Bottom-Fishing Day & Night
September 28, 2010
Whether you're fishing by daylight or starlight, August offers saltwater anglers a great range of bottom-fishing options. (August 2008)
While smaller black drum can be caught on fiddler crabs, larger specimens prefer more generous offerings of blue crabs or clams.
Photo by Charlie Coates.
In any poll asking saltwater anglers along the southern Atlantic coast to name their favorite month for fishing, August probably wouldn't fare too well. The weather's hot and humid, some of the more popular game fish are resting up for fall, and the ones that remain in play often tend to be sluggish and uncooperative.
However, for anglers who enjoy probing the depths of the brine for a multitude of sporting and tasty bottom species, late-summer life along the coast can be sweet. From diminutive spot to brawling black drum, no other fishing method provides the variety and quality of bottom-fishing.
It's not unusual to catch a half-dozen or more species in one trip, and one of the thrills of bottom-fishing is not knowing what will be taking your bait next. The standard fare of croaker, spot, flounder, bluefish, sheepshead and trout is available in most coastal inshore waters, and occasional larger visitors keep anglers on their toes.
Bottom-fishing in its simplest form is as easy as fishing gets. Find some fish-holding structure, such as oyster bars, channel edges, bridge pilings or reefs, and you're in business. Productive structure can be found by studying a map or chart of the area for general locations, then using your depthfinder to pinpoint the actual structure. When fish are thick, you'll be able to see them on your depthfinder. Of the most common species targeted by bottom-fishing anglers, spot will generally be found in shallower water than croaker and trout, and flounder will likely hang out along a dropoff. Larger fish will usually inhabit the deepest water.
Small pieces of bloodworm, crab or clam are the most commonly used baits for spot, while bloodworms, crab, shrimp, squid and cut fish will all work on croaker, trout and bluefish. Strips of squid or cut bait in combination with live minnows are effective for flounder. Fiddler crabs are the bait of choice for sheepshead, and will also work on small black drum, both of which can be found around the same hard structure (such as bridges, jetties and piers). Drum will be hugging the bottom, while sheepshead will usually be just a crank of the reel off the bottom. Larger drum prefer more generous offerings, such as blue crabs or clams.
Standard double-hook rigs or fish-finder rigs should be used with just enough weight to hold bottom. No. 2 through 2/0 beak-style hooks will handle most situations, although larger hooks can be used when targeting bigger fish. Smaller No. 4 or 6 hooks will do for spot.
Bottom-fishing can be done either anchored up or drifting, depending on conditions and species sought. Many anglers will start out drifting until they locate a school of fish, and then anchor over the school. When you find a school while drifting, immediately toss out a marker buoy so you can return to the area and either drift it again or drop anchor over it. One advantage to drifting is a constantly moving bait, which is more enticing and noticeable to species such as flounder and trout. Even when at anchor, you should move your bait with a slight jigging action.
Bottom-fishing is most productive on a moving tide, with the best action at the beginning and end of the tide. Catch the right tide around dusk and you should be in for some good fishing.
While live and cut bait are reliable choices for all bottom-dwelling species, the bigger fish in a school are often taken on artificials. Some of the largest croaker and trout, for instance, are caught by jigging. Big trout will go for jigs, spoons, bucktails and various soft plastics, such as grubs and worms. Most productive colors for bucktails and plastics are yellow, chartreuse, green and white. A piece of crabmeat or cut bait on an artificial bait can increase your odds, especially at night when scent is more important. Just be careful not to overdo it. A large chunk of bait can impede the lure's action.
Spoons and jigs come in a variety of shapes, with different actions for various uses. In deep water with strong current, you want to get your bait down quickly, especially if small bluefish are present above your targeted quarry. In that case, a streamlined spoon or jig will get to the bottom faster. In shallower water with less current, the lure should go slower with a fluttering action that imitates a wounded baitfish. A bunker or similar curved spoon would be a good choice in this situation.
Whatever type of jig or spoon you use, weight is important. As with sinkers for bait-fishing, use no more weight than necessary to get your lure where you want it. A lighter jig will give you more time before a fish realizes it's not real. A soft-plastic tail will be held longer, allowing more time to set the hook.
Braided line is a big aid in bottom-fishing. The extra sensitivity helps detect strikes in deep and turbulent water, and the no-stretch line not only makes lighter hooksets possible, but also is a big asset in quickly setting the hook and horsing a fish out of structure. A monofilament leader will make it easier to change baits.
Usually, the most effective method of jigging is to drop the bait to the bottom and hop it with controlled sweeps of the rod. You may want to experiment with different jigging techniques -- twitching, speed-jigging and other variations -- but the most important thing is to keep control of your line on the way down. The vast majority of strikes will occur as the jig is falling. If you have a lot of slack in your line on the drop, you'll never feel the strike -- the fish has spit out the lure before you even know he was ever there.
THE NIGHT SHIFT
Some of the most productive summertime fishing is during the low-light and dark hours, when the largest specimens of several species, including croaker and trout, are on the prowl for food. Combined with cooler temperatures and less crowded waters, this makes night-fishing a popular choice for many anglers.
Proper planning, special equipment and altered strategies are all essential to a successful night trip. Flashlights and headlamps or lights that clip onto your hat brim to free your hands for knot-tying and hook-baiting duties will make fishing in the dark much easier. Lights are also a big help in locating both baitfish for your livewell and the game fish that seek them out.
Well-lit bridges are always good choices for night-fishing. Baitfish will be attracted to the light shining on the water, and predators will lurk on the dar
k side of the light line waiting for dinner. Many anglers who fish regularly at night will invest in halogen or fluorescent lights to create their own light lines.
When fishing with lights, you should be working all levels of the water column rather than just the bottom. Baits fished higher in the water column should be deployed around the light line. And while artificial lures are generally far less effective at night than they are in the daytime, they can be deadly when retrieved along that edge between dark and light. For the most part, though, best nighttime baits are live and cut fish and other odorous offerings, such as shrimp and crab.
A word of warning is in order for those planning to venture out in open waters at night. August coastlines are prone to sudden and sometimes violent thunderstorms that can sneak up on you even in daylight hours, and are even more dangerous in the dark. It's essential to check the NOAA weather forecast before going out, and continue to monitor it while on the water. If inclement weather is predicted, consider confining your night-fishing to waters that are closer to land, such as rivers, bays and inlets.
Nighttime boaters should always carry flares and make sure that their running lights, compasses and communications equipment are operating properly before leaving the dock. A LORAN or GPS is a valuable tool for both safety and locating structure. While anchored or drifting, watch for oncoming boats, especially in and around shipping channels. And whether boating during the day or night, make sure your life jackets are properly fitted.
The safest option for productive fishing during the dark hours is as close as your nearest fishing pier. The southern Atlantic coast is blessed with numerous piers that attract a variety of panfish, along with an increasing number of game fish this time of year. Complete with bait, tackle, refreshments and restrooms, these safe havens are an excellent choice for stress-free nighttime fishing.