Whether you enjoy anchoring on offshore reefs and wrecks for bottom fish or prowl the open ocean for pelagics, adding different dimensions to your bait spread is vital for success. Both large and small boats can take advantage of different portions of the water column where different species hunt. By blanketing the entire area around your boat from top to bottom, anglers can effectively up their chances of getting hooked up.
An angler is spending his day offshore waiting for a strike. He seems to have done everything right—6 lines are staggered well throughout his wake, ballyhoo are swimming along a beautiful current rip, birds are mulling about, and he’s heard reports of dolphin being caught in the area. Everything seems to be adding up, but still no strikes! All too often I’ve seen the same equation, with anglers resting their last hopes on luck. There is still one more tactic that has saved my day on many occasions, and that many anglers overlook when the skunk is on the line.
Effective Offshore Trolling – Send Some Deep
It’s important to remember that typical trolling-style lures don’t run more than 2’ below the surface. In 100’ of water, your baits are covering a conservative 2% of the water column, and most trolling generally occurs in much deeper depths than this when searching for fish like dolphin, tuna, wahoo, and marlin (200’-1500’). Many anglers think the addition of another line would clutter the spread, increasing the risk of a tangle. But what most fishermen overlook is the area that exists under your spread.
Fishing even just one bait deeper below the surface can change the game, and sometimes spark deeper dwelling fish to rise to the surface and feed. In the scenario described above, our angler may very well have been in the vicinity of a school of hungry dolphin that was simply hunting away from the surface. In the doldrums of summer when the Gulfstream reaches temperatures of +85 degrees, predators shy away from the surface and prefer to hunt in the deeper, cooler waters.
Some species like wahoo and kingfish are more attuned to hunting in the middle of the water column, and are less likely to rise to a trolling spread than say a sailfish or dolphin. In any case, it is important to remember that predatory game fish don’t spend all of their time hunting on the surface, and it is sometimes necessary to send a bait deep to reach them.
Picking the Perfect Swimming Plugs
The simplest and most straightforward way to fish deeper is to fish a big lipped plug. The wobble of big lipped Rapalas (we prefer x-raps) and Mann stretches are irresistible to slashing predators like wahoo and kingfish. Don’t overlook plugs when fishing over shallower reefs and the open Gulfstream as well, as Grouper, Dolphin, and tuna will also hammer these plugs if given the opportunity.
With a wide variety of size and color offerings, picking the perfect plug can get a bit overwhelming. Start with identifying your typical targets, and choose a pattern that resembles the baitfish in your given area. Sardine, mullet, and menhaden are all great producers to start. Otherwise, both dark and light patterns have their niche. Bright greens, oranges, and yellows attract the attention of dolphin and grouper, while darker shades of purple, blue, and black attract vicious strikes from wahoo and kingfish. Pick your poison and don’t be afraid to switch things up periodically with different sizes and colors—let the fish choose what they like the most.
Planer Rigs – Getting Even Deeper
If the idea of fishing baits deeper than 40’ interests you, then an inline planer system is your next best bet. In the past planers were often rigged on their own separate line, and although many still implement this system today, the inline setup is much easier to manage. With the advantages of braided line, a 40’ shock leader, and a simple spoon or islander ballyhoo combo, the planer is a deadly addition to any offshore trolling spread. No species of predatory fish will turn down the two aforementioned rigs, with sailfish and wahoo just as likely to strike as dolphin, tuna, kingfish, and grouper. Cobia love to eat spoons as well, so there is no telling what will be on the end of your line when the deep planer rig goes off.
Because of the added stress that planer rigs apply to your tackle, make sure to use a rod and reel that is up for the job. Penn senator 6/0s are tough to beat for durability, but any similarly sized reel of good quality can handle the strain. A heavy action rod is also advised because of the pressures involved with a deep planer. As mentioned before, the advantages of braided line speak for themselves, and you can fish much more effectively without the stretch that monofilament is so famous for. 150 yards or so of 65-80lb braid will fit the bill nicely and keep your planer running as deep as possible.
Dead Bait Dredges
If you can manage to spare the space, there are also hook-less options to consider when adding different dimensions to your spread. Dredge teasers have long since proven their effectiveness off the Carolina coast, and most captains in that area are hard pressed to leave the dock without a cooler full of freshly rigged mullet and ballyhoo for the umbrella rigs. With that said though, fully rigged mullet dredges are probably the most laborious rigs ever designed, and are not feasible for anything but a diehard crew.
Artificial – Strip Dredges
Holographic fish strip dredges can be used in their place. The undulating strips reflect light every which way and mimic a bait ball just the same as the mullet rigs, without the time commitment needed to rig baits for hours before a day of fishing. There are many substitutes to this style of dredge teaser that often use plastic baitfish and spoons instead of vinyl strips. The added profile of each lure adds to the dredge’s attractiveness underwater, and serves as another alternative to a full mullet dredge when space isn’t an issue.
The illusion of a bait ball in the prop wash attracts predators from afar and is nothing short of deadly on pelagic species. Leaving a bait around 5-10’ behind the dredge shouldn’t be an option when fishing a dredge. It’s not uncommon to watch Skipjack Tuna, Blackfin Tuna, Dolphin, and many different species of billfish lose their fear of the boat altogether as they rush into the whitewater after the teaser, making this bait’s placement a wise choice. Dink Ballyhoo, mold craft chuggers and hookers, feathers, and jet heads are all great choices for this position.
Add Depth on the Edge
Drift fisherman should also know that deep baits are a deadly addition to any kite-fishing spread. Known locally as “the edge” to most South Florida fisherman, the swath of water between 80 and 200’ is a productive hunting ground for game fish and fisherman alike. The migratory routes of pelagic species such as sailfish, kingfish, wahoo, and tuna are all aligned with this sector of water, so it is no surprise that most anglers spend their days working this area tirelessly.
Covering ground is important in this fishery, so most captains choose to drift with the current in this zone with a spread of live baits all around the boat. Aboard a center console in fair seas, a practiced crew shouldn’t have issues with deploying multiple baits as the boat drifts side-to the sea. Typical spreads usually include two kites on the downwind side of the boat and a mess of flat lines on the upwind side of the vessel. Although this spread of baits adequately covers the surface level around the boat, the middle and bottom levels of the water column are still left unchecked.
Sending baits deep on the edge is an excellent way to connect especially if the surface scene is slow. Sailfish, kingfish, dolphin, tuna and wahoo are all prone to eating deep baits, especially on days when they seem few and far between. Sails that are too timid to rise to kite baits won’t overlook the opportunity to eat a frisky live bait down deep, and more often than not the deep bait will outperform the kites when it seems there are no sails in the area.
Rod and Reel Combo’s
For our mid-water baits we use large spinning reels filled with 300 yards of 30lb braided backing topped off full with 20lb monofilament. When loaded up, each of our spinners has over 500 yards of line, keeping the fight fair if we hook up to a big spring sailfish or experience that rare encounter with a marlin. Our reels are then attached to 7′ light action rods rated for 12-30lb line. These setups have light tips to be able to cast baits of many different sizes while having the guts to turn bruiser grouper and lift big blackfin tuna up towards the boat. We attach 25′ of 40lb mono shock leader to our mainline using a bimini twist-albright knot combination that can be wound on the reel, and we terminate our rig in either a short wire trace, or small circle hook. Simplicity and flexibility help us keep our rods ready for a number of different scenarios.
Deploy Your Bait
Fishing baits in the middle of the water column is as easy as collecting egg sinkers in an assortment of sizes, and #64 rubber bands. After free lining a healthy pilchard or cigar minnow out around 30 feet (any frisky live bait will work), double up your mainline and insert it through the egg sinker (2 ounces is a good choice if you only plan to fish 1 mid-bait). After passing the loop of line through the lead, pass a short 2” section of rubber band through the loop and pull the line so the band snugs up against the sinker.
The lead won’t move until the pressure from a hooked fish pulls the band thought the sinker. At this point the lead drops free and you are directly connected to your fish. Occasionally the lead remains on the line, but it can be freed with a simple pull. This method allows the greatest amount of flexibility and can be easily applied to virtually any offshore combo. When fishing multiple baits deep, different sized leads can be used to cover the entire water column.
One last important reminder for deep baits—always remember to rig up with a short wire trace on your mid rods. Even a few inches can protect your leader from the razor sharp teeth of smoker kings and wahoo. Add a small j-hook or offset circle hook and you stand a better chance at landing larger toothy game fish.
Getting Baits to the Bottom
The aforementioned method is extremely effective when presenting live baits in the middle of the water column, but falls short when trying to stay on the bottom. Braided line shines in this application (similar to trolling) because of its small diameter and uncompromising strength, allowing anglers to keep their bait in the strike zone with minimal effort. Using 30- 50lb braid and at least 8 ounces of lead in depths under 150’, anglers can take the guesswork out of finding the bottom.
Use the Right Lead
10-16 ounces of lead can be used in depths out to 250’, but sometimes even 32 ounces of weight are necessary to hold bottom in heavy offshore currents in deep water. To limit the issues involved with hand lining long leaders back to the boat, our crew prefers to fish 30’ of 40lb mono tied directly to the braided line via a Bimini twist and no name/Albright knot, allowing us to wind the entire leader length onto the leader. Being able to wind the leader onto the reel simplifies rigging, deploying, and clearing this bait in the event you need to chase a fish. At the same time, the rod can be used as a flat line or mid rod in a pinch, keeping the setup as another flexible addition to any drift fishing spread.
To start, tie a small snap swivel to your preferred lead using a short length of mono.
Now slide the snap between the double line created by the Bimini twist (leave the snap unclipped for easy removal at boat side when you’re hooked up) and the rig is ready to fish! Note that with steady pressure the lead typically wont fall off your line, but if you hook up to an acrobatic fish, the lead can fall free.
The rig’s length and light tackle features helps keep wary snapper from turning their noses at your offerings, although it is heavy enough to keep a sailfish hooked up for the duration of the fight. 50lb fishing line can be used to beef up the setup if bottomfish won’t leave the bait alone, although 40lb has boxed some serious grouper and snapper without any issues. Wire traces can be employed as well if kingfish are present (they love to eat live baits fished just off the bottom). Because of the amount of line off the reel, we have experienced great success using VMC circle hooks ranging in sizes from 4/0-6/0. We like to match our terminal gear to the baits we use, so smaller sardines, pilchards, and herring will be pinned to 4/0’s and 5/0’s while larger herring, grunts, pinfish, and jacks will be rigged with 6/0’s
Large mutton snapper and mangrove snapper won’t allow a frisky pilchard or threadfin herring to swim around long, so be prepared for the strike. Fish the bait a few cranks above the bottom, and make sure to keep tabs on your depth sounder. This bait can and will snag bottom, so make sure to adjust its depth as you drift. If you are short handed and don’t want to constantly tend to the bottom rod, wind in 7-10 cranks after making contact, and retouch every so often to make sure you won’t risk snagging. Snapper are more prone to leaving the bottom to eat this bait, but grouper, kings, sails, wahoo, and tuna are all likely by catch.
The number of lines you can fish aboard a center console is limited only by the number of rods and rod holders available on your vessel. With two kites and countless spinning reels, it’s not uncommon for a small crew to fish 8 lines with ease (6 kite baits, 1 flat line, 1 mid rod and bottom bait). With the addition of more rod holders, that number can grow to spider web status, leaving no areas of water untouched around and under your vessel.
Fishing mid-water and bottom baits while power drifting from a sport fish can be a bit more difficult, but with practice and ample communication the feat is far from impossible. Utilize available outrigger clips when possible to keep lines out and away from the props. Otherwise, the same techniques can be employed here too, just keep a watchful eye on lines because they will fall victim to the propellers periodically in heavy seas and currents.
Bottom Fishing Techniques
The same techniques used for covering the water column while drift fishing can be great producers while bottom fishing. While grouper and snapper prey on bottom baits, kingfish, cobia, African pompano, snapper, dolphin, sailfish and an assortment of jacks and mackerel will kill baits fished on the surface and well below it. Couple the assortment of baits with loads of chum and your cooler will surely have a variety of inhabitants by the end of the day.
When fishing offshore of South Florida, flexibility is always paramount to success. Sometimes flat lines gain all the attention, while on other days kite baits out produce every other line bar none. But when conditions are less than promising and the dreaded ‘skunk’ rears its ugly face, don’t forget to send some baits deeper and add another dimension to your spread—you will be pleased with the results.