Thick line poured slowly from the reel as the frisky, weighted bait began its long descent to the depths below. All was quiet and peaceful above, but soon the rig sank out of sight and my mind began to race: Keep a thumb on that spool; you never know when you might get hit! Don't forget, winch that fish up once he takes! One hundred feet below, a monster grouper with a mouth that could crush a globe lurched out of his hole, eyeballing my nervous bait as it entered his lair.
There's nothing quite like bottom-fishing. Much like dunking worms and bobbers into the local pond for bluegill, bottomfishing never fails to evoke a sense of mystery, imagination and wonder. It is an everyman's game: Women, children, novice and experienced anglers alike enjoy it. And while this type of fishing seems relatively simplistic in nature, a few time-honored tips - coupled with a keen understanding of the world below - will help anglers tremendously.
Small Areas Hold Big Surprises
Bottomfishing is popular the world over, but this time of year there's no better place to send baits to the depths than along the southeast coast of the United States. From snapper and grouper to amberjack and cobia, this region of the Atlantic offers a wide range of game fish that cling tightly to the many ledges, wrecks and live-bottom areas that hallmark the edge of the continental shelf.
It's easy for anglers to locate productive bottom structure - just watch the depth finder. Jagged bottoms, sharp drop-offs and fish indicators represent good signs to anglers that it's time to drop lines. Many of the region's top captains, however, are not satisfied with the obvious.
"My theory is that everybody knows where the big places are," says Capt. Robert Johnson of Jodie Lynn Charters (904-825-7839, www.jodielynncharters.com) in St. Augustine, Florida. "We fish a wide variety of bottom, but my better snapper and grouper spots are little 2- and 3-foot ledges that don't show nearly all the jacks and spadefish on the fish finder. I've found that the smaller spots typically hold bigger and more fish."
Not far up the road in Savannah, Georgia, Capt. Judy Helmey of Miss Judy Charters (912-897-4921, www.missjudycharters.com) also focuses on small, out-of-the-way places to find large schools of sizable fish. Specifically, she heads to hard-bottom areas of the Savannah Snapper Banks and searches for smaller "ditches," or "underground fish cities," as she calls them.
"They are the most amazing things," Helmey says. "I've had divers tell me these ditches drop five or six feet, but it looks like flat bottom on the fish finder."
According to Helmey, despite the presence of bait and vegetation, the only time these ditches are revealed with electronics is when their resident game-fish populations move higher in the water column to feed outside the trench. This makes them harder to locate for the average angler and, thereby, less molested, although Helmey says she's discovered at least 100 over the years.
Whenever she notices the telltale mid-water feeding activity, she employs another trick that proves invaluable not only for anglers fishing the near-invisible ditches, but any structure along the bottom of the ocean floor.
"You've got to write those numbers down," Helmey insists. "That's the biggest problem with most people who bottomfish these days - they don't believe in a log book. Even if they punch info into their machine, they often don't even know how to read their electronics! They could be 30 feet from the place they were fishing by the time they figure it out. I can't overemphasize how important it is to write the numbers down! If you don't, you won't catch fish!"
Hold Bottom, but Always Experiment
You also won't catch anything if your baits don't reach the fish. This seems obvious, but it's one of the key messages Capt. Bill Taylor reiterates to his clients.
"Every 30 seconds, spool out a little more line," says Taylor, who operates Black Dog Charters (561-744-5700, www.blackdogfishing.com) out of Jupiter, Florida. "It's a lot of work, but you can't just put your pole in the holder and expect to catch fish. It won't happen. The guy who works his line and drops back is going to get many more opportunities than the guy who just puts out lines and waits for the poles to bend."
The skipper adds that such diligence also helps anglers detect strikes, noting that "fish don't necessarily know they should pull. Sometimes they pick up a bait and come right toward you. You've got to be ready."
Taylor also finds great success drifting a whole sardine on a flat line during bottomfishing sessions. While he advocates keen angler attention on the bottom rigs, he typically sets this slow-sinking surface rig in a holder and lets "Rodney" do the work.
"You never know when dinner's going to be on top," Taylor says. "You might have your mind on yellowtail, but if the current's not working, the flat line will fall down within their range - sometimes the bigger flags suspend higher in the water column, and they're definitely not opposed to taking a bait that drifts by them. Depending on the time of year, this tactic also proves deadly on dolphin, sailfish and bonito. It really mixes things up and helps us take advantage of all opportunities."
Helmey has recently discovered that metal jigs, such as the Shimano Butterfly models, make an extremely effective addition to the live baits commonly associated with bottomfishing in her area.
"We've been slamming fish with these jigs," she says. "We use braided line and fluorocarbon leaders, and at times, jigs work as well as live bait. It's certainly a more thrilling way to catch our fish."
Don't be a "Poser"
After hooking a bottomfish, you've got to get it to the boat. And that can be difficult! The first 20 seconds of any fight are always critical, as big snapper and grouper dig down with all their might, attempting to break off in the rocks and other structure.
For the average angler, it might seem like the ideal time to employ the traditional "pump-and-reel" technique to wrench these big fish up from their homes, but experts say otherwise.
"Most people feel a bite and they want to yank," Taylor says. "Then they pose to see if the fish pulls back again. It's the worst thing you can do! Now the fish is coming toward you and he's shaking his head trying to get that horrible, nasty stinger out of his mouth!"
Instead, Taylor advocates aggressive cranking of the reel while keeping the rod tip high. Likewise, Johnson says the crank is the key.
"If you feel that tap when using live bait, just point your rod tip at the water," Johnson says. "When you feel that second tap, crank down. You can pump all day long, but if you're not getting any line, you're not moving the fish. My experience with grouper fishing has taught me to simply crank for all you're worth. I tell my anglers to act like there's a million-dollar bill on the end of the line. When a fish stops you from cranking, lift your rod tip. And once you get it off the bottom, the less pumping you do, the better. You'll just tear a big hole in its mouth otherwise."
Johnson says pumping can be effective, but only for experienced anglers who reel down fast enough to keep slack from accumulating in the line.
For novice anglers, however, the "pose" can spell the kiss of death, according to Taylor, who jokes that many macho guys who want to pull back and flex on the rod bring their wives along on a charter "just to watch."
"I say, 'No, put her on the rod!'" Taylor laughs. "Chances are, she'll listen to me and we'll actually put some fish in the boat!"