August 30, 2013
By Jeff Weakley
Check Out This Florida Drift-Fisherman's Daisy Chain.
Every now and then, something comes around that makes you ask yourself, “Why didn't I think of that?”
Vertical flashers make so much sense, I'm ashamed I didn't arrive at the idea on my own. Years from now, we may look back at this system in the same way see outriggers and fishing kites.
About 10 years ago, George LaBonte, FS Live Radio host and longtime Jupiter fishing captain, had an epiphany after watching television footage of spearfishermen in the Pacific Ocean.
“They were doing breathhold dives, and they had this mirror-like object they'd throw in the water, and it would sink slowly, flashing all around. They kept diving, picking up the mirror, and throwing it again. Soon there were wahoos circling it, getting curious.
“I thought to myself, how could we use this in our world?”
That question fermented in George's imagination over the years. The mental distillation process was helped along recently by rising fuel costs and a renewed appreciation for drift-fishing. LaBonte wasan early proponent of high-speed trolling for Florida wahoo, a method that produces best in the first hours of daybreak and demands heavy tackle, 50-pound-class gear. Today, you're likely to see George or Capt. Joe Dobbins, with whom George has a working relationship, fishing spinning tackle from a dead boat using the drift-fisherman's equivalent of a daisy chain teaser.
Morning, midday, afternoon; summer, fall, winter: doesn't matter. Find goodlooking water, set up a drift, set out the flashers and wait for the fish to find you.
Trollers are no doubt familiar with the concept of linking several lures or teasers in a chain, to drag behind the boat. In this case, the attractors hang beneath the boat. Not only does the apparatus broadcast a constant series of vibrant, irregular flashes—like a school of mirror-sided baitfish—it does so beneath the surface, which may have special appeal for openwater species such as wahoo.
From an educated fisherman's point of view, the ocean is a kind of watery desert, pierced by streams of life in the form of current edges and thermoclines. Out there, drifting debris, with shade and recesses for small life to hide in, becomes like an oasis.
“Running offshore, we always get more excited if we find a tree, rather than just a surface clump of seaweed,” said LaBonte. “Weeds and grass provide habitat and shelter, but I think it's harder for fish to see it. Vertical structure, on the other hand, fish can see from a long way off.”
The support legs of oil rigs in the Northern Gulf of Mexico immediately came to my mind; as a kid, we used to jig up snapper and kingfish among the massive schools of bait attracted to the lacy metal structures. Monster wahoo, too, are known to lurk around those platforms.
“Almost everything that swims by, and sees something vertical in the water column, swims to it,” LaBonte continued. He described the configuration of a flasher rig:
“We use 4-foot sections of of 475-pound-test cable or heavy mono, and crimp swivel sleeves onto each section; these have a 90-degree leg, like a
deep-drop bottom fishing rig.”
The blades clip to the sleeves, and the 4-foot sections (limited to this size for easy storage) are snapped together for whatever depth is desired.
“At first we tried aluminum blades, but they would sink and sort of wilt, hanging straight up and down. The vinyl blades are light weight; they float and move a lot more, putting out more flash.
“We made up some that were 2 or 3 feet long, like big streamers of kelp, but they would tangle. Sixteen inches long, 4 inches wide, seems about right.”
Each blade is covered in reflective, prismatic tape, and has a short piece of wire and snap swivel.
“Every one has one silver side; some have a second color, others are silver both sides.“
To the top of the flasher array, a crimped loop connects to a carabiner and a nylon line to be cleated off. “We can also put a floating poly ball on the line, to let the flasher drift away from the boat 10 or 15 feet.”
At the bottom, a snap swivel attaches to a weight to keep the array hanging straight down in the water column; LaBonte and Dobbins use a Braid dolphin
teaser, which has its own mirrored insert.
LaBonte hinted that he might take some version of the system to market, a pre-assembled array you could pull out of a bag and put to work. But for creative types, there are endless possibilities for self-customization. LaBonte is justifiably hesitant to reveal his material sources; the vinyl sheets are primarily limited to the wholesale market, and there are several sources for reflective tape. My own mental gears have been turning, and I might not be so quick to toss old CDs this year, for instance. Sources for Pacific and Great Lakes salmon tackle, as well, offer flashers designed for slow-trolling but certainly useful for drifting in strong current.
On the fishing grounds, said LaBonte, “I do almost all the same things I used to do, except now I have more faith in the drift if I have this in the water.”
The flasher is useful not only for drifts over historically productive stretches of water, but also for strategic deployment.
“For years, any time we'd find a floating rope or log,” explained LaBonte,
“we'd pull up and drop a jig, but after 5 or
10 minutes if there are no bites, you wonder, ‘Should we keep moving?'
“Well, I've heard good divers say they've never found a floating rope or log that didn't have wahoo on it—they're there, you just might not see them right away. Once I thought of it in those terms, I started looking at ways to make our boat even more attractive.”
The flasher is the most complex element of LaBonte's drift strategy. The rest is fairly straightforward.
“On our standard drift setup, we have two live baits out at all times, plus a chumbag or maybe a bonito hanging off the boat [cut bonito is a great attractant for wahoo and other fish]. One of the flatlines will be long, the other medium, and we might add a third bait deep, with an egg sinker on the leader.
“We also keep a rod with a metal jig; anytime we mark something under the boat, we drop the jig. And in the case of a fish swimming up to the boat, if a fish doesn't eat a bait when it hits the water, another guy drops the jig 100 feet down, past the fish, and burns it straight up. The fish sees that jig race to the top, they rush over to grab it. I call it a ‘hate bite.'”
Off Jupiter, LaBonte and Dobbins concentrate on depths between 80 and 275 feet of water. That's a relatively narrow band of water, starting about 3 miles off the beach, and running out another 2 miles or so. The shoreward boundary is a north-south ridge of live bottom, which slides off rapidly into Atlantic depths. The northbound Gulf Stream current maintains a steady flow here, most days pushing 2 to 3 knots.
Within this range, the early-fall wahoo bite often centers around schools of bonito that gang up from Jupiter Inlet south to Palm Beach Inlet. The same zone sees a great sailfish run beginning in November and running through February or March. Year-round, dolphin, kingfish and blackfin tuna are likely catches.
Geographic and seasonal applications for this approach are as unlimited as the configurations.
I've spent many days roaming the Florida Straits in October, for instance, on the hunt for floating debris. This time of year, from Key West through Miami, we hope for that magical find, an upside-down palm tree or a floating barrel, anything providing shade as well as structure beneath the surface. Gaffer dolphin are always expected, and wahoo quite likely. Long before the 2-fish-per-person wahoo bag limit, I was aboard a boat that hauled 14 wahoo off a floating barrel in October. We found the barrel in 300 feet of water, a range that had been producing fish for a few weeks. Looking back, I wonder if we might've enjoyed similar luck in open water, using a drift-and-flash approach to call in the fish.
Going back farther into the dark ages, I remember fishing for late-summer kingfish in the 1980s off Alabama, where I lived in those days. It was accepted boating protocol back then to just toss empty drink cans overboard, first tearing them open to hasten their departure. In our very unscientificrecords, my brother and I thought we saw a pattern in kingfish bites occurring soon after the flashing, wobbling aluminum passed out of view. Were we onto something? Maybe. I'm sure eager to resume my own studies! - FS
First Published Florida Sportsman October 2012