Key West Fishing Report

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September 2005 - Key West Fishing Report - Deep Drop Fishing

Deep Drop Fishing Tale

“This time of year, if you want to fill the box, you gotta think outside the box,” said Capt. Steve with a slight smile. He turned and went back to rigging a 400-pound leader for the trip to the bottom in 800 feet of water. Our baffled angler from Tampa, Florida just shook his head, cracked another Busch, and waited for what we had promised would be at the very least a learning experience…

Late in the summer, the Dolphin fishing usually gets spotty. The reef is too warm for big Grouper and Snapper and the wrecks generally produce Amberjacks and Shark. The best way to put “color” into the fish box is to fish deep. Yea, I know, every charter boat fishes deep water. But, not really. When you troll the top of a 1,500 foot ledge, you are really only fishing the top ten feet. I mean fish deep… right on the bottom. Have you ever wondered, as you trolled along the blue water of the Gulfstream looking for Dolphin, Wahoo, or a Billfish, what was on the bottom of the Ocean? Well, I did for years…

Deep Drop Fishing CatchDeep drop fishing is an obsession for a few serious anglers. However, not many are willing to pony up the dough for a $3,000 electric reel. Many of us have made one or two (usually one) drop with a conventional reel to the bottom in several hundred feet of water just to see what happens and usually with no success. Monofilament line has too much stretch to feel a strike and creates too much “belly” in the line especially with a little current. Large lead weights are needed and only the largest 130 lb. tackle can handle them. Of course, reeling by hand may be more “sporting,” but is impossible when you consider the extreme depth. Many a mate has considered quitting after winding up a fishless 80 after one or two drops.

My interest in deep dropping started by way of the Internet. I was curious about these electric reels and the strange, bulging eyed fish they produced. I’d seen their pictures in the fishing magazines and a few on the cleaning table. I researched all the vendors and emailed many of them to find the right application for my boat and fishing conditions of the Florida Keys. There was only one resource left, eBay.

Anything and everything can be had on eBay. I daily searched, “electric reels” and was very surprised how many there were for sale. Now, thinking that bigger is always better, I kept my eye out for an electric 80 pound reel, 130-pound rod, and one that preferably uses a 32-volt motor. 32-volt? Yep, the Mr. Z is a Bertram and it has a 12-volt system, a 32-volt system, and 120-volt system. For dropping to the bottom in deep water you want as much ass as you can get for the wind up. But, not so much that it is dangerous. Think rough, salt water, and a 120-volt reel. Not a good idea. I finally bid on a Lindgren-Pitman modified Penn 80 wide reel. Capt. Steve had an old 130-pound rod that he customized to make even stiffer and we loaded the reel with 800 yards of 200 pound, “Spider Wire.” It’s a synthetic braid much like Dacron. Soft and supple, the diameter of 20 pound monofilament, and zero stretch. And no, it’s not made with real spiders. While I was securing the hardware, Capt. Steve worked on the terminal tackle. Researching everything from hooks, leaders, swivels, pounds instead of ounces of lead, colored strobe lights, cylume sticks, glow beads (it’s dark down there ya know) and what to use for bait. He spent hours online and a lot of phone calls to our peers picking brains.

Caught on an electric deep drop fishing rod
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Finally, we were ready for our first serious attempt to fish in deep water. Now, where? I picked a spot on the chart in about 820 feet of water that has a high rise on each side about the length of three football fields. This would give us a good drift across the top of the mountain if there was much current. And, frequently, there is a lot of current with the proximity of the Gulfstream. Our charter was an unsuspecting group of gentlemen from Tampa, Florida. Instead of bullshitting them with the, “we do this all the time,” story, we told them what we had in mind and did they have any objection to giving it a shot during their charter? It also helped that we mentioned the fact that this technique usually produces “vittles.” “No problem at all, Capt.” And we threw the lines and headed South…

Trolling the first half of the day we picked at a few small Dolphin, hooked and released a small “Wee-hoo,” and listened to the VHF radio confirming our luck was the norm for that morning. After the crew had lunch and the midday sun was high and hot, I finally made the suggestion to try a few “test” drops just to break up the day. Coincidentally, we were within a mile of the location I had picked on the chart that I thought would offer the best chance of Snowys, Tiles, and Rosefish.

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“Fifteen minutes,” I shouted to Steve, and he knew to start assembling the equipment. The anglers’ eyes widened as Steve brought out the heavy tackle and pieced it together. Too heavy to set up in a standard, gunnel mounted rod holder, Steve set the electric 80 and 130 rod up in the Murray Bros. fighting chair. A 10 gauge yellow electric cord ran from the reel to the cabin bulkhead where we had installed a 50-amp plug wired to the boats’ main electric panel. Everything is a bit overkill, but the last thing you need when you have a 50 lb. fish on the bottom of an 800-foot ledge is a power failure. Yes, the reel is designed to be able to hand wind it up, but that should not be plan “B.”

“Standby,” I yelled to Steve as my depth sounder started its slow up hill climb from 1,000 feet. As we leveled off at 820 feet, there appeared a small fuzzy “bump” at the top of the hill. On any other trolling day, this would hardly be noticed and surely ignored as we cruised over it at 9 knots looking for pelagic fish. But, today was different. What was that curious bump not more than 20 feet high off the bottom? Today, I had the where-with-all to find out! “OK, drop it here!” I said. An eight-pound lead sash weight, 5 circle hooks with barracuda/squid strips, various glow beads, a flashing diamond strobe, and a neon green glow stick began their rapid decent into the blue. What a ride. What would a passing fish think of this rig? Frightening.

Larry Saylor, of Brandon, Florida is one of those slow talking Florida "Crackers." With sort of a Missouri "Show me" way about him, although he's never quite surprised at anything you show him.

Snowy caught on Deep Drop Fishing trip out of Key West"Is the cinder block really necessary?" he asked referring to the eight-pound sash weight we had tied to the bottom of the rig. "Too much is never enough," Steve said with not so much as a smile. A minute passed before the reel suddenly stopped and the line went slack. "Give it a bump or two," he asked of Larry meaning to click the trigger a couple of times to take the slack out of the line.

The Lingren-Pitman reel is different from other electric reels in that it has a remote switch. In case you need to walk away from the reel or if you are operating two reels, you have a pistol grip switch much like on a video game. Squeeze the trigger and the 80 wide jumps into action. "Now we wait for a nibble," Steve said. I maneuver the boat so that we are precisely on the spot I had located before. Mostly guesswork, but I feel better if I think I actually hit the nest of some mammoth grouper and his family. I find that depth, not relief is more important.

Some current can be overcome by backing the boat into the seas, but the heavy lead is really the secret. Straight up and down. You won't get a bite unless the bait is on the bottom. Remember, these are "country" fish. They've never seen the light of day much less a hook and line. We believe that the motion of the lead banging the bottom, the light (which must look like a UFO arriving from above) and the smell of the bait brings attention for dozens of yards in the area. Who knows? There can't be a lot of entertainment at that depth!

Steve constantly monitors the line to keep it on the bottom and watches for the telltale "twitch" of the rod tip. There is always (except on flat calm days) a rhythmic bounce to the rod tip from the action of the boat in the waves. A strike is more of a frantic twitch as the fish engulfs the bait and tries to free it from the hook and swim away. This is the moment the angler must react or miss his chance…

Moments passed as everyone aboard stared holes in the rod tip. "Go, go, go!" shouted Steve as the rod tip wiggled. Larry reacted, but not quite fast enough. The 80 whirred into action as it retrieved several feet of slack line. "Like a deer in the headlights," commented Steve with not so much as a smirk. "I'll give you another shot."

Steve backed off the drag lever sending the rig back down to the bottom again. The slow motion of the rocking boat bounced the lead off the bottom and we waited. All of us were learning a new game and realizing it wasn't going to be as easy as we had thought. Maybe you aren't winding the handle and battling the fish, but you still have to have good reaction times to catch a fish!

This time we all spotted the telltale twitch of the tip and yelled in unison, "Go!" Larry was way ahead of us with his "fool me once" attitude and had already put the reel in motion. This time the fish stuck and the long wait to see what was on the other end of 800 feet had begun. The advantage of "Spider Wire" is that there is no stretch. You feel connected right to the hook no matter the distance. This also makes a 2-pound fish seem bigger than it is. Every tug and spasm is communicated right up the line to the rod.

What seemed like an hour passed as the leader neared the surface. I had been bumping the engines in and out of gear since we began the retrieve so that we could be ahead of the leader and stop the reel before it jammed the swivel in the rod tip. "Here it comes, slow down," Steve said. "Bump it up to the tip so I can get a hold of the lead." Disappointment.

Hung on the last of the 5 large circle hooks was a 2 pound orange colored fish with big black doll eyes. "What the Hell is that?" Larry asked. "It's a Rosefish… can't you tell?" deadpanned Steve. It was quite spiny, sort of a cross between a perch and a scorpion fish.

"Sure, we'll call it a Rosefish, they're great eating," I said trying to break the pall. "Throw it in the cooler and we'll drop again. Standby while I circle around." I yelled. The current had taken us about a hundred yards to the East, so I backtracked to the slope, and down she went… I was now beginning to feel pressure to produce a good size fish since I had spent a lot of time, energy, and money on this new technique. I had assumed that all fish living in 800 feet of water would be of the larger variety, but now I had my doubts.

We would need to catch more than a few Rosefish to make this endeavor success. The lead hit the bottom, and over the next hour we repeated our success and assembled quite a collection of Rosefish. At times, we retrieved with double and triple-headers. I took a lunch break and descended the ladder. 23 sets of doll eyes stared back at me as I raised the cooler lid to inspect our catch.

"We could've done this on the reef with a spinning rod and chunk baits. I hope they eat as well as the Yellowtail snapper," Larry chided. Just as I was starting to feel better about our results. Of course, Larry was just giving me a hard time. He knew I was under pressure to make the first outing with the electric tackle a success.

"We'll stay with it a while longer, I'm sure we'll come up with something nice," I said cheerfully. My optimism was qualified by the word "nice." I didn't use the word "big," just "nice." And right now, anything larger or different than a 2-pound orange, black-eyed Rosefish will be nice!

"Hey, Steve, cut a few chunks out of one of those chicken dolphin, would ya?" I said. "It might change things up." Steve reached in the cooler and began to steak out one of the dolphin we had caught earlier that morning. You could tell by the frowns that our charter thought it blasphemous to use good vittles as bait.

"Don't gamble too much with what we already counted on for supper now," Larry said with not a hint of sarcasm. And again, the pressure was on… On all the previous drifts we had made over the Rosefish plateau, I had never repeated the fuzzy "bump" that I had marked the first time around. Glancing at the GPS, I checked to see if I had had the mental where-with-all to have hit the "save" button. Yes, I had. Well, let's see just what lives on that "bump."

With what now amounted to a "Cuban mix" of bait on our leader, Steve once again sent the rig on its way. We had learned by now that it takes about one minute for the weight to hit the bottom, so you had time to grab a quick drink or run to the head before the game begins. Steve locked up the 80 wide as soon as the line went slack and Larry bumped the pistol grip to set the weight in its' rhythmic bounce as the rest of us concentrated and waited. We knew now that with Rosefish, the sooner you got a bite, the better. On the plateau, there seemed to be plenty of fish waiting to set upon our leader. The longer it took to get a strike, the less likely of producing fish.

This time was different.

We were trying different bait and location. My hopes were high as we waited. "A larger fish would be more skeptical… more timid, he'll take his time," I thought. "That's how he got to be larger, right?" As the seconds ticked by, I began to lose hope.

This is where being the Captain has its disadvantages. No one will move, divert their eyes, or even speak on the last drop of the day. There is still hope as long as the bait is on the bottom. Only the Captain has the power to say, "Wind 'em up. Let's go home," and crush all chance at bettering the catch.

"Wind 'em…" my voice trailed off as I watched the big 130-pound rod slowly bend over to the gunnel. "Go, go, go!" Steve yelled. This wasn't Larry's first rodeo and he had put down his Busch just for this last drop, he was on top of it! The 80 wide whirred into action, but this time found resistance.

"This one's bigger," Steve said. Hopes soared. Even if it were a 5-pound Rosefish or maybe the elusive Golden Tilefish, we would be heroes. Steve began adjusting the drag lever forward tightening the tension on the line. "Not too much, we don't want to pull the hook!" I shouted nervously.

"Got it, nice and easy," Steve said. The only thing worse than not getting a strike on the last drop is getting one and losing it. The retrieve always takes twice as long as the drop even without a fish. Now, we were gaining only inches. Whatever this was, it wasn't coming up without a fight.

Even though the electric motor is doing all the work, you can't help but push the bottom a little harder. "Getting a blister?" Steve asked Larry. Larry managed a smile, but was still concentrating hard on the blue spot of Ocean behind the boat. The telltale sign of leader, weight, and fish arriving on the express elevator seemed to take a lifetime.

"Look at that," Steve said. Bubbles erupted like a divers' behind the boat. "Must be a Snowy. His air bladder popped." This made sense. The Rosefish didn't have air bladders and consequently, no bubbles. My hopes were up. The Snowy Grouper is the prized deep drop fish. In the same family as black, gag, and red Groupers; Snowys are tastier because they live in cooler, cleaner water. Seconds later, a giant gray basketball with our leader in its' mouth whooshed to the surface.

"We got a Snowy!" Steve shouted. The crew were all high fives and smiles now. This was the fish to make the day a success. Steve gaffed the fish firmly and lifted it, leader, lead, and lights in with some difficulty. Our charter guessed this fish at 30 lbs. I was just happy it was in the box!

"Time to start back," I said in the direction of the back deck. No one argued, we had ended the day on a high note. I wheeled the big Bertram around to due north and hit the autopilot for the ride home. As I ran up the Detroits to 1,800 RPM, I remembered to hit the "save" button on the GPS.

"We will be back!"

Tight lines,

Capt. Craig - Mr. Z


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Mr. Z Charters 
C/O A and B Marina
700 Front St.
Key West, FL 33040