They're flat as plywood, mottled brown and ugly, and they spend most of their lives staring straight up. But there's no fish as popular as halibut come springtime.
This weekend, more than 1,000 fishermen will ply the ocean between Point Dume and the Palos Verdes Peninsula, participating in the annual Santa Monica Bay Halibut Derby.
The two-day tournament, in its eighth year, has become one of the most popular events of its kind.
Gaze out into the bay Saturday or Sunday and there will be a sea of private and commercial boats. Marina del Rey Sportfishing and Redondo Sportfishing are booked for the event, which always seems to produce results.
Last year's winner, Glenn Smith of Pacific Palisades, caught a 32.90-pound California halibut, which earned him a chance for bigger game. Smith's catch won him a trip to Whaler's Cove, Alaska, where he caught a 231-pound Pacific halibut, pulling on it for half an hour before getting it to the surface.
"I never imagined I'd be the one to catch one over 100 pounds, let alone one that weighed more than 200," Smith said.
But then Smith is no ordinary halibut fisherman. In the last four years, he has placed in the top six at the derby. And halibut fishing runs in his family. His sister, Sylvia E. Kelly, holds a 12-pound line-class world record, the 32-pound 6-ounce fish she caught in the Santa Monica Bay in 1988.
Though fishing has not been great this spring, John Bourget, tournament chairman, believes a big fish will again show at the scales.
"They'll be covering the ocean out there," he said of the anglers. "Somebody will catch one."
Prospective participants can still enter by calling (310) 450-5131, or signing in at 2117 Ashland St. in Santa Monica through Friday at 8 p.m. Cost is $65 for the derby and banquet, $35 for the derby only.
Proceeds from the derby will benefit not only several children's organizations but also the halibut hatchery project at the marine laboratory in Redondo Beach.
The small facility, tucked into the northeast corner of King Harbor, is home to several large halibut. The females lay thousands of eggs and studies begin when they hatch two days later.
"Halibut are ambush predators," biologist Jim Rounds said. "They are very powerful swimmers. They'll explode off the bottom and they're very fast. We've had them in indoor tanks here and put schools of live anchovies in and they'll just explode off the bottom and snatch the fish."
Such an explosion led to the death of one of the "old-time" halibut on the morning of the Jan. 17 earthquake. The shaking startled the fish and it leaped from an 11,000-gallon tank and landed a dozen or so feet below on the asphalt.
The hatchery, funded primarily by Southern California Edison and run by the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, is close to having the capacity to conduct regular releases of halibut into the ocean.
Meanwhile, Bourget is looking for halibut taggers. For $10, he supplies a kit and instructions.
To date, Bourget's volunteer program has resulted in the tagging of nearly 10,000 halibut. Information from retrieved fish is being supplied to the Natural History Museum, which wants to eventually determine migration patterns and attain population estimates so that someday the resource can be managed effectively.
A fish tagged in the Santa Monica Bay showed up in Morro Bay. Another was caught in San Diego.
"While this is not yet enough information to make any conclusions about the patterns of halibut movement, it does show that individuals will travel both north and south," a museum update said.
BAJA FISHING--Last weekend's cold front shut off the yellowtail bite at the Coronado Islands, but the water is back up to 61 degrees and the fish are biting again. H&M Landing's Producer had 35 fish aboard by late Tuesday morning. The yellowtail are mostly 10-pounders.
The water off the Golden Gate area near Cabo San Lucas was the site of renewed marlin activity last week, but the bite didn't last. Yellowfin tuna remain the prevalent catch, but even tuna fishing has slowed in recent days. Best catch of the week: a 332-pound blue marlin caught aboard the Solmar VII.
In the Cerralvo Island area off La Paz, the tuna fishing is excellent. Multiple hookups with fish to 80 pounds are common. The bite has been steady for five days, according to panga fleet owner Bob Butler.
MISCELLANY--The annual Kernville Whitewater races--open to paddlers of all levels of expertise--will be held Saturday and Sunday at Riverside Park in Kernville. Details: (619) 376-2629. . . . Sportfishing with Dan Hernandez is holding an on-the-water fishing school Saturday aboard the Matt Walsh out of L.A. Harbor Sportfishing. Cost is $45. Details: (213) 721-5357.
The International Gamefish Tournaments' Saltwater Bass and Private Boaters' Show will be held Saturday and Sunday in Dana Point Harbor. Details: (714) 573-1415. . . . Eagle Claw Fishing Schools will hold a 2 1/2-day session at San Martin Island April 22-24 aboard the Holiday out of San Diego. Details: (714) 840-6555.