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Boosting catches

By DAVID A. BROWN
Published May 26, 2007


The fuel pump blues have put the pinch on those fond of catching their own fresh fish dinner. Procuring a personalized grouper sandwich or snapper ceviche has become an expensive proposition, so economic prudence necessitates less running and more catching.

There's no escaping the fact that warming water temperatures will push a lot of the action out to deeper, cooler abodes. However, when searching for productive wrecks, ledges and rocks out past the 60-foot range, a few strategic points will help you maximize productivity.

Find the food

Preferences aside, bottom fish can tolerate less-than-ideal conditions of temperature, clarity and habitat structure, as long as there's plenty of food. Nix the groceries, and the fish pack their bags.

Therefore, pods of baitfish showing at the surface or marking on the depth recorder bode well for offshore anglers. Depending on your depth, the indigenous forage could be threadfin herring, cigar minnows, Spanish sardines or blue runners.

Most offshore anglers carry at least a couple boxes of frozen sardines, but bolstering your arsenal with a dozen or so local livies is always a wise move. Your best bet here is the sabiki rig - a string of small gold hooks decorated with glow beads and various quills or attractant fibers.

Anchor the sabiki with a 1- or 2-ounce weight clipped to its terminal end, and dance the rig up and down in the water column. These rigs resemble the tiny forage that baitfish eat, and when little fish bite, the sabiki bites back.

Occasionally, you'll begin reeling a full sabiki rig topside, only to have your line suddenly fall slack. The usual culprit is a bait-stealing kingfish, mackerel or barracuda. Take this as a hint to free-line live baits on wire rigs behind the boat for a possible bonus catch.

Order of preference

For the bottom routine, anglers often struggle with the dilemma of whether to start with live or dead bait. Both may work, and sometimes simultaneously. However, if you have to get by with one option, go with dead baits.

For one thing, you'll never have to worry about livewells failing, and you'll never curse a frozen sardine for eluding the dip net. More importantly, dead baits inherently stink, so there's an instant attraction for predators before they actually spot the bait.

Once you get a bite going with dead baits, dropping a couple of livies can step up the action, as the flash and flutter of nervous forage pushes the big boys of the reef into the food mood.

For night fishing trips - a popular summer option - the visual benefits of frisky live baits diminish. Livies still emit enough vibration to alert predators, but the scent of a stinky dead bait usually does a better job.

But it never hurts to have one large live bait deployed on your heaviest rod. Keep the bait a couple of feet off the bottom, and lock down the drag. If this rod bends, it's the fish you're looking for, so just leave the rod in the holder and crank like mad until you're certain you've separated fish from structure.

Chumming

Complementing the dead bait rule, you can often jump start the action by chumming with frozen chum blocks or bits of cut sardines. Chum stimulates nearby fish while calling in others from across the bottom structure.

In clear conditions, you'll often notice mangrove and yellowtail snapper following the scent trail right to the surface, where sight fishing becomes a possibility. Keep watch for the bulky, brown shadows of cobia, which often rise to investigate an anchored boat. Pitching a jig or live baitfish near these gluttonous fish usually yields an easy hookup.

Judge the current when dropping chum in the water. If you're sitting directly over a spot - usually necessary for snapper fishing - swift water will carry the appetizers away from the structure long before your quarry gets a whiff.

In such scenarios, try filling a small brown paper bag with chunks of cut sardine, crimping the neck and securing it to a weighted fishing line with a rubber band. As the bag descends, water weakens the fibers until a sharp tug releases the chum on target.

Another option is the chum cage - a stiff wire container for enclosing frozen chum blocks or sardine chunks and sinking them to the bottom. The concentrated scent creates a flurry of interest while the cage prevents fish from stealing the chum.

Some rig the device to their anchor chain, but an independent line allows you to retrieve and check - or refill - without pulling the anchor.

Chumming will invariably excite the small reef rats, such as vermilion snapper, pinfish, grunts and porgies, long before the heavyweights take notice. However, once you get a cloud of runts elbowing one another for position, opportunistic grouper and snapper often move in to investigate the commotion.

Another benefit of getting the little fish fired up is fresh bait. When you catch one of these indiscriminate diners, put the little fish into service by rigging it with an 8/0-10/0 circle hook set through its tail.

You can also fillet fresh baitfish and fish a tasty flank or a tender belly strip on a slip sinker rig. Either way, cut the carcass into small chunks and deploy as chum. The scent tricks predators into thinking there's a fresh feed nearby.

Craftiness works wonders, especially when you need to make something happen before pulling the anchor and running elsewhere. Ultimately, you can't do much about your fuel bill, but you can take steps to ensure a healthy return on your investment.