Reefs & Wrecks: Spring's Top Saltwater Action
September 24, 2010
Winter's reef and wreck dwellers are joined by a number of migratory
game fish in the spring. Savvy anglers will be there to greet them.
Cobia can be found over and around reefs and wrecks at any level of the water column. Anglers with stout gear can catch them on spoons, bucktails, or live and cut bait. Photo by Charlie Coates
by Charlie Coates
For hundreds of years, saltwater anglers have taken advantage of the fish-attracting qualities of reefs and wrecks along the Atlantic Coast. Such structure provides an environment suitable for a wide variety of marine life that seeks food and shelter on an otherwise barren ocean bottom of sand and mud. Organisms on the bottom of the food chain, such as barnacles, mussels and tubeworms, establish themselves on the structure. They in turn attract a diversity of crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans. Small fish then congregate in the area to take advantage of the easy meals and protection from predators that the structure provides. Undismayed, game fish follow these forage fish, hoping to ambush them.
As natural reefs and accidental shipwrecks have declined along the coast over the past few decades, man has replaced them with artificial reefs and intentionally scuttled ships, as well as enhancements to existing structures. Early efforts at establishing fish habitat consisted of sinking crude materials such as old tires, cars and surplus military equipment. In recent years, these materials have largely been replaced by more sophisticated and longer lasting configurations, usually constructed of steel or concrete.
While reefs and wrecks generally yield the greatest variety of fishing opportunities in the summer, anglers can find some outstanding action - and less competition - for a number of species in the spring. Many of the Atlantic Coast's pelagic game fish will stage on or around offshore or nearshore structure, feasting on the plentiful food supply while waiting for more suitable water temperatures before moving inshore. These fish are invariably hungrier and easier to catch when they first arrive on the structure than they will be later in the season.
BAITS AND GEAR Although it's not practical to carry all the baits and rigs necessary to target each of the myriad species available on artificial reefs and wrecks in the spring, it's certainly advisable to be prepared to catch more than one of the most common game fish found in these structures. You can start paring down by leaving all light-tackle gear at home. Even black sea bass - the smallest of the species you're likely to encounter - will require at least medium-weight rods and reels to handle the 5 to 8 ounces of weight needed to reach and hold bottom and to horse the fish away from structure.
For larger fish, you'll want to move up to a medium-heavy rig. Either spinning or baitcasting rods and reels can be used, but many anglers prefer baitcasting outfits for the superior control and feel of line as it's dropping to the bottom.
An assortment of hooks from 2/0 to 8/0 and 15- to 20-pound-test line should handle most of the fish you're likely to encounter. Braided line provides extra sensitivity for bottom-fishing, making it easier to detect strikes in deep and turbulent water. The no-stretch line allows for the quicker hook sets required to drag a fish away from structure. A heavier monofilament or fluorocarbon leader will resist abrasion and make it easier to change baits.
Universal baits such as squid strips or cut menhaden should be carried along in addition to the favored bait of the species you're targeting. While live and cut bait fished on a standard 2-hook bottom rig are reliable choices for all bottom-dwelling species, the bigger fish in a school are often taken on artificials. Some of the largest black sea bass, for instance, are caught on jigging spoons. Spoons and bucktails are also handy for casting to larger game fish seen cruising around the structure, such as cobia and barracuda.
Spoons and bucktails come in a variety of shapes, with different actions for various uses. For bottom-fishing in the deep water and strong currents normally associated with reef and wreck fishing, you want to get your bait down quickly. That makes a more-streamlined bait a good choice. For fish suspending higher in the water column, a slower-dropping lure such as a curved spoon may be more effective.
In addition to appropriate bait and tackle, reef and wreck anglers need the proper equipment to find, mark and hold on structure. A good depthfinder is essential not only for finding the main structure and spotting fish that are on it but also for finding dropoffs nearby that often hold larger and less pressured fish. A wreck anchor with prongs that collapse when the anchor rope is pulled and several buoys set for marking different depths are also important aids.
METHODS FOR STRUCTURE There are a number of ways to work a reef or wreck, and the best method will depend on the species you're targeting, as well as what other anglers are doing around you. For bottom-hugging fish, it's often best to anchor right over the structure and drop your bait straight down. On a moving tide, it may be necessary to cast upcurrent so that your bait drifts to the bottom directly below the boat. Bottom-chumming with a weighted bag can often draw fish away from the structure and toward your hook.
Drifting the edges of the reef or wreck can be an effective way to cover more territory, but if you attempt to drift right over the structure, be prepared to lose some terminal tackle. Trolling over and around the structure is another option that can be particularly productive on species such as king mackerel that swim higher in the water column. Casting lures or bait to visible fish is another effective method, and live-lining baitfish downcurrent from the structure can bring all kinds of surprises.
AVAILABLE SPECIES Just about any fish that swims in the ocean can be found on a reef or wreck, at one time or another, and not knowing what will strike your bait or lure next is a large part of the fun. Still, there are a handful of species that can be counted on to call these structures home in the spring.
The most reliable and accommodating of these species is the black sea bass, which can be found on reefs and wrecks throughout the year. Smaller members of the clan will move inshore for the summer, but most of the larger specimens will remain offshore. Sea bass are not particular about what they eat and are caught on a number of baits, including squid, shrimp, crab and cut fish. Some of the larger fish are taken by jigging artificial lures. Sea bass are found low in the water column and close to or inside the structure. Most will range from 1 to 3 pounds, but some reach into double digits.
Sheepshead will be close to the structure, often dinin
g on encrusted barnacles. They will be low in the water column but may be suspended off the bottom. Best baits are fiddler crabs, clams and mole crabs (sand fleas). Size will usually run from 3 to 8 pounds, but some will go over 15 pounds. A 2-hook bottom rig on 15- to 20-pound-test line will work fine for both sea bass and sheepshead.
Cobia will cruise over and around reefs and wrecks, often a good distance off the structure. They may be found anywhere in the water column, so it's best to cover all depths. Visible fish can sometimes be taken by casting spoons or bucktails, but drifting or chumming with cut and live bait is a more reliable method. A live eel or baitfish drifted with chum can be deadly. Cobia are powerful, hard-running fish that can reach 100 pounds, requiring heavier gear. Line should be at least 20-pound-test, with 5/0 to 7/0 hooks.
Spadefish can be found, often in large schools, swimming around reefs and wrecks from the middle of spring through summer. Your best chance for larger 7- to 10-pound fish is when they first arrive on the structure. They are usually taken on small pieces of fresh clams or jellyfish on a No. 1 or 1/0 hook with little or no weight. A bobber can be used to keep the bait in the strike zone, often just 6 to 8 feet below the surface. If the spadefish are deeper or the current is strong, you may need a 3/8-ounce egg sinker. These fish are surprisingly strong for their size and require fairly stout tackle to stop their inevitable runs toward the structure.
As the season progresses, a multitude of game fish species will join the early arrivals at reefs and wrecks, including Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, barracuda and sharks. Still, some of the best action for quality fish will be found early in the season.
Reef and wreck locations are available from state marine fisheries agencies and are usually marked by buoys. Some are a short distance from shore, while others will require a longer boat ride. If you'd rather not wait for the fish to come to you this spring, you might want to consider going to them. They'll be waiting at the reefs and wrecks.
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