Anchoring properly over Jacksonville’s offshore reefs can make all the difference.
Remnants of a 20- knot sea breeze the night before promised a bumpy ride for Capt. Chris Savitz and the 65-foot partyboat Mayport Princess. A smaller boat tucked itself behind the stern of our Mayport-based boat, seeking a smoother ride offshore. When that happens, you know it’s choppy.
“The forecast is for winds dropping to 10 to 15 knots by midmorning, so I believe we can fish,” Savitz said. “One thing for sure, bottom fishing has been red hot during our past few trips. All year, for that matter. Yesterday we landed six nice cobia and a mix of bottom fish, highlighted with a 22-pound red snapper.”
Savitz is a full-time Mayport ship pilot, who subs for Capt. George Strait, owner and captain of Mayport Princess. Both are well-respected charter captains.
We took a 60-degree heading for the Amberjack Hole, known to local fishermen simply as AH. This popular reef offers wrecks and a hard bottom with numerous small ledges varying from two to three feet in relief. It has an average depth of 75 feet and is only 20 miles from the inlet.
Soon enough, deckhands began rigging 8-ounce bank sinkers to 80-pound terminal tackle, with equal portions of fresh squid divided among anxious fishermen. Soon our throttles were pulled back, and Savitz watched the color bottom machine like a fish hawk.
With the wind still blowing up to 15 knots, he spun the wheel, turning Princess into the wind. The anchor chain rattled out, our engines in reverse, and we soon stopped.
“If you can’t anchor exactly over bottom structure and fish, you simply won’t catch ’em,” the captain said. “You could be 50 feet away, and miss the fish. Positioning is everything.” Moments later, he popped his head from the steering cabin and gave the order, “Drop your baits down!”
Fishermen were soon setting hooks and bending bottom rods, proof we were on the spot.
However, the fish were running small, with several undersized grouper and red snapper released.
“Let’s reel them up,” Savitz said. “The seas are laying down. Let’s run out to deeper water. It’s pretty much stirred up by recent winds, so let’s see if we can find some cleaner water at Elton Bottom.”
As we headed another 20 miles offshore, the water began to clean up. The presence of flyingfish offered hope that fishing would only improve. An hour later, we anchored directly over hard bottom with a 3-foot ledge. Time to drop those baits.
With a depth of slightly over 100 feet, it would take more time to lay baits on bottom and reel up fish.
The extra depth was worth it, however; sisters Jennifer and Carolyn Gergely on the stern were soon fighting a pair of large fish that threatened to tangle surrounding lines. Some of the more seasoned anglers quickly got their lines in and made room, to avoid a monumental tangle. Other anglers were not so quick, but fortunately both fish fought a few yards to the side, and were finally brought to the gaff. Their prizes were 30-pound amberjacks.
At the same time, Rick Vollmer leaned into his bottom gear, as something huge tried to gain its freedom by sticking its nose into the ledge far below.
“Please don’t get off,” Vollmer muttered through clenched teeth. “My family is expecting a red snapper dinner…”
Luckily Vollmer’s gear held up, and he was able to horse his fish away from that rocky bottom. It was a red snapper of just over 10 pounds, and it certainly seemed enough for a red snapper dinner.
Meanwhile, other fishermen were busy catching triggerfish, seabass, vermilion snapper and a few keeper grouper. Occasionally a big grouper would take someone’s tackle down into the ledge and break it off, despite shouts of encouragement from everyone nearby.
Later in the day, Savitz moved the boat again, anchoring over a multitude of small ledges at Elton Bottom, prime destination for many Jacksonville anglers. The best action here lasted from 30 to 45 minutes before it slowed down. Then we moved again, but only a short distance. Action resumed; the bait of choice here again was squid, but some of the larger fish were caught with live baits, including pinfish and cigar minnows.
“We normally jig up a livewell full of cigar minnows with sabiki rigs,” Savitz said. However, a recent storm had scattered the baitfish, so we mostly stuck with squid and cut baits. “I really think this was the reason we haven’t caught any cobia today, because baitfish are so scattered,” he said.
“We normally fish with chunks of Boston mackerel or squid when the water is dingy,” Capt. Strait added. “Bottomfish smell dead baits better when the water is dirty. When the water clears, we jig up those live cigar minnows and hook them right through both nostrils.” (Hooking them through the tail also works, and the minnow’s skin there is toughest of all.)
The key factor here is that the best bottom fishermen anchor over structure. Many prefer those 2- to 3-foot ledges instead of wrecks, simply because hooked fish find it too easy to break off in taller structure.
“I also recommend fishermen around here have on board three jugs that are rigged with 80, 100 and 120 feet of line, attached to a 2-pound weight,” Savitz said. “Label each jug on the handle with a bright magic marker, showing the correct length of line. Match the right jug with water depth; you want that jug to stay right over the structure or fish. If there is too much line on the jug, the jug will drift off a ways, and you won’t be able to tell exactly where the ledge and fish are located.” (In a stronger current, it doesn’t hurt to use a 5-pound weight.)
“It’s critical to anchor over structure on your first try,” he said. “By watching the jug, you get a pretty good idea which direction the current is running. Once you’ve determined the direction of the current, head upcurrent about 150 feet and drop anchor. Back down slowly to the jug (so you won’t rip the anchor loose) and secure the anchor line when the boat’s transom is within a few feet of the jug. Watch your GPS and fishfinder to make sure you’ve anchored over structure or fish, which should be very close.” A tenth of a microsecond is equal to 50 feet on old Loran units, and that’s what they aim for. Skilled bottom fishermen like Savitz and Strait often arrive within 20 feet of their buoys. One should ideally anchor on the high side of ledges, to pull fish away from the undercuts, where fish are frequently lost. You can always drop baits back to the ledge if you anchor up too short. Or let out more anchor line. Finally, always retrieve the jug if it’s close by, because you don’t want hooked fish wrapping around the jug’s line.
It’s also important to have aboard a good Danforth or similar style anchor, with at least six feet of anchor chain to keep the anchor digging into bottom. Chain can make all the difference, so don’t skimp on length or size of the chainlinks.
An anchor ball, about the size of a medium beach ball, should be ready for attachment to the anchor line. That makes for easy retrieval of even heavy anchors. When it’s time to pull anchor, simply head at an angle upcurrent until the boat trips the anchor loose from bottom. The anchor ball will then float the anchor and chain right up to the surface, where it can be easily brought back aboard. Keep at least three times the anchor line aboard, for the depth you intend to fish. High tensile anchors are also recommended over regular anchors, simply because they won’t bend as easily when your anchor snags bottom and has to be pulled loose with the boat.
Be sure to tie off your anchor line to a solid cleat, because an anchor windless will not pull a snagged anchor free. In cases of a severe snag, one may have to cut the anchor line, but only as a last resort after pulling from various angles with the boat. If the anchor is bent, it becomes very difficult to anchor properly, and you can’t straighten them back to their proper shape while still at sea.
Some of Jacksonville’s best bottom fishing comes during the warmer seasons, beginning in early April and running right through the month of December. This is where bottom fishermen have a wealth of live bottom ledges to anchor over within 10 to 40 miles of the St. Johns Inlet.
“I recommend RL, HH, TW, PG, 16-17 Bottom and the Elton Bottom,” Strait says. “All of these fish havens have numerous live, hard bottoms with 2- to 3-foot ledges. The point to remember is if the water temperature is less than 62 degrees, you need to go deeper until you find warmer water.”
Jacksonville fishermen will agree, we’ve experienced some of the best bottom fishing for red snapper and gag grouper during the past few seasons that we’ve ever seen. We can give thanks in part to much-needed saltwater regulations on reef species.
For the finer details on Florida offshore bottom fishing, try a copy of Florida Sportsman’s new Sportsman’s Best: Snapper-Grouper book.
WHAT KIND OF TACKLE?
For terminal fishing gear, both Capts. Strait and Savitz recommend using 80- to 100-pound test when anchoring up and fishing rocky ledges. A stiff 6-foot, 80-pound-class boat rod is necessary to work large fish up and away from ledges and hangups. Particularly so, when large grouper, cobia, amberjack and red snapper are biting. A three-way swivel is tied to the 80-pound reel’s line, with a 2-foot section of 100-pound monofilament fishing line as a drop leader. Both skippers recommend using 5/0 long shank saltwater hooks, which facilitates unhooking fish in a hurry. A small section of 50-pound mono leader is tied in a loop knot and attached to the remaining eye of the three-way swivel. Here an 8- to 12-ounce bank sinker is attached to the loop. The lighter 50-pound test allows bottom fishermen to break off a hung-up weight and rescue the rest of their terminal fishing tackle.