Sea bass, amberjack, kingfish, grouper… the list of species that can be caught around artificial reefs is a long one. East, west, or along the Gulf coasts, there’s an established artificial reef somewhere in your home waters.
Reef projects have evolved beyond merely sinking old derelicts or tires cemented together. Creative thinking now has such items as old railroad cars, tanks, and even subway trains providing habitat. The Reef Ball Foundation has placed over 500,000 environmentally friendly cement balls in 48 countries, and has coordinates for over 2,000 reefs in United States waters. Put them into your logbook by going to www.artificailreefs.org/index.htm. Want to help other anglers catch fish for an eternity? For about $1,000 your ashes can be mixed into a reef ball to create an underwater memorial habitat (www.eternalreefs.com). Or, if you want to enjoy artificial reefs while you’re still among the living, follow these tips:
*ANCHOR over large sections of reef.
*DRIFT over scattered small pieces of structure.
*ANCHORING reduces the number of times your line becomes snarled on the reef.
*DRIFTING with a light piece of leader attaching the weight to your rig will allow it to break off when the weight becomes snagged, so you don’t lose the whole rig.
*REEF FISH often school by size; if you’re catching a lot of small fish, consider moving to a different reef.
*PATIENCE is occasionally called for when reef fishing. If you see fish on the fishfinder but get no bites don’t desert the area too quickly—many reefers will feed only when the tide is running correctly.
Reefs produce lots of action - and make a great way to fish when kids are on board.
Grouper are some of the tastiest fish on the planet—and they’re a heck of a lot of fun to catch. Want to sink the hook into a big, fat gag and bring home the bacon? Check out these grouper tricks:
* Grouper are ambush predators; remember that you must place your bait in and around the structure the grouper are hiding around and you can’t just drift aimlessly, because ambush predators don’t swim around aimlessly. They stick close to cover, and that’s where you’ll need to place your baits.
* You’ve been fishing in a pass or inlet with water 30’ or shallower, the tide’s quit, and the grouper aren’t biting? Try trolling large lipped plugs, like a Stretch 25+. Often the plug’s action triggers a reaction strike, even when the fish aren’t feeding.
* Grouper have a special attraction to crustaceans. If you need an extra edge, go lobster diving or crabbing before you go grouper fishing. Slipper lobster, peeler crab, and fresh shrimp are all on the grouper’s list of must-have dinners.
* Since grouper tend to find a wreck or reef they like and hang close to it, dedicated grouper anglers make long runs in search of virgin fishing grounds. Find a spot no one else knows about, and you’re going to find more and bigger fish.
Grouper are one of the tastiest wreck fish around.
The Wrecking Crew
Let’s say you’ve found an artificial reef or wreck site, and you’re ready to catch fish. What now? Wreck fishing is pretty simple, once you have your boat in the right place. Getting your boat in that right place is, of course, the hard part.
If you’re over a small chunk or chunks of reef it’s usually best to drift fish, as anchoring directly over it can be nearly impossible. And right over it you must be—often sea bass and tog won’t budge an inch from the structure they’re orienting to, and a mere 10’ off to the side, your bait will go untouched. When fishing larger chunks of reef or a big wreck, anchoring directly over it is relatively easy and will usually result in a better catch then anchoring.
Whether drifting or anchoring, Savvy anglers will first locate the reef on their meter and drop a float marker to visually ID the spot. Note that plugging a set of numbers into the GPS does not always ensure a bulls-eye on the first shot; because of numerous variables, the numbers on one machine and the exact location they take you to on a different machine may vary a hair, and you should plan on initiating a search pattern after arriving at the coordinates, until you find the exact location of the reef.
Once you’ve got the hotspot identified and the boat over top of it, vary your tactics depending on what species you’re most interested in catching. Sea bass will hit squid strips, clam chunks, and jigs fished directly over the reef. Other wreck fish may want other offerings; tautog are more likely to eat green crab or peeler crab baits dropped on top of the wreckage and flounder usually pop up on the sides of the reefs, and will strike squid, minnow, and jigs. If you want to catch real doormats, try using four to five inch live spot as bait.
All of these species can be taken with top-and-bottom rigs, but savvy fluke anglers will use Fluke Killers with chartreuse, white, yellow, or pink bucktail teasers. On calm days, spinning gear weighted down with three or four ounces of lead will do the trick. When the tide is running or the wind is blowing, however, you’ll want to stick with conventional gear in the 30- to 40-lb. class, weighted down with five to eight ounces of lead. And remember to bring plenty of extra rigs—plan on five or six per person, because fishing the wrecks effectively means you’ll snag bottom and break off your tackle quite often.
In the fall you’ll be able to locate some of the more transient species over wrecks. If trout are in town, try fishing on and around the reef with top and bottom rigs baited with squid strips, crab chunks, or shrimp flavored Fishbites. Stripers and blues will both be encountered at the reefs too, but as these fish migrate down the coast in the fall they will often stay higher in the water column. Target them by watching for working birds as you wreck fish, and when you spot gulls diving, try casting plugs and bucktails into the fray.
* Bonus Wreck Fishing Tip: Tie a short length of light leader between your rig and your weight. That way, if your weight becomes snagged you can give your line a yank and break if off, without losing the entire rig.
** Double Bonus Wreck Fishing Tip: Use metal jigs in the five to seven ounce range with top-mounted hooks (like Butterfly jigs) to reduce snags and catch large sea bass, only.
** Triple Bonus Wreck Fishing Tip: Always carry clams when fishing over a wreck in water over 70-degrees. You may encounter spadefish, which taste and fight great but don’t eat the normal baits. Clam bits, however, will tempt them into biting.
This bass slammed a jig in 120' of water, over a wreck 20 miles off the Delaware coast.
Flounder can often be caught around the edges of wrecks.
Surprise - spadefish show up over wrecks, too. Keep clams onboard so you can catch 'em.
On the Warpath for Black Bass
Heavy metal puts big bass in the box.
If you’ve ever jigged heavy metal for an entire day of fishing, then you know it’s serious exercise—and it becomes even more of a workout, when it’s time to crank up a five-pound sea bass! But this is the kind of work that any angler loves, and if catching a cooler full of humpback sea bass sounds like a good idea to you, then pick up a bag of jigs and head for a wreck.
Traditional bassers will be dropping oversized top-and-bottom rigs with 4/0 to 6/0 hooks, baited with squid strips, cut bait, or clam chunks, and weighted down with three to eight ounces of lead. The tried-and-true does work, of course. But sporty anglers who are willing to try new tactics may want to approach bassing in a new way: a mix of vertical jigging and speed jigging, with gear designed for speed jigging.
The tackle for this chore is very specialized. Reels are the high-speed retrieve variety, and are spooled up with 40 to 80 pound braid topped off by a 25’ fluorocarbon wind-on leader in the 50 to 80 pound test range. The massive gear ratio and ability to quickly crank in huge amounts of line is more important for true speed jigging than it is for this technique, but it still comes in handy when cranking up fish from the depths and trying to generate strikes from otherwise lethargic fish. Penn Torques and Shimano Torsas are the gold standards; the Torque offers a lower price tag but a star drag system, while the Torsa is pricey but has a lever drag.
Jigging is a great way to score big bass.
Use top-hook jigs over snaggy wrecks and reefs to minimize snags.
The rod should be a mostly fiberglass six or six and a half foot version, (rods built mostly with graphite are more apt to shatter when over-stressed,) and rated for the appropriate size braid you’re using. Shimano Trevalla, Falcon Coastal, and Chaos C6640’s are all good examples. You want a relatively soft tip to help take up the slack and maintain tension during the ups and downs of jigging, with a firm mid-section and butt for maximum lifting power.
You can use just about any jig and catch fish, but savvy anglers are going to stick with those that are designed for speed jigging and have a top-mounted hook. Butterfly jigs are a prime example, and those made by Benthic and Williamson will do the job as well. Color patterns will change on a near-daily basis, but generally speaking, blues and pinks are hot colors for this type of fishing.
Having the hook located at the top of the jig, as opposed to the bottom, is a key feature. It will result in the same number of hook-ups but far fewer snags on the wreckage. And if you’re fishing in the right spot, snags and lost tackle are a big part of the game. While fishing bottom rigs on the drift, for example, you’ll snag bottom three or four times more often then you will while jigging top-hooked metal.
Motion of the Ocean
As with many other activities, the way you swing your rod will have a huge effect on just how successful you are. A simple up-down motion will suffice, but remember that we noted earlier that the most effective technique is more of a cross between vertical and speed jigging than it is of one or the other alone. Once you’ve dropped down and found the bottom, give the rod two or three sweeps. With these types of rods you want to apply power in the first three or four feet of the sweep then reduce the power and speed as the tip reaches for the sky; that will allow the bend to come out of the rod and maintain constant tension on the line. If you’re still applying power late in the swing, however, you’ll get a sling-shot effect as the tip continues moving to straighten out while the butt end of the rod is stationary. This creates a moment of slack in the line—leading to the dreaded tip-wraps, a sure way to lose fish and possibly break gear.
On the drop, lower the tip as fast as possible while maintaining minimum pressure. This will allow the jig to flutter down at maximum speed, yet by maintaining tension, you’ll feel taps and jolts as fish attack it. When you’re fishing over active fish, most of the time they’ll slam the jig as it falls.
Here’s where the technique differs from standard vertical jigging: every third or fourth drop, take two or three very fast cranks on the reel then slowly yo-yo the jig once or twice before dropping it to the bottom again. Lethargic fish that don’t seem to want to feed when you’re giving them the regular up-down motion are often triggered into action by the sight of the jig zipping up through the water column, and will attack the jig during the yo-yo. They almost always strike from below as they are swimming up, so quite often, your line will simply go slack. Set the hook immediately, as you have about a half a second to react before the fish realizes that metal doesn’t taste good, and spits the jig.
Remember that as a general rule of thumb, the farther you run from the inlet, the larger the bass are usually going to be. This is simply a matter of numbers—lots and lots of boats pluck away at fish on the wrecks that are close to home, while long cruises mean less competition. Structure that is 30 or more miles from the inlet is not usually probed by bottom fishers on a regular basis, and can result in some stellar catches. The same goes for uncharted wrecks that no one else knows about.
Also remember that seeing commercial bass pot floats indicates the proper conditions for finding bass. These fish don’t live on wrecks and reefs only, but can also be found on jagged bottom and mussel beds. So if you see a bunch of those floats (they look just like over-sized crab pot floats) in one area, chances are it’s worth slowing down and watching the fishfinder closely. Sea bass will usually be pretty easy to spot on the meter, with decent target separation between the wreckage or rough bottom and the fish.
Another advantage of jigging is that you can drift more effectively. The reduced snags and the fast fall of the heavy jigs makes for higher success rates without dropping anchor, which allows you to maintain your mobility and try multiple spots in one area. That said, sometimes you will still snag bottom. When this happens and you absolutely, positively can’t free the jig, and you happen to be in calm conditions, let out an additional 10’ to 20’ feet of line, wrap it around a bow cleat, and set your rod into a holder. It may sound impossible but in gentle seas, 60 or 80 pound braid will sometimes hold a 22’ to 26’ boat for several minutes without breaking. That will allow you to grab another rod and jig like mad right on top of the wreckage. Yes, your arms will get tired, swinging that rod vigorously up and down with a six-ounce jig on the end of the line, but the sweet taste of those sea bass will more than make up for the lost calories.
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