Rockin’ the Gulf

On your next trip offshore, stare at your depth-finder to locate hard bottoms. It’s well worth the effort.

Stopping in the middle of the Gulf with no oil rig in site, the group of seasoned anglers aboard the High Life started to question their captain’s motives.“Are we going to fish HERE?” they asked as they hesitantly stumbled to their feet after dozing off on the long ride offshore.

Capt. Tommy Pellegrin grinned and slipped a frozen Spanish sardine onto a circle hook as the Gravois bobbed up and down in the rolling seas. He then handed each man a rod and instructed them to drop until they hit bottom, then crank up two turns.

Before the other anglers could get their baits down, the first reel was screaming as the angler’s cries of “WHOOOOAAAA” drowned out sounds of drag and line being ripped off the spool.

As sweat poured from his brow, the muscular 20-something angler engaged in a see-saw battle with his unknown adversary until the fish gave up and finally surfaced next to the boat.

Using a hand gaff, the mate swung the big warsaw grouper over the gunwale as a chorus of “We believe you now” rang out across the deck of the Gravois.

“I like to fish the rock piles and reefs like this because of the varied species that can be caught. There are all types of grouper, triggerfish, amberjack — basically any kinds of reef fish you can think of,” said Pellegrin, who operates Custom Charters out of Bayou Bait and Tackle in Cocodrie. “The reef we have out of Ship Shoal near Cocodrie is like a wonderland. Each time we fish there we wonder what species we’ll catch next.

“It’s just a fun place to fish because there are so many different types of fish. My customers really enjoy the variety.”

The crew of excited anglers couldn’t agree more. They quickly boated sow red snapper, several types of grouper, queen triggerfish and amberjack.

According to Jerald Horst, professor of fisheries for LSU/Ag Center, your best chance of catching rare or odd species in Louisiana is while fishing over hard bottom.

“All types of reef fish including all snappers, all groupers, larger predatory jacks, such as amberjack and horse-eye jacks, along with all types of triggerfish inhabit these rises,” he said.

Of these, he says different species are adapted to different bottom types. Snapper and reef fish are hard-bottom dwellers; however, snapper will move off the reef onto mud bottoms to feed.

Some of the more unusual species he has seen are queen snapper, yellowfin grouper and queen triggerfish.

“Also, your only chance of catching a black grouper would be while fishing over one of these hard spots,” he added.

Several years ago, during an El Nino weather pattern, I was aboard the High Life sharing a charter with friends when an odd-looking orange, spotted grouper with bulging eyes and oversize lips was boated. The fish was something that none of us had ever seen.

As the Louisiana representative for the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), I cautioned the angler and crew to handle the fish properly, as it was possibly a potential record. After the fish was weighed and measured, it was examined by several fisheries biologists and finally identified as a marbled grouper, which at that time became the all-tackle IGFA world record.

The current IGFA world record marbled grouper was also taken off of the same reef in July of 2001 by Daniel Landry. The fish, which weighed 22 pounds, 8 ounces, still holds the spot in the record book.

“The marbled grouper is one of the poorest of all researched grouper,” said Horst, one of the biologists who examined the fish. “We really don’t know much about them.”

These widely dispersed rises hold all varieties of reef fish including species we don’t normally see.

“Warmer water and currents from the Caribbean tend to distribute fish eggs far and wide, and the currents bathe those as they settle on the reefs,” Horst said.

 

How to Locate

Hard Bottom

Most small, hard-bottom reefs or rock piles are located while running and watching the depth finder. One of the best ways is to assign someone on the boat to watch the screen of the recorder while running.

A rock pile will appear as a slight rise in the bottom, maybe 5 to 10 feet, as compared to a wreck which will usually rise 20 to 30 feet or more. Fish may also show up on the depth finder as well, depending on the strength and adjustment of your depth recorder.

“Larger reefs, such as the Midnight Lump to the east or the Flower Gardens to the west, will rise much higher, but the smaller reefs and rock piles will appear flat, almost like a flat table top,” said Pellegrin.

Pellegrin prefers to target rocks located in depths of at least 200 feet of water. He finds that more strange and unusual species are comfortable there.

If grouper are his target species, he will fish depths of 300 feet or more to locate the highly prized, white-fleshed quarry.

“If your boat is equipped with a color fish-finder, watch for red on the screen, which usually indicates the hard bottom,” he said. “Grass or fish will appear slightly suspended above the rocks as ‘fuzz.’ Anytime you can find grass, you’ll definitely find some fish.”

 

How to Fish Them

Pellegrin uses several methods to target fish over the hard bottom. If live bait is available, it is his first choice.

“If it’s live, it’s good,” he said.

He suggests using freshly caught hardtails, pinfish, croakers or just about anything else that swims.

Anglers will see more action when limiting the size of live baits. By experimenting, Pellegrin has found that baits 6 to 8 inches in length result in more fish being boated than 12- to 14-inch hardtails, which are more suited to targeting large amberjack.

His choice for bottom brutes is a Carolina rig consisting of a 7/0 39950BL black Mustad circle hook tied to 3 feet of 100-pound mono leader with a 6-ounce egg sinker. Pellegrin uses 50-pound-test monofilament, which he says is sufficient to break fish loose from the bottom. Hook up a lively bait, drop it to the bottom, reel up a couple of cranks and hang on.

Trolling can also be an effective way to pull fish off a reef or rockpile.

“The main attraction when we troll is wahoo, although we’ve taken blackfin tuna and an occasional amberjack or cobia while pulling live baits or lures over the area,” said Pellegrin.

A blue/while Ilander rigged with dead ballyhoo is his No. 1 choice, followed by a pink/white Alien lure outfitted with a squid tail. Don’t be surprised if a marlin appears on the fringes of the reef to try to pick off an easy meal as well.

“Groupers also like jigs,” he added.

Jigs can be very effective when worked properly over hard-bottom rises. Heavy leadhead jigs rigged with soft curltail plastics such as Old Bayside’s Monster Mino in glo or pink have proven to be a winning combination. Other choices include large bucktail jigs in white, diamond jigs or jigs sporting tinsel skirts.

When deep-jigging, it is vital that the action be such that the jig “bounces” as it is retrieved. The rod tip is a good indicator that you are working your tackle correctly, as the angler should focus on keeping “contact” with the jig.

Reel a few cranks then lift the rod sharply, reel and jig. Get your rhythm going, and get a good grasp on the rod. When a grouper hits a jig, it is often an explosive strike resulting in skinned knuckles against the gunnels of the boat or, worse yet, loss of equipment overboard. The pain is well worth the end result when a fat gag grouper or sow snapper pops up onto the surface.

 

Current

When deploying baits over a reef, current plays a very important role. Anytime there is current, it stirs up the area and causes fish to move around and to feed.

Too much current, however, makes it difficult to get the baits down to the strike zone. Heavy lead sinkers in various weights from 6 to 12 ounces or more may be required to properly deploy the bait. Drifting over the rocks requires timing, taking into consideration the sink rate of the jig or bait, as well as strength and direction of the current. Many times the larger sow snapper or other giants will lurk on the fringes of the reef.

 

Advantages of Fishing Hard Bottom

One of the most obvious reasons to fish a reef or hard bottom is there is less pressure on the fishery. These areas are often located in the middle of the Gulf and near no landmarks. Finding them might be tough, but the rewards are great.

“Most areas located offshore in Louisiana are generally a soft-bottom habitat,” Horst said. “Hard bottoms are very scarce off of Louisiana, so reef fish that are attracted to hard bottoms are clustered on what little hard bottom we have.

“Offshore water bottoms are dominated by the various muds discharged from the Mississippi River. These consist primarily of silt and clay. The hard bottoms that are natural are actually patches of limestone that have for some reason maintained their profile against the Gulf’s currents.”

Because these muds have been accumulating for over 10,000 years, they have formed layers thousands of feet deep off our coast. As can be imagined, the weight is horrific and these muds put tremendous pressure on the rock and salt layers beneath them.

This enormous downward pressure has caused the salt and rock beneath to flow and extrude upwards, causing diapirs. Since the density of salt is less than other sediments and mud, it tends to be forced upwards. Horst compares it to pushing down on mud with your hands, causing the mud to poke up and form miniature flat-topped mountains.

Another advantage of fishing over hard bottom is the composition or contour of the bottom itself. Grouper are notorious for charging back into the safety of holes or crevices once hooked, usually rubbing the leader against rusty debris on a wreck or wrapping around the barnacle-encrusted leg of an oil rig.

Hard bottom, although not completely snag free, offers the angler a much better chance of landing that trophy fish once hooked. Those few vigorous pumps of the rod during the first 30 seconds of the fight are the most crucial in breaking the fish free from its rocky home.

 

When to Fish Them

Summer is an excellent time to fish these areas as the heat tends to result in calmer seas, making the fish-fighting experience much more pleasant.

Although bottom-dwellers such as snapper, grouper and amberjack will take up permanent residence on the reef year-round, wahoo and other pelagics will move off in search of cooler water.

Barring a strong hurricane that might displace them, once located a hard bottom reef can produce for many years and become a virtual “can’t miss” fishing spot.

Night fishing over a reef is also an option. Although Pellegrin has yet to fish the area after dark, he knows the largest of the snapper species, the giant cubera snapper, has been taken at night from the waters south of Ship Shoal. Again live bait is the ticket to hooking one of these canine-clad monsters.

Anglers venturing offshore who may be unfamiliar with the numerous species that inhabit these reefs might want to take along a good illustrated saltwater fish reference book. This will help to avoid keeping an undersized or prohibited species in the heat of the battle.

Experiment with your depth recorder to uncover the outstanding hard-bottom opportunities that await you in the Gulf of Mexico. n

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