Offshore rocky reefs harbor a variety of big game fish. Are you up to one of fishing’s most difficult challenges?
It was early October and the end of Southern Kingfish Association’s Division 5 tournament trail. King mackerel fishermen were now preparing for the upcoming SKA Mercury Tournament Trail National Championship, November 7-13, 2011, to be held in the legendary kingfish waters off of Biloxi, Mississippi. It was also the perfect time of year to fish near offshore rock ledges for a variety of pelagic game fish species.
Jacksonville, Florida offshore waters are teeming with hard bottoms, mostly constructed from a rocky default that runs north and south. Fortunately with the present cost of fuel, many of these rock ledges are located from five to thirty miles offshore of Florida’s First Coast.
As we navigated along the First Coast beaches and in a slightly southeasterly direction, I couldn’t stop thinking that our kingfish season was about over and it would be several more months before we would be able to enjoy saltwater fishing’s most prized game fish, the speedy king mackerel. The anticipation of hooking a large game fish over a rock ledge was also extremely enticing.
Our targeted rocky reef was located just five miles offshore of the Nassau Inlet located at the southern tip of Amelia Island. Here, a series of two- to three-foot lime rock ledges was home to kingfish during the warm summer months and tough gag grouper during the cooler months.
My son, Captain Terry David Lacoss was now on the bow of our 32-foot Topaz, the Amelia Angler II and prepared to lower the boat’s large anchor, up current of the rocky bottom.
As Terry David allowed his charter boat to drift back to the reef, I watched the Lowrance fish finder for signs of the rocky reef and game fish below. Suddenly the color chart recorder began to mark the two-foot ledge and fish too.
“Cleat the anchor line off right now,” I instructed my son. “We are right over the ledge and the color recorder is marking game fish below.”
Both live minnows that we had jigged up earlier in the day, fresh local squid, and chunks of Spanish sardines were barbed to 4/0 kahle hooks and lowered to the rocky reef. The exact moment that the barbed baits hit the bottom, our fishing party began setting their saltwater hooks and working their catches to the boat with a fully locked down reel drag.
Three of the fishermen boated keeper size sea bass, while the remaining three fishermen had deeply bent bottom fishing rods where their hooked fish ran this way and that, but not straight back for the bottom. This was a good indication that they were hooked up to a threesome of cold water sharks. Grouper typically fight straight down and hunt the sharpest edge of the reef to either tangle the fishing line, or simply cut the heavy fishing line in a blink of an eye!
As I helped Terry David untangle the fishing lines and free the hooked sharks, I commented, “Maybe we should pull the anchor and find another rock ledge, looks like this one is loaded with sharks!”
“No, we are fishing right here,” Terry David said. “I know the grouper are here as well, we will just have to weed through the sharks to get to the grouper.”
Minutes later Paul Braeger hooked into a good fish and was applying maximum pressure to his fifty pound bottom fishing tackle. And for the first few seconds of the fight, it looked as though Paul’s fish was winning the battle.
“Keep that rod tip held high Paul,” I instructed. “The second you drop that rod tip your hooked grouper will reach the rock ledge and part your fishing line.”
Fortunately, Paul Braeger was able to work his twenty-pound gag grouper up and away from the sharp edges of the rocky reef and by the end of our half day fishing charter we had encountered several grouper hook ups. While it’s safe to say that a few of the larger grouper reached the rocky ledge below and broke off. During our morning of grouper fishing, we never moved the boat, went through a box of saltwater hooks caused by many shark encounters and enjoyed constant action from grouper, sea bass, triggerfish, and red snapper.
Last year at this same time, Terry David had a similar trip where they encountered a sixteen-foot great white shark, several red snapper that had to be released, and a limit of gag grouper to twenty-five pounds. His fishing party also caught and released a 35-pound king mackerel that took a live cigar minnow free-lined from the transom of the Amelia Angler II.
During the fall fishing season the coastal waters of the Southeastern Atlantic offer some of the best bottom fishing of the year. In many cases, rocky lime rock ledges attract a variety of game fish species including the tough fighting gag grouper.
Typically a day of rock ledge fishing begins by jigging up a bait well full of livies including cigar minnows and Spanish sardines. One of the more reliable offshore structures to jig up live baits includes large channel buoys where large chains and a cement weight anchor the buoy in place. Marine life is attracted to the chain and in turn, attracts baitfish schools. Good numbers of baitfish can also be jigged up at rocky reefs as well when marked on your fish finder, or visibly seen schooling on the surface as well.
Most live bait jiggers use a six hook series of #6 feathered hooks, also called a Sabiki rig. The feathered hooks are fished with twenty-pound spin or casting-tackle. A one ounce bank sinker is attached to the bottom snap swivel of the bait catcher rig.
Simply drop your bait catcher rig right down through the school of baitfish and begin to reel them up to the surface slowly. You will soon begin to feel the baitfish strike the feathered hooks and actually putting up a decent fight! A word of caution, never let the baitfish rig drop back down to the bottom to attract more baits to the feathered hooks! This almost always results in the feathered hooks entangling themselves, resulting in a massive snarl of hooks and fishing line!
Once the hooked baits are in your fishing boat, remove the live baits from the hooks very carefully, as the hooks are extremely sharp.
Three to five dozen live baits are needed to begin your day of rock reef fishing. If fishing is extremely good, you can always re-bait during the day.
If you are new at anchoring your boat over a rock ledge, a good idea is to mark the structure and game fish with your boat’s fish finder and then drop a jug rigged with a long string and two-pound weight. Once you have marked the spot, you can now anchor your boat accordingly.
Once again, live bait fishing is an excellent deep water fishing tactic for catching quality bottom species. Most bottom fishermen employ 80-pound braided fishing line, like Power Pro or Spider Wire. Obviously, the braided fishing lines have zero stretch and aid fishermen in reeling up large bottom species away from deep-water hang-ups.
A fish finder sleeve is first threaded onto the fishing line and then a 100-pound barrel swivel is then tied to the tag end of the braided fishing line, using a Palomar knot. Next, a two-foot section of 80-pound fluorocarbon shock leader is tied to the remaining end of the barrel swivel and finally a 6/0 circle hook, or 4/0 kahle saltwater hook completes the live bait bottom setup.
Now you are ready to barb your live bait by simply hooking the live bait through the bottom of the mouth and right up through one of the nostrils. The strength of the current determines the size of the weight as well, which is attached to the fishing finder sleeve. This is normally a 6-12 ounce bank sinker.
Now you are ready to drop your live bait down to the bottom. When a strike is felt, simply raise your fishing rod and begin to reel. The circle hook sets itself!
Currently gag grouper fishing regulations for the Atlantic is one per day measuring at least 24 inches with a closed season from January 1st to April 30th. The size limit is 22 inches for Gulf waters, a bag limit of two per day and a closed season beginning February 1st through March 31st.
The current harvest of red snapper is closed for Atlantic Ocean waters and closed in Gulf waters from July 24th to May 31st. Red snapper harvested from Gulf waters must measure at least sixteen inches with a two-fish bag limit. Be sure and check the latest saltwater fishing regulations by visiting www.myfwc.com.