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June 23, 2008

Weed-Line Wizards

Experts provide 13 great hints for fishing these floating blue-water buffets

We were headed  back in when, still in blue water, we came to a [sargassum] weed line 30 to 40 feet wide that must have stretched 10 miles or more. We could see plenty of bait. So we put out a five-line spread and immediately boated four dolphins in the 25- to 35-pound range. We also hooked a triple of wahoo after seeing them streak across the surface like torpedoes to explode on the baits. We boated two of them - and decided the day was about as good as it could get.

"Then, out of nowhere we saw a marlin crash some hardtails [blue runners] about a hundred yards behind the boat. We quickly caught a big runner off the weed line and deployed it behind the boat. Nothing happened at first, but we spotted a lone frigate bird down the line and motored over. About five minutes later, the marlin inhaled the hardtail. We got several nice jumps out of the fish and soon released it.
 
"Now that was an awesome day!"
 
Weed lines can make a skipper's day or at least make it better. Any given weed line can also offer world-class action, as Capt. Ed Frekey of Louisiana relates above.
 
Any angler on any day can stumble on fish around weed lines, particularly small dolphin (for which more than any other game fish, sargassum weed is essential habitat). But the long experience of skippers who fish the Southeast, Caribbean and Gulf - where floating pelagic sargassum weed is most prevalent - and make a living putting people on fish have developed an arsenal of strategies.
 
 Their collective wisdom, on the following pages, can help "any angler on any given day" achieve more consistent success by maximizing the odds of enjoying some of the kind of action Frekey describes.
 
Note that "weed line" is used rather generically since that's the term commonly given to sargassum weed by offshore anglers. It might not be a line at all but a formation irregular in shape, perhaps roughly circular or oval, when the orange algae called sargassum weed collects into a dense mat. In fact, "sargassum-weed aggregation" would probably more accurately describe this. But we'll stick with "weed line."

1. Leave No Weed Unturned - Or Unchecked
Most skippers agree on this one. Any sort of accumulation of floating sargassum offshore merits a closer look. "I always check out a weed line [in the summer]," says Capt. John Raguso of New York.
 
"It pays to take a look," says Frekey. "Sometimes it takes only one good fish to turn around an [otherwise slow] day."
 
For some skippers, however, even for this rule there are caveats. One, notably, involves the time of day in the sargassum gospel, according to Capt. Gene Hensley of Texas. "Personally, I never stop at a weed line on the way out, very early in the morning." Why? He's found that "most fish leave weed lines early to feed, returning to 'em later in the day."

2. Look For Bait
Look for baitfish under/around a weed line, and if you don't see a sign of it, move on. That's the bottom line for most offshore pros.
 
"With no sign of life, a weed line    normally produces little to nothing," Capt. Dave Kostyo of Florida says. "But with plenty of life, it's just a matter of time before the rods start bending!"
 
For Hensley it's a "number-one rule." That is, "No bait under the mat: leave. Bait present: continue."
 
On the other hand, some experts give just about every weed line a shot: "The best way to find out if a line holds fish is to fish it," says Capt. Mike Holmes of Texas.

3. Slice Of Heaven
That pretty much describes the enviable situation in which you'll find yourself when you stumble upon a weed line that runs along (a) a color-change line, (b) a temperature change or (c) both. Just about every weed-line wizard emphasizes that. And it's not an unusual circumstance to come upon since, "There's a reason those weed lines are where they are," as Stanczyk points out, thanks to converging currents, areas of upwelling and so on.
 
"Here off Tobago," says Capt. Frothy Desilva, "the best weed lines are the ones with some greenish water on one side and clearer blue water on the other side." If there's also a temperature change on the line, so much the better.
 
But that advice isn't limited to Tobago by any means; Frekey and others echo Desilva's assessment that weeds + color change + temperature break = a slice of anglers' heaven. In fact, without it, at least "in the northern Gulf, a weed line   is just another place to fish," says Capt. Marcus Kennedy of Alabama. "But if it's accompanied by a color change, temperature break and/or converging currents, get ready: Good fishing is almost guaranteed."

4. Look For Birds
Wheeling birds are worth checking out anywhere offshore, but nowhere more so than at a weed line, says Kostyo: "If I see birds hovering over an area of the weed line or continuously circling and moving slowly down the line, I know there's something there. About 95 percent of the time, we find fish."
 
Capt. Richard Stanczyk of Florida says he generally doesn't even stop at a weed line unless he sees birds or bait.

5. Fools Rush In
Most weed-line wunderkind will mark any private-boat skipper as an amateur if, upon seeing a big weed line ahead, he excitedly throttles up full blast, expecting something to rush out waiting for a jig or bait.
 
Of course, sometimes that does happen. But often, it doesn't.
 
The worst thing you can do is charge right up to the weeds, cut the throttles and coast through the line," Kostyo says. "Stop far enough away so you can get your live baits, trolling baits and/or small lures out while you're turning parallel to run the line. Remember, too, that the water is very clear offshore, so any predator can see your bait from a long distance. That is evident," he adds, "when you see dolphin greyhounding in on your baits from 100 yards away." Kostyo often stops 50 yards off the weed line and tosses out a half-dozen or so live baits while baiting up. "This will draw any fish around to you, and by the time the hooked bait hits the water, the action can be instantaneous."
 
Some skippers adopt an approach even more "silent, stealthy and observant," in Raguso's words. He cuts the engines 40 yards or so upwind, allowing the boat to glide quietly to the edge where his anglers cast 1-ounce white bucktails while he keeps "a bucket of chunk baits, live killies [killifish] and/or whole dead baby squid ready to toss out to whatever is there."
 
Hensley keeps his distance initially, heading for the closest end of the line. He trolls up to that "with my spread already in the water in case there's something waiting at the first corner. I'll continue all the way to the other end, then consider all factors and decide if it's worth another drag."

6. Be An Opportunist
Frekey likes to approach a weed line rigged to cover most any contingency - and species or situation. Thus, he'll tie on trolling baits (favoring ballyhoo, both naked and skirted) and rig spinning  gear with a large popper and another with a live-bait hook (or dead bait if that's all he has, since that can work). Along with the ballyhoo, he'll pull diving plugs and "at least one bigger bait in hopes of finding a billfish."

7. Dig Deep
Another very common theme among those who rely on catching fish to earn their living: Look deep and fish deep around weed lines.
 
Don't rely strictly on your eyes to  see what the line has attracted. "Pay attention to the bottom machine for large fish suspended under or around the grass, and work the whole water  column," advises Capt. Scott Hickman of Texas. If well offshore, Frekey suggests setting your sounder's range from 0 to 200 to 300 feet. If you see bait and/or fish, don't forget to mark it on the GPS.
 
Off the Keys, at least, weed-line wahoo tend to be school-size or a bit more but "not usually the giants," says Stanczyk.
 
On the other hand, some mighty big wahoo hang around Northeast weed lines; as Raguso notes, an International Game Fish Association junior-angler record 114-pounder "came from a weed line only a few hundred yards from where I was trolling an area we call the Fish Tails in September, last year. Those big 'hoos are looking to eat the chicken mahi and jacks, for sure."

This is where downriggers come in very handy for captains like Kennedy, who pull live baits well down in the water column.
 
But downriggers aren't required for Kostyo's trick to lure wahoo from depths below weed lines. "I'll drop a 2-ounce deep [lead-head] jig down on a 20-pound spinning outfit until I've dumped about half the line on the reel," the south Florida skipper says. "At that point, I close the bail and have the angler hold the rod, with the drag tight enough to be sure the line won't slip off the spool as I pull away. The rod bends over, and when a wahoo hits, it bends even more!" He suggests slowing the boat gradually as the angler starts to fight the fish; the forward motion with a steady cranking (not lift/drop) helps keep the jig in the fish's mouth.
 
Off Texas, Hickman often similarly relies on lead-head jigs to work the whole water column around weed lines, not just the top few feet. He also finds it useful to chum heavily.