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October 26, 2001

Bahamas Wreck Hopping

Discover Your Own Virgin Wreck Sites and Reap the Fishing Rewards

Imagine coming upon an oasis teeming with fish among the hundreds of miles of desolate, shallow sandbanks of the Bahamas. Almost the instant you drop a line, a big one grabs it and you're off to the races - and you get this kind of action all day long!
Such spots do exist, found accidentally by the lucky but more often located by a knowledgeable few. Each wreck is different yet the same: a swamped island mail boat, a drug plane, an old Spanish galleon - all underwater magnets for marine life. The fishing opportunities can be incredible for those who enjoy flat-lining crabs for permit, jigging for snapper and grouper, popping surface plugs for barracuda or playing tug-of-war with sharks.

Zeroing In
Step one is to break out the charts because they hold important clues for locating both known and unknown wrecks. Obtain the most detailed charts available for the area of interest and make sure they feature GPS, lat/lon or loran lines.
Many charts show wreck symbols, so you can start by locating the symbols and plugging in their positions. Keep in mind that wreck symbols sometimes have codes such as PA (position approximate) or PD (position doubtful), which may require a lot of extra searching to pinpoint them. Also, the symbols are often old, which could mean a wreck's been buried under sand after dozens of ensuing storms or it was placed on the chart based on rumor or highly imaginative sources.
It's best to seek out your first wreck by visiting a known location, even if this means the spot has received a degree of fishing pressure. In this fashion you can view the bottom surrounding the wreck, perhaps even dive on it, and become more familiar with what you'll be looking for at a later time.
Once you've located the wreck you're seeking, take a look at your chart and try to figure out why the wreck may have sunk. Many times vessels sink due to hitting obstructions such as reefs, shallow bars or other wreckage. Note the prevailing current in the area and search up-current from the wreck, and you may discover other wrecks in the vicinity. In addition, if you theorize that a wreck sank due to an obstruction that you can locate (which often is noted on your chart), sometimes by searching in a line from the obstruction to the known wreck and beyond, you'll find more wrecks.
Of course, vessels sink for reasons other than smashing into a reef, such as foundering in high seas (especially hurricanes), loss of steering, leakage, fire, etc. Therefore, sometimes finding wrecks is best accomplished by obtaining records that reveal a main port of departure and then running a line to main destinations. Chances are much higher that you might find a wreck along or near this course rather than far off the beaten path. These out-of-the-way wrecks usually turn out to be virgin or near-virgin, which usually produce memorable fishing experiences.
On an extremely flat crossing several years ago from Bimini to the Berry Islands, I sat straddling the bow pulpit on a friend's boat while scanning the depths for ledges or fish scurrying from the boat. I noticed an odd, somewhat orange-colored rectangle off to the side. "Wreck!" I yelled, and we came off plane and circled back. In less than 15 feet of water sat an encrusted airplane, still upright and intact. Large, gray shapes moved in and out from under one of the wings as we tossed over our offerings, and almost simultaneously we hooked up two huge mutton snapper. One came aboard, the other one made it back to the safety of the plane, and the line parted.
Although just about anywhere in the Bahamas can be fruitful for finding wrecks, I've done especially well from Cay Sal Bank on the other side of the Gulf Stream off the Florida Keys to the Great Bahama Bank west of Andros Island and stretching past Bimini. Cross the Gulf Stream from the southeastern coast of Florida and head east; when you hit shallow water, start the search for wrecks. I usually base out of Bimini and work north or northeast. It's rare when I don't discover at least one or two wrecks each day, and sometimes several more.

View From the Crow's Nest
In order to spot wrecks in areas where you can see the bottom - and that can be depths up to 100 feet or more in most of the gin-clear waters of the Bahamas - you're best off with a boat that provides a high vantage point. A flybridge can work, but a tuna tower really gets it done by allowing the spotter to look down more perpendicularly to the surface and obtain a clearer picture of what's below.
To eliminate surface glare, be sure to use a good pair of polarized sunglasses and stay under shade in order to remain sharp and observant. I like brown or amber lenses, although gray is the only color that provides true color clarity - an important factor in discerning the subtle features of a wreck site.
Clues to finding underwater wrecks can sometimes be found in the sky. Birds circling over water, especially near islands and cays, could signal bait over a wreck or structure or perhaps migrating or feeding game fish. In addition, the presence of large numbers of cudas, which tend to hang out around wrecks, is well worth investigating.
I recently joined Capt. Larry Laffler of Stuart, Florida, aboard his 42-foot Post Hungry Bear on a wreck-finding trip around Bimini. Laffler believes that the most important factor in finding wrecks involves spotting out-of-the-ordinary bottom patterns. Colors such as orange or reddish hues may indicate that coral or sponges have encrusted the uppermost portion of a wreck.
In grassy areas, other dead giveaways are donut shapes, which occur due to wave and tidal surges that uproot and erode grasses around wrecks. The center of the donut is the wreck. Often in areas that have miles of sandy bottom, grass will be able to grow only near a wreck, creating a dark, pronounced donut because the wreck deters sand erosion, allowing organic material to accumulate so marine flora can take root and flourish.
Although you can hunt around with your depth sounder to locate structure that may be a wreck, you'll do much better trolling around with a spotter or two in the tower, scouring the waters for telltale signs of an old or recent wreck.

Get Ready for Great Fishing
Once you've identified a wreck, it's extremely important that you avoid the urge to get too close to it or run the boat over it. By staying a distance away and remaining as quiet as possible, you'll avoid spooking the swarms of game fish certain to be hanging around the wreck. The more obvious your presence, the more likely that fish will disappear into the protective core.
Before anchoring, determine how to position your boat based on wind and current, and proceed directly away from the center of the wreck. Drop the hook and drift back close enough for chum to work effectively for bottom fishing, free-lining baits or even fly fishing.
When casting or trolling a wreck with a jig or lure, Laffler prefers to tip the hook with a bonito strip because it holds up well after a hit and excites fish to strike again. On deeper wrecks, he trolls for grouper, cubera and larger mutton snapper with 8-inch bulletheads, tuna clones, soft-heads and similar lures tipped with ballyhoo or bonito strips. To avoid losing the fish in structure, Laffler trolls at 5 to 6 knots using 60- to 90-pound-test wire or 50- to 60-pound Dacron with mono-shock leaders, dragging the baits 150 to 200 feet behind the boat in 20 to 40 feet of water, respectively. "Increase the boat speed when you get a hit to move the fish away from the structure," says Laffler.
Having visited remote wrecks many times over the years, the variety of species still amazes me. I present big baits first, especially live baits such as crabs for permit and cobia, or even tarpon. If the big boys aren't home, I switch to jigs and plastic baits for snapper, margates and porgies. And usually cudas and jacks are present, which love to slam tube lures and surface baits such as chuggers.
Cut bait, with minimal or no weight, can also produce some interesting results at times with mutton snapper. But fishing dead bait also means to be ready for marauding sharks. You'll encounter monster sharks on and around Bahamian wrecks, such as tigers, hammerheads, bulls and reefs, which make for exciting action. Bull sharks, reef and sand sharks are present year-round, while others seem to be more seasonal.
All wreck anglers should remember they're fishing on a finite ecosystem: Too much pressure will cause it to collapse. So, fish a wreck respectfully by taking what you can eat and release the rest, and then move on and make new discoveries. Just don't forget to add the numbers to your logbook so you can find it again on a future trip.

Below the Boat
Calm seas and clear water go a long way toward locating wrecks or overnighting near them, so it's usually safest to plan a wreck trek between June and October. Planning is important if you overnight in remote areas because you can be many miles from a protected harbor. Constantly monitoring weather conditions is imperative, and you must have backups for all safety equipment, including EPIRBS, radios, life vests with strobes, inflatable boat, first-aid kits, fire extinguishers, flare kits, etc. Newcomers to wreck finding would be well advised to buddy up with another boat and stay together.
Before you pull away from a wreck, why not don some snorkeling gear and check it out? You'll be amazed at how much more you can see underwater, which will increase your knowledge and appreciation of what to look for when searching for a wreck.
Once you've found your first virgin wreck, you'll be proud of the accomplishment. Soon you'll find yourself on a constant vigil, with eyes tuned to the slightest hint of an uncommon color or shape. Never knowing when you'll come upon a truly exciting find adds to the fun, especially when you quickly discover it's loaded with game fish.

Dale Sanders resides in Odessa, Florida, where he writes articles and takes photos for publications specializing in diving, fishing, marine science and eco-tourism. He's currently working on a book about how to locate wrecks.