When most anglers think about offshore fishing they immediately think about pelagic fish, Tuna, Marlin, Mahi, Wahoo, etc. Most pelagic fish live and hunt near the surface but there are big fish and huge fish that live on the bottom and most don’t migrate very far (if at all).
Deep dropping in 300 to 1000 feet or more of water off the Mid-Atlantic coast can be frustrating if your hooks come up empty, yet very rewarding if you find a new spot. It all comes down to being willing to put your time in. I first started deep dropping with an old salty charter Captain named Tom Kidwell. He would take me out in all sorts of weather with at least 20-30 new spots to try out. We would drop in waters no shallower than 300 feet, often 600 feet or more with 20 to 48 ounces of lead on hand cranking reels. Most of these spots produced nothing and cranking up heavy sinkers with no fish attached is not a lot of fun. But every now and again his new spot would produce and it felt like we struck gold bringing up nice Grouper, Sea Bass, Blueline Tile, Golden Tile, Barrel Fish, Conger Eels, and every once in a while some weird creature we had to Google when we got back. I became “hooked” on deep dropping every since. Tom has retired from offshore fishing but I still think of him when I’m out there asking myself, What would Tom do?
One true fact about deep dropping. These bottom fish don’t care that you have a 50 foot sportfishing boat than can put out an 18 rod trolling spread. If your little boat has the range and you can get to the fishing grounds (weather permitting), all you have to do is get your bait where they live and you have the exact same opportunity to catch these fish as do the big boats.
Deep droppers are very secretive over numbers or even general locations. You have to build your own numbers up over years. Every trip, even if a trolling trip, do a blind drop for a few minutes. Even at the end of the day when everybody is putting things away to run home, have someone drop to the bottom. If you catch a target species, drop a waypoint. Odds are there are more around in that same general area so work that to find the edges of where fish are and aren’t. Captain Steve Wray (Ocean Pearl Charters) and Captain Joe Delcampo (Captain Cheryl Charters) like to keep a close eye for bottom marks while trolling for pelagics dropping waypoints each time they see decent marks on the bottom.
Golden Tiles are my favorite and they love a nice soft muddy bottom. If you are in 500-700 feet of water and your sinker feels like it is getting stuck in the mud, you are in the right area for Goldens. Grouper like a very rocky bottom, usually big rocks on steep slopes is good. Bluelines can be anywhere along 300 feet or so. They like a rocky bottom but I think the bottom is more like a gravel parking lot.
And be wary of people who may offer to trade numbers. They might hear you had a good day and ask you for your number(s). And they may offer to give you one of their numbers in trade. Don’t do it. Often you will get a crap number for your good number. And there is no telling how many people will now have access to your numbers and your hole will be fished out next time you try. Yes I had to learn this lesson the hard way.
Captain Steve Wray is old school when it comes to deep dropping. Talking about deep dropping in today’s world of instant communication over the internet, cell phones, social media, message boards is all great to promote business but it has taken its toll on the fish populations over the years. Captain Steve and others has been deep dropping in the 70s and 80s before it became popular and few talked about it outside a circle of friends and tackle shops. But the cat is already out of the bag as deep dropping is no longer a secret among a few Captains anymore.
As most of these fish don’t migrate we can deep drop all year. Only issue we have is the Dog Sharks can be very bad in winter months. Depending on how far north or south you are in the Mid-Atlantic the Dog Shark infestation can be bad from late December to early April. But it is possible to deep drop. You will catch Dogs in shallow waters as well as deep water, even in 1000 feet there are Dog Sharks. But there are pockets of meat fish where bottom fish are thicker than Dog Sharks. Just have to find them and not get too frustrated picking through Dogs.
I have the found the best deep dropping to be during high visibility when the sun is high. It is very dark on the bottom and light does not penetrate very well. I have not had much success deep dropping at night. I also like to drop when the current is light. Captain Steve Wray says to always avoid a full moon as this usually means fast moving current making holding bottom harder. The Labrador current normally runs from north to south so best time is during periods of a light south wind that pushes against the Labrador to slow the drift down. If you fish with wind and current in the same direction you will likely have a fast drift. I think the best deep drop conditions are when the current is 1 knot or less. 0.5 knots is ideal. You want to be moving to cover some ground, but not too fast, as the faster the drift the more weight is needed.
Blueline Tiles and Black Sea Bass
Fishing for Blueline Tiles and Black Sea Bass (BSB) in deep water is a lot like Croaker fishing, only in deeper water. The hard part is simply finding them and the easier part is catching them. You can mark Bluelines, but often you will not because they stay right on the bottom. If there are BSB mixed in with the Bluelines then you can mark them because sometimes the BSB are not tight on the bottom. You are looking for a rocky bottom, but not huge boulders. More like the rocks you might find in a garden or gravel parking lot. Little crabs and crustaceans live in those rocks and that is what the fish are primarily feeding on. You will see little crabs spit up on the deck or find them in the bellies when you clean them. If you zoom your fish finder to at least 4x you can often tell you are in a rocky bottom as you’ll see the jagged edges on the bottom. Sand will look the same whether zoomed or not and a sand floor is not likely to hold bottom fish unless there is structure there like a wreck.
For Blueline and BSB in shallower waters up to 300 feet, I just use a simple double bottom rig 80 lb mono with J hooks. Small loop on the top to attach the swivel from your rod, 2 loops (or more) for your hooks and a larger loop on the bottom for your sinker. 6/0 Gamahatsu is about right. They go through an 80 mono leader loop just about right. Don’t make your loops for the hooks too long as they will twist easily from the fish spinning on the way up and you’ll spend too much time untwisting your rig. While you can make fancier rigs with beads and things that glow, I have not found it makes any difference. Any meat or squid will work, just have to be over them. Fresh is always better. Once you feel the bite, set the hook hard. Blueline have small mouths that are hard and you have to get the hook set all the way through or the fish will shake off on the way up. The sharper the hook the better. Bluelines can be caught with circles but it is much more fun to set the hook. And I almost never gut hook a Blueline with a J hook as long as you set the hook quickly. You can catch both Bluelines and BSB with jigs. I like to add a piece of meat to the jig for added enticing. Don’t jig real fast. Just a slow lift and drop is all that is needed.
Often the BSB are mixed in with Blueline Tile and the good news is they can be caught on the exact same rigs and baits as Tile. Just be sure to check the regs on BSB. While Tile are open year around, BSB has open and closed seasons. We keep all Blueline Tile that are caught no matter how small. If you throw back the small ones, most likely they will not survive so you just needlessly killed a fish for no reason. BSB fishing presents more complicated issues when they are deep. First the season has to be open and each BSB has to be 12 1/2 inches to keep (at the time of this writing, check current regs). If we are catching BSB in a closed season while deep dropping or catching BSB smaller than 12 1/2 inches in deep water, we will move away from that spot to minimize killing of BSB. The research on venting vs no venting is still not settled. Some scientists say venting does more harm than good. I do believe using a barbless hook to force them back to the bottom may be a better option than venting. Every angler has to try to do what they can to conserve the species without needlessly killing a fish just for sport. This is the main reason there is no release citation program for deep drop species as many fish would die just so an angler can get another citation on their belt.
Now let’s get really deep
Once you get into deeper water, 500-700 feet or more for grouper or golden tile, I upsize my leader to 150-200 lb mono and put them on 3 way swivels. Longer leader on the bottom hook and shorter above it. You can dress things up with glow tube, beads, squid skirt, anything to make things more visible as it is dark that deep. Captain Steve Wray suggest using even heavier rigs using 400 lb mono with glow in the dark chaf tubing and beads. Captain Steve says that big Goldens and Grouper can saw through leader material very fast and risk losing big fish.
Even adding a light will help. Fresh meat is best, nice long strips. False Albacore, Skip Jack Tuna, or even Mahi strips from bailing off the balls is good fresh bait. Frozen squid works, but not near as good as fresh meat strips. Captain Stan (Blind Date Charters) recommends when targeting big fish, use big baits, even whole croaker. Live bait does work too. When looking for big goldens, use strip baits (bluefish, false albacore, skipjack) 12 inches long or maybe even longer. Captain Joe suggests using a carcass of a small to medium sized bluefish hooked whole when targeting grouper. It is important to rig these baits carefully so they don’t spin.
Captain Stan and Captain Joe both suggests always place your bait in the water and watch how it drifts. If it flutters along like a baitfish, let it go. If it spins, start over or you will have a large mess on your hands. Tangled rigs can be a problem and could result in lost opportunities. Captain Joe suggests on your rig hits bottom, crank up fast a few cranks to untwist the rig, then put back on the bottom. I like larger (10/0 or bigger) circle hooks for the deep water as it’s harder to set a hook with that much line out. Captain Wray likes to go even bigger suggest circle hooks as big as 18/0 Eagle Claw Sea Circle hooks as these fish all have huge mouths. Let them eat, count to 3 to 5 seconds, then just reel. I always bring way too much bait in fear of having a great bite and running out. But you can always use fresh cut strips once you start catching. In the deeper waters of the canyons, while fishing for Grouper or Goldens, you can also catch Barrel Fish, Black Belly Rose Fish, Conger Eels, Hake, and sometimes weird creatures that you’ll have to do a hard google search to figure out what it is. It can be very exciting bringing someone up from the deep and not knowing what it is until it gets to the top. Jigs work too, but often you’ll need the large jigs, like 750 grams and some days that won’t hit bottom as the current is too strong.
Golden Tiles are my favorite to catch and eat. They live in soft, clay-like bottom in 500-700 feet or more of water. Golden Tiles burrow holes in the mud and rest head first in their hole. If your sinker sticks in the mud then you are in the right areas. You will often find these soft muddy bottoms on the south walls of canyons near lobster buoys. Along the walls of the canyons you will find areas of ridges and valleys. I have found the best areas for Golden Tiles to be not the top of a ridge or the bottom of a valley but the slopes. Your chart plotter will often show these but Google Maps can also give you hints on where these are. I like to do a slow drift up the wall. Golden tiles may bite gently or violently so be ready for any bite. But once hooked you will know it. We had one 40 lb Golden Tile bite and manage to get back into his hole. At first we thought we were snagged but it’s not often one snags when fishing in mud. We circled the boat around trying to free the snag from different angles with no success. Finally we resigned ourselves into breaking it off by locking down the drag and with 2 of us pulling we tried to break it free. As we were approaching 50, 60, 70 lbs of pressure, suddenly we felt head shake and up came a 40 lb Golden Tile.
Grouper can be found anywhere along rocky hard bottoms. Particularly big rocks the size of boulders that give them places to find shelter and cover. I usually use the same rig for Grouper that I use for Golden Tiles. The north walls of canyons are often good places to start as they are often rocky. Look for areas along the continental shelf where shallow water meets deep water in a short amount of distance. Wreckfish are also a possibility in the same areas. Most often the initial Grouper bite is hard and violent as the Grouper tries to get back into his cave or hole. While Grouper fishing you will often catch Black Belly Rose Fish, Barrel Fish, Conger Eels and all sorts of weird critters so be ready for anything. Big sharks are often brought up from the deep too. If you find areas where theBlack Belly Rose Fish are thick, send down a rig with 5 or more hooks and load up. These tasty critters are not very big but excellent table fare. The top of seamounts are often loaded with Rosies.
How much weight is needed varies greatly from trip to trip as wind and current and drift speed determines how much is needed to hold bottom. There are days when 16 ounces will hold fine and days that even 40 ounces won’t hold. I like a light south wind that pushes against the Labrador current that runs north to south. If the wind and current are aligned then the drift speed is often too much. Deep dropping on a full moon can be a challenge as the current is often at its strongest.
Best reels are those with a fast retrieve ratio as you spend a lot of time cranking up. 65-80 lb braid is about right. My Torium 30’s are just about right for most deep dropping. Captain Stan of Blind Date Charters says m ake sure your reels have enough line. Remember that because of the currents, you won’t be fishing straight up and down. To reach bottom at 600 feet,I recommend you have at least 1500 feet (500 yards) of line as it is not uncommon to need twice the water depth to reach bottom . A medium action rod 20-40 lbs of at least 6 foot should do the trick. You don’t want a rod too light but you also don’t want to fish with a broom stick either. I like to add a short top shot of mono or fluorocarbon leader of about 80 lbs. I usually only add about 5 feet or so connected with a Sebile knot. The Sebile knot is a 100% knot that is very slim and won’t get caught in your guides. End the top shot with a bead and snap swivel. The bead is simply so your anglers don’t jam the swivel into your rod tip. I do have 2 Daiwa Tanacom Bull 1000 electric reels on bent butt rods. An electric reel is great when prospecting new waters. Often once the fish are found using the electrics, anglers will drop manually. Remember, if a fish is caught on an electric reel, you cannot claim a citation, state or world record. I caught a 73 lb snowy grouper using my electric that would have been the world record had I cranked manually. But it still ate good.
State and World Records.
One exciting aspect of deep dropping is you never know what you might hook into at any given time. You just might be kicking yourself in the head if you bring up a state or world record fish and you didn’t follow the rules established. Each state has their own policies for records but generally follow similar guidelines as International Game Fish Association (IGFA). According to Captain Stan Gold of Blind Date Charters, the last few years have seen IGFA records for golden tilefish, blueline tilefish and snowy grouper. Anyone interested in submitting a catch for a potential record needs to be familiar with the IGFA rules. This means, among other things, no more than two hooks on a bottom rig, no electric reels, and nobody except the angler can touch the rod or the line until the leader is in reach. Captain Stan recommends if you are interested in qualifying catches, recommend joining the IGFA and thoroughly reviewing the rules and current records. Get to know your IGFA certified observers in your area as they have the training needed to help you with any record fish caught.
Check your state regs on Tile and Grouper limits. At the time of this writing, Virginia has a limit of 7 Tiles per person and this includes both Golden and Bluelines. You can have a mix of Golden and Blueline, but can’t have over 7 per person. Grouper is 1 per person for all Grouper species including Wreckfish. And in Virginia you have to have a Tile/Grouper permit. The permit is free and cannot be obtained online. You have to visit one of the MRC license agents to get the permit. The permit expires December 31 every year and must be renewed each year. And for every Tile and Grouper caught, there is mandatory reporting that goes with the permit. Check the VMRC page for details.
Every anglers should think about conservation and only bring home as much meat as needed. Some states have not established limits on all bottom fish but this does not mean anglers should catch and keep excessive numbers of these bottom fish. If you wipe out your own honey holes odds are these slow growing fish will not replenish in those areas in your lifetime. Captain Stan suggests not only follow state and federal regulations, but also some establish some of your own self-imposed rules. This is a tremendous fishery, and we want to maintain it for ourselves and our children. For example, while the current limit for tilefish is seven fish per person for all tilefish species combined, I normally limit myself to one golden tile per angler. If we reach that limit, I’ll shift to another quarry, such as grouper, wreckfish or bluelines says Captain Stan.
Deep Drop Charters in Virginia
Well since this is my article and my website, I would like to make a plug for my charter. While I just started in the charter business, I have been deep dropping off Virginia for years and have had good success. Give me a call to schedule a deep drop trip. But to be fair, here are my top charters that have a solid reputation deep dropping that I highly recommend.
Seaduction. Captain Mike 757-329-5137
Capt Cheryl. Captain Joe 757-639-8363
Blind Date. Captain Stan 757-944-0850
Ocean Pearl. Captain Steve 757-237-7517
Get out there and catch em up. Often on a slow trolling day, the day can be saved by bringing home some tasty bottom critters. And trust me, all these are great tasting fish.