Commercial fishermen had been fishing this way for several years. Deep water, heavy weights, and electric reels hauled up fish from the depths. Snowy grouper, golden and blueline tile fish, rosefish and other deep water species were caught and marketed under a variety of names.
While these fisheries are still active commercially, the deep water fishing realm has become popular with recreational anglers over the past several years. Did we say deep water fishing? How does cranking a fifty pound snowy grouper off the bottom in 800 feet of water sound to you?
Deep drop fishing, as this technique has become known is not for the average everyday angler. It takes some special knowledge, a lot of special equipment, and a very good sonar unit.
All up and down the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico, these deep water varieties of fish can be found. They live in depths of anywhere from 200 to 3,000 feet. The water at these depths is cold and dark, and we have only recently begun studying the habits, lifespan and biology of some of these fish.
The tackle is heavy. Because of the extreme depths, electric reels are the only choice. A high line capacity, 80-pound class electric reel, spooled with braided line is the only option. The reel is coupled with a 130-pound class heavy action deep drop rod.
Monofilament line is totally out of the question at these depths. Monofilament stretches, and the deeper the water, the more the stretch. Take the line stretch and add a couple of knots of current, and it is literally impossible to first see or feel a bite, and second, to set a hook. Eighty or 100-pound test braided line has the diameter of 20-pound monofilament and most brands have virtually zero stretch.
Once we have the rod, reel and line, we need terminal tackle. Think big and think deep. A sinker or weight will take your bait to the bottom. With deep drop fishing these weights are measured in pounds, not ounces. An eight pound window sash is a very common deep drop weight. In high current areas, even heavier weights are used.
The terminal tackle usually consists of several yards of heavy fluorocarbon or monofilament leader. A 400-pound test leader is a good starting place. The heavy leader is required because we use a multiple hook rig. The weight is tied to the bottom of the leader, and 18-inch drop loops with 8/0 to 10/0 circle hooks are spaced up the leader. Sometimes as many as five or more hooks will be used on one leader. Think of a giant, oversized Sabiki rig, and you can get the picture. The leader is attached to the braided line with a 200-pound test swivel.
Electric reels are the only sensible option when cranking 50-pound snowy grouper off the bottom in 800 feet of water.
Almost any fresh bottom bait will work. Cut bait is the preference, and it needs to be tough enough to stay on the hook. The long drop will tear a soft bait from the hooks before it ever reaches the bottom. Find fresh bait. Frozen bait will be very soft when it thaws.
The fish that live at these depths live in total darkness, and they find their food just fine in the wild. But many anglers will tie a light stick to the swivel above the leader. The jury may still be out on whether the light stick provides an extra edge in catching a big grouper. Time will tell.
With the tackle and bait ready, we can head for the deep water. That deep water would be the continental shelf.
Find a good chart of the coastal area you are fishing. Find the edge of the shelf, somewhere around 1,000 feet deep. Then, using the chart and your sonar, begin to look for relief on the bottom.
The shelf at this depth is a series of ledges and ridges. Underwater hills and mountains may come up 100 to 200 feet. The idea is to locate one of these humps, watch the sonar carefully, and look for any returns that are not a part of the bottom structure. The better your sonar unit, the more likely you are to catch fish. However, the lack of a return does not necessarily mean a lack of fish. Remember, these are ledges and ridges, and these fish will be in, out, and under the structure.
You will need to judge the current speed and direction in order to set your boat up for a drift over the area you choose to fish. Anchoring is obviously out of the question, so the drift has to be right.
Most anglers will tell you to use only enough weight to get your bait to the bottom. That's good advice in shallow water. But, out here, heavier is usually better. You want your line going straight down. A lighter weight will put a big bow in your line in a heavy current situation, and you may never reach the bottom. The heavy weight coupled with the braided line will take your line down straight to the bottom where it will remain without bowing.
Your bait's trip to the bottom can take a full minute or longer, even with an 8-pound weight. When the weight hits the bottom, you want to keep the weight just bouncing up off the bottom and the whole rig straight down under the boat.
Common deep-drop rigs for grouper have multiple circle hooks and are constructed using a minimum of 400-pound-test monofilament.
If you set the drift up correctly, you and your bait will be moving together in the same direction, covering the selected area. In our example, that would be the top of one of those humps. Watch the sonar, and when the drift takes you off the hump, reel up, move the boat, and start the process again.
The rod will be in the rod holder, the entire time. When the rod tip indicates a bite — and the braided line will surprisingly telegraph that bite quite nicely — simply throw the electric reel in gear and let the rod and reel do the work. Fighting the fish becomes a matter of pushing a button.
About half way up, the fight is really over on a snowy grouper. Their air bladder will expand and send them to the surface like a balloon. Before they reach the surface, it will pop, sending telltale air bubbles.
Deep drop fishing is a very specialized method to catch some very special fish. These cold water fish are prized for table fare. Mild, white, flaky meat coming from cold water depths makes them a choice for any angler.
If you want to try some deep drop fishing for yourself, I suggest chartering a boat that specializes in this method. The cost to gear up is out of range for the average angler.
Off of South Florida and the Florida Keys, the continental shelf is much closer to the mainland, and many boats are set up to make those drops. The farther up the Atlantic coast you move, the farther the shelf is from shore.
There are some hardy souls who make deep drops with conventional tackle. And — yes, they catch fish. But power assisted equipment is by far the choice of most anglers. Whichever way you try, you can be assured of finding fish that have never seen a bait or a hook, and that will readily take whatever you offer them. The trick with conventional tackle is cranking them to the surface from 1,000 feet below!