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The easiest fish you've never caught: beyond 240: snapper and grouper back on the hook.

Many of these snapper and grouper have never seen the light of day in their depths, or a fisherman's bait--and they act like it--pouncrig on a slip of squid on a chicken rig when it finally reaches them. Yet many hard-driving bottom fishermen never stop to drop as they troll right over these fish on hunts for dolphin, tuna and wahoo offshore--to the great delight of other anglers who know where to look for the deepwater snapper and grouper.

In the ever-shifting sands of fisheries regulations, this bit of fishy treasure was unburied last spring when the ban of bottom fishing in Atlantic waters (managed by the South Atlantic Council) deeper than 240 feet was lifted, The ban--enacted in January, '11 to eliminate bycatch of overfished speckled hind and warsaw--was lifted last May when it was deter: mined that it shut too broad a swath of waters to fishermen, and consequently created undue hardship for anglers and businesses. Now more specific measures (see sidebar) to protect the two species are in the works, but in the meantime, there's an open field for anglers to get on the snowy grouper, yellowedge grouper, blue-line and golden tiles and many other tasty species--right now. That the four-month closure of shallow-water grouper species in Atlantic waters begins this month might add just a bit of incentive for bottomfishermen to push out a bit deeper to explore.

Chris Perry, of Team Choppy Fishing in Palm Beach, will be doing just that this year with his kids Jett, 13, Skylar, 13, Chase, 11 and wife Janice. Perry, a corporate pilot, runs a 25 Contender with a 250 Yamaha 4-stroke and got started "deep-dropping" on his trips over to The Bahamas, where this style of fishing is routinely coupled with trolling by anglers making the crossing. A couple years back, he wanted to get into golden tile fishing and already had a Dolphin electric reel for his Penn International 80 for swordfishing.

"I talked to the guys who were getting the goldens, and they didn't give me any numbers," Perry explained of his start, "but they told me to look for mud bottom. I kept the reel on the boat while I was trolling, and the first time I dropped I was off Jupiter in 750 feet and we caught a 20-pounder. I was hooked."

The ban shut him down, but he's back, and, this month, so is golden tile fishing. The recreational season opens this month for 2013.

"In that 600- to 800-foot line, from the Loran Tower off Jupiter south to Boca, they're out there. You just have to find the spots, the mud bottom," Perry says. As for yellowedge grouper, he said, they seem to hang around the same areas--softer bottom--as the golden and blue-line tiles, whereas the snowy grouper are on the rockier spots. It took him only a handful of trips to find a few good yellowedge grouper spots when he first started searching. As with all bottom fishing, to find new spots keep your eye on your depth finder as you're moving, but in this case, it's while you're out trolling for dolphin and wahoo. Perry believes the maxim, "No light, no bite," for this fishing, and he likes the Lindgren-Pitman Electralume light for his rigs.

Perry has a couple of advantages he brought to the fishing: experience sword fishing and an electric reel. So he knew how to handle his boat in currents to keep the bait in contact with bottom using heavy weights (10-pound lead for swords in 1,700 feet and 5-pound lead average in 600 feet), which is the key skill to producing deepwater bottom fish most days.

You don't necessarily need electric reels to get to the bottom fish in waters deeper than 240 feet, by any means. Heavy 6-and 9-ounce bullet jigs paired with braided mainlines of 20- to 50-pound on spinning and conventional reels, or even baited chicken rigs--will catch plenty of fish--but you'll have to have little or no current. In the Keys, where 500-foot depths are only a few minutes run from 200-foot depths, this is a thriving fishery, where guys catch snowy grouper, yelloweye snapper, rose-fish and other species on calm current days. In Miami, too, you can target golden tiles with handgear. But as you move north up the coast, the prevailing Gulf Stream current in deep water makes hand-cranking baits difficult. To try it, you'll want current less than about 1.2 knots, and preferably less than a knot. If you get current of .5, that's perfect, because it allows you to drift and cover territory with your baits. But because such light current cannot be found regularly in waters deeper than 350 feet around the state, dedicated deepwater bottom-fishermen eventually invest in an electric reel. Out of Ponce Inlet and Canaveral, guys will catch gag and snowies in 300, 350 feet, on out to 600, says Matt Silvey, but most often with electrics.

"Whenever I'm out that far," Silvey says, "I'm glued to that bottom machine. If you're not looking, you're not finding new spots. I actually find hitting the spot right just as much of a blast as catching the fish."

Even with electric reels, you still want current to be manageable, at about 2 knots or less. Faster than that and you'll sometimes have to "power drift into it to keep the baits on the bottom," says Capt. James Chappell of Catchalotta fish Charters in Islamorada, who often deepwater bottom fishes in the Keys and in The Bahamas.

Chappell helped to explain the difficulty of working with currents. As you drop your rig with lead, the current takes the line and creates a giant belly in it, which takes away your ability to control your depth. So you might be in 600 feet of water, Chappell says, "but because of that belly in the line you've got 1,000 feet of line out. There are lots of corals and rocks down there, and when you're not running straight up and down, but are too loose and dragging against the bottom, it allows those hooks to trace the bottom and likely snag something you don't want to snag. It makes it tough to stay in the right zone for the fish."

To check out his gear and routine, I fished onboard with Chappell over the Islamorada Rips--the broken bottom range about 15 miles offshore in varying depths of 800 to 400 feet. That broken bottom gives rise to the turbulent rips on the surface that gather baitfish and pelagics and make the area attractive trolling grounds. There were big, deep holes down there, and some big ledges, with heights from 20 feet to 200 feet.

"We've caught these fish every month of the year out here," Chappell said. "You're able to put some really good-eating fish in the box without having to run around everywhere."

The key, to Chappell, is the approach to the spots. "By figuring our drift, we want to make sure that we're approaching the ledge the right way, with the right angle, maybe from a low spot to a high spot, because the fish will live around specific objects down there for the cover it gives them."

In those waters, Chappell fished one line on a Kristal XL655 electric reel, spooled with 80-pound braid mainline. He'll put a Bimini twist in the mainline to a 150-pound Coast Lock snap swivel. He likes lighter leader material for the chicken rig, 50- to 60-pound where many guys use 100-pound, "because it gets more bites and can handle the fish we get." Tying the rig, he uses 4/0 or 5/0 VMC heavy-wire circle hooks--two to five hooks--then a double overhand loop on each end with a snap swivel at bottom for the weight, and then however many dropper loops he wants, and the loops might be staggered in length-6 inches and 8 inches long.

It was a bit of a rough day, with current smoking fast at more than 3 knots, but we were still able, in 600 feet, to catch a good number of blueline tilefish. Then we moved in shallower--to 250-foot depths--lightened up considerably with 20-pound Sufix braided line on spinning reels and caught yelloweye snapper and vermilions at will.

With its tricky regulations and high bars to entrance between the gear and the knowledge, deepwater bottom fishing may not be the main attraction to the average offshore angler's day of fishing, but it sure can be an attractive sideline. Then again, when other seasons are closed and you can put together a box of yellowedge grouper, tilefish, a snowy and some other snappers, it might make sense to take aim at this fishery.

"I do a lot of my fishing to help show my kids how to take care of the fishery, to fish conservatively, take a few fish and then move on," says Chris Perry, of Team Choppy in Palm Beach. "Last year, I didn't even get a chance to tile fish before season closed. And last time I was out there, I made one drop, caught a snowy grouper and then put my gear away and went trolling so I didn't kill anything unnecessarily. Unfortunately, the commercial fishers will come in and wipe out an entire spot, quickly. I just wish they'd tighten up on the commercial guys and loosen up the restrictions on recreational fishers and let everybody enjoy the fishing."

RELATED ARTICLE: Wreckfish a Deep Ocean Wanderer

Again this year, like last year, a short recreational fishing season for wreckfish, Polyprion americanus (as seen on this magazine's cover) will open in Atlantic waters. In Gulf of Mexico waters, wreckfish are not managed, and so therefore there are no regulations on the species. In Atlantic waters, anglers will be allowed to possess 1 wreckfish per vessel per day from July 1 through August 31, but that's easier said than done. Wreckfish are targeted on the bottom in 800 to 1,200 feet and can weigh up to 220 pounds.

For over 20 years, Atlantic wreckfish was the exclusive domain of a limited group of commercial fishermen, whom NOAA Fisheries had granted individual "ownership" of the resource. At the time, few recreational anglers possessed the gear required to fish at these depths, but that's clearly changed. (As a sidenote, it's long about time NOAA revised allocations of all so-called "deepdrop" species, from snowy grouper to golden tilefish.)

Most of the U.S. wreckfish landings are from South Carolina, but the species is extremely wide-ranging. Wreckfish occur throughout the entire Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean and parts of the Indo-Pacific region. Florida Keys sport fishing captain Chris Walter had a commercial wreckfish permit for a time. That's him on the cover, with a wreck fish landed in 1,000 feet of water in the Straits of Florida. Walter used an 80-pound-class electric reel and deep-drop rig.

Wreckfish have an unusual life history. Juveniles are actually surface-oriented, hanging around floating debris, a.k.a. "wreckage"--hence the common name. (This habit brings to mind another wide-ranging species, the tripletail). As they mature, they move to caves, ledges and other bottom structure in depths from 140 to 3,000 feet. They eat a lot of deepwater fish--teleosts, primarily--and also squid--cephalopods. The flesh is said to be excellent, a low-fat, hiah-nrotein source of B vitamins and minerals.

RELATED ARTICLE: Atlantic Fishery Changes in the Works

In addition to the four existing deepwater Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) off Florida's Atlantic Coast (North Florida, St. Lucie Hump, East Hump and the Oculina Banks) where bottom fishing is prohibited, there are currently additional changes to the deepwater bottom fishery being discussed in the form of Regulatory Amendments by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAM). Myra Brouwer, SAFMC Fisheries Scientist, helped explain them. They are:

Snapper Grouper Regulatory Amendment 17: In 2012 the SAFMC conducted investigations into speckled hind and warsaw habitat and catches, including asking for information from scientists and fishermen in public and expert workshops. The information will be used to consider ways to redefine the existing MPAs to give more protection to speckled hind and warsaw grouper in their suitable habitat.

Snapper Grouper Amendment 22, to be developed in 2013, will consider a recreational tag system for wreckfish, golden tilefish, snowy grouper and red snapper. The Council had a discussion in December where they were presented with ideas on a tagging program, including a lottery system to distribute the tags, and agencies that might administer the program. The intent of a tag system isn't about getting more data, says Brouwer, but the intent is to keep the catch from exceeding the Annual Catch Limits (ACLs).

Comprehensive Ecosystem Amendment 3: This amendment began development in early 2012. "Now," says Brouwer, "the only elements left in this amendment are actions to improve data reporting in for-hire and commercial sectors, better bycatch monitoring, and an action that would require vessel monitoring systems for commercial vessels in the snapper grouper fishery. There is no discussion in any amendment to consider requiring vessel monitoring systems for the recreational sector."

Brouwer also points out that The Coral Advisory Panel has proposed extension of the Oculina HAPC. Though early in the process, "There is some concern among recreational anglers off Canaveral and Fort Pierce that changes to the MPA would prohibit anchoring near the 20-fathom line, where they would normally fish." Discussions are being held, including with stakeholders, on this regulation to accommodate stakeholders' interests.

RELATED ARTICLE: Edgewater Lodge to Check out New Grounds

Want a no-frills place to stay for your winter Keys getaway? Edgewater Lodge is well situated as home base to fish the Islamorada Rips and other Middle Keys grounds. Edgewater has dockage, hose water on the docks, BBQ gas grills around a chickee hut, freshwater pool, trailer parking for the boats, easy access to the Atlantic and the Gulf, efficiencies, motel rooms, cottages and one suite. Most of the rooms have kitchens. It's right next to Long Key Channel, not far from Islamorada and Marathon and it's quiet. To the north are Sprigger, Tripod and Bamboo banks, and for inshore anglers, Flamingo is about 35 miles away. Edgewater fits 17 trailers and boats for the 17 units. It's a simple, pleasant and quiet fishing lodge.

By David Conway

Managing Editor
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Title Annotation:Deep Drop
Author:Conway, David
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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