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Gulf Bottomfishing Showcase

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

December 15, 2011
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Tough Fighters

Amberjack and almaco jacks are some of the toughest fish that swim. They thrive on Gulf wrecks and reefs.

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.

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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.

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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!
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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.

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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.

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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.

Shifting Gears
When the strikes on the flutter irons slowed, Blum suggested we switch to pink 2-ounce circle-hook jigs. He tipped his with a large squid strip. I tipped mine with a whole Spanish sardine. Sure enough, when the jigs reached bottom, the fish came back to play. I had a solid tap but missed the fish. I rebaited and dropped down and had a few light taps followed by — nothing! My bait had been stolen. Blum showed me up by hooking a few red snapper nearly back to back on those squid strips. And then a light bulb went off in my head. Both the squid and the Spanish sardine were getting bites, but the toughness of the squid enabled it to weather those smaller pecks and stay on the hook until a large fish consumed the jig — a nibble or two, and the Spanish sardine disintegrated or fell off the hook. Blum also whipped the jig for a minute or so if he felt the squid was gone, keeping it in play along the bottom and back up through the water column. But the point proven was how the introduction of scent got these fish feeding again.

We also ran a whopping six miles to a second sinkhole and started catching red snapper, amberjack, scamp and almaco jacks at the pace we had when we’d first arrived at our initial spot. Blum even landed a nice margate. With numerous fish to our credit, we’d had an exceptional day, one that proved just how good these long-range bottom spots can be. Reluctantly, we racked our rods, stowed tackle, tidied up the boat and headed east for Sarasota.

The ride in was as nice as the ride out. I activated the autopilot, and Blum and I reflected on the day’s catches and all the other great fishing prospects out here. Given good sea conditions and reliable and fuel-efficient power, seaworthy midsize boats can easily tap into this long-range fishing, as many do already.

The next time someone tells me to head west to go bottomfishing, I won’t be so quick to shrug off the suggestion. The action out here is indeed fast, and the angling pressure minimal. It’s something that I’d do all over again, and plan to next season.

Gulf Bottomfishing

Rods: Penn Bluewater Carnage rods, 30- to 65- and 30- to 80-pound-class or equivalent.

Reels: 25- and 30-class conventional.

Lines: 50-pound-test green braid joined to leader with a Bristol knot.

Lures: 6-ounce Williamson Vortex jig, 512-ounce Williamson Raku jig or 2-ounce pink jigs with circle hooks, for use with natural baits.

Baits: Squid strips, Spanish sardines. pilchards.

Note: State and federal regulations require the use of a venting tool and dehooking device when fishing for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico, plus you must use non-stainless-steel circle hooks with natural baits.

We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota, and we docked at the Hyatt’s marina. We launched at Centennial Park, right off U.S. 41 and 10th Street, and just a couple of blocks north of the hotel. For more information about the Hyatt, call 941-953-1234 or visit sarasota.hyatt.com.
If you mention you ran 84 miles offshore to fish, moved around a bit and then ran another 80-some miles back to shore, one of the first things you’ll be asked is, “How much fuel did you burn?” My 2011 Mako 284 holds 235 gallons and is powered by a pair of Mercury Verado 300 hp outboards equipped with a pair of 21-pitch Mercury Mirage props. I ran the boat at mostly 4,000 rpm during this journey, which delivered a total fuel economy of 1.6 mpg and a cruising speed of 38 mph. Round-trip, we covered just shy of 180 miles and burned 112 gallons of fuel.

What: Bottomfishing.

When: Whenever weather allows long offshore runs into the Gulf.

Where: Sinkholes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Who: Darren Blum is an avid west central Florida bottomfishing and offshore fishing authority and tournament angler. Though he does not charter personally, he is available to ride along on private vessels as a consultant. He can be reached at 941-587-0606 or via e-mail at [email protected]

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Tough Fighters

Amberjack and almaco jacks are some of the toughest fish that swim. They thrive on Gulf wrecks and reefs.
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Red Alert

Red snapper are spread throughout the Gulf and can be caught on a wide variety of tackle choices, from live bait to dead cut bait to artificials.
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Lures: 6-ounce Williamson Vortex jig, 512-ounce Williamson Raku jig or 2-ounce pink jigs with circle hooks, for use with natural baits.
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Special Grouper

The scamp is one of the most popular bottom dwellers in the Gulf, making it a prime target for those who like to fish deep in this part of the world.
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