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October 26, 2001

Bottoms Up in the Bahamas...

Come on, Mr. Muttonfish. Let me see how you look in my dish." Bahamian fisherman Patrick Wells, whose family settled in the Exumas eight generations ago, was singing his favorite song as we set out one beautiful morning to catch our dinner from the warm, crystal-blue waters.

Come on, Mr. Muttonfish. Let me see how you look in my dish." Bahamian fisherman Patrick Wells, whose family settled in the Exumas eight generations ago, was singing his favorite song as we set out one beautiful morning to catch our dinner from the warm, crystal-blue waters.
With light northeast breezes and a plastic barrel half-filled with conch trimmings gleaned from a week of diving for the bright pink shells, Wells declared it a perfect day for mutton snapper fishing as he tossed another handful of the slimey brew overboard.
As the current carried the flavorful pieces behind the boat, a profusion of strawberry-, yellow- and burnt-orange-colored bottom fish darted, nipped and swirled at them.
Before long, the lines were singing, and so was Wells. "Oh Mr. Muttonfish, you-ah gonna look pretty on my dish."
Many offshore fishermen identify the Bahamas with the giant bluefin tuna, marlin and wahoo that put these islands on the fishing map. Yet blue water is only part of the Bahamas story. A short boat ride from the pink-sand beaches of most Bahamian islands, shallow patches of coral hold some of the best bottom fishing in the world.
"When I think of the Bahamas, I picture clear harbors and reefs with a profusion of fish and no boats," says international sportfishing Capt. Bill Harrison of Miami. His idea of a perfect Bahamas fishing vacation includes catching grouper and snapper and snorkeling for lobsters and conch, all of which add up to gourmet dining under the bright Bahamian sky.
For fishermen who like to enjoy a relaxed day in a beautiful setting while catching a fresh dinner, "The Bahamas are the ultimate seafood destination," says Harrison. "From what I've seen as a professional fisherman the last 30 years, the smiles are just as big on the faces of people bringing up a nice 4-pound yellowtail or a big black grouper as they are on those catching a blue marlin. Maybe even bigger, because they know the reward will last through dinner. Even though I enjoy catching giant tuna and marlin, it's just as much fun to bottom-fish because I know for sure it will produce steady action."
With hundreds of miles of coral and water so clear you can see the grains of sand on the bottom, it sometimes seems there are more snappers and groupers swimming in the Bahamas' shallow waters than almost anywhere else on earth. At least it seems that way when you've got a chum slick working and the yellowtails are swarming in the current. And it doesn't take a lot of know-how or sophisticated marine electronics to catch bottom fish in the Bahamas. You don't even need a big boat.

Chumming Shallow Water
Unlike the continental United States, the Bahamas are not limited to specific bottom-fishing "hot spots." Almost anyplace with patches of coral, rock and grass will produce. In 15 to 20 feet of water off the Berry Islands, Abacos, Exumas or just about anywhere else in the islands, good quantities of snappers and groupers can be caught among the proliferation of seafans, sponges and coral. However, you can do some things to improve your catch rate and enhance the sport.
Harrison and native Bahamians such as Wells simply find hard, irregular bottom, then anchor and start chumming. To anchor properly, you need to know what the current is doing. In the clear waters of the Bahamas, that's easy enough to ascertain by taking the boat out of gear and looking over the side, says Harrison. Anchor upcurrent of your coral or rock target and start chumming.
Chumming is an art unto itself, but in the Bahamas you don't have to get too fancy. Frozen blocks of chum work just fine or you may use cut ballyhoo, frozen shrimp or squid, or leftover conch cleanings. Lacking any of the above, handfuls of oatmeal will attract small baitfishes, which can be caught on strings of tiny gold hooks or Sabiki jigs.
Once chumming starts, fish show up almost immediately, says Harrison, who has been known to jump overboard with mask, fins and snorkel to observe the food chain at work - giving him special insight into the way different species behave in the chum slick.
Fish tend to feed in zones, says Harrison. Ballyhoo, needlefishes, grunts and blue runners usually stay at the top of the water column. Below them, jacks and triggerfish dart around, grabbing pieces of chum. Then come the yellowtail and just beneath them, groupers, big mangrove [gray] and mutton snappers.
The feeding activity in a chum slick also draws bigger predators - kingfish, barracuda and amberjacks - positioned underneath and along the edges of the chum-feeding schools where they can be selective, according to Harrison.
Hanging back from the melee, sharks lurk along with other big-game fish. "I go prepared with a variety of rods and baits that can quickly be cast to whatever shows up in the chum line," says Harrison.

Gearing Up
With a good chum line leading snapper near the surface of the shallow water, heavy tackle isn't necessary, at least to start with. Harrison's personal preference for fishing in less than 20 feet of water is a 12-pound-class spinning rod with 10- or 12-pound test monofilament line and a #2 or #3 hook tied straight to the mono with no leader. Anything heavier in such clear water causes the fish to shy away, he says.
Harrison prefers to use fresh bait, but frozen ballyhoo or squid is good to start with. He uses tiny pieces of frozen bait to catch bar jacks, blue runners and cero mackerel, which he cuts into larger pieces of bait to catch bigger fish that also frequent shallow water. "I usually release non-target fish, but if a mackerel or jack is bleeding or has swallowed the hook, I'll save it for cut bait or share it with the locals."
Once the chum starts raising "patch fish" such as grunts and small mangrove, lane and yellowtail snappers, it's easy to rig up a heavier spinner for grouper, says Harrison, who uses a sliding sinker rig ideal for tricking bottom fish in clear waters. "Just add a 1-ounce egg sinker to the line above the swivel, then 3 feet of 30-pound monofilament leader and a 2/0 hook, which can be hidden in a whole squid or strip of ballyhoo." After a half-hour of chumming, you probably will have caught a strawberry or Nassau grouper or a 10- to 12-pound mutton snapper.
Also common in 20 feet of water, but harder to catch, is the hogfish or hog snapper, which is not only beautiful to look at but one of the best eating fish of all - if you can catch one, Harrison says.
Unlike the more greedy fish in the chum line, hogfish rarely eat standard bottom baits. You have to finesse them, says Harrison, with smaller hooks hidden in pieces of conch trimmings or a whole shrimp, which you delicately feed back into the water column where the chum is suspended. "Fishing for hog snapper requires quick reflexes," he says, "since the first thing a hogfish does is run to the closest seafan." As for tackle, he adds, the same 1-ounce egg sinker and 30-pound leader work fine.

Deeper Water, Bigger Fish
Fish living in areas with a lot of fishing pressure get smarter or more wary, says Harrison. In the Bahamas, those areas include the shallow patch reefs closest to towns and resorts. Although these spots can be productive, the most spectacular bottom fishing lies a little deeper, in 40 to 60 feet of water near the edge of the drop-off of the Bahamas Bank, where chum draws deep- as well as shallow-water species.
This is the zone that the Duchess' Capt. Billy Black, one of a handful of professional captains based at Walker's Cay, likes to plumb with heavier jigs and 30-pound stand-
up gear for 30- to 80-pound blackgrouper.
Black, best known for trolling, enjoys bottom fishing in the Bahamas and often works an hour or two of bottom jigging into his charters. For the bigger black grouper and mutton snapper he routinely catches in the northern Abacos, Black likes to fish bright-colored, tandem-hooked, 6- to 8-ounce (depending on the depth and current) feather jigs with lots of Mylar. His secret weapon: adding a strip of wahoo.
"A lot of people don't realize it," says Black, "but one of the best baits for grouper is fresh wahoo belly meat. It's not only shiny, but oily enough to attract fish. Even when deep jigging, if I've got wahoo bellies from the freezer or some that are fresh, I'll thread a strip onto the hooks."
The veteran Bahamas captain says bottom fishing near the edge of the bank is best. "A light wind, changing tide and current bring the food off the banks to deeper water."
Anchoring over irregular bottom, Black sets up a chum slick concocted from crushed lobster heads and shells gleaned from restaurant leftovers and a melange of conch and baitfish chunks. Before long, yellowtails appear, then the target black grouper.

Peak Performance
"The more dramatic the bottom profile, the better variety of fish you'll catch," says Harrison. Of course, a fathometer is necessary to locate such areas in deeper water, he says. "I can catch good numbers of quality bottom fish anywhere from 10 to 110 feet of water. Any deeper than that, you are looking at strong current and very heavy tackle, which takes the fun out of it. My favorite places to fish are over high-profile peaks occurring in anywhere from 40 to 80 feet."
Although Harrison does sometimes troll deep-running plugs for grouper over the peaks, he usually anchors, chums and drops. He highly recommends a grappling hook for anchoring at this depth. Just as he does in the shallows, he throws out a chum bag with a 5-pound block of frozen chum.
Harrison gears up for big grouper in this high-profile bottom country with 30- to 50-pound stand-up tackle rigged with 50-pound test, an 8-ounce sliding weight, 10 feet of 100-pound monofilament leader and an 8/0 hook. Since fighting a big bottom fish can be strenuous, he says, the physical ability of each angler should determine the best size tackle to use.
"At this depth there's always a good chance at a red, Nassau or 40- to 50-pound black grouper," says Harrison. He lip-hooks a live jack, triggerfish or yellowtail snapper and drops it slowly until the bait hits bottom, then immediately reels up 8 or 10 feet of line to help prevent a big fish taking it into the rocks.
Black also notices that the larger grouper he catches in the Bahamas like to chase the bait before taking it into their mouths. "So, when you feel the strike, don't make the mistake of setting the hook right away," he says. "You always want to reel down and get the slack out before setting up."
Yellowtail and triggerfish also run a lot bigger in deep water, though ocean triggerfish have skin like iron and are hard to clean, says Harrison. As the chum slick lengthens, cero mackerel, kings and hard-fighting amberjacks also join the frenzy.
In these depths, sailfish, dolphin or wahoo may show up as well, so keep a couple blue runners, bar jacks or yellowtails in the live well as casting baits. A 20- to 30-pound spinner with a 6/0 hook and a 3- to 4-foot, 80-pound monofilament leader works well for casting, says Harrison, who likes to keep one ready to cast with a bait hooked through the back in a bucket of seawater.

Snapping Up Snapper
"Mr. Muttonfish, I know you got a taste for conch," Wells said, "so come on over and try some."
"With the meat two to three days old I guess the fish can smell it pretty well," I said.
"You better believe it. They like it smelly," said Wells. One of his favorite tricks - one he says works for novices as well - is to stuff a couple dozen conch shells with ripe, leftover conch cleanings and deposit the shells as chum stations around the area he wants to fish.
The sand bottom with smatterings of rock and grass that we anchored over is just the kind of bottom mutton snapper like, said Wells, as he ladled cups of conch into the slow-moving tide - perfectly between ebb and slack.
Next to hogfish, mutton snapper may be the best eating - and most challenging to catch - of all Bahamas bottom fish. Although Wells prefers 12- to 20-pound spinning or bait-casting rods for muttons, he swears by an oversized 6/0 hook, "which just gives me that much more hook surface to set up with." He instructed us to drop strips of conch, his favorite bait, and not to jig them.
By late afternoon Wells, a friend and I had caught 10 mutton snapper among 20 chum-filled conch shells. And, just as Harrison predicted, we were so happy that I heard myself singing, "Oh, Mr. Muttonfish, you'll sure look pretty on my dish."