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November 19, 2008

Brawling at the Bar

Find two-fisted fishing action in the Florida Keys this winter.

Malinovski prefers to anchor a little shallower than most other bar-hoppers since he's primarily looking for "bottom" species. He'll try to mark fish on his depth finder and position the boat so the chum balls descend through the water column to them. Instead of hanging a block of frozen chum over the side in a mesh bag, Malinovski mixes a thawed block of chum with children's playground sand.

"The mixture should have a consistency where you can pack a ball around a thumb-size chunk of bait, either bonito or cero mackerel, and have it stay together when you put it in the water. It's critical that you find sand made especially for playgrounds or children's sandboxes," says Malinovski. "It's the highest quality and makes the best mixture without impurities."

Once he scatters several handfuls of the sand/chum mixture behind the transom, letting it settle into the water, Malinovski gauges what size bare, lead-head jig to use based on the   current. "In light current I'll go with something like a 1/8-ounce jig head or sometimes even a bare hook and split shot, if we can see fish right behind us," he says. "When the current is ripping, we might go as heavy as 1/2-ounce. Regardless, I use leaders of 25-pound Seguar fluoro exclusively. These fish have excellent eyesight."

Success depends on using the lightest-possible jig head to let the chunk and sand ball sink in the current at the same rate as the scattered chum. Anglers must learn to free-line the bait, using the weight of the sand ball to carry their offering down to the desired depth.

When setting out a bait, Malinovski puts a 12- to 20-pound spinning rod in a holder, with the bail open. "Fishing in 60 to 80 feet of water, I want to get the bait down about five or six arm lengths of line - 30 to 40 feet. I pull the right amount of line out the rod tip, place the bait in the water and let it go," he says.

In Malinovski's system, an angler has just enough time to wash off the sand and dry his hands as the bait free-falls on the premeasured line, then pick the rod up. "About that time, the bait should be reaching its depth," he says. "I keep the bail open and hold the line with my index finger. When the line comes tight, I pop the sand ball."

That trick creates a cloud of chum-scented sand with a plump morsel right in the middle of it. If he doesn't get a bite at that point, Malinovski continues to free-line the bait without holding it up. When the line speeds up, that's a bite.

"Most anglers try to crank the bail shut or close it immediately with their hand," says Malinovski. "But Joe Alexander taught me to set the hook with your index finger, stop the fish momentarily and then close the bail manually once the fish is engaged. If the fish isn't there, you can drop back a couple of more times and increase your efficiency."