March 20, 2012
By Eden White
Put your chum down where they live.
The practice of using chum offshore has to be about as old as fishing itself. Who wants to just sit there and wait with nothing going on when there's every chance that just a little extra effort and expense will likely turn the whole day around? Even something as simple as a mesh bag of frozen mush dangled behind the boat can spell the difference between fishing and catching.
But as popular as the approach is at the surface rarely is any sort of chumming done when bottom-fishing, aside from perhaps dropping that same chum sack down with a downrigger ball or chum-balling for yellowtails and muttons. That is because, up to now, there really hasn't been a simple way to get the attractant to the bottom while still being able to dole it out on cue.
Savvy fishing guides and commercial fishermen use a chum basket, a clever and efficient means to chum deep. You can't just pop into your local tackle vendor and buy a ready-made chum basket-at least, not yet. Fortunately they're easy to construct. While most of the versions I've seen are made of wire mesh, the one I prefer is corrosion-proof plastic that will last indefinitely.
Start with a heavy-duty, five-gallon plastic bucket. Those used to sell bulk chlorine are perfect, since they're durable, rigid and somewhat squatty. The only tool you'll need is a drill and a half-inch bit. Drill as many holes in the bucket as you can and still retain its basic strength. That's the only drawback to using the plastic bucket-it takes time to drill all those holes. When it starts to look like a honeycomb, you're done.
You have to have lots of holes. If water cannot easily pass through the basket, there's a good chance even the slightest sideways motion will be enough to spill its contents prematurely. One advantage of wire mesh, is you don't have to worry about there being enough openings. Wire mesh has very little tendency to "kite" in the current.
You'll also need several dive-weights. I bought mine from a salvage shop, since they are significantly cheaper that way than if bought new. Half a dozen weights between two and five pounds each, cost less than $20. Once you've drilled enough holes in the bucket, attach the weights. Stainless machine screws work best.
Next, drill a series of small holes along the perimeter at the mouth or top of the bucket and then some corresponding pilot holes in the weights. From there it's a simple matter of mounting them in place along the outer rim. The finished basket provides a wide, stable profile in the sand.
You'll also need a tether, maybe 100 feet of 1/4 inch nylon (braided or twisted) line, or a downrigger cable. Attach it to a hole in the bottom center of the bucket, not the top, as you might expect, to keep the bucket upright. This bucket is going to be deployed inverted!
When you chum, put small baitfish or cut baits in the basket. Drop it open end first. Sounds like you'd spill your chum immediately, but it doesn't happen: Since the bucket is heavily weighted, it falls far faster than the contents, which get trapped inside by the force of the water. (There's a trick involved when you put it over the side. Trap the chum against the water, then drop the bucket on top of it.) When the bucket hits bottom, some of the chum might spill out, but most stays wedged against the bottom inside the bucket, creating a scent trail. Be sure to leave a little slack so that wave action won't pull the bucket up and allow the little bottom munchkins to rush in and steal your chum.
As you can guess, using this method effectively means the boat must remain anchored in a fixed position. Otherwise, no matter how well you chum the bottom, there's no way you'll be able to present a bait in the same area. Anchoring securely also prevents you from dragging the basket on the bottom, where it could become lodged in the rocks.
While your first impulse might be to suspend the bucket from the stern of the boat where you are fishing, a better alternative is to present it from the bow. Not only does this strategy keep it out of the way, it gives the chum time to disperse widely around your hooked baits fished off the stern. If you hook a hot fish like a sailfish, kingfish, wahoo or even just a big cuda, there's always the chance it could run towards the front of the boat and cut either your mono or the rope holding the chum basket. Fast-moving mono is like a miniature chainsaw when it whips across rope. If such a scenario occurs, just bring the basket aboard and then redeploy it once the smoke clears.
One great thing about the procedure is that it can be repeated again and again, creating lots of activity on the bottom. Sometimes, you can anchor in the sand upcurrent from a wreck or reef, let go several buckets of chum, and actually pull the fish away from the cover to your hooks. This gives you a much better chance of landing them, since the snags are farther away.
While it doesn't necessarily matter what you choose to chum with, it is important to use the same items for bait that you use in the bucket. If you've got hunks of sardine or ballyhoo exuding from the basket, that's also what should go on the hook. That's not to say you shouldn't drop down a live bait as an extra measure.
Don't be afraid to give it time either. Just as it can sometimes take an hour or more for fish to arrive to your surface chum, the same scenario often plays out on the bottom. If you're marking fish and the spot has produced previously without chumming, the bite likely isn't far off.
Assuming that currents are moderate and the spot you've chosen isn't excessively deep, using a chum basket should greatly enhance your tally by day's end. Once solely the province of commercial fishermen and a handful of fishing guides, the deep chum bucket can be yours for less than the cost of a snapper filet at a fancy seafood restaurant.