Few people associate fishing in Florida with the Ice Ages, but the Delphs of Key West routinely fish along ancient shorelines from the Paleolithic Age, when most of our hemisphere was covered in ice, oceans were shallower and continental Florida extended miles farther out. These days, those shores are under hundreds of feet of sea, and from their depths, the Delph family and other adventurous anglers reel up snowy and yellowedge grouper, rosefish, tilefish and other species, all on conventional rod, reel and jigs.
Anglers familiar with jigging for seatrout in 20 feet, or for muttons in 120, may be skeptical about the prospects of working a jig along the bottom in 300 to 1,000 feet. Certainly it takes the right combination of tackle, conditions, spots and presentation to be successful, but the principles are the same as drifting and jigging in that shallower water. Super-deep jigging, or as Ralph Delph calls it, “deep pulling,” takes the same technique, and our equipment and our expectations, to their known limits.
Ralph and his sons Rob and Billy showed me how surprisingly easy it can look on a recent bright day off Key West. We spent a few short, sweet hours drifting over known wrecks and along those deep shorelines, while hooking up constantly and keeping the islands in plain sight. We had a three-quarter waxing moon, 10-knot wind from the east, a current trickling to the east in most locations and good, clear purple water, the kind that’s full of nutrients to get fish feeding.
“Most guys troll out here,” Ralph Delph said, gesturing to the blue water ahead of us. “They’d never even think of jigging. That leaves this water untouched, where all the fish are. It’s a rich fishery, and one that stays consistent through the year, even during the doldrums of summer, because nothing much changes down there.”
“At 600 feet,” he continued, “the water temp is in the low 50s, around 52. We have friends who dive to 300 who tell us that there’s a lot of available light at that depth, but down deeper, there’s probably not much light, but the fish are used to that.”
Essential to jigging deeper than 300 feet is the use of small diameter braided line. This cuts through water and current to allow jigs to hit and hold bottom, even in windy conditions when boats drift quickly. Braid has a higher breaking point than monofilament of equivalent diameter, and you can pack more of it on the spool to reach the depths. More importantly, there’s no stretch compared to monofilament. That means that a 6-inch lift on your rod pulls the jig six inches, even at 500 feet and more, so that you can set the hook accurately when you feel the hit. Monofilament by comparison has about 20 feet of stretch per 100 feet of line when you’re fighting a fish. So, at hundreds of feet, the angler with mono is only taking stretch out of the line for the first crucial seconds of the fight, not even fighting the fish, says Ralph. By that time, you can imagine that the grouper has wrapped you twice around nearby structure, run back to his hole and fallen asleep.
“There’s no way you could fish at these depths with regular mono,” Ralph says. “With the braided line, you’ll feel the bottom at 600 feet and more, no problem.”
The Delphs drift over their chosen grounds; it’s out of the question to anchor in such depths.
At our first spot, 325 feet deep, Ralph checked the depthfinder for activity, and at his word, Billy made the drop.
“You watch the fish on the screen and when he’s at his pinnacle, you drop,” Ralph said, “because that’s as close as you’ll get to him, and he’ll be farthest from his holes.”
Ralph didn’t care much for the activity showing on his screen. He suggested that he’d pull away while Billy reeled to put tension on the brand new line and pack it tightly on the spool. Braided line is so thin that it can slip under itself on the spool and cut if it’s too loosely packed.
After 30 seconds, Billy announced, “I’ve got a fish,” and a minute later, as we kept moving, he hauled aboard a blackfin tuna that had grabbed the jig as it moved up the water column.
At our next spot, a wreck in 375 feet, we were drifting off the wind, the eastbound current a trickle. Rob and Billy both hooked up to snowy groupers on our first pass. Ralph set up the next drift and told us when to drop. We used standard jigging methods, applying thumb pressure to the line, working the lure once or twice as it dropped, waiting for it to hit bottom. That wait lasted more than a minute, then nearly two minutes, and my anticipation cranked up. If it gets a steady pull, Ralph said, kick it into gear and reel tight. Ninety percent of the hits occur on the bottom. I kept waiting. Line kept running out.
“You don’t have to jig up and down so hard to get the attention of these fish as you do when you’re using pure artificials for muttons and black groupers,” he told me. That’s why he calls the technique “deep pulling” rather than jigging.
“You want to present the bait over and over at the right depth. If you don’t get hit on the first drop, raise it and let it fall again. They’ll take it into their mouth to investigate it, and that’s when you strike.”
Finally, my jig hit bottom. I tightened the slight slack, lifted my rod and felt a telltale pull.
“Once you get them coming up,” he said, and I did, “you need to keep pulling steadily,” and I did, “because the heavy jig exerts downward pressure which might help it dislodge from the fish’s mouth. Beyond that, your only danger to getting them in safely are the sharks—makos, hammerheads and threshers—that might come along and take a whack at them.”
My snowy, a good 10-pounder, made it past the sharks to come aboard.
Unbaited jigs have a lot of advantages: less mess, more sporty, and they don’t attract bites from sharks, which rely on scent to feed and are attracted to jigs with cut or whole bait.
At the stern, for the first time Rob tried a heavy, bright diamond jig that one of his customers had brought down from New England, where they use them for cod. It worked like a charm on the snowies.
In fact, Ralph first discovered the super-deep techniques on his forays to fish in New England, where “jigging for cod in 350 feet is standard,” he says. Decades ago he brought these tactics home and adapted them to the local fishery.
Snowies in the area range from a few pounds up to 45, Ralph said. While bag limits on grouper apply, there is no size limit on this species because once you raise them from the deep their swim bladders are blown. The snowies we caught that day averaged about eight pounds, and Rob placed them in his boat’s coffin box filled with a slurry of ice and water to chill-kill them, which “doubles the life of the fish on the table,” Ralph told me later. That’s worthwhile, because snowies have the delectability of other coldwater species, like halibut, that range farther north.
We moved out to 525 feet of water. “Below us are the ancient shores from the Ice Ages,” Ralph said. “They start at depths of 180 and have 15- to 50-foot drops, and some are silt-covered, and that’s where the fish live. You find the fish and work them at those depths.”
The snowies’ hits on the jigs felt solid and sure, not hesitant at all. Maybe that’s because I’m more familiar with black and red grouper in shallower water, which strike quickly, and stealthily, and are quick to drop baits, and muttons, whose violent on-the-run strikes feel like bank heists in action. Snowies obligingly grabbed the jig and held it until you set the hook. Rob attributed their cooperative behavior to a lack of fishing pressure. The snowies pounced on our jigs so readily, we had to move on to look for other species.
Over 600 feet of water we drifted along a swath of productive hard bottom and caught tilefish, more snowies, and rosefish, a member of the ocean perch family, which are also well known for their food value. Billy tried an outfit with 20-pound braid and it would not hit bottom, which illustrates the difference a minor increase in line diameter makes in the ability to fish these depths. Meanwhile, Rob tried a spinning reel outfit with 1,000 feet on the spool and glow worms on his jig.
“We use lures with flash, and jigs with plastic glow worms to catch their attention down deep,” he said. The rosefish and tilefish were crazy for those glow worms.
“He’s a great experimenter,” his father said about him. “I’ve also got a huge spot near here that I call The Pit. It’s a wide, round hole with 100-foot drops and it goes from 640 feet to 1,500 feet. There are wreckfish down there. They get huge, up to hundreds of pounds.”
We picked up fish as we drifted. Such long drifts are possible over wide areas of productive terrain, either hard bottom or long ledges, but it takes constant exploration and examination of your depthfinder to locate them on your own. Ralph constantly scanned that monitor and told us when to drop for a fish. Basically, we were hunting specific fish from 700 feet away.
Ralph Delph agrees that the speed of the current can be a limiting factor for the technique. A 1- to 1.2-knot current, or more, makes the jigging awfully hard, he says, and to do it you’d have to set up your drift along ledges that run the same direction as the current. A 1⁄ 2-knot current can be perfect, because it allows you to cover bottom territory on your drift while not running so hard to make dropping even small-diameter lines difficult.
As Ralph unhooked the day’s last grouper, a sailfish materialized off the bow.
“A sail! What do I have for it?” He had his jig in hand and put the grouper in the box. “For these pelagics,” he continued, “it’s important to throw your lure out front of them and let it drop. Ninety percent of strikes occur on the drop.” He cast toward the stern. The sail dove for the lure. Ralph let it take before he tightened down and hooked the fish, and the fight began. “This is part of the gingerbread of this fishing,” he said. “Sails, wahoo, tuna come along as you go.”
“People have a mental barrier to jigging in depths beyond 500 feet,” Ralph commented, “but as you see, it’s easy to do. A little child could do it, with a little supervision. People will say, why do I want to work so hard to bring the fish up so far? But isn’t that fun? And when you can get a fish with almost every drop, isn’t that worth it? Even if catching fish tires you out, isn’t that worth it?”
I’d say it’s worth it. Going beyond our normal range to explore and experiment with something new keeps days on the water fresh and fun.
Tackle for Super-Deep Jigging
Lines: There are many varieties of gel-spun poly braid lines on the market these days, and while performance characteristics are similar, rating systems vary. The Delphs favor Stren or Berkley Fireline braid in the respective 8-pound-test rating, which for these makers means an equivalent diameter of 4-pound mono
filament. However, Rob notes that this line actually tests out somewhere between 12 and 15 pounds breaking strength.
Rods: Since braided lines don’t stretch, you need to match them with rods that give and flex to prevent line breakage and not place the entire force of the fight on the reel’s drag. The Delphs use 15-pound-class rods with plug, conventional or spinning reels depending on tackle specifications for tournaments or contests that they may be fishing. That class rod absorbs the shock of the fish’s dives and allows the angler to pull the fish up without putting too much pressure on the line.