Purposely waking up at 3 a.m. is never a good idea. That is, unless you are doing so to be at legendary bottomfishing grounds such as the Florida Middle Grounds by first light. The run is long, the water is deep - and the grouper, snapper and amberjack that swim out here are big, aggressive and mean. So leave your light tackle at home and load for bear. Mark Davis of Bomber Saltwater Grade and Capt. Travis Palladeno of Live Wire Fishing Charters are two bottomfishing pros who have shared tips and techniques to ensure that your next trip is well worth the run.
When you are traveling this far for trophy fish, there's no reason to stress over light tackle (unless you are pursuing a line-class record). Also, when you are dropping this deep, you want to make it count, because even reeling up a bare hook and sinker takes a lot of time and energy. Palladeno and Davis offer the following tips for selecting your tackle.
1. When using circle hooks, go two or three sizes larger than you would if you were using a J hook.
2. There are a lot of circle hooks on the market. For bottomfish, make sure to use one that describes a complete circle. A point positioned 90 degrees to the shank dramatically improves hookups.
3. Heavy-duty rods are a necessity; they need to be able to handle 100-pound braid without any problem and put a lot of heat on fish.
4. For this type of fishing, keep your drag locked down at all times. You never want to give these fish an inch.
5. Use heavy leaders - 125-pound-test minimum. Make the fish make you go lighter. Also, check your leader before each drop to make sure it's free from any abrasions and nicks. It's a shame to drop all the way down, get a bite and lose the fish due to a sub-par leader.
Davis knows that live baits are effective, but he feels that artificials offer several advantages.
His go-to jig for deep water is the 7-ounce Darter jig. "Darter jigs can be extremely effective, but you've got to experiment with them," he says. "It's best to fire one down and try several jigging actions until you figure out how the fish want it. Sometimes they want long, sharp jigs upward, and sometimes they are looking for short, erratic jigs. You just have to feel it out."
Using any type of heavy jig is a great way to target specific species. For example, if you are pursuing snapper and amberjack, use your standard jigging tactics higher in the water column. But because of their shape, jigs sink fast enough to get past snappers, amberjacks and pesky bait-pickers if you are targeting groupers.
When a fish is hooked on a lure, the fight is immediately on, which gives you a better chance of keeping it out of structure. On live-bait rigs, your sinker is sitting on the bottom, and however long your leader is, that's how many feet you are automatically giving the fish. It might not be much, but it's often enough time for the fish to win.
When you are new to an area or just want to explore, trolling lipped plugs like the Bomber CD 30 between bottom-bouncing spots is a great way to prospect.