Big Bend Florida
Basic Bottom Fishing
When I think of bottom
fishing I usually think of Gag
Grouper because these
are the fish my parties prefer to target. I rig to target these fish
and eliminate or certainly minimize the number of other bottom species
we catch. By using large LIVE BAIT we seldom
catch Grunts, Seabass, Triggerfish and a host of other small fish.
Almost any small fish
works just fine for Gag
Grouper. I prefer Blue Runners and Pinfish
because they are flashy, strong, stay alive in my bait well and are
eaten on sight by Gags. Threadfin Herring, Pilchards, Cigar
Minnows, Spanish Sardines, Tomtates, Pigfish, and White Grunts
work well too. Here is a tip you won’t find just anywhere: When
picking out bait from your well, try to catch the Threadfin Herring
and Spanish Sardines first because they don’t live very long in your
I usually fish live bait on a simple
sliding sinker rig or a couple of variations of this rig. This is
the rig #1 on the RIGGING PAGE. When the tide
is very slow, I do not use a sinker on at least one of the rods my
clients are using. This rig #2 on the RIGGING PAGE.
On days with very fast moving tides, I use a rig with no sinker stop,
the sinker slides all the way down against the hook. This is rig
#3 on the RIGGING PAGE. I use only
CIRCLE HOOKS on my bottom fishing rigs. CIRCLE
HOOKS have lots of advantages. First and foremost,
CIRCLE HOOKS kill fewer fish beca! use they hook fish
out in the lip rather than deep inside. Second, they are easier to
remove. Third, CIRCLE HOOKS are safer to use.
In over 40 years fishing with CIRCLE HOOKS I
have been hooked only once. Forth, CIRCLE HOOKS
don’t get hung as often as “J” hooks. Fifth, CIRCLE
HOOKS are easy to bait. This rig also catches Cobia,
Sharks, Jewfish and an occasional Kingfish. Single large rocks,
ledges, and wrecks hold Gag Grouper better than just hard rocky
I seldom target
Red Grouper. Reds
are the easiest of the Grouper to catch because they always seem to be
hungry and aren’t very bright either. Again, I use basic rig #1.
Bait doesn’t seem to matter much but a large fillet of Remora works
great. Small fish picking at it must get the Red Grouper’s attention
and he comes running over and takes it away from ! them in one gulp.
Drift fishing over hard rocky bottom is a great way to catch them.
Large live baits work well too. I prefer not to drift because
inexperienced fishermen get hung way too often. I generally catch
about one legal Red Grouper for every 500 legal Gags. Gags are far
more numerous than Reds in the shallow water I fish.
I’ll mention my favorite Grouper, the
Jewfish. I made
the name Jewfish a lot bigger here because the Jewfish is a lot
bigger. Not many folks target Jewfish because they are a protected
species. All harvest is prohibited and rightly so. They were
decimated by commercial spearfishermen in the 60’s and early 70’s but
with a total ban on their harvest, they have really come back. Catch
and release is a! llowed and I often target them when somebody wants
to hook a really big fish. Most folks are quickly defeated and
humiliated by a hundred horsepower fish. Even on 200# test line with
3 people on the rod, most of them simply over power you and go in a
Here is how I rig. I use a 6/0 Penn
Senator(black) with a 2:1 gear ratio, fitted with a long power handle
mounted on a broomstick rod. I only fill the reel half full of 200#
mono so that we will have the best possible mechanical advantage. I
use a 4# dive weight for a sinker and 16/0-20/0 CIRCLE HOOK.
This rig is the same as basic rig #3. My favorite bait is live
3-6# Jack Crevalle. You must cut the top lobe of the
tail off the Jack or he will pull the 4# sinker all over the place.
With Part of the tail removed, he is a sitting duck for a Jewfish.
In July and August I guarantee a Jewfish,
no hook-up, no pay. Lots of big Jewfish are inshore at that time.
They move offshore in late August or early September but often move
back in after spawning.
When I have small kids aboard, I usually
rig up for Grunts, Sea Bass, and
Lane Snapper because most little kids are not strong
enough to handle the tackle I use for Grouper. I use a 2 or 3 hook
rig on a light rod. This is rig #4 on the RIGGING PAGE. Again, the
hooks are CIRCLE HOOKS but smaller sizes. I always use
cut bait for these fish although small live baits are fine. My
favorite cut bait is a small chunk of Remora. Remoras are tough and
oily and most bottom fish love ‘em. Shrimp works OK too but it is
easy for the bait stealers to remove. Most folks use Squid on this
rig and it works just fine too. Just wait until you see a 7 year old
reel up 3 fish at a time! This rig catches an occasional nice Grouper
and lots of species of small bottom fish.
One of my favorite eating fish is the
use the same basic 2 or 3 hook rig (rig # 4) but here I use regular
“J” hooks. The “J” hook catches Triggerfish better than t! he circle
hook because Triggerfish are nippers and not easily caught on circle
hooks. Almost any cut bait works but fresh is best with Remora again
being my favorite. I keep one rod ready to fish for Triggers and when
I start noticing the tell tale bites on live bait where big chunks
are bitten out, I bait up and catch a few.
Another great eating fish is the
Hogfish or Hog Snapper.
Probably 90% of the fishermen on this coast have never caught a
Hogfish. I use rig #1 for them but generally scale it down and use a
smaller hook and lighter line and sinker. Best baits for HOGFISH are
small Crabs, Mantis ! Shrimp, and 2-5” Shovelnosed Lobsters. Live or
fresh Shrimp will work but they are cleaned off the hook mighty
quick. Fish for Hogfish very early or very late in the day for best
results. Live rock bottom with cracks and crevices is Hogfish
country. On high profile rocks and ledges, Hogfish are wiped out by
spearfishermen. These high rocks and ledges can be productive for
Hogfish at night.
SNAPPER, big ones, not the 4-12” fish you catch in
the river or inshore but 3-12# Mangroves are one of my very favorite
fish of all to catch. They are sneaky biters and great fighters. A
well full of small Pilchards (White Bait) is a good start for catching
them. Live Shrimp work great too. I use basic rig #1 on lighter
tackle than for Grouper. I usually use 20# test or so and a small
Circle Hook. Night time is the right time for Mangrove Snapper.
Wrecks, high profile rocks, tall ledges, and artificial reefs all
attract Mangrove Snapper. They are wary and generally avoid
SNAPPER have made a remarkable come back on this
coast. Five years ago, it was uncommon to catch one within 60 miles
of Crystal River. In the past 2 years, I have caught several inside
Seahorse Reef in 30 feet or less. Again, rig #1 is my choice for
Snapper. Dead Cigar Minnows and Spanish Sardines work great for Red
Snapper. Almost any live
bait is eaten on sight too. Most of the Red Snapper I have caught
recently were accidental catches, caught while I was targeting Gag
Grouper. Red Snapper are often caught right along with Mangrove
Snapper at night.
aren’t often thought of as an offshore species but in the months of
December through early March, they gather in huge spawning
aggregations around offshore buoys, wrecks, artificial reefs, and high
rocks. Fishing these spots for Grouper, you’d never know that the
Sheepshead are there because they almost never bite cut bait or live
fish. Drop a small piece of fresh shrimp, a small crab, or tube worm
and you’d better get ready. Again, rig #1 for me. I use a short
shank “Sheepshead hook,” usually a size 2. I often slide a 1/2”
orange craft pop-pom on to the hook. It seems to get their attention
plus I think that the ball absorbs a little of the bait scent and the
Sheepshead will hang on a little longer. Sheepshead are notorious for
bait stealing and the little orange ball seems to help.
Sheepshead are mighty fine table fish
too. Firm white meat. Remember: When you are fishing spawning
aggregations, you are taking adult fish out of the spawning cycle.
Consider catch and release of these jumbo spawners. At this time, the
legal limit is 15 Sheepshead per person. I’d like to see it dropped
to 3 or 5 per person. Lots of these fish are over 8 pounds and one
caught on Whopper Stopper last year ! weighed 14-10.
are seldom targeted by fishermen in this area. They
are very common all summer around wrecks and high profile rocks and
ledges. Spadefish are easily caught on a rig consisting of a #2-4
“J” hook with a small split shot about a foot above. I use fresh
shrimp cut into small pieces. I usually cast the bait to individual
fish I see or into a group of fish. One unusual thing! about
Spadefish is that they bite best on slack tide. They are a lot of fun
on light tackle and fight like a really big Bluegill. Most Spadefish
we catch are from about 1/2 pound to 3 pounds with an occasional 5 or
6 pounder. Good eating with firm flesh. These fish must definitely
Basic Fishing For Near Shore
fish are the wandering species that come by each year, stay a while
and move on as the season or baitfish supply dictates. Spanish
Mackerel, Kingfish, Bonita,(False Albacore-Little Tunny) Trippletails,
Cobia, Barracuda, and some species of Sharks are generally considered
near shore pelagic species. The Mackerels and Bonita are fast
movers. Sometimes they will stay in an area for a while when the food
supply is staying still. If the food supply moves the fish follow.
Cobia and Trippletails often stop and stay a while but the fish! you
see by a buoy one day are often replaced on the next tide. Barracudas
take up residency near a wreck, artificial reef or large rock and stay
there until cold weather sends them south. I recognize some of the
Cudas that I see often. Sharks, with the exception of Nurse Sharks,
always seem to be on the move. Lots of distress signals from fish
being caught and a little blood in the water and Sharks come running.
Mackerel, Bluefish, Bonitas(Little Tunny or False Albacore) and 1-5#
Jack Crevalle are often found feeding together so I am going to address them
as a group. Casting small jigs, spoons, and flies into feeding
schools! is one of the most exciting forms of fishing on this coast.
If you are casting into the schools and not catching them you are
either using a bait far too large or not moving it fast enough. Stop
for a moment and take a look at what they are feeding on. Most often
the minnows are less than 3 “ in length. Reel your jig so fast that
it bounces along on the surface and you will get bites. Trolling
small jigs, spoons and flies around these schools will catch a lot of
fish. The best spoon of all for Spanish Mackerel is the Clark
Spoon. Try to choose a size th at matches the size of the
bait the Mackerel are feeding on and you can hardly miss. Circle the
schools, don’t charge through. You can circle and pull your lures
right through the breaking fish without spooking the entire school and
catch lots of fish in the process. Troll fast.
Spanish Mackerel the 4-8# fish are often loners or in
small schools. These bigger fish feed on larger baitfish like their
bigger cousin the Kingfish. I catch them with live Sardines,
Pilchards, Threadfins, and Cigar Minnows. With these larger
Mackerel, wire leader is absolutely essential. Without wire, you
often get cut of f and never realize you have had a bite until you r!
ealize you have no bait and then notice that there is no hook either.
I also catch them trolling 4-6” spoons, plugs, and rigged baits. Rig
#5 is a basic live bait rig for Kingfish and Spanish Mackerel. Fish
near wrecks and big ledges or other places that holds bait schools.
Mackerel-Kingfish are the fastest fish we catch around
here. They generally take more line than any other fish also. A
reel that will hold three hundred yards or so of 20-30# mono is about
right for these fish. Live Threadfins, Cigar Minnows, Pilchards, and
Sardines catch lots of small to medium Kings but if you want a real
“Smoker! ” you’d be better off fishing a lively 1-2# Blue Runner,
Ladyfish, or Spanish Mackerel. Fish these larger live baits on a
multiple hook live bait rig. Rig #6 Anchored near bait schools or
drifting in areas with lots of bait schools is very effective.
Trolling can be mighty
effective too. When there is no grass, trolling a dead Cigar Minnow
with a blue and white duster is probably the fastest way to limit out
on Kingfish. There are plugs and spoon that catch Kings just fine but
I will pick a Cigar Minnow and duster every time. I generally troll
3 lines with the Stbd line back 30’ with a 6 oz sinker, center line
100’ no sinker and Port line around 60’ or so with 4 oz. I can turn
darn near as fast as I want and still not tangle. I use a 3’ leader
of #7 coffee colored single strand wire.
If I am trolling lures, I fish a
Russellure(Kinggetter) on the Stbd line, Mann’s
Stretch 12 center and Mann’s Stretch 25
port. Captain Action, Tony Pet, and Huntington
Drone Spoons work great too but some experimentation with
line length and weight will be in order. Same length of line as for
bait. No sinker is used when trolling plugs. Again a 3’ wire leader
is essential and I usually use 7-Strand rather than
solid with lures.
From late February until mid September
Cobia are one of the most sought after fish on this
coast. They will bite almost anything when they are in a biting mood
and when they are not in a feeding mood, darn near nothing will catch
them. When I clean large Cobia, I find small sea turtles, sting rays,
catfish, crabs, and all sorts of small fish including Cowfish,
Blowfish, small Sharks, and an occasional Grouper.
Lots of Cobia are caught sight fishing by
running by crab traps and buoys and simply looking for fish on the
surface. Sight fishing is effective but this year, I caught far more
by anchoring and chumming. Basic rigs #1 & #2 are the rigs I use most
often. Any bait used for Gag Grouper is effective for Cobia. When
I am bottom fishing for Grouper, I usually have one rig in a holder
with a live bait down about half way to the bottom. This rig catches
a Cobia or two nearly every trip.
I catch an occasional Cobia while trolling.
Trippletail is another
fish that perhaps 90% of the fishermen on this coast have never
caught. They are very common and easy to catch but most folks have
never even seen one, much less caught one. They will bite almost
anything you cast to them but the easiest way to catch them is with a
small jig with a strip of fresh bait. When you see one, simply cast
past them and reel slowly by.
If one starts to follow, stop reeling and let your lure sink on a
tight line. When you feel him bite, set the hook. Prepare to be
amazed! These lethargic looking fish explode when they feel the
hook. They will definitely scream some line off against the drag.
Some of them jump several times then turn on their side and circle
like a Jack Crevalle. They never come to the boat easily.
Trippletails are had to clean because of
heavy scales, tough skin, and sharp fins. When you get one on your
plate, you will definitely decide that they are worth the effort you
spent cleaning them. Trippletails are one of our very finest table
Lots of folks don’t know that
Barracuda are common
around here. They are fairly plentiful here but seldom caught because
most fishermen avoid them or just plain don’t know how to catch them.
A large lively Blue Runner, 2-3# Ladyfish or Spanish Mackerel rigged
on multiple hook rig ( rig #6) trolled or freelined around! schools
of Mackerel, Jacks, Ladyfish, and Blue Runners will be taken often by
big ‘Cudas. A long “tube lure” made out of 18” or so of surgical
tubing trolled fast works too.
I didn’t know where to put
Sharks. I will group
them as “near shore pelagics” because most Sharks wander rather than
staking claim to a particular area. I catch Sharks from time to time
while fishing for every other species that I have listed here but I am
going to describe three of my favorite methods of catching them.
Basic bottom fishing works fine for most
Sharks. I always add at least 3’ of wire to avoid bite offs. Again,
I use CIRCLE HOOKS because I release most sharks. If I
am running a strictly a “Shark fishing trip” I fish for big Sharks and
use 50# test on 6/0 reels, and 80# test on the 9/0. I use 8’ of 200#
mono plus 4’ of #12 wire on the 6/0 and 10’ of 200# mono # 6’ of #18
wire on the 9/0. I use enough sinker to hold the bait on the bottom
on on! e rig, another has a small sinker to hold the bait at mid
depth, and the third has a balloon float and small sinker and is
baited with a live bait. I seldom use huge baits for Sharks. I try
to use a bait that is too big for Catfish but it doesn’t have to be
huge. Fillets of Bonita and Jack Crevalle are my favorite Shark
baits. A 2-3# Jack Crevalle or large Blue Runner are top live baits.
Most of the large Sharks we catch are
Bull Sharks, Tiger Sharks, Great Hammerheads, and Black Tips. My
favorite of the small Shark are the Atlantic Sharpnose Shark and small
Black Tips. On light tackle, they are a hoot. and will take plugs,
jigs, and flies.
If you decide to boat a Shark, you are on
your own. I never boat a live Shark. I remove the head before
bringing a Shark aboard.