Rocks and jetties protrude into the ocean from almost every inlet along the coast. They are there to help prevent the inlet and the dredged channel from filling with silt and sand caused by wind, wave and tidal erosion. But, they also provide an ideal habitat for fish.
Understanding the structure under the water is perhaps the most important challenge when fishing the rocks.
These jetties offer great hiding places for small crustaceans and small fish. The food chain can actually be seen almost in its entirety, from the vegetation growth on the rocks all the way up to large predator fish. It's a pretty special place when you really investigate it.
Fishing from a boat or fishing from the rocks themselves means changing the way we think and the way we fish. Understanding the structure under the water is perhaps the most important challenge when fishing the rocks.
What you see protruding from the surface is the top of a pile of rocks. Pile some small rocks in your yard and imagine where the water line will be close to the top of the rocks. You can see that the rocks under the water line project out away from the top at a sloping angle. The deeper the water, the farther the rocks will project out into the water.
In shipping channel situations where the water is deeper, the bottom of the rock pile you see as a jetty can be thirty feet or more from the visible rocks, gently sloping down to the deeper water.
Under the water, the rocks form some interesting cuts and ledges over time. Moving tidal water can wash under and around big rocks, causing them to reposition themselves. The underwater cuts and ledges provide areas of eddy and slack current that fish use to hide or to ambush. Smaller fish swim in and out of the crevices feeding on small crustaceans. Small crabs and snails live in and around the vegetation that grows on these rocks. At some point each year virtually every fish found in and around an inlet can be caught from around or on the inlet rocks.
Fishing from the rocks, anglers need to remember how far the rock bottom protrudes. Casting a bottom rig out away from the rocks will result in a rig hung on the bottom if care is not taken when reeling it in. Someone fishing from a boat and casting up to the rocks will experience the same thing.
In either scenario, the key to being successful on the rocks is to fish straight down. Many jetty fishermen use long cane poles that allow a bait to be dropped straight down and lifted straight up. From a boat, those same cane pole tactics can be used.
Anglers anchoring close to the rocks in order to take advantage of that straight down tactic need to be extremely cautious. Wind, waves and swift current can put your boat right up on that underwater rock top you failed to see. Boats are damaged and sunk quite frequently when anglers fail to pay attention.
One way to beat the underwater rocks from a boat is to use a jighead instead of a standard bottom rig. Baited with a small fiddler crab or shrimp and cast perpendicular to the rocks, jigs are gently tossed up to the rocks. As the jig falls, anglers "feel" their way down the slope of the rocks. They lift and drop their rod tip, allowing the jig to come back toward the boat while slowly sinking deeper along the rocks. It is important to use only enough jig weight to allow it to get to the bottom. Often a 1/4-ounce jig is all you need with small bait. In a heavier current or with larger bait, up to a 1/2-ounce may be required.
It takes some practice to learn the "lay of the rocks" and how to keep from hanging on them. Many anglers fish all day using this method and loose very few rigs to the rocks. The natural looking drop of the bait is slow enough to let the angler feel his way down the slope while allowing a fish to come out of the rocks and take the bait.
Redfish are often found a bit off the rocks lying in an undercut or behind a ledge.
Along the Atlantic and Gulf shores, jetties are too numerous to list. All of them will hold fish. The ones that have the greatest tidal flow tend to hold the most fish. Here's a short list of possibilities on almost any jetty:
Sheepshead — Catch these guys on fiddlers or small shrimp up close to and around the rocks. Where it is legal, oysters and clams also make for great bait. Jigs with small hooks -- maybe 1/0 or 2/0 -- and lots of patience are required to master the bait stealing tactics of these "seven striped jetty bass".
Red Drum — Red drum (redfish) frequent the jetties looking for food. These fish can sometimes be caught up next to the rocks, but more often are found a bit off the rocks lying in an undercut or behind a ledge that offers protection from the tidal currents. Any bait from fiddlers to small live fish to artificial deep-running hardbaits can take a red.
Seatrout — Trout tend to run in or out with the tide and can be caught using artificial lures or live bait such as shrimp. Jig heads with shrimp work well if you actually cast and work the jig back to the boat or to the rock. Remember the underwater structure picture and work the bait accordingly.
Flounder — Flounder like to be on the bottom. They like a sandy bottom but will often position themselves on top of a flat underwater rock. Flounder are taken on live bait like shrimp or small mullet; fish these baits on or close to the bottom next to the rocks. Use the same "feel-your-way" method that you use on sheepshead using a jig, but change the bait to a larger shrimp or a small finger mullet.
Migrating Fish — Spanish mackerel, bluefish, king mackerel, tarpon, snook, jack — the list can go on. All of these fish can be caught on or around a set of jetties at some point during the year. Just remember, they follow the bait. As huge schools of menhaden or mullet make their way up and down and around the coastal shores, predator fish will be following and feeding on them.
Jetties and rocks make an ideal stopping off place for both the bait and the fish. Being there when the fish are there will mean a busy day for smart anglers. Take these tips with you, choose the best weather days and avoid problems with waves and seas. And as always — be careful around the rocks.