The Worm Turned


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Hank Shaw with halibut
Photo by Charles Whitwam

“…See that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.”

~ Matthew 24: 6-8

Slogging through Bay Area traffic, car pointed toward Sacramento, it finally dawned on me: I’d just had quite possibly the greatest day of halibut fishing I might ever experience.

Hours before, aboard the Right Hook, I’d caught two California halibut, one 19 pounds, the other 20. One of these would be something to write home about, but two? And my fish weren’t even the largest on the boat: There was a 21- and a 23-pounder caught, too, as well as two more in the teens. Epic.

Before you sniff at this, remember that where I live we chase California halibut, Paralichthys californicus, not the larger Pacific halibut, which is Hippoglossus stenolepis. The state record for a Cali hali is 54 pounds, but fish larger than 30 pounds are the stuff of magazine covers. Fish larger than 40 pounds are mentioned in whispers.

What made this fishing trip so special was not so much the fish themselves, but that this trip marked the end of one of my longest losing streaks in the outdoors.

I’ve fished for both California and Pacific halibut for 13 years. In those years I’d never caught a Cali hali larger than 13 pounds, and my Pacific record is a mediocre 20 pounds; keep in mind that Pacifics can top 500 pounds, so a 20-pound Pacific is basically a toddler.

In those 13 years, I’ve had so-so days. I’ve even caught a limit of three California halibut, but none were ever larger than about eight pounds. Mostly I get skunked, or catch endless undersized “shakers,” micro-halibut that remind me more of the fluke and winter flounder of my youth.

Losing streaks are no fun. After each loss, each failure, I found my resolve tested. Why do this? Why spend all this money, all this time, on something that may never happen? Another trip, another skunk, or a “mercy halibut” caught by either the boat rods, or a slice from a more lucky angler. Frustrating.

Watching the rods while halibut fishing
Photo by Charles Whitwam

But the fact is, I always knew that someday my luck would change. The reason is simple: I know how to catch flatfish.

Most of you reading this can remember your first fish as a little kid. Probably a bluegill, right? Maybe a perch? Or a snapper bluefish? Me? It was a fluke, Paralichthys dentatus, also known as summer flounder. There’s a picture of me somewhere as a tiny kid holding a fluke, wearing the same shit-eating grin I have in the picture above.

I have fished for, and caught, various sorts of flatfish since at least 1975. I have long ago lost count of how many I’ve caught, but I’ve loved every sand dab, fluke, sole, flounder, and yes, halibut, that I’ve ever caught.

Why? For reasons biologists might be able to explain to me, probably having to do with their sit-on-the-sand-and-ambush method of living, flatfish have sweet, firm, white meat with a very fine flake for their size. Even these big halibut had a flake more like a bass a quarter their size. Small ones are some of the most delicate fish in the sea. Big ‘uns make arguably the best fish and chips on earth, or grilled steaks, pristine blocks of loin seared crispy, or fillets poached in butter, chunks made into curries or chowders, or tossed with a simple Italian puttanesca sauce.

What’s more, any flatfish larger than about 15 pounds becomes, well, a whole different animal from its smaller self.

Once they get big, their various bits become more interesting. Throats or collars become an option. Cheeks large enough to bother with. Of course the hefty fillets themselves become several kinds of dishes — loins for searing, trimmed chunks for poke or curry or sweet and sour fish, tail sections for chowder. And then there is what I call the frill: the line of fin muscles that control the flatfish’s outer fins. This is called engawa in sushi world, and it’s amazing. Worth it on even 5-pound fish, it’s a meal in a pair of 20-pounders.

Halibut roe is edible, although I’ve not eaten it. Halibut liver is also edible, and you can make a version of ankimono, the famous monkfish liver you see in sushi places, if you can find one without parasites.

Parasites are an issue. There are often little worms in the gut cavity, coiled like a spring. I am pretty sure they are anisakis worms, a/k/a seal worms. They will make you sick for a day or two if you mistakenly eat one uncooked, but it will not successfully parasitize you. Small comfort for 48 hours on the bowl. Freeze halibut before serving it raw. (See my article on safe ceviche for more details on this.)

If you’ve noticed that I haven’t focused on the thrilling nature of reeling in a 20-pound halibut, it’s because, well… er, it ain’t that thrilling. Reeling in any flatfish is an exercise in finesse, in patience and, in the end, in good netting. Typically they all have small mouths; even halibut do, relatively speaking.

So you fish for them using smallish hooks with either live or cut bait. We use live anchovies in the Bay; a pennant made of squid or another fish’s belly was the trick for fluke. When hooked, flatfish tend to come right up, shaking their heads along the way. Never let them get their heads out of the water or they’ll spit the hook. Try not to horse them in. Be patient.

And with a large fish, be gentle. It can and will snap you off if it gets pissed off. Treating a halibut like a bass is a great way to piss one off.

Netting a halibut
Photo by Charles Whitwam

Mostly the feeling you get while reeling is an overwhelming sense of fear — fear that this fish will shake its head like a pitbull and pop your line. That fear hits it peak when you finally see the fish. If it’s a big one, you might feel your palms go sweaty. Only when the fish is in the net can you exhale. And even then, I’ve seen big halibut leap out of a net.

All of this has happened to me. A lot of it recently, which made this last trip so special. But this time, everything had gone right. Finally.

Now I can enjoy the spoils.

Hank Shaw with a big California halibut
Photo by Jay Lopes

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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  1. Hank, I’ve recently acquired about 100# of Pacific Halibut after some great fishing in SE Alaska. I’m wondering if there are any preservation techniques, and recipes, aside from freezing that you recommend. Canning, pickling, smoking?

    1. Furfeatherfins: Yes, canned halibut is very good – like tuna. Look up a tuna recipe and sub with the halibut. You can pickle it but it won’t last all that long, maybe a couple weeks. I don’t like smoked halibut because it’s so lean. But the Tlingit natives in Alaska use it to make a salted, smoked fish jerky that’s good.

  2. Another great article, Hank. Ironically, a couple of places here in Idaho bring in fresh halibut and salmon from Alaska cheaper than what I paid in the Bay Area. A chunk of fresh, translucent fish is a treat. The only thing better is reeling it in yourself.

  3. Yet another great piece of storytelling, Hank. Halibut is one of my favorite things to eat on the planet, but like others have mentioned, I rarely buy it here in the mountain west. At least we can live vicariously, thru you. Congrats, and looking forward to seeing what you do with your hard-won treasures…

  4. Well I tried to write something a bit ago I guess I was doing it wrong. I’m disabled an loved the halibut article I only wish to ever see the oceans let alone get to fish.I love fishing an love this story I want to thank you for it makes my day. I’m glad to see others fulfill their dreams not to mention have a great time doing it lol well thank you for the article

  5. Congrats on the great fish! I miss eating halibut, it was so accessible when I lived on the west coast, either bought, caught, or speared. Now I live in the Rockies and practically have to get a bank loan to buy a good piece…

  6. Halibut costs a bagillion dollars a pound here in MI, but it’s so worth it as a treat. Hoping to try out your new recipe soon 🙂