On The Hook: Sportfishing with unconventional equipment

Bill Walsh

The art of sportfishing doesn’t need to be complicated; except when you can’t get the results you want.

The successful fishing techniques here in Southwest Florida are fairly standard, pilchards for snook; tipped jigs over chum for mackerel; shrimp on weighted jigs for snapper etc., etc.

But consider the ingredient that, for most of us non-natives now here, that were fishing aficionados elsewhere, we arrived here with a litany of successful learned fishing techniques for both fresh and salt water angling that were tailored to fit the locale.

Bass fishing was different than walleye fishing in the fresh. Striped bass fishing was radically different from chasing salmon in the salt etc., etc.

That, then leads us to the question of the day. Is there any chance that a technique unique elsewhere could deliver results here?

Snook in ocean chasing lure while fishing

Well, stay tuned, for that’s the backdrop for this week’s saga.

Years back when gag grouper had a year around open season here, the fishing techniques for success on these delectable targets was either live bait to the bottom where reef structure was prevalent or to slow troll a artificial jointed plug over the same structure. If one technique wouldn’t work the alternative usually would.

One major difference, however, trolling a big jointed plug over structure and making turns with varied speeds would cause the plug to cruise through varying depths and inevitably it would snag (and usually be lost) on bottom structure; expensive and frustrating for both captain and customer.

So a couple of years back, when the shortened gag season opened here, I got a call from Jim, a long time seasonal customer whose home residence was in the Chicago area. He was making a mid-year summer visit here with family and wanted to set up a couple of morning trips nearshore for he and his grandsons.

The conversation ambled from how are you? To how’s the fishing? To are you getting any grouper?

Response to that was last inquiry was fairly negative. Explained the size limitations for both the gags and red grouper had increased. As I explained it,” lots of shorts, Jim, and we keep getting snagged on those shallower reefs.”

We booked a couple of morning trips and then the residual conversation went to a new level.

“I remember you telling me that you fished Lake Michigan when you lived up here targeting salmon and trout”

“Correct, Jim … just weekends on the Big Lake,” was my response.

“Did you use a downrigger trolling for the big ones,” was his unusual question

“Yes, all the time” was my response.

The conversation went from his interest in slow trolling for gag grouper here and could we substitute a downrigger, and using it, could we maintain a steady lure depth here?

Stopped me cold.

Had never thought of that technique but still had the equipment installed on the boat.

To digress. A downrigger is a fixed piece of equipment installed on the stern of a boat. The key equipment is a large reel of heavy wire to which a 10-pound weight is attached. You feed out 15-20 ft of line from your fishing reel with lure attached and then clip the paid out line to the weighted wire. The reel is then manually activated and you let out the wire to the depth you want the lure to be run at; walla! Your lure is trolled at consistent depth no matter how many twists and turns you make as long as you maintain a constant speed.

“Jim. I still have all the equipment. We’ll try it. Hurry down!”

Our first trip, unfortunately, faced some raucous wind that left the Gulf roughed up and we spent our first hours in the sheltered backwater catching some nice snapper for the kids and practicing with the downrigger which I had installed for familiarization and practice.

After an hour or so of practice we were confident that with some placid conditions the downrigger would work nearshore.

The next couple of days were endless hours for both Jim and I as we waited for nearshore conditions to settle down. Finally our day arrived. It would be just Jim and I; the kids were “beaching it.”

We arrived on station on the First Reef mid-morning amidst a couple foot residual swells left over from the big blow. Not perfect but good enough to give our experiment a chance.

We set up and tested the downrigger in 25 ft. over rough artificial reef bottom. Our lure was a 6” jointed Rapala with dominant red and silver colors; Jim ran out about 50’ of 30# mono and we clipped the line firmly to the downrigger wire and let it down 18ft confirmed by the reef depth counter.

We got underway at four knots running with the incoming tide. Jim on the rod and me at the helm.

Nothing for the first 10 anxious minutes and then the rod sprung skyward as the reel drag began to scream. Jim adjusted the drag and I put the engine in neutral and cranked up the downrigger ball.

It was a struggle for Jim, so we slowly backed down on the hundred yards of line run out. The fight now was the same as any major fish attempting escape; running right and left and surging frequently.

The ensuing 15 minutes until we had this nice gag grouper alongside seemed like an eternity but all of a sudden there it was; equally as whipped as Jim. We got it aboard and on the measuring board; 24” gag grouper in the neighborhood of eleven pounds.

We were all (grouper included) thrilled when we photographed and revived the gag alongside and released. There would be plenty more with our new technique.

On the way home, I replayed the Lowrance fishfinder chip and you could see the point of the strike just a couple feet above the reef. Had we used traditional trolled line technique we would have snagged the reef and lost the plug.

Congratulated Jim on his idea.

Downrigger gear still aboard but seldom used with my contemporary affinity to backwater fishing these days.

More:On The Hook: Release them for tomorrow

More:On The Hook: Fishing’s musical chairs

Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to dawnpatrolmarco@cs.com.