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September 21, 2007

Deep Secrets

So it's not trolling or light-tackle fishing, but who cares? It's a lot of fun, and the big pay-off is at the dinner table.


The author hefts a mystic grouper, a deep-water species that can weigh over 100 pounds.

Dick Julylia and I left the marina in Freeport on a bright February morning, excited by the prospects of trolling for wahoo off Grand Bahama Island.

The initial spread was deployed after exiting the cut, and we proceeded to troll the 300- to 400-foot break toward West End. Dick's favorite wahoo lures were out for the first hour, but failed to score, so the search was on. We went through every lure on the boat, switching color patterns, adding ballyhoo and moving to heavier heads and trolling drails. We even put out planers to gain more depth, but all in vain. The 'hoos, which had been cooperative in the past few days, had decided to get outta Dodge. Maybe it was the moon or the tides, or just plain bad luck, but the results were same - zip, zero, nada!

New strategy. We moved out to 2,000 fathoms and put out a marlin spread. First we tried a pattern of Black Bart's finest, followed by Pakulas, Mold Crafts, Sadus and Schneiders. All went in and came out without so much as a shadow rising beneath them. We found no bait, no birds, not even a lone frigate anywhere in sight. It had become painfully obvious that this wasn't going to be our day.

Deep Secrets
Fishing ultra-deep water in excess of 500 feet is made a lot easier with the aid of electric reels. Load them with super-braid line and you'll feel every tap.

Feeling dejected, rejected and subjected to severe humiliation, we threw in the towel and broke out the Excedrin to relieve a headache caused by hours of staring intently for the bill that never came. Just when I began thinking that we would be coming home empty-handed, I noticed a gleam in Julylia's eyes. He told me to turn the 31 Bertram toward the entrance to Freeport Harbor and start looking for structure once the bottom began to rise. I wasn't quite sure what to make of the request until he emerged from the cabin with a funny-looking bent-butt rod sporting a monstrous electric reel. A lightbulb over his head was blinking "deep drop," and I realized that a new wrinkle was about to be added to my fishing playbook.

Fishing the Basement

I watched the Simrad EQ40 sounder intently, looking for bumps or other anomalies on the bottom. As luck would have it, in 1,300 feet I happened upon a large, rectangular target just outside the harbor. It must have been a barge, because it's flat top rose about 40 feet above the seafloor. Clustered at the down-current end was a concentration of fish marks that the sounder picked up as clearly as if they were in 100 feet of water.

Dick smiled and produced a terminal rig adorned with five 12/0 circle hooks. He proceeded to bait the hooks with pieces of frozen squid, then clipped the rig to the 200-pound-test braided line that filled the Krystal XL651 electric reel. Next, Dick hung an eight-pound sinker on the bottom of the rig and clipped a pair of battery-powered, blinking strobes to the top and middle. Finally, he swung the entire contraption over the side. He pulled the drag lever on the big reel into free-spool and we waited ... and waited ... and waited for the sinker to hit bottom. A full three minutes later the spool stopped turning as the rig settled on the seabed alongside the wreck. All I could think was, "If it takes three minutes to hit bottom, how long is it going to take to reel in a fish?"

Dick pushed the drag forward and used the reel's "intermittent up" switch to remove slack from the line. Not ten seconds later the rod tip started dancing and Dick hit the switch to set the hook. Expecting him to immediately reel in the fish, I was surprised when he let the sinker settle back down again. The rod tip danced anew and he repeated the process. After a third drop he hit the "sustained up" switch and the reel began the arduous task of retrieving the sinker, line and, apparently, some fish.

Deep Secrets
Dick Julylia dropped down and hit paydirt in the Bahamas with a selection of silky and queen snapper.

Five minutes later, the swivel hit the rod tip and four of the most beautiful fish I have ever seen were hanging just below the surface. They were bright red, with gleaming white bellies, huge eyes and graceful flowing fins. I was afraid we had just captured some rare, endangered species and was expecting a Bahamian gunboat to come alongside and take us into custody, but Dick assured me the fish were not only common, but abundant. They were queen snapper, one of numerous snapper species that can be caught at depths ranging from a few hundred to 1,500 feet. He added that they were the most wonderful-tasting fish you could ever imagine! Given that Dick is a professional restaurateur who knows fine food, I was salivating before the fish hit the cooler.

Get Down!

Modern fishing techniques such as trolling, chumming and even conventional bottom fishing barely scratch the ocean's surface. Deep-drop fishing has been a loosely kept secret among a few private-boat fishermen willing to invest in the electric reels required to do it. Recent entries to the marketplace such as the XL series from Krystal Fishing have helped bring these fishing tools within reach of a wider range of anglers, and interest in deep-drop fishing has been growing as a result.

Deep-drop fishing is like exploring a new frontier, and frequently requires a field guide to help identify the fish you dredge up. Numerous species of snapper and grouper, plus other, more exotic fish, are caught via this simple technique. The challenge of locating productive structure and the reward of fine dining that accompanies a few hours of successful fishing are other attractions.

Deep Secrets
Julylia displays a fine yelloweye snapper that's headed for the table.

The first step is investing in a quality 12-volt electric reel or two, and there are a number of good brands and models to choose from. We were using the new XL Series reels from Kristal Fishing. The company also provides a one-stop source for most everything you need for deep-drop fishing, including specialized rods, rigs and lights. Reels should be chosen to accommodate the maximum water depth you plan to fish. Kristal's smallest model, the XL601, can be loaded with 80- or 100-pound super-braid line. It is a fine choice for everything from wreck fishing for cod and sea bass in the Northeast to targeting rockfish off the West Coast, or anywhere water depth rarely exceeds 500 feet and the fish generally don't weigh more than 50 or 60 pounds.

The XL reels easily mount on a stand-up rod and can be held during operation. For fishing off the east coast of Florida or along the reef drop-offs in the Bahamas, the larger XL621 and XL651 are a good choice, as they offer additional line capacity, more powerful motors and faster retrieve rates. On our foray in 1,350 feet, the great depth and heavy sinkers required full spools of 200-pound braid, even though the snapper were only running up to ten pounds. The larger reels turned out to be a smart choice, because the next day we fished in 500 to 800 feet of water and caught mystic grouper up to 60 pounds. These fish can attain even greater sizes, and Dick has landed sharks over 500 pounds with his big guns.

Deep-Drop

Reels & Gear

Kristal Fishing USA
Miami, FL
(305) 444-3010
www.kristalusa.com

Dolphin Electreel
Bradenton, FL
(800) 717-3716
www.dolphinelectreel.com

Electric Fishing Reel Systems
Greensboro, NC
(336) 273-9101
www.elec-tra-mate.com

Fish-Ng Accessories
Winterville, NC
(800) 720-3474
www.fish-ng.com

Lingren-Pitman
Pompano Beach, FL
(954) 943-4243
www.lingren-pitman.com

In northern latitudes, any basic bottom rig, whether designed for cod or sea bass, will work on a light electric-reel outfit. However, the rigs employed for deep-drop fishing in subtropical waters are a little more elaborate. Most incorporate four to six circle hooks attached to short droppers along a heavy mono leader. A lead weight ranging from six to 12 pounds is attached to the bottom of the leader. A 250-pound, ball-bearing swivel is often used between the main line and leader, since the fish will sometimes spin when being retrieved. And since light penetration at extreme depths is at a minimum, flashing strobes are clipped to the rig to provide some additional fish-attracting capability. The captains I've talked to have a little saying that goes, "No lights, no bites!"

The most productive and easiest-to-obtain deep-drop bait is squid, and it catches just about everything. Pick up a couple boxes and cut the squid into small pieces. You don't have to cover the hook; just have something edible hanging off it. You can also use chunks of most any fish, even pieces from the racks of the ones you cleaned the day before. I am told barracuda makes an excellent bait, as do mackerel and sardines.

Hook 'Em and Cook 'Em

Bottom fish are attracted to structure, whether natural or manmade. If you picture the ocean bottom as a flat, open plane, structure is anything that breaks up the continuity, and finding these anomalies makes deep-drop fishing a breeze. Two common pieces of electronics that will make the job easier are a chart plotter and a powerful, high-quality depthsounder. These are your eyes into the underwater world.

Once you've located a likely spot, position the boat directly over it and mark the location on your plotter. Drop the screen size down to 1/8 mile and determine which direction the wind and current will push the boat. Move back over the structure and position the stern so it's facing against the direction of the drift and use the engine(s) to hold your position. The goal is to keep your lines as close to vertical as possible. Keep the weight just touching the bottom and the line taut, and you will be surprised by how easy it is to detect a bite. Snapper will usually make the rod tip dance, while grouper will simply pull it down and keep it down. With smaller bottom species, don't be too quick to bring them to the surface. After the initial hook-up, lower the rig back down to try for two or three more fish, depending on how many hooks you have on the rig.

New

Deep-Drop Line

Deep SecretsBottom fishermen will be interested to learn of the new DeepDrop braided line from FINS. Made of a special proprietary material, DeepDrop line is specifically made for deep-water bottom-fishing applications where sensitivity and abrasion resistance are paramount. According to the manufacturer, the new line is more durable than Spectra line and has better knot-holding ability. It also boasts a low memory to prevent coiling, and its lack of stretch allows anglers to detect subtle bites in very deep water. Lastly, the line's small diameter makes it less prone to the effects of current. FINS DeepDrop line is available in 80-, 150- and 200-pound test, and in bulk spools of 500 and 1,000 yards. Suggested retail price for a 500-yard spool of 80-pound test is $23.89. For more information, contact FINS, (859) 282-0583; www.finsfishing.com. - Ed.

Shipwrecks are the most common type of manmade, deep-water structure, although artificial reefs also fit the definition. Finding a wreck in the right depth zone is like finding a fish factory. The locations of wrecks can be found on fishing charts or in many books. Really deep wrecks rarely see much fishing pressure.

Natural structure is more varied, and includes banks, rocky bottom, seamounts reefs. Locate places of significant depth change with sharp, definable edges. Baitfish mass around structure for protection, attracting predator and scavenger species. When you find good structure with your depthsounder, save the location on your plotter for future fishing trips.

Deep-drop fishing might not be for everyone, but you never know until you try it. When I first did, I wasn't sure what to expect, and held little hope that it was something I'd enjoy. However, I have to admit that after catching deep-water critters ranging in size from a couple pounds to almost 100, deep-dropping has its appeal. It's a challenging and productive pastime that can pull your butt out of the fire after a long day of unsuccessful trolling. It's something you just might want to consider adding to your fishing playbook, too.