Now that the FWC has closed snook, redfish and trout until next May, a lot of anglers are wondering how they’re going to catch supper. While there are still many very edible inshore fish (some of which might surprise you — see Chef Tim Spain’s column on page 17), there’s been a lot more buzz about going offshore to bring home fillets. In that vein, I though it would be a good time to offer some tips for those who plan to spend a little more time fishing in the open Gulf.
Modernize your tackle
If you’re still fishing with Penn Senators on heavy glass rods, you might want to check out some technology that has been developed in the last 50 years. Yes, your old-school gear will still do the job — but a lightweight jigging rod and a two-speed lever drag reel will be far easier on the back and shoulders.
As a bonus, improved rod sensitivity will make detecting bites easier, and the faster reels will allow you to crank in smaller fish with more speed, helping keep them away from hungry grouper and sharks (but you’ll never outrun a barracuda). Check with your favorite tackle shop.
Reefs within 30 miles of land get fished a lot, and so the residents there are well-educated. To fool them, you need to be less obvious. While 80-pound mono leader is great for fending off hard bottom or the steel of a wreck, it’s also very visible. Even 100 feet down, grouper and snapper have no problem seeing your line. Try 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon. You’ll get broken off more, but not as much as you think — and the number of fish you hook will probably double.
Chum is your pal
There’s no better way to get fish to eat baited hooks than to make their bellies rumble. You know that feeling you get when you drive past a steakhouse with the windows open? The smell of cooking meat will make even a vegan’s mouth water. That’s exactly what chum does to fish. It makes them hungry, and when they’re hungry they’re more likely to make bad choices (like you pulling into a drive-thru even though you know better).
Pay attention to three things here: First, you don’t want to feed them, you want to tease them. Chum needs to be ground or chopped small so they can’t fill up. Second, it needs to reach the fish. Chum balling is a great way to ensure this. Third, you need to stay where the chum is. Don’t chum the bottom if you’re not anchored.
Carry a gaff
Quick question: If you happen to hook into a 40-pound gag or an 80-pound cobia, how are you going to bring it on the boat? Net? Lip grab? Have fun with that. A gaff is a far more effective tool. Now, you need to know when to not use it also. A gaffed fish is a dead fish, so be absolutely sure that fish is going in the box before you stick it.
Here’s a scenario: You’re headed out to an artificial reef you’ve never fished before. As you approach, you see three boats anchored within spitting distance of one another. Which of the following should you do? A. Anchor up right next to them. B. Leave and find someplace less crowded. C. Wait for one to leave and take his spot. D. Explore the nearby area.
If you answered D, pat yourself on the back. If you didn’t here’s why you should have. The material for artificial reefs is rarely dumped in one pile. The standard procedure is to scatter it around some. Even if it wasn’t, Gulf storms frequently scatter it anyway. In other words, there’s more fish-holding structure nearby. There’s no reason to be so close you’re in danger of getting someone else’s rod up your nostril.
While frozen squid and sardines are offshore basics, the fish out on the reefs also eat a lot of shrimp. Live shrimp are just as popular with red grouper as they are with redfish. Don’t forget that.
Head out early
For the purposes of offshore fishing, we’re going to redefine early. Long rides to and between fishing spots are the norm in this game, and with so much ground to cover, you need to give up some of your beauty rest. I prefer to start fishing with the spot farthest from home (that way the rest of the trip is all back toward port), and I want to be on that spot at first light.
Why does it matter? First, most anglers are lazy, and there’s less competition early. Second (and more important), our rainy season seems to have gotten an early start. As the day warms up, thunderstorms are more likely. I want to be safely back at the dock when they’re cracking overhead, not 10 miles out wondering how I’m going to drive through them.
The Gulf of Mexico is not a safe place, and you shouldn’t act like it is. Check the weather often, and keep one eye on the sky at all times. If a storm pops up or the wind starts huffing harder, don’t wait — go before it becomes an issue. Carry safety gear (offshore PFDs, a VHF radio and a handheld, a registered EPIRB) and have a plan in case of an emergency. Let someone responsible know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. This stuff matters, because it’s not a successful trip if you die out there.
Of course, these tips just scratch the surface of what an offshore fisherman ought to know. If you’d like to talk more about the subject, I’d be happy to.
As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.