June 21, 2018
Put baits and lures down where the fish are. Modern twists on three old tricks.
Nothing like having a talented free-diver on your boat to take a look below. Emerging from the sapphire depths off Bimini, 19-year-old Court Vernon, of Miami, gave us a different story than what we saw topside: Bigger tunas down there, some looked to be a hundred pounds.
We thought it couldn't get any better, with 20- and 30-pound yellowfins skyrocketing on pilchards all around the boat. Albert Castro, a Miami rodbuilder, was practically hand-feeding the tunas off the transom. Harry Vernon, Court's father, scaled back to 12-pound-test mono for the “football” match.
I decided to send a jig down, way down. Quickly, I tied a 3-ounce Sebile Vibrato spoon to a spinning outfit and began feeding line. I half-expected to feel immediate slack, the calling card of a tuna grabbing the lure on the way down. Somehow the aggressive little fish missed the flashing tidbit, and after 20 seconds
or so, at about 100 feet, I closed the bail. I gave two quick pumps of the rod, reeled up a few yards and repeated. Bang!
After a 15-minute arm-wrenching, gut-bruising battle, I had our first solid 60-pound yellowfin to the boat. The guys broke out egg sinkers and began rigging them up break-away style, pushing the line through the sinker and stopping it with a rubber band; a good trick for sending live baits deep. Others tied on jigs. We were into Court's fish.
Over the years I've nurtured a passion for jigging. Doesn't matter whether we're chumming, drifting or slow-trolling, the jig's going down. For me it started 25 years ago, during summer break from middle school. On Saturdays, we'd head offshore with a bucket of trolling skirts and a couple boxes of frozen cigar minnows. That was all it took to fill a 150-quart cooler with kingfish, some of which required tailoring to fit.
On those hot, still, summer days, invariably the biggest bites came on baits rigged to run deep, behind a diving planer. That or one of the trout jigs I'd throw off the bow while trolling. I remember Dad used to get peeved at having to stop the boat and retrieve lines while his eldest son gambled away timeand lures on light spinning gear. Sometimes bites would occur simultaneously, with monofilament smoking off in opposite directions. All we could do then was laugh.
Speed Jig and Braid
If only we'd had back then the kind of jigging tackle I had in Bimini this summer. Where I used to cast jigs on stretchy 8-pound mono and reels designed for bass fishing, today we have outfits that are just as comfortable in hand, yet geared up to handle non-stretch polyethylene lines testing upward of 60 pounds.
Imagine releasing a powerhouse like a yellowfin tuna. Thanks to heavy drag settings, we hauled ‘em in quick off Bimini, and unhooked the small ones. If I'd managed to hook one of those back in the day, it may have been a fight to a deadly finish for fish, angler, tackle or all three.
The characteristics of braided poly lines have been reviewed many times in these pages: Zero stretch, incredible strength-to-diameter ratio. Where these lines really shine offshore is in combination with a spiral-wrapped graphite core jigging rod—light and strong—and a reinforced, aluminum-frame reel with brass and stainless-steel gearing. That describes the Penn Torque rod and Conquer-series spinning reel that I used to confirm Court's tuna report. Watching 50-pound braid evaporate from the spool after a tuna hookup, I screwed down the drag knob tight as it could go. The line held, the reel cooled down, but my lower back nearly gave out.
Whether you're into fish or merely in search mode, it pays to have a couple of jigging rods rigged and ready to drop. Encounter a floating board with no evidence of fish topside? Make a few passes trolling, but always stop and drop the jig.
For 20- to 50-pound spin or high-speed conventional outfits, 2- to 4-ounce jigs are optimal. To the braided line, add about 6 feet of 50- to 80-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. I use a spider hitch to form a double line, then tie on the leader with back-to-back unit knots, making five turns with the doubled braid, and three turns with the heavy mono. Use a loop knot to the jig, if it's not equipped with a suitable split ring.
Some jigs come with free-swinging assist hooks; others, one or more treble hooks. If they're trebles, eyeball them to determine whether they're of adequate strength to hold the fish you're targeting. Tunas or amberjacks in the mix? Upgrading to 4X or even 6X strong trebles, perhaps a size or two larger, is a good move.
Troll Deep with a Digital Edge
Those old-school trolling planers? They still work, but not as well as live bait slow-trolled off a downrigger. Had we been so equipped on that Bimini trip, certainly a downrigger would've been useful for dropping a pilchard deep.
Downriggers have been around for a long time, but as with jigging, there are compelling advances in technology.
One sunny June morning, Sam Heaton and Brian Kammel gave me a test-drive of Cannon's Digi-Troll 10 Tournament Series. We fished off Stuart and slow-trolled live greenies (threadfin herring). The Digi-Troll is a saltwater-grade electric downrigger, plugged into a vessel's 12-volt system and wired into a battery through a breaker. Heaton had two of them on his boat. Behind both gunnels of the 31-foot center console ran two lengths of 6-gauge battery cables.
“We're running each downrigger off each of the two starting batteries, since we're running the engines [to charge the batteries] the whole time,” Kammel explained.
“Spread is what it's all about,” said Heaton. “Trolling or drifting, you want as much bait out there as you can without fouling. The downrigger makes your boat fish bigger.”
The DT10 comes with what Cannon refers to as “Ion Control.” As Kammel summarized, “It puts an electric field around the downrigger line and ball. Guys in the Pacific northwest swear by it.”
Whether the electrical field seals the deal on wahoo and kings remains to be fully explored, but it's tantalizing.
The ability to automatically retrieve that heavy downrigger ball is a convenience over manual-crank downriggers. After hooking up a hot fish, a crewman need only hit the Up button and the downrigger will automatically raise the ball to a pre-set “zero” depth.
The Digi-Troll systems offer even more. With a few pushes of the keypad, the downrigger will automatically cycle the bait at programmable time and depth intervals— for instance raising the bait 10 feet, and lowering it again, every 30 seconds. Not only does this cover more of the water column, it may trigger reaction strikes among predators whose feeding is cued by erratic prey behavior.
Decades ago, I noted how it was common for us to hook big kingfish while retrieving the planer line. Those fish presumably decided to strike when the prey item changed course. Topside, I've watched this firsthand, observing sailfish and dolphin swim alongside or beneath a trolling bait, only to strike when an angler reels up to alter the speed.
The basic downrigger fishing release setup is a clamp-style clip affixed to the aft end of the rigger ball, but many anglers choose to rig a Black's or other pin-release above the ball. This allows the crewman to change baits without bringing an 8- or 10-pound ball into the boat. The fishing rod sits in an integral gimbal-mount on the downrigger.
Flying Low for Big Fish
Fly fishing 50 feet beneath the surface? Is it possible? If so, is it just another stunt?
Yes it can be done. No, it's not sexy, but neither is it a stunt. I learned this surprisingly productive technique years ago in Puerto Rico. We used a fast-sinking flyline and a streamer fly to take kingfish, grouper and other species out on the reef.
There are some real advantages to the system, especially if you're already geared up for fly fishing.
You'll need a genuine fast-sinking flyline, preferably a uniform sink with a sink rate of at least 5 inches per second (Type IV, V or VI in the nomenclature of flyline maker Scientific Angler). Tie on a 5-foot leader of fluorocarbon. Taper and composition of the leader is entirely up to you. You could use something as simple as a straight piece of 30-pound fluoro.
Depending on the depth, you'll want to pay out most of the line, 100 feet or so, into the current (if you're shallower than 100 feet, and the current is light, avoid stripping so much line that you risk snagging bottom). When it comes tight, give four or five sharp, 1- to 3-foot strips with your line hand. Let the line glide out again, and repeat. About every four intervals, retrieve the fly halfway to the boat, again with some sharp strips.
What's going on down there is, that streamer fly floats level, and darts, then slowly sinks, just as a natural bait would. A conventional jig either sinks or swims, if you will. The fly stays in the bite zone. With the line held in your hand, you have instant connection to a bite. No slack as with conventional jigging. When a fish grabs the fly, you strip hard with your line hand to set the hook, then prepare to clear the line off the deck as it jumps and races through the guides.
Your fly pattern can be sized appropriately to the items in your chum. Pitching a few handfuls of glass minnows into the chum is a good idea, and by extension, you can select a streamer to imitate the freebies. Jackpot!
In late summer, the technique is dynamite on tunas and kingfish. - FS
First Published Florida Sportsman Sept. 2011