Denis Peirce: Spring Halibut in San Francisco Bay

Up at 2am, on the road at 3am, meet at Lincoln at 4am, launch at Berkeley Marina at 6am Fishing on Berkeley flats at dawn. You have to really want to fish halibut to stick to this schedule.

Each spring, halibut migrate from the Pacific across the Golden Gate to spawn on the shallow plains of 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 outside the marina for miles in either direction is the Berkeley Flats. Depending on the tide, the water is eight to 16 feet deep with a silt bottom that is churned up to stain the water a muddy brown.

At first light on Sunday morning, the wind was calm and the sea was flat. There were dozens of boats around us ranging from one man kayaks to party boats with dozens of anglers. I was surprised to see small aluminum canoes more at home on a lake in the Sierra than in San Francisco Bay. As long as they are close to the marina, they could slip into it when the daily wind picks up. Views of the bay 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 clutter.

The standard technique is to drag across the flats dragging a 12 to 16 ounce weight along the bottom with bait about a foot above. We hung out in a seemingly random pattern with a pair of binoculars in use, looking for nets used on other boats to land fish. These groundfish tend to congregate. When a net comes out, it is an indication that there may be others nearby and this will attract other boats. The stealth technique consists of landing fish of modest size without the net so as not to attract other boats.

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

I thought the flats off Berkeley were big 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 greater.

The halibut population in the bay is based on fish that migrate to spawn and then return to sea. They will arrive from late March to June. With the number of anglers targeting them, every fish over 22 inches when sailed is put in the box. During our day on the water, we landed 15 fish, only three of which were keepers. It’s the new migrating fish that keeps the fishery going for three months.

What particularly interested me during the trip was the opportunity to try out my trolling flies on halibut. Boat owner Jason Lai gave me free rein to fish from one side of the boat with my fly tackle. The other side was laid out with frozen herring, which is standard in the bay. To the surprise of everyone on board, the flies caught the herring that day. I had caught halibut on the fly in Alaska, so I knew it was possible. The problem was the cloudy brown water stain. There were only a few inches of visibility near the surface and probably worse conditions along the bottom. Whatever the reason for the success, I will not question it.

The wind picked up at noon and blew in typical San Francisco style for the rest of the day. Based on the distance traveled from home, we weren’t inclined to come out of the water with less halibut limits. We stayed until 4pm, 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 the fish.

One of our group generously offered to fillet the fish at a shore cleaning station. During the process, he was under constant surveillance by seagulls and other ever-present shorebirds. After completing the task, he realized he needed more zipper bags and walked 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 the first time I had been a victim. The probable perpetrators had criminal foreheads, guilty expressions and white wings. Be on the lookout if you arrive at Berkeley Marina with fish in your possession.

After picking up the boat, we drove back to Lincoln where I left my truck. I drove home and arrived at 10 p.m. A 21-hour day made possible thanks to the generous invitation of Jason Lai and Cal Harris. If you want 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 the host of “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report”, which airs 6-7 p.m. Friday and 5-6 a.m. Saturday on the radio 830-AM. Contact him through his website at

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