It is halibut hunting time again and dive shops buzz with where the hot spots are for the big “flatties.” The halibut are already running and it looks to be a good season.
There are going to be a lot of good spots this year, but the north side of Santa Barbara Island, around Shag Rock, is likely to be a good location as it so often is.
Shag Rock is a large islet 200 yards off the north side of Santa Barbara Island. Nearby, surrounding the rock and to the east and west, rocky reefs extend in fingers and patches out onto the sand. And the sand forms pockets within the rocky fields. This is prime halibut territory.
Halibut love to lie camouflaged, partially buried in the sand waiting for an unsuspecting meal to swim by. The reefs support sporadic patches of kelp and within the rocks and kelp strands, various small fish seek shelter. But inevitably some stray too far from cover and become a meal.
Talk to 12 different expert halibut hunters and you’ll get a half a dozen answers as to the best hunting technique. Some like to work the sand patches inside the kelp forest. Others will stay completely away from the rocks and concentrate only on the deeper sand flats. Others like shallow sand flats. Many still will work the edges of the reef. All seem to agree, however, that a good technique is to hover off the bottom as much as visibility and speargun range permits. This will give you the ability to visually cover as much bottom as possible.
Diving here is on a weather permitting basis. This entire are is open to the prevailing northwest weather. If the north winds are calm, but a south swell is running, there is good anchorage. Although inside Shag Rock is shallow, there is a large area in comfortable dive depths, 50 to 70 feet, out from the rock and especially to the west. Because of the predominate swell from the northwest, surge is common. The surge keeps the bottom stirred up so visibility suffers close in. The outer areas, however, are often quite clear. Expect an average of 30 feet near shore, 50 feet out deeper. Currents, although not unusual at other sectors of the island, are generally not a problem here.
While halibut is the main attraction here, there is more to see. Other sand dwellers can be seen including bat rays and leopard sharks. Lobster hunting is fair to good in the shallows but watch out for the surge.
This area use to be one of the best abalone hunting area in all the Southern Channel Islands. But with severely diminished numbers due to overfishing and disease, the take of abs south of San Francisco became illegal several years ago and they are now fully protected. Look carefully and you still may see an abalone here or there.
Boats from the L.A. area, Ventura and Santa Barbara run out to the distant tiny island but many trips are not specifically for hunters. Santa Barbara Island is an underwater scenic paradise but Shag Rock is not one of the best areas for scenery. Ask first if the trip is going out to hunt halibut and you stand a better chance of possibly visiting Shag Rock.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: North side of Santa Barbara Island. Diving out from and to the east and west but largest area is to the west.
Access: Boat only, weather permitting.
Skill Level: All if calm.
Depths: 30 to 70 feet.
Photography: Fair but other part of the island are better. Good for wide- angle photos and generally fair to poor for macro; better on deep reefs.
Hunting: Excellent for halibut. Good lobster hunting.
Hazards: Can get rough. Watch surge