By Steve Kantner
The great rod relaxes while the sash weight makes its dizzying descent. Four hundred feet to go, and no guarantees of hitting paydirt. Eventually, the line slackens and moments later, begins telegraphing a series of staccato taps. That’s when I hold down the button while the rod lurches toward the yawning abyss.
When the strain lessens, I concentrate on level-winding. The big Lindgren-Pittman continues to gain line steadily, but above the whine of meshing gears, I hear shouts coming from the bridge.
“Good fish; no, it’s two. Wait, it’s three.”
Far below in the cobalt current, a trio of shapes is beginning to slowly materialize. As the fish spiral closer to the surface, I’m transfixed by their disembodied gaze.
All three groupers display the enucleated eyes and bloated air bladders that testify to their horrific ascent. They’re snowy groupers, a species that inhabits water depths ranging from 380 to 800 feet. As I drag one, then the others across the covering boards, I notice the thick slime and exploded scales. In so doing, I can’t help wondering what it’s like to live under such crushing pressure.
The scene is definitely macabre, even for life-long fishermen like the four of us. On the other hand, this is one of those cases in which the memory of the catch is eclipsed by the fine quality of the fillets. Snowy groupers are terrific eating, one of the best.
Fort Lauderdale’s Capt. Paul Roydhouse has been deep-dropping for over 20 years. Widely recognized for his deepwater expertise, Paul provided the setting for much of this article. He’s witnessed the growing interest in deep-dropping, yet sees overfishing as a major threat to offshore stocks. Like he says:
“There’s maybe 40 locations between Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton that hold fish at one time or another. The trick is to check out each one and not be greedy.”
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council recently implemented tight new regulations for several deepwater species, in response to the increase in pressure. That string of three snowy groupers I caught with Roydhouse a few years back? Today, that catch would constitute a three-angler limit…if we could even manage to catch it.
Fishery managers justify the extreme restrictions by pointing to declining catches and an overall lack of information about the biology and population structure of many of these fish.
“We’re witnessing the effects of overfishing, but there’s so little catch data that we can’t make accurate stock assessments,” said Chris Koenig, a research biologist at Florida State University.
A byproduct of this uncertainty was a renewed interest in controversial no-fishing zones. The Charleston, South Carolina-based South Atlantic Council is finalizing plans for a group of deepwater closed areas along the Eastern Seaboard, under the premise of protecting habitat and spawning areas. Three of those closures will be off Florida shores, within range of Marathon, Jupiter and Jacksonville. Trolling for pelagic fish will be permitted, but anglers bristle at the idea of being locked out of good bottom—especially where data reveals that market fishing, and not single-person bag limits, has been responsible for most of the catches. Between 1999 and 2003, recreational landings of snowy grouper, for instance, accounted for a mere 4 percent of the total catch of that species. During roughly that same period, scientists documented a decline in the mean average length of snowy grouper reported—a sign of trouble. The Council will be meeting this month, June 11-15, in Key West, likely giving final approval to the closed areas.
Snowies and other deepwater groupers are willing strikers, a fact that no doubt contributes to their vulnerability. These fish are so egalitarian in their choice of baits (whole squid, strips of barracuda, just about anything) that their only real defense lies in their inaccessibility. For anglers, it’s a matter of having the right gear and coordinates, and I suppose, being able to hit a postage stamp in the far corner of left field. There’s also the considerable expense associated with the purchase of a rod and electric reel combo capable of repeatedly lifting heavy sinkers, and fish, from extreme depths. Some intrepid anglers, such as the well-known Delph family in Key West, have demonstrated results fishing manual tackle and ultra-thin braided line as light as 8-pound-test.
Either way, you’ll need a top-of-the-line depth recorder capable of reading fish sitting directly on the bottom, as well as a list of viable ranges or coordinates known to produce fish. The former may cost a lot of money; the latter, however, is literally priceless. So much so that Paul refuses to make a drop if he sees another boat nearby, out of fear of being “ranged.” Like he says: “Maintaining this level of secrecy might seem like overkill. But believe me, it isn’t.”
Roydhouse currently owns three charterboats and manages two others, so he gets plenty of angler input. Without divulging any actual strategies, he allowed how “everything in deep water is cyclical. For example, some nice vermilion snappers showed up here several years ago and then just disappeared.”
According to Paul, a similar phenomenon occurs with other deepwater species like tilefish and red porgies. These and the several deepwater groupers and snappers make up the list of typical quarries. But don’t forget that there’s much more to deep-dropping than the typical. Like he says:
“I’ve caught some pretty weird stuff. We catch snowies and tilefish between 300 and 800 feet, but I once caught a wreckfish in 1,500 [resembles a grouper flattened laterally; fully protected from harvest]. I’ve even had cobia and blackfin tuna grab live baits fished on the bottom. Last year, my son landed two mako sharks in that many days while deep-dropping. Once, I even caught a misty grouper [a Bahamian species found in 500 to 1,000 feet].”
Locally encountered species also include the yellow-edge grouper and speckled hind, which leads me to another anecdote. This one features the largest deepwater grouper of them all. I’m referring to the warsaw, which attains weights in excess of 300 pounds.
Cutting to the chase, while Paul lines up on a favorite wreck, mate Kenny slaps a slab of bonito on one of my hooks while I pin an entire bonito carcass to the other. I drop the rig a full 250 feet and wait.
It doesn’t take long. I can feel the sash weight bouncing along the hull of the sunken freighter when the tip suddenly lurches downward. It’s different than before, insofar as this fish immediately begins taking line.
I’ll admit that standing alongside an electric reel attached to a heavy, bent-butt rod that’s pinned in a rodholder doesn’t sound so overwhelming. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
In this case, the spool slips helplessly in a series of angry bursts while I attempt to pull handfuls of 100-pound Spiderwire from the first roller toward the reel. The struggle becomes a stand-off and remains that way for five minutes, while Paul motors away from the wreck. Eventually, the fish weakens and ultimately succumbs to the power of reduction gearing. Yanked from its pressure zone by inexorable force, the warsaw finally pops up bloated on top.
It’s a sight I won’t soon forget. I might mention that I personally cleaned that fish, which weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 pounds. Next time, I’ll elect to field-dress a Rottweiler.
Despite the typical, electric scenario, sporting opportunites do exist. Marty Arostegui showed me a picture of a 57-pound warsaw his son Martini hand-cranked from 250 feet. Such stellar accomplishments are a rarity. Besides, Florida law currently limits the catch to one warsaw per boat. All sales of this species are strictly forbidden and since it’s difficult to successfully release a warsaw, when you’ve got one in the box is a good time to quit.
Speaking of fish boxes, one of our snowies coughed up a several-inch-square of screening. The only plausible explanation appeared in the partially crushed remains of an orange crab that still clung to the mesh. Ostensibly, the piece of screen came from somewhere around the sunken wreck.
It comes as no surprise that deep-dropping requires special rigging. Since there’s no setting the hook in the traditional sense, circle hooks are a must. Otherwise, a typical rig consists of 10 feet of 300-pound mono with two to four of the large circle hooks suspended on droppers. One end of the rig is attached to the sinker and the other, to a snap swivel that’s affixed to a non-stretch main line made from either gelspun polyethylene or metallic material. Both Monel and stainless steel are popular line choices. As sinkers go, cylindrical types are most often used.
Andy Novak is another Fort Lauderdale fisherman who earned an honorary degree in the science of deep-dropping. When I asked him for a few recollections, his commentary proved both glib and informative.
“I remember catching a Kitty Mitchell [speckled hind] ‘out front.’ Before the new limits, we were getting approximately one yellow-edge grouper for every 20 or 30 snowies. They average a little larger, maybe 15 to 35 pounds. I’ve even heard reports of red groupers coming from as much as 500 feet.
“Regardless of species, the time of year and current have to be right. We believe it’s seasonal, with fall being peak time. Incidentally, we’re sure snowies migrate because we never catch one that contains spawn.”
Novak, who runs LMR Custom Rods & Tackle in Fort Lauderdale, said much of the recent interest in deep-dropping had come from anglers making regular trips to The Bahamas. “It’s just about fished out off Broward,” he said. “Too many people taking fish for the market.”
Novak said he is “cautiously pessimistic” about how sales of deep-drop equipment will shake out in view of the recent 20-pound-per boat aggregate grouper and snapper limit implemented by Bahamas officials—a figure far more restrictive than anything in U.S. waters.
As to local fisheries, said Novak, “Try any of the published wrecks,” he said. “Also, learn to leave your depth recorder on while trolling for dolphin or wahoo. The way the pros learn the location of wrecks is by reading actual charts, or by taking ranges whenever a boat goes down. It’s a nice way to put a few fillets in the box.”
A good nautical chart will list the locations of major wrecks and sunken obstructions off the Broward County coastline. In addition, the Broward County Artificial Reef Program happily furnishes the whereabouts of all its manmade reefs. Chances are, you’ll be searching in blue water, but keep in mind that even with a GPS, it’s sometimes necessary to make several passes in order to locate a wreck and afterwards, to line it up in the current in order to hit it on the drop.
That being said, with the permission of Fort Lauderdale captains Paul Roydhouse and Andy Novak, I give you the following:
The Buddy Merritt: 414 feet
Pappa’s Reef: 270 feet
The Bill Boyd: 265 feet
The FLA Reef: 388 feet
For the record, my warsaw came from one of these wrecks.
What Anglers Are Paying for Gear
Anyone interested in deep-dropping should be prepared for the inevitable ”sticker-shock.” That’s keeping in mind that the heavy rod and electric reel combos used can cost upwards of $2,000. Jame Bollender at LMR Custom Rods &Tackle in Fort Lauderdale was happy to give me the rundown:
“When it comes to rods, you’ll need at least an 80-pound trolling blank with a heavy reel seat and curved aluminum butt. We’ll custom-build you one, complete with swivel tip, for around $750.”
Electric reels are another story. Several manufacturers make units suitable for lighter work. However, deep-dropping represents the hardcore heart of utility.
According to Bollender: “We recommend Lindgren-Pittman. Our most popular unit incorporates an ordinary 12/0 Penn Senator. Somebody told me the motors come from old B-52 bombers, where they were used to open bomb bays, or maybe it was lower the landing gear.”
When I asked how much torque they pull, the answer came as no surprise.
“It’ll rip the cork right out of the bottom.”
How much does one cost?
“$1,250, complete with the Senator 12/0.”
What about power sources?
“They’ll run on either 24 or 32 volts (small boaters take note). Incidentally, we sell a converter with high and low-speed switches for $325. When you fished with Paul who has 110 on board, he stepped it down to 32.”
The actual deep-drop rig consists of several large circle hooks affixed to 12-inch dropper loops, with a heavy weight attached at the bottom. Most experts start out with 10 feet of 300-pound mono. Sinker-wise, the pound-for-every-hundred rule sums up most typical requirements. Bait can be anything from whole squid to strips of fish; here’s what Jame said when I asked him about the appropriate line:
“Most guys use 100-pound Monel or stainless, or one of the new non-stretch braids.”
Finally, I asked for any other tips.
“Be careful to avoid backlashes. That means keeping your hand on the spool at all times, especially when the sinker’s nearing bottom. And don’t get your hand caught while retrieving.”