Probing the Ocean Depths With Deep Droppers

News & Tips: Probing the Ocean Depths With Deep Droppers...

In areas where reef fish are over-fished (even in the Bahamas), anglers today are dropping baits ever deeper. Such species as tilefish, queen and silk snapper, and then groupers such as snowy, warsaw, speckled hind and yellowedge make up most of the catch.


A 50-pound snowy grouper hooked in 900 feet on a boat backed away from the oil rig.

As the saying goes, you can do it the hard way or the easy way, and nowhere is this more true than deepwater fishing. Personally, I think anglers should earn their fish by manually reeling them up. Push-button electric reels are used 100 percent by commercial fishermen going deep, and this method has no sporting aspects. In addition, if you're going after a state-record fish, electric reel equipment will prevent you from being listed in the rod and reel division. Instead, you will be relegated to the restricted division, made up of commercial gear, trotlines or spearguns.


I found that out after manually cranking up a string of tilefish in 1,100 feet off Texas, back in 1983. Our boat used a bicycle reel mounted amidships, equipped with 300-pound mono line. On this day, it barely reached bottom. My biggest tilefish that day weighed 21 pounds, and remained a Texas record in the restricted division for at least 20 years.


Following that trip, we began using manual tackle, as in 50-pound trolling gear. After trolling around deepwater oil rigs, we'd tie the boat up for the night, and make a few deep drops. With Dacron fishing line, we could actually feel bites so far below. With mono fishing line, little or nothing — sometimes we got an occasional tremble of the rod tip, which meant a big fish was rampaging down there, though barely translated through 900 feet of mono line that stretched like a rubber band. You dropped down, waited a half hour, and reeled something up. Often it was a snowy grouper in the 50-pound class. We registered one of those snowies as a Texas record in 1992, at 49 pounds and a few ounces, and it stood for a few years. Also a yellowedge grouper record.


Other deepwater fish brought up were small sharks and a couple of hideous, deepwater eels about 6 feet long, armed with rows of cruel teeth. If one of those eels had gotten loose in the boat, we might have abandoned ship. We would cut the hook off, and each eel floated away in the dark, like a thick rope.


Two or three drops, and we were usually done for the night, going back to catching blackfin tuna on the surface under the platform's bright lights. Dropping deep was simple fishing; I kept an 8-pound sash weight in a bucket (where the rusty thing wouldn't roll around on deck) and tied it to a length of 300-pound mono leader, with two large 16/0 circle hooks attached. You baited up with a couple of stream-lined, strip baits cut from a tuna or blue runner, and let her drop. It seemed to take that weight five minutes to reach bottom, and 20 to reel it back. Maybe it was less.


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Deep-drop lights that attach to fishing leaders allow light deep in oceans to help attract fish.

Since then, deep-dropping has become more sophisticated. Companies now sell ready-made deep-drop rigs with five circle hooks, with numerous glow beads attached, and stream-lined, 5-pound lead weights. You can also buy a light that attaches to the leader. It's built with o-rings, has an on-off switch and is built to go very deep without imploding. The deep-drop veterans now have a saying: "No light, no bite." That's a reminder that it's quite dark down there, probably very gloomy even at high-noon during a flat calm sea, which allows maximum sunlight penetration. Down that deep, fish either hunt by sense of smell, motion or they watch for natural lights produced by other critters.


Fishing with electric reels means spending more money, of course. You have to have AC plugs available on deck, for instance. On a big boat, that's no problem, though the cost of running a big boat these days is skyrocketing, thanks to fuel prices. As for electric reels, they cost far more than manual reels and scarcely resemble fishing reels.


Companies such as Elec-Tra-Mate have been around for a long time, getting started no doubt with the commercial fishing community. These are the red devices attached to standard Penn reels, used aboard partyboats for more than 30 years. I was handed one in 1982, for instance, while fishing aboard a partyboat out of Port Aransas, Texas that was anchored in 250 feet.


More modern deepwater reels have popped up everywhere in the past five years. A recent Internet search for electric reels found models from Daiwa, Shimano, Banax, Fladen, Alpha, Precision and Dolphin. They all cost from $500 to $900 each. There are also Kristal reels, which list all the way up to $2,400 each. They're often reserved for expensive billfish boats, whose crews like to make a deepwater drop now and again, taking a break from trolling. For them, it's a dependable way to return to port with fresh fish for dinner that very night. 


It's a different kind of fishing. The gas inside these fish doubles every 33 feet they rise towards the surface, unless they expel it, so there is no chance of releasing these fish alive. Sharks don't have a swim bladder full of gas, so they seem to survive. For those of us cranking on a manual reel, the job does get easier; after a couple hundred feet, the fish becomes more buoyant, neutralizing that 8-pound iron weight.


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Electric fishing reels help with the rigors of pulling in a deepwater fish.

With 80-pound braid or 50-pound Dacron line, each nibble is telegraphed straight to your rod tip, and it's infinitely easier to tell when a fish has grabbed on. The rod tip dips, and you either "hit the button" (as in electric button) or reel fast, so that the circle hook grabs him.


Reeling these fish up takes time, of course. If no sharks are around, you can take a break and go sip a drink. During the last 50 feet of ascent, the gas in a fish really expands, and a big grouper will take off in a wild direction, sometimes erupting on the surface 40 feet away, and on the wrong side of the boat. They float like a buoy almost half out of the water, even with 8 pounds of iron attached. If that fish should somehow become unhooked, you can bet your last dollar he will remain on the surface, until you drive the boat over and gaff him. That hasn't happened to us yet; circle hooks generally stay attached to the fish. 


These deepwater fish (whether snapper, grouper, tilefish or wreckfish) are quite good to eat. They're slow-growing in that frigid environment far below where no man has ever been, an environment with no seasons. It's best to try catching a few of these fish, but don't get hoggish. It takes years to grow more of them.


Where the beach is close to serious depths, one may assume these deepwater fish are being impacted a great deal more than where the continental shelf drops off 100 miles offshore, such as around Tampa in Florida, or Galveston in Texas. With fuel prices high, these far-flung fish stocks may see little fishing pressure in the future.