Bottom-Fishing Made Easy

These tried-and-true tactics and rigs will help you to increase your catch of hard-fighting (and fine-eating) blackfish and black seabass this season.

The deeper wrecks often produce big black seabass, like these two 5-pounders!
Photo by Gary Caputi

The cursor that represented our boat was nearing the icon on the chart plotter's screen, which also indicated the position of the structure. This would be our first bottom-fishing trip of the spring season and I was feeling a bit rusty; but using the remarkable electronics we have available today is much like riding a bicycle: Once you learn how, it comes back quickly.

Mark and I were hoping to find a mixed bag of blackfish, also called tautog, and black seabass that inhabit this small wreck. This particular wreck lies in about 90 feet of water.

As the boat drew closer, I zoomed the plotter screen to one-eighth mile, steered a course that took the cursor directly over the icon and, sure enough, there it was on the depthfinder. I followed the first pass with five more to refresh my memory about how this particular wreck was situated and to see if the fish were there -- and where they may be holding over the wreck.

I switched the depth sounder to bottom-tracking mode, which expands the screen to show just the lower one-third of the water column for a better look. Meanwhile, Mark got out a pair of marker buoys with sash weights tied on the end of 100 feet of line. These were thrown over the side on my command. These buoys mark opposite ends of the wreck to act as reference points for positioning the boat during the anchoring process.

The key to successful bottom-fishing is location, location and location. If you don't study the structure and anchor the boat accurately, it's possible to end up 20 or 30 feet from a concentration of fish and barely get a bite!

When I was done placing the marker buoys at what appeared to be the bow and stern ends of the vessel below, the next step was to judge the drift of the boat, so I put the engine in neutral and watched carefully on the plotter to see how the wind and current would move it. The breeze was overpowering the current, so I motored downwind of the buoy at one end of the wreck, turned into the wind, idled about 400 feet past it and dropped the anchor. I prefer a slightly oversized Danforth as my main anchor, with a double length of chain, so it locks up quickly and requires less rode to hold bottom.

Once it hit, I pushed the engine into reverse and backed slowly toward the buoy. When the boat was almost at the buoy, I went back to neutral and let it settle the rest of the way against the wind. Mark was getting out the second anchor, this one a grapple-type, resembling a big treble hook with no points or barbs.

This anchor is attached to a short length of chain and 250 feet of 3/8-inch nylon line, which is kept in an old milk crate. I used the engine to swing the boat laterally over the wreck toward the other buoy where Mark dropped the grapple straight down, purposely snagging it in the wreck.

We now had two anchor points to adjust our position over the wreck and to overcome the boat's natural tendency to swing from side to side on a single anchor. Two anchors would also allow us to change the boat's position over the wreck by simply adjusting the lines. We let out some line until I saw a concentration of fish on the sounder and tied it off to the spring line cleat. The boat held its position perfectly.

Double anchoring is time consuming and isn't always necessary, but it is often the difference between limiting out and going home with just a few fish in the box. With the hard work done, we could start fishing, but maybe you'd like to know how we prepared for the day's activities before we ever left the dock.

Double anchoring is time consuming and isn't always necessary, but it is often the difference between limiting out and going home with just a few fish in the box.

Fishing success requires homework and this trip started the day before by checking fishing reports and talking with friends who had been out recently. The information I gathered indicated structure in 80 to 100 feet had been producing and a check of my log helped me come up with a few places worth trying. I selected five locations, three wrecks and two rubble areas, all located on artificial reefs that were an easy run from my home inlet. The waypoints were already in my chart plotter's memory bank. Having a game plan alleviates some of the guesswork and usually results in burning less fuel and catching more fish.

Next came a tackle check, so it was off to the basement to grab a couple of my favorite fishing outfits. Bottom-fishing is more fun and productive if you use rods and reels that are relatively light and sensitive. I prefer 7-foot, medium-action graphite rods rated for 15- to 25-pound test with reels no bigger than wide-spool baitcasters. The reels are loaded with super-braid, which enhances sensitivity and, since it's very thin, requires less weight to hold bottom.

For spring seabass, I use 30-pound camouflage-colored leader material, 1/0 beak-style baitholder hooks and a 75-pound-test barrel swivel to assemble simple high-low rigs with two or three hooks about 12 to 16 inches apart. The hooks are attached to the main line via a dropper loop that sticks out about 4 inches. Tie the loops and then slip each one through a small, plastic bead and then the hook eye. It's a good idea to put the hook point through the loop twice, twisting it between passes, which creates a figure-eight looking attachment that holds the hook out straight from the main line. At the bottom, I tie a double surgeon's loop so a bank sinker can be slipped on and off. Tie the barrel swivel at the top.

Blackfish rigs are a little different, since these fish feed right on the bottom. Use a 50-pound-test leader because blackfish like to run back into the hole they came out of when hooked. Compliment the rig with size 4 or 6 Carlisle hooks, which feature long shanks to defeat a blackfish's formidable dentures. This style hook also has a short gap, which makes it easy to fit any blackfish's small mouth.

For a single hook rig, snell a hook to about 12 inches of leader material and tie a surgeon's loop to the opposite end. Attach the leader to a three-way swivel with a large lock snap for attaching a bank sinker. Your running line is tied to the third post on the three-way. You can add a second hook by snelling it to another 12-inch leader and attaching it to the middle of the first hook leader. I prefer single-hook rigs as double-header catches are rare and the second hook means you

have twice as many chances to get snagged in the structure.

Your bait needs are pretty simple in the spring. Seabass can be caught using small pennant-shaped strips of squid, although it's not a bad idea to bring along some alternative baits like frozen silversides or other small baitfish.

In early spring, blackfish usually prefer soft baits, so bring along a supply of clams and cut the muscle into small strips 2 or 3 inches long. Fresh clams work better than frozen. If they are available, bring along some green or fiddler crabs, two favorite baits later in the season.

Most fishing for these species is done vertically. Just drop your bait to the bottom and wait for the fish to find it. Seabass are the easier of the two species to hook as they usually hit and hold onto the bait long enough for you to set the hook. Blackfish are another story. They are the most accomplished bait stealers in the sea and it takes some practice and a quick reaction time to set the hook before they clean the bait off it with their buck teeth.

Seabass can reach 7 pounds in size, although catching them over 4 pounds in the spring on inshore structure is a rarity. They bounce and tug when hooked, but what they lack in sport they more than make up for on the table. They have wonderful, flaky white fillets that are great fried, steamed, broiled or flaked and mixed with breadcrumbs to make fish cakes.

Blackfish are larger and much stronger and can grow to over 20 pounds, but most of the ones you catch inshore will run from 1 to 7 pounds. When you hook them, they make a mad dash for whatever nasty place they came out of and if you don't turn them, they will cut you off in a heartbeat.

Fish for blackfish with your rod tip down toward the water, not held high, and when you feel a hit, set the hook quickly with a strong lift. Start reeling immediately to get the fish a few feet off the bottom and moving your way. Blackfish are also good eating, but cook up best fried or baked, as the fillets are thicker and moister

It doesn't matter what your favorite fish might be, bottom-fishing is fun, easy and doesn't require much in the way of fancy tackle. At the end of a successful day you'll have some of the best-eating fish you can land from the waters off the Mid-Atlantic coast. Just thinking about it makes me hungry.

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