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December 14, 2011

Gulf Bottomfishing Showcase

Deep jigging and live-baiting pays big dividends offshore of Sarasota, Florida

Darren Blum and I were easily getting our 5- and 6-ounce flutter jigs to the bottom, 230 feet beneath my boat. It was that calm 84 miles offshore of Sarasota, Florida. I heard Blum grunt after his jig reached bottom; I glanced over and saw him rear back on what was likely another quality fish. “Red snapper!” he quipped, and given the boisterous fighting at the business end of his outfit, the braid leaving the reel and the previous red snapper catches, I couldn’t disagree. This was turning into some really exciting and productive fishing!

As Blum played up his fish, which took a while from 200-plus feet, I couldn’t help but stare, once again, into the clear blue Gulf of Mexico, looking for “color,” the first glimpse of the fish. In what seemed like an eternity but was more like a few minutes, Blum hauled aboard another beautiful red snapper. Since it was July and closed season on red snapper, we released the fish via the SeaQualizer recompression tool (see “Tactics & Tackle” October 2011), after first venting it.

Blum is an accomplished offshore and bottomfishing angler who plies his sport in the Gulf of Mexico, mostly off Sarasota and Bradenton. A gemologist and sales manager for Coffrin Jewelers in Sarasota, he spends his off hours searching for jewels of the piscatorial kind far off this coast. He has a wealth of experience here and knows right where to go to catch fish, as he proved on this trip. He and I had discussed fishing together for quite some time, which finally culminated with me trailering my MARC VI from South Florida to Sarasota this past July. Our objective was to flutter-jig over a few of the deep bottom holes and shoot an episode for my Versus television series.

Wrong Way, George
As a South Florida native, I admit it felt odd trailering to Florida’s west coast to bottomfish instead of east to the Bahamas or south to the Keys. This is certainly not to imply Florida’s left coast doesn’t have great bottomfishing — it does indeed — I just felt like I was going against the grain.

The morning Blum and I met at my boat, the weather was perfect, with just a hint of a breeze and 20 percent chance of rain. Given the forecast, he suggested we run to the farthest spot first. And if for some reason it didn’t produce, he knew of two others within a few miles of that one. Naturally, he had a book full of coordinates for bottom spots and wrecks much closer to shore, but he was thinking big. And we had the weather to run big. After he entered GPS coordinates on the chart plotter, I was shocked when the distance appeared as 84 miles. By my South Florida way of thinking, we were going to overshoot Bimini by 34 miles. That’s a trip well into the Bahamas for me. Nonetheless, we ran for those numbers.

The Sinkholes
Our designated spot was one of numerous offshore sinkholes, which are basically craters within the ocean floor. Blum says these are the same type of sinkholes that occur on land. But out here, when the soft silt and sand collapse and form one of these cavities, a jagged exposed rim of limestone is left. It’s this structure that holds bait and predators. Many of these holes are true abysses, as there’s seemingly no bottom. Blum says the bases of these holes range from 400 feet down to thousands of feet.

Although he has GPS numbers for closer-in sinkholes and springs, he prefers concentrating on those beyond 140 feet of water because of the larger variety of keeper and trophy fish. “There are more species of grouper and snapper out here, plus you have the pelagics,” said Blum. “The amberjack are larger, there are fewer undersize snappers and groupers, the variety is amazing, and there’s very little fishing pressure.”

In these deep sinkholes, Blum has bested amberjack over 100 pounds, red snapper to 20 pounds, gag grouper to 50 pounds, red grouper to 25 pounds, scamp to 15 pounds, black grouper approaching 100 pounds and African pompano approaching 40 pounds. In addition, he has jigged up wahoo, dolphin, big jack crevalles and even blackfin tuna at these sinkholes. And the fishing is good year-round.

The jagged bottom surrounding the sinkhole we arrived at revealed itself on my fish finder. There was a sharp edge near the hole that dropped around eight feet, and we saved the coordinates of the peak on the chart plotter. We also activated the unit’s plotter trail, which would show our exact drift in relationship to that point. With that, we could readjust our drifts to remain over the best bottom longer. Blum got us in position, and jigging we went. The current wasn’t overly strong, moving just enough to stimulate feeding and let us effectively probe the pronounced bottom. In fact, on the very first drop of our very first drift, I hooked and played up a beautiful scamp. Blum followed that up with an amberjack. What a start!

A-Fluttering We Go

A variety of baits produce on these bottom spots, including fresh Spanish sardines, squid strips and ballyhoo, and especially live baits the likes of pinfish and pilchards (white bait). However, one of Blum’s favorite and most productive methods is jigging with flutter-style irons. He claims everything from snapper to amberjack strikes them, and coming up through the water column, they also fool pelagics. Our plan was to flutter-jig until the fish grew wise, then switch to lead-heads with circle hooks tipped with strips of squid and whole Spanish sardines.
Braided line is a must for bottom-probing in deep water, as its diminutive diameter slices through the water and enables a lighter iron to be recruited. What’s more, every vibration of the jig is transmitted up the line, including contact with bottom and fish strikes on the fall. And with nearly zero stretch, braided line promotes solid hook-sets in deep water. We spooled 25- and 30-class conventional reels with 50-pound Sufix 832 Advanced Superline and paired them with Penn Bluewater Carnage jigging rods. As for leaders, Blum opted for several feet of 80-pound-test fluorocarbon, whereas I selected 50-pound-test. A Bristol knot joined leader and braid.

A believer in the Williamson Vortex jig, Blum tied on a 6-ounce iron. To be a bit different, I went with the Williamson Raku jig, a flutter-style iron whose body is suspended from the leader cord carrying the hooks. The shape and free movement of this jig generate a wild, erratic and vibration-enhanced action. Both jigs acted like injured, frantically panicked baitfish scurrying about and above the bottom. Many times fish strike these jigs on instinct alone, and not necessarily from hunger.

After Blum and I took care of our first catches — my scamp was iced down and his amberjack released — we dropped again. My second fish was another delectable scamp, which joined its twin in the fish box, and Blum nailed another amberjack. After that, the action was so good I honestly lost track of who caught what and when. I believe my fifth or sixth drop yielded an amberjack, which was followed with a beauty of a red snapper. Blum was right there, doing a number on amberjack. Shortly after my red snapper, Blum connected with a fish that was fighting differently than an amberjack; he called red snapper. Sure enough, a plump snapper eventually broke the surface.

We confined most of our jigging action to within the lower 20 feet of the water column. The drill was to free-spool until the jig hit bottom, engage the drag and then whip the rod to make the flutter jigs come alive. After a few aggressive whips of the rod, we’d free-spool and reconnect with the bottom before resuming the jigging action. Blum claims the larger red snapper often hang 10 to 20 feet off the bottom, above the smaller snapper, which are within 10 feet of the bottom. So after bottom-probing, maintain the same jig action up 50 or so feet. Then, to entice the pelagics, try speeding up and shortening the jigging, and maintain that action right to the boat.

Our tactics worked well, as we caught scamp, red grouper and red snapper right off the bottom, and both amberjack and almaco jacks just above the bottom zone. At one point, the hooks on my jig were severed on a strike. I tied on a duplicate jig, and it got nailed and cut off before it reached bottom; the clean cut on the fluorocarbon leader spelled wahoo. Boring was the one thing this fishing wasn’t. Even the most impatient angler would have kept busy catching fish that day.