swim bladder and do not suffer severely from changes in water pressure. The survival rate of halibut caught on sport gear and released in excellent condition (not gaffed!) is believed to be at least 95%.

    What's wrong with my halibut? It's skinny, has big teeth, and turns to mush when I cook it.

Your "halibut" may in fact be an arrowtooth flounder which are common in southcentral waters but not as common in Southeast. They are often confused with small halibut. Arrowtooth flounder have a more pointed head, larger scales, and a longer mouth with numerous needle-like teeth. They turn soft when cooked because heat activates an enzyme in the fish that breaks down the flesh.

    What do I do if I catch a tagged halibut?

Halibut are tagged by the IPHC to study movements and by local derby officials. You are not obligated to either keep or release a tagged fish. If you release it, cut off the tag without injuring the fish, and note the location and date.

If you keep the fish, leave the tag on and try to contact an IPHC or ADF&G port sampler when you get to shore. You can also send the tag, along with length (measured from tip of snout to middle of tail), date, location (lat./long. preferred), depth, sex of the fish, gear type (sport), and port of landing to the IPHC.

Information courtesy of ADF&G

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