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Halibut hotspot

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BROOKINGS — Andy Martin uses just 12 ounces of lead to lower his Pacific halibut cocktail — a combination of a Pacific sanddab, a chunk of a salmon carcass and a piece of squid — to the ocean bottom 180 feet below.

We’re either on top of them, or the scent will bring the halibut to us,” says Martin, captain of the Miss Brooke and owner of Wild Rivers Fishing out of Brookings. “They’re starting to get a whiff of our scent trail.”

Within 15 minutes, the halibut come in. A few wiggles on the stout rod show that a halibut is interested, but the key is to wait until the feisty flatfish engulfs the bait.

“Just let him take the bait,” Martin says. “Now slowly pick the rod until you feel the weight of the fish.

Eventually, it’s game on.

After 15 minutes of cranking on the rod and reel, up comes a 30-pound Pacific halibut, half of which are pounds of fillets that rival any other ocean animal in terms of taste.

“There we go,” Martin says. “We just turned a small fish into a big fish.”

After years of being barely a footnote in Oregon’s Pacific halibut fishery, the Southern Oregon coast is forging an identity as a place for Rogue Valley anglers to target these apex flatfish without having to drive long distances to Central Oregon ports and venture far offshore to find them.

The South Coast fishery, which runs largely out of Brookings, has become a go-to destination for halibut lovers not so much because they’re fun to catch because — well, they’re not. Mostly it’s reeling up a fleshy weight off the bottom.

It’s about the fantastic, fleshy white meat they provide.

“There’s nothing like taking home and eating a fresh halibut that you caught yourself,” Martin says.

Halibut and Brookings have been used in the same sentence only in recent years, while central coast towns have dominated the flatfish conversation.

Halibut are an intriguing species even among pelagic fish that typically live far offshore and in deep water. They move into the shallows to spawn, with females broadcasting their eggs into the ocean current for males to fertilize.

Young halibut have eyes on each side of their head, but after about four weeks the left eye migrates to fish’s right side so two eyes can look up from the bottom. They are uniquely camouflaged from atop to match the ocean bottom, with bright white underbellies.

While Alaska is famed for its so-called “barn-door halibut” that literally can be the size of a barn door, Southern Oregon’s halibut are smaller. Martin says they average 18 to 25 pounds — certainly not barn door but definitely not doggie-door sized.

“The biggest halibut you’ll see out of Brookings is 100 pounds and about 60 inches long,” Martin says.

With roughly half the halibut’s weight turning into fillets, catching a 30-pounder more than covers the charterboat cost, with frozen halibut costing anywhere from $16 to $22 a pound at Rogue Valley markets.

Halibut follow their noses to food, which is why a heavy bait scent is crucial to getting into them.

“Halibut are the top of the food chain,” Martin says. “They’re opportunistic. They’ll eat whatever they can get hold of.”

And they eat what they smell. That’s why Martin tries to keep legal lines in the water as long as possible, checking only one rod for bait at a time.

“If we reel them all up, we might lose that bait scent that has halibut from a few hundreds yards coming our way,” Martin says.

As far as Oregon’s historic halibut fishery is concerned, it’s a story of the haves and the have-nots.

Two-thirds of the poundage landed annually at Oregon ports is out of Newport, where the fleet fishes both a near-shore and an all-depth season targeting halibut outside of the 40-fathom curve.

Charleston is a distant second for landings, and Brookings annually logs about 6% of the total catch by poundage.

Since it started about a decade ago, the Brookings-based halibut fishery has been a mostly locals’ show, but it has quietly developed its own foothold.

The season runs May through October, making it the longest-running halibut season outside of Alaska. While capped by a poundage quota since 2014, anglers have never filled the quota but have come very close in some years.

This year’s quota is 8,000 pounds of halibut. Anglers are on the cusp of hitting that quota here for the first time.

“It’s been something for mostly locals for a long time,” Martin says. “But halibut fishing can be really good out of Brookings. And it looks like you just took 30 pounds off our quota. Congratulations.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

While the central coast is still king for halibut, Southern Oregon has gained a flatfish foothold.
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