On Florida blue water a spinning rod can be your deadliest weapon.
Thanks to El Niño, we’d been having a lot of rainy, choppy days, with winds all over the compass. One of those days, we picked our way through a downpour to join the Stuart fleet on a break in 200 feet. The VHF told the tale: slow fishing. Well, slow, unless you include sharpnose sharks that had been thick as Biblical locusts.
We pulled our live baits away from the sharks and dropped three plastic chuggers in the wake. We figured if we trolled with the 12-knot east wind, we’d at least enjoy a shadow of “dry” under our T-top. And moving quick, we’d avoid those nuisance sharks.
After 20 minutes of trolling, we were ready to call it quits. I was slowing the boat when Matt Sexton shouted “Sailfish!” Sure enough, through the gunmetal gray and spindrift, my fishing buddy saw the characteristic black form. The fish charged a green dolphin lure, batting it with its bill. The 7/0 forged hook didn’t find home—but in seconds I had a spinning rod and a 6-inch finger mullet dangling from a 5/0 light-wire bait hook. I flipped open the bail, pitched the bait into our wake and Whammo! Ten minutes later, Matt’s cousin, Melanie, had her first sailfish release.
Whether you are trolling or drifting, I think it’s imperative to have at least one spinning outfit rigged up and—very important—not actively fishing. That goes for winter sailfishing as well as summer dolphin fishing. It’s a rule on my own boats, and when I jump on someone else’s rig, the item at the top of my own must-have list is not another backup trolling rod, or another bag of lures or ballyhoo. It’s that plain old 7-foot spinning rod, with a lot of fresh line and a well-maintained drag.
Many of the best opportunities on the blue develop between the lines, so to speak. Recognizing what’s occurring, and making a rapid, accurate reaction, is the key. I find a lot of Florida anglers—especially those brought up on a steady diet of one technique or another—don’t prepare for these situations. Why a spinning rod? Easy—it’s still the best system for quickly putting a small bait into action, close to the boat, or farther away.
The ideal spinning outfit for spot-casting to sailfish and large dolphin would be 7 feet, rated for 12- to 30-pound-test line. You want a flexible tip, one that begins to load under less than a half-ounce of weight. Think casting a nose-hooked pilchard or other small bait 20 to 50 feet, without throwing the bait off the hook. Monofilament fishing line in 16- or 20-pound-test is ideal. Monofilament, because of the numerous, unexpected leaps that warrant some stretch in the line, and 16- or 20-pound, because that is both plenty adequate to subdue an Atlantic sailfish or dolphin and at the same time light enough to facilitate long, smooth casts. Capacity is vital: at least 300 yards. Pre-trip, a fresh touch of light grease on drag washers never hurts. Also check rod guides for chipping or cracking.
For drift fishing and trolling outfits, a 40- to 80-pound-test monofilament leader of 10 to 15 feet is desirable, but for spot-casting, you can go shorter. Still, you’ll want to use a good line-to-leader knot, instead of a swivel, to enable casting. The main thing is to have a monofilament leader at least as long as the fish—which in the case of a typical sailfish, is about 6 feet. Another approach is to use an intermediate leader section, of, say, 40-pound-test, and then finish it with a foot of 80-pound. The last few feet on a sailfish leader are subject to tremendous abrasion.
This is a rod you will want to have handy while potluck trolling, or wreck fishing, or really any technique that frees up hands on deck. Sails and big dolphin both have a way of appearing out of nowhere—sometimes right in a spread of flatline or kite baits. They are curious fish, and I’ve seen them swim right past good-looking kite baits to inspect the boat. Among trollers, sailfish—marlin, too—are notorious for shadowing baits, hanging right there in the wake, keeping pace while eyeballing a possible source of protein.
If you’re dolphin trolling, and a sailfish runs into the spread but fails to connect, slip a livie into the wake and watch what happens. Freespool until the line begins zinging off, count to four, then close the bail and wind up to set the hook. Similarly, if you get that schoolie dolphin to the boat, and a huge bull suddenly appears, you’ll need a spare rod ready to flip a bait his way.
These are fish that often need a change of pace, or some new bait, and that’s where your spinning rod comes into play. Rather than standing there shouting at the fish to eat one of your baits, put a fresh one right in the strike zone and make things happen. A plug or soft-plastic bait, for that matter, may seal the deal.
Here is another classic case for a multi-purpose spinning rod. You’re anchored up on a wreck or ledge, with bottom baits down there, maybe a flatline or two up top. Maybe the bite is slow, which means there’s time to probe the water column. What might you be missing in the mid-depths? Try a whole clan of jacks, for starters. Of course there are the infamous “reef donkeys,” those hard-hitting amberjacks, but there are also African pompano, permit, yellow jacks and other varieties. Tunas, as well, are likely to hold over wrecks in 60 to 200 feet of water.
This is a situation, unlike sailfishing, that excuses, if not demands, the use of no-stretch braided line and heavier drag settings. The hope is turning a strong, likely edible, fish away from the line-shredding security of the reef—and doing so without weighing anchor or otherwise disturbing your buddies.
A new generation of spinning reels on the market seems tailor-made for jig fishing. Beefed-up frames and gearing, plus larger, more numerous drag washers, mean you can push the braided lines to the test—or almost to the test.
To burn off a little steam from a busy week at the magazine, Publisher Blair Wickstrom and I put three of these new outfits to the test on Push Button Hill, a seamount off St. Lucie Inlet. The water there rises from 400 feet to 280. We knew there’d be some big amberjacks out there. We had a Daiwa Saltiga 6000, a Quantum Cabo 70, and a Fin-Nor 7500, all on 7-foot, heavy-action rods. We spooled up with 30-pound monofilament backing and 300 yards of 50-pound braid top shot.
We used 6-ounce white bucktails, rigged up with 7/0 trailer hooks and big, fat threadfin herring. I like to attach open-eye trailer hooks to the jig hooks by way of a swivel; you close the eye of the trailer around the swivel, pinch down the barb on the jig somewhat, slide the swivel over, and stand the barb back up with a screwdriver. A baitfish and trailer rig isn’t necessary for true deep-jigging, where you impart lots of sweeping action to the lure, but today we felt like fishing o
ut of the rodholders, reserving our energy for no-holds-barred fish fighting.
Our “plan” (don’t try this at home!) was to hook a fish, and then screw down the drag until something gave—either fish, rod, reel, line or angler. The line, it turned out, would be the last thing to go. Fifty-pound braid simply does not break, if knots are tied correctly—a Bimini twist in the main line, followed by leader connection with a back-to-back uni-knot or half-uni/half blood (what some guys are calling the Slim Beauty). Why anyone would use greater than 50-pound braid for rod-and-reel fishing is beyond me—the stuff is strong enough to winch a cabin cruiser onto a trailer. Snag bottom, cup the spool and rev the engines, and you’ll get your line back every time—minus your leader, lure or perhaps with a straightened hook.
Using this kind of industrial approach, we landed and released one AJ, about 50 pounds. On the other hookups, we pulled hooks, straightened hooks (7/0 forged hooks!), pinched nerves and pretty well wore ourselves out. Two kingfish and an unidentified deepwater shark came to the boat—all three were of substantial size, and all hopelessly overpowered by our crazy gear.
When I related the story to Senior Editor Vic Dunaway, he chuckled. “I see the generation gap widening,” he remarked.
Dunaway’s articles in the early days of Florida Sportsman, and before then, at the Miami Herald, fairly well introduced the concept of spinning tackle offshore—especially for deep-jigging. Dunaway did not have braided gelspun polyethylene line, nor did he have $600 spinning reels, but he did have keen insight into the realities of fish-fighting—that even a muscleman would be hard-pressed to break 15-pound-test, assuming good knots and he isn’t pointing the rod straight at the fish. He also knew that retrieval speed can be a critical asset in getting fish to bite, on jigs as well as plugs.
As one story goes, years ago Vic brought a brace of heavy spinning outfits on a trip to Costa Rica. While Vic disappeared into the restroom at a stopover airport, Karl Wickstrom decided he’d play a joke and hide those precious spinners. Turned out Karl forgot to introduce the punchline until the party was halfway to the final destination. They’d left the rods at the airport, and had to make do for the first day with baitcasting gear—which at the time was something of a handicap, with insufficient retrieve ratio to move plugs quick enough to fire up the roosterfish bite.
I’ve heard the story from both parties involved, a source of ongoing laughter among old friends. Looking at fishing tackle through the lens of time, the lesson seems the same: Heading out on the blue, don’t leave your spinning outfits behind. FS