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What to Look for Offshore

Signs on and above the surface guide deepsea fisherman to a big day.

Summer kingfish bite was outstanding in Northeast Florida, if you knew where to look.

This past summer, during the 35th Annual Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament, a deepwater thermocline located some 40 miles offshore of Jacksonville and a nearshore thermocline had created a large pool of warm water 10 to 15 miles offshore. Simply said, I'd never seen so many schools of baitfish located in one area of the ocean. A variety of baitfish including blue runners, Spanish sardines and shad literally covered acres of the ocean's surface.

Successful king mackerel teams that had keyed into the baitfish bonanza were looking for sea birds diving, where tournament-size kingfish were pushing baitfish up to the surface for an easy meal. Here, anglers would first visually locate diving birds and then slow-troll live Spanish sardines right through the frenzy. Mackerel fishermen would also position themselves at the bow of the boat while deep jigging freshly caught sardines and shad for frisky live baits.

Amazingly, only a third of the some 30 teams fishing in that same area had picked up on this easy to read, visual clue while continuing to live bait troll in less productive waters. Finding the birds was the key.

Diving sea birds can lead fishermen to a variety of action, from hooking up to a 1,000-pound blue marlin to catching a 15-pound king mackerel. Sportfishing boats equipped with radar can identify diving birds by selecting a narrow horizontal 1.9-degree beam while increasing the gain. Some newer radar systems have pre-set “bird” settings, making it that much easier. Depending on how high sea birds are flying, radar can generally mark birds from 3 to 4 miles away. Once you've located diving birds, you may motor a mile away from the birds while paying close attention to how the birds appear on your radar screen. This gives you a good reference point for future sorties.

Keep in mind that not all diving birds will lead you to great fishing action. Schools of baitfish attracting birds will also appear over less-attractive bottom where gamefish schools are not present. But generally, baitfish schools holding over a live bottom, wreck or rock ledge with diving sea birds is a winner for sports fishermen. The lesson is to take into account not only the signs in the sky, but also what's below the surface.

After forty seasons of trolling both live baits and lures offshore, I've learned that a rise in the seafloor often creates a place on the surface of calm water. More than likely, current running over a high spot on the bottom is the culprit—and that structure itself often holds baitfish and gamefish, too. Obviously, these flat calm areas of the ocean are easier to see when there is a calm ocean, so be on the lookout for this sign of hidden treasures deep below.

Sighting a current rip where moving water, created by winds or tides, greets a quiet ocean is also a great way to identify a possible fishing bonanza. If there is a 1-degree or more change of water temperature, the rip will become a magnet for baitfish and eventually attract gamefish, too. This effect is particularly noticeable in the fall, as water temperatures drop.

A color change signifies a meeting of bodies of water with different nutrient qualities—another area where game fish may be holding. Here, the water color may be dark on one side and lighter on the opposite. This interface creates an excellent ambush point for a variety of pelagic gamefish.

My all-time favorite surface feature, which I often look for when fishing close to an inlet, is a tide line. Tide lines are typically formed at the mouths of inlets that feed into the ocean. Here, an incoming or falling tide will have a tide line on either side of the inlet, created by the currents colliding with ocean waters. The results are typically dark, dingy colored waters on the inlet side of the tide line and cleaner, less nutrient-rich waters on the ocean side of the line.

Tide lines are especially productive when they move over a drop, or rise in the bottom, past the tip of a rock jetty, live bottom or sea buoy. Always be on the lookout for floating objects or weedlines. These can hold both baitfish and gamefish. A discarded wooden pallet floating offshore is a real gamefish magnet. Sea turtles spotted on the surface are also a great indication that a live bottom, wreck or rock ledge is their home deep below.

Lastly, don't forget to bring not only a good pair of polarizing sunglasses, but also a set of marine-grade binoculars. Take time to really look around out there, as those kingfish anglers did during the Jacksonville tournament this summer. Small features can make a big difference. FS

First published Florida Sportsman October 2015

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