June 15, 2016
Live chum offshore for the flyfishing thrill of a lifetime.
An ever-growing line of silvery baitfish trails through azure water as the boat rides the current. Some of the baits are anchovies, some are sardines. Some are living, others are dead, and still others somewhere in between, all flickering and flashing through different levels of the water column.
When you're drift chumming like this, every trip is different. Some days your first handful of chum results in complete carnage: surface busts that blow hapless baits into the atmosphere and send the lucky few baitfish still alive swimming for safety near the motionless prop. Other times it may take 15 or 20 minutes for gamefish to find their way up the line of chum to the transom. Rarely does the free meal not draw a crowd.
In good current, it's common to see fish blast baits or skyrocket 300 yards off the transom, and just as common to watch those fish close the gap quickly as they feed their way up the trail. That's actually a good scenario because it allows the anglers to prepare for the frenzy ahead. Once the fish show on the transom, a handful of chum and a minimal cast will have your reel begging for mercy.
The first time I live chummed offshore I had my angler standing beside me with a fly in the water waiting for a fish to cast at, only to have a 15-pound bonito make an arrival that just about ripped the rod out of his hand. There was no need to set the hook, as all his concentration and strength went into retaining possession of the rod as the fish dumped the 8-weight well into the backing.
This tactic is tailor-made for fly fishing, but of course it's suitable for any kind of tackle. Those crazy fly bites have left the most vivid impressions in my memory.
On a July morning about five years ago on Florida's lower Atlantic coast, I had my angler standing to my left as I started ladling out chum. His buddy was sitting on the console still rigging up. Maybe 20 mostly dead pilchards were in the water when I saw the flash of a bonito.
“Flip your fly out,” I told Guy Neff. “I see a bonito down deep.”
Neff's chum fly hit the water about the same time a wahoo made a strafing run, first swimming at the transom and eating a semicircle of dead pilchards as it made its way off. The last of those pilchards was a chum fly, and the fish ate going away. The second it felt steel, it did a 180-degree turn and blistered its way back up the side of the boat with Neff in chase as he tried to keep the rod from touching the side and doing an imitation of a fragmentation grenade.
That fish completely dumped the reel three times before settling in to big circles off the bow and 10 feet below the boat. When I finally stung it with the gaff, we found the fly and 30-pound fluorocarbon leader firmly entrenched in the corner on the left side of the fish's mouth. We were lucky. Had the fish turned right at any time, it would have gotten the leader between its teeth and been able to easily cut us off.
Since then, I've been fishing 10-weight rods, with at least one 12-weight back-up ready to rock the world of something big. The heavier rods allow the angler to move fish, or lift them through the water column and closer to the boat. About a third of the fight with a lot of ocean pelagics takes place 10 to 15 feet from the boat as they fight over the last stretch of water, and the heavier rods let you move those fish into landing position.
I like to have at least one 12-weight in the mix because you really never know what is going to show in the chum. Keep in mind that while you may be ladling out minnows, the fish that eat the minnows are in turn fodder for other game fish, which in turn are only middle tier apex predators and fodder for gamefish that will make you quote a line from the movie Jaws, and say, “We need a bigger boat.”
Most of the time I like to have at least two extra rods rigged and ready to cast, one with a small trace of No. 4 wire bite tippet, and another with 60-pound fluorocarbon bite tippet. That covers the gamut of toothy critter, billfish and just about everything that might show up, from a stray school of yellowfin tuna to a “don't even think about casting to that” amberjack.
Have the rods rigged and ready for the angler to lay one down and pick up another. What you'll find is that the unexpected regularly occurs.
I've had 400-pound blue marlin and 80-pound wahoo chase a bonito into the prop, and amberjacks the size of kayaks eat small bonito off the stern. From cobia not 100 pounds but also not 90 pounds to dolphin that make a school of blue runners desert the transom, there are giants that will step into your world in an instant, and if you're not ready for them you'll be the one at the dock saying, “I just dig seeing them.”
One of the surprising technical aspects of this type of offshore fly fishing is that you don't have to be a competent caster to get in the game. Can you throw a 2- to 3-inch baitfish fly more than 10 feet? Fine, especially when you're standing next to the person throwing chum baits into the water. Most of the action is right next to the boat. Also, you get to try to pick your fish in a school.
I've seen sailfish cruise so close you could practically free-bill them and dolphin eat the fly with only half the leader out of the rodtip. It's one of those amazing displays of the food chain in action that has you wanting to stop fishing and just watch the fish eat. Almost.
The gist of live chumming is simple. In an open ocean where gamefish are constantly on the move there are two main options for anglers: Cover water in hopes of coming across the food chain in action; or carry your own food chain on board, find a likely segment of ocean and create your own buffet. I like the second option best.
My typical day starts by filling every livewell on the boat with juvenile pilchards or Spanish sardines, although juvenile threadfins or mature red minnows are other good options. I don't like the threadfins as much because they don't survive for long in an overcrowded well, but the fish will eat them just as well, live or dead.
“Red minnows” are so-named by anglers for the color of their backs and their propensity to travel in huge clouds along the shores, turning the surf and inlets red. They are actually anchovies, and they're excellent oily chum that will draw just about every fish in the ocean, but they're not very hearty and tend to clog livewell standpipes and make the wells overflow (see the answer to this problem in the Boating Seminar of the FS May 2012 edition).
You want to use juvenile baits in the 2- to 3-inch range as much as possible for two reasons: The smaller the bait the more you can put in your livewell and thus the longer you can chum; and the smaller baits are less likely to fill up a predator, allowing you to keep them feeding behind the boat for longer periods. The latter reasoning is important because you may have to fight and land several fish before you get a shot at the fish you're targeting.
I've had days where two or three blackfin tuna were strafing the chum line amongst the 20 or 30 little tunny that had taken up residence, and every time the fly or chum hit the water it was a mad rush from all the fish to be there first. When that happens, you have to fight and land a few bonitos before you can invite a tuna for dinner.
You'll also encounter fish like sailfish that regularly change directions so that when you try to lead a fish, a perfect cast can easily turn into a bonito bait. There's always the option of breaking the bonito off and putting on another leader and fly, but in most cases you'd land the bonito in about the same amount of time.
Of all the species that come into the chum, sailfish can be the prissiest. As a rule, the first cast or the first time the fish sees the fly is the time when it's most likely to lunch it. After a sailfish has seen the fly and denied it, you can cast until your arm noodles and the fish won't even turn to follow it, so make that first cast count.
The best shot at sailfish is when the fish has chased a bait towards the boat, eaten it and is moving directly away from the boat, looking for more. Of the sails I've hooked or caught on fly, the majority ate going away. That's not to say that you don't get a gork every now and then—a fish that eats everything, live or dead—in which case a fly plopped in front of the fish is sure to go for a tailwalk in a sail's maw.
While you can randomly run to any spot in the open ocean, start doling out chum and have the fish show, you're better off looking for something that might attract apex predators, like a rip, edge or weedline. Run until you find something that looks good, then shut down and start the chum. If nothing shows in 15 or 20 minutes, don't be afraid to pick up and move.
You'll also get weirdness like cold water upwellings that turn the water pea green as the thermocline crawls its way along the bottom and upwards through the water column. The cold water, while not obvious on the surface, creates dead zones that fish avoid, and you can ladle an acre of pilchards or sardines and in the end maybe own a remora or other slow-moving fish for your efforts.
Live or dead chumming offshore is a concerted effort to transport baitfish to a location you think may be holding gamefish, and is one of the most consistent methods of attracting gamefish to a drifting boat in open water. It takes a couple of tries to dial in the technique, but once you've seen the fish swim up the line of bait, you'll find yourself at home watching the weather report and thinking about where the bait is holding and what the day will offer. FS
Stack The Deck At A Local Wreck
In every area of the state there are wrecks known to hold baitfish, and those same wrecks will always hold their share of predators, from barracuda and amberjacks to schools of strafing bonito and opportunistic sailfish, dolphin and wahoo. With experience comes a knowledge of specific wrecks that are more productive than others, either because of depth, current or proximity to the Gulf Stream or other local bluewater currents.
In my GPS, I have wrecks named AJ Raid, Bonito Bomb and Man's Land. (On charts they may have other names, but when you have passengers tempted to return, it's wise to keep them wondering.) Each of the spots I visit on a regular basis holds specific bluewater gamefish, with Man's Land a conglomerate of enough giant amberjacks, great barracudas and cobia that on any given day a handful of live chum will make your forearm muscles dance.
Remember that on most wrecks, fish are holding on the associated clouds of bait. They don't want to move too far from the feedbag. You can chum 20 yards away from the wreck and think you're fishing in the desert, and then splash a netful of chum on top of the wreck only to have the world open up behind the boat. —M.H.
When it comes to collecting a livewell (or three livewells) full of live chum, the right castnet will make your life a lot easier. Early in the summer the majority of baitfish collecting on the beaches and around the inlets will be juveniles, often with schools of red minnows shadowing the schools closer to shore. A beautiful pancake with the wrong sized mesh castnet will result in thousands of glittering, gilled baitfish as you pull 40 pounds of your afternoon cleanup into the boat.
A ¼- or even 3/16-inch mesh net is best if you're trying to catch larger glass minnows or juvenile pilchards, sardines or threadfins. If red minnows and other tiny anchovies are my target, I look for them holding right along the shoreline; I'll deploy a 16-foot, fine mesh seine net, step into the water and gather as many pounds of minnows as I like.
No matter how much livewell space you haven your boat, you'll find there are times when there's more bait than aerated water, in which case I like to open a hatch and pull out the gallon-size plastic bags. Whether you kill shot a school of juvenile pilchards or seine a wall of red minnows, you can use the extra baits to fill up the plastic bags.
Once offshore, you can supplement your chum line with dead baits (or use only dead baits) to increase the longevity of your live/dead chum line. In the summer heat, bacteria breaks down the oils of the baits almost immediately, so store the bags of dead baitfish in an iced cooler, and break them out as needed. —M.H.
Just about any fly that looks like a baitfish will work, but there are some considerations that will increase your bite ratio. For general purposes, white baitfish flies with a brown or light green back seem to work best, although red on the back is also a good choice. It also helps if the fly sinks and gets down into the chum/feeding zone, so I tie all mine with medium eyes.
Larger isn't necessarily better, even with some of the bigger predators that come into the chum line. Most are looking for something of the size, shape and coloration of the food being doled out, so keep that in mind. On the heavier rods designed to target sails, big dolphin or wahoo, I use the same fly patterns, only tied with a 4/0 hook. —M.H.