“Dude, you have some terrible luck. I’m actually a little scared to get in a boat with you.” This is the text I received from Captain Steve Papen after yet another cancelled trip due to unfavorable conditions. We had been planning a trip to run deep into the Gulf, but apparently it was my fault Mother Nature didn’t get the memo. After a half dozen failed attempts to get out, we finally found the weather window we were hoping for, on my birthday of all days. Fishing aboard a new triple Mercury-powered 37 ft. Whaler Outrage, it was bound to be an awesome day.
Due to the gently sloping bathymetry of the Gulf of Mexico, anglers hailing from ports along Florida’s west coast must deal with lengthy runs to reach deep water, and by deep water we’re not talking skyscraper deep. While the Gulf has numerous inshore and near shore fisheries that keep anglers connected close to the coast, crews willing to burn fuel and head way over the horizon find diverse action with a host of relatively unpressured, highly prized bottom dwellers.
While the Gulf is known for its gradual slope and relatively featureless bottom, this far from shore things really start to heat up and even the slightest change in bottom contour can hold quality fish.
Although respectable grouper and snapper can certainly be caught as close as 8- to 15-miles off the beach, cross the 40 mile mark and fisheries really boom thanks to reef gear requirements, increased limits and seasonal closures, and decreasing commercial pressure from the outlaw of fish traps and strict longline regulations. Traversing 40- to 60-miles of open water to stack the fish-catching odds in your favor may seem like a long way to run and still be under 200-feet of water, but the tradeoff for the long haul is an abundance of cooperative fish that are willing to play. While the Gulf is known for its gradual slope and relatively featureless bottom, this far from shore things really start to heat up and even the slightest change in bottom contour can hold quality fish.
Equally as exciting is that you never know what’s in store, so it pays big dividends to be fully prepared for anything and everything. We were rigged with a full array of Shimano outfits, ready to tackle whatever crossed our path. Terez rods matched with Talica lever drag reels packed with 65 lb. PowerPro would handle any grouper that would make the mistake of attacking our bottom baits. We also had Stradic 8000 spinning reels loaded with 50 lb. braid to catch whatever else might be lurking below. One was rigged with a stinger for live lining a blue runner for kingfish or wahoo, another with a bucktail to cast to inquisitive cobia or drop down for chunky grouper, another with a circle hook for a pitch bait in case a sailfish or dolphin swam by and last but not least, a jigging outfit rigged and ready to work through the depths. To say we were prepped for serious battle was an understatement.
Like with any successful Gulf Coast offshore adventure, we started the day loading up on live bait. Fortunately, Captain Steve Papen (fintasticinc.com) who has been guiding along the Gulf Coast since 1998 had a bait pen full of runners and a number of strategically placed pinfish traps. After we loaded up and cleared John’s Pass, Papen pushed the throttles down and off we went with 10 dozen baits ready to meet their demise.
Fortunately, the weather was in our favor and the 50-plus mile run was a breeze. Our first stop was in 160-feet where we dropped down the largest pinfish we could find on 10/0 circle-hooks with 6 oz. egg sinkers. Not long after deploying the grouper candy, we were tight to a pair of solid reds. After that the reef erupted in a whirlwind of activity. The method was relatively simple, drop your bait to the bottom, reel up any slack, lock the drag and wait for your pinfish to start twerking. After the initial thump let the circle-hook work its magic and simply start cranking. We mixed it up and also fished cut mackerel, vertical jigs and big bucktails, and all produced impressive results. We continued to fish several other spots in the same area, catching more red grouper and a few hefty red snapper, which were sadly released.
When bottom fishing in the Gulf, productive GPS coordinates and an excellent sounder are everything. Without solid structure to fish over and the ability to discern the bottom you might as well stay home. Captain Steve has a library of numbers in his black book and he calls his approach to reef fishing, “Small ball fishing.” Contrary to what many weekend warriors do, Papen searches for tiny variations in the bottom, not the big stuff that is easy to find. This seasoned skipper prefers ledges where the bottom transitions from hard to soft intermingled with small depressions, boulders or potholes. Once in a productive area, it’s not unusual to find other productive spots nearby, you just have to pay attention to your sounder and be patient.
Precision anchoring is another skill that takes time to master and is an absolute prerequisite to successful bottom fishing in the Gulf. Once you get to your spot or find that new ledge, you have to be able to put yourself in position for your baits to hit the strike zone, keeping in mind that wind, current and depth all play a significant role in how the boat rests on anchor. Missing the mark by even a few yards can make the difference between filling the freezer and heading home fishless. To save time and effort when relocating from spot to spot, Papen runs up on the anchor to pop it free. He then ties the anchor line to a stern cleat and drags the hook to the next drop. If you aren’t comfortable with this maneuver, at the very least you better have an anchor ball onboard!
With a limit of four grouper per person we weren’t quite ready to stuff the box, so we decided to make a move and look for a few scamps, which in my opinion is the tastiest grouper of all. We jockeyed into the 140-foot mark and before the Whaler came to a complete stop, I dropped down a jig and nailed a fat grouper. Sadly, it was the wrong species. With gags still off limits, this quality fish, too, had to be released. Vertical jigging is one of my favorite tactics so I quickly gave up on the live bait in lieu of the slender artificial. I had to cull through a few more gags before I finally got the bite I was looking for with a quality scamp soon on ice.
While we had caught our limit and tired out our arms, Captain Steve had one more trick up his sleeve. We came in a bit more to 120-feet of water where he promised me an exciting experience. After positioning over a specific piece of structure and tossing in a handful of live baits, the boat was literally surrounded by aggressive amberjack pushing 50 pounds! Captain Steve referred to the school of AJs as his “pets.”
I was beat, but I agreed to tangle with one before trading my rod for my camera. However one turned into five and soon I was really feeling the pain. Once we had our fix we tied on hookless topwater plugs and watched the aggressive fish cartwheel out of control as they competed for the plastic fakes. This was an amazing experience I will never forget!
With a cooler full of tasty fish, Captain Steve put the hammer down and headed back east around mid afternoon. While I had a blast and couldn’t have reeled on another fish, Papen said it was only an average day because we never found that bonus wahoo, tuna, cobia or smoker king. Truthfully, I couldn’t believe how many fish were out in the Gulf and how they gravitated to such miniscule pieces of structure. The Gulf is seriously holding, so get out there and don’t be afraid to go the distance. I promise you the extra time and fuel will be well worth it at the fillet table.
Trends come and go, but vertical jigging is not one of them. This proven technique continues to be an outstanding tactic for fooling a wide variety of bottom fish and mid water predators. There’s just nothing like the intense strike of an aggressive game fish slamming your jig! A high-speed reel, spinning or conventional, loaded with 40 or 50 lb. braid is ideal, with a 60 or 80 lb. test fluorocarbon top-shot adding stealth and abrasion resistance. Equally as important, the elastic top-shot acts as a shock absorber to help prevent pulled hooks. For maximum effectiveness, deploy the jig to the desired depth and retrieve through the water column with a rhythmic darting action while constantly turning the reel handle.