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Masters of the Reef: Tips for Bottom Fishing Success

By Sam White

If you’re looking for fast fishing for a variety of excellent-tasting and hard-fighting gamefish, look no farther than bottom fishing. However, to maximize your chances for success on the water, there are a few important tips to keep at the forefront.

Bottom fish include the most prized species of grouper—on the East Coast, Florida and the Gulf Coast, this means gag, red and black grouper and scamp—along with snapper—red, vermillion, mangrove, mutton, cubera and yellowtail. There are a few outliers like triggerfish, amberjack, African pompano and others, plus species like snowy, yellowedge and Warsaw grouper, queen snapper and more which are found in much deeper water, but the main focus is on the aforementioned grouper and snapper species which are within reach of most anglers.

Right Place, Right Bait


Mutton snapper are an especially prized catch.

As any fishing enthusiast will readily admit, you have to go where they live in order to have any shot at bringing home either a personal best or a nice bag of fillets (or both). For bottom fishing, that can mean any number of wrecks, artificial or natural reefs, rockpiles, ledges or other structure. Grouper like to set up shop in places like this where they can ambush prey as it swims past, while snapper will usually keep tight to the structure as well. Both feed on the abundant baitfish and local inhabitants of the wreck or reef, never venturing far in search of dinner. Start your search by marking the structure and then allowing the boat to drift—note the direction of drift and this will give you the anchor heading. Run the boat back up over the bottom along this heading and anchor upcurrent, allowing the vessel to lay back just ahead of the wreck or reef. The anglers can now drop baits into the productive zones. Adjust the length of anchor scope accordingly, moving up or back as needed to maintain optimal positioning, or as the bite shifts around. It’s also best to take the time to reposition the boat if you don’t hit it on the first attempt, or even the second. Optimal boat positioning it critical.

Being prepared with a variety of baits is also critical to success. While a box or two of frozen Spanish sardines is the mainstay for most any species of grouper or snapper, savvy fishermen also bring a livewell full of frisky baits including mullet, menhaden, blue runners, cigar minnows and a bottom fish favorite: pinfish. While red snapper often key into dead baits like sardines which emit an enticing odor, grouper are more likely to fall for a big live bait, with the larger ones producing larger fish as a rule. Be prepared for a fight though—heavy tackle and a nearly locked-up drag are required to turn the fish’s head in the first few seconds of the fight before they cut you off. Rigging techniques include both circle and J-hooks, with anglers targeting snapper often using a pair of J-hooks either snelled inline or with one hook passed through the eye of the second; complete the rig with a Spanish sardine and enough weight to hold the bottom. Live baits and circle hooks will produce bites from both grouper and snapper using either a Carolina rig with the weight ahead of the swivel or a knocker rig, where the weight rides directly against the hook. Many species of bottom fish will also readily attack a variety of artificial lures—slow-pitch jigging with large metal jigs is especially deadly but large bucktails and others will also work well.

Chum and They Will Come


Big yellowtail can be chummed into feeding actively behind the boat using a mix of oats and menhaden oil along with chunks of sardine.

Another secret to successful bottom fishing is chumming. This not only attracts and concentrates fish behind the boat but also gets everyone in a feeding mood. It’s especially effective on yellowtail snapper. Savvy anglers mix a few pounds of inexpensive breakfast oats with menhaden oil in a five-gallon bucket on the ride out to the fishing grounds; once anchored, a few ladles over the side every few minutes along with a few small chunks of Spanish sardines will generally get things moving and soon, fish will start to show on the sounder and behind the boat as they rise up through the water column. Drift back hooked chunks of bait, allowing them to sink naturally at the same rate as the freebies and hold on tight. Once you start catching a few, slack off on the chum but don’t stop completely or the school will move on.

Chumming will also attract an array of bonus species as well, including blackfin tuna, king mackerel, African pompano, sailfish and others. A live bait fished on the surface amid the bottom fishing mayhem can add some variety to the fish box.

Finding the Next Secret Spot

Bottom fishermen typically guard their hot spots with a secrecy normally reserved for matters of national security; once a spot is overfished, it can take weeks or even months for it to regain productivity. While public reefs can offer a good starting point, it’s always more productive to locate your own virgin territory. With today’s advanced through-hull and advanced transom-mounted transducers, it’s often possible to set up the sounder to display at speed, even at cruising speed on some boats. By keeping an eye on the electronics, it’s easy to locate new fishing spots while en route to some old favorites. Trolling is another fishing method which can yield new numbers—spend the morning on the troll, marking productive ledges and reefs along the way, then switch to bottom bouncing at midday when the surface bite slows.

Targeting grouper and snapper can be a great way to introduce younger anglers to the sport, as the action can often be fast and furious. It also offers up some of the best-tasting fish in the sea, too.

Read More: 3 Strategies for Catching Cobia

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