Deep-dropping between 500 to more than 1,000 feet has blossomed in popularity. The rewards are delicious table fare such as tilefish, queen snapper, barrelfish, grouper and others—all available at the push of a button. With the depths we can explore via electric reels and assists, one never knows what surprises await on the bottom—or on the way up. It’s exciting. But is it sporting?
Modern electronics and fishing tackle have advanced the exploration of this relatively new frontier. I enjoy catching ultra-deep bottom dwellers, but with traditional tackle. For the uninitiated, hand-crank deep-dropping isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Furthermore, investing in an elaborate electric deep-drop system and wiring a boat to power one isn’t required. The tactic is open to anyone seeking a deepwater challenge. Here’s what it takes.
Searching With Sonar
Sharp bottom readings and target separation clearly reveal specific ocean-floor composites, bait and even target species—all prime dropping criteria. On my boat, I power my 9-inch Simrad NSS Evo3 and 24-inch NSO Evo3 units with Simrad’s BSM-3 broadband chirp echo sounder and Airmar transducer. My units are capable of reading depths to 10,000 feet.
Chirp technology simultaneously broadcasts three sonar frequencies, compared to a traditional single frequency. This, in turn, provides up to 30 percent more clarity and definition over standard-
technology fish finders and transducers. It also enables fine-tuning around the high (200 kHz) and low (50 kHz) frequencies for even more-precise readings.
Small Reels Excel
Small is big here. Given far drops and seemingly longer wind-ups, light tackle prevents angler fatigue. It also heightens the feel of bottom and fish interactions. Small conventional reels holding a minimum of 400 to 500 yards of light braid get the nod. Durability is paramount because reels must handle heavy weights and excessively long cranking chores, often with large fish such as golden tiles, barrelfish and grouper.
Our main hand-crank, deep-drop setups include Penn Torque 15 and 25 lever-drag, two-speed reels. For extreme drops, I use a size-30 lever-drag, two-speed model. Low speed, despite reclaiming line at a slower rate, provides the cranking power and ease to wind up excessive weights and big fish.
Light Lines Win Out
Despite hefty weights and dreams of double-digit-size fish, light braid is the trick. For most hand-crank deep-dropping, 20-pound is widely used, with 15-pound gaining in popularity, especially when flutter jigging for deep bottom dwellers.
The lighter the braid, the more line capacity a reel acquires. Furthermore, light braid generates minimal resistance on the drop, imperative for efficiently penetrating great depths. Sensitivity is also enhanced. Light braid is unquestionably strong and durable enough for hand-crank deep-dropping, providing you manage the fight. More on this later.
Light, strong rods prevent angler fatigue and heighten the overall deep-drop experience. Our deep-drop rods are 6 ½- and 7-foot Penn Carnage III models rated for 50- to 100-pound-test line. When excessive weights are required, we’ll use a 6-foot Penn International VI rod rated for 80- to 130-pound line.
Slow Drift Is a Must
Deep-dropping is best with little or no current. Strong drifts driven by current or wind make it difficult to reach and hold bottom. In addition, tilefish, for example, thrive in colonies and are encountered over specific bottom areas where they can burrow. Adequate soak time for baits on or extremely close to bottom is critical to uncover these zones.
Factor in how wind and current will influence a drift, set up well ahead of the mark, and allow ample time to establish a bait soak tight to the bottom. Boat management controls the drift. For example, when baiting specific bottom pieces or small zones, or to simply slow a drift, use just enough throttle to stem the current.
Bounce the Bottom
With a traditional deep-drop rig with a weight affixed to its bottom, periodically pause the line to maintain a straight descent. Upon hitting bottom, reel up a few turns. Every minute or so, based on drift, free-spool to reacquire bottom, then reel up a few cranks. As the line begins scoping out, either reposition the boat back over the rig or retrieve and redeploy it.
A straight up-and-down line attitude avoids hanging bottom and helps generate effective hook-sets. Reeling straight up gets tight to fish much faster than first having to wind slack from a scoping line. Constantly consult the sonar—reel the rig up and over bottom humps, then free-spool on their backsides to reacquire bottom.
When flutter jigging, bounce the irons along bottom. Heavy flutter irons reach bottom quite well, especially paired with light braided lines. Flutter-style jigs and irons are a newish twist to deep-dropping, proving as potent as traditional cut-bait rigs. Recently, off Cape May, New Jersey, Tom Daffin and I dropped both offerings for blueline and golden tilefish—the catches were pretty much evenly distributed.
Read Next: How to Fish for Bottomfish
A Waiting Game
To strike deepwater fish on flutter-style irons, rapidly wind tight until the weight of the fish is felt, then rear back. Meat baits, however, require a bit more finessing.
Hand-crank, deep-drop rigs average between two and six inline circle hooks. The multihook rigs allow anglers to harvest more than one fish per drop. Deepwater bottomfish key in on scent and vibrations. Adding an LED deep-drop light at the top of a meat rig, or choosing a jig with glow accents, helps fish locate a bait.
Wind tight upon a pronounced tap. If the fish doesn’t run line off the reel, see if a couple of other fish might bite too. That is, keep the other baits in play by holding the rig stationary. As the weight and pull on the rod increase, wind up the haul. Yelloweye and blackfin snapper and blackbelly rosefish are common “load-up” targets.
Relax on the Wind-Up
The laborious part comes when cranking up a heavy weight, even without a fish. To counter this, simply place the outfit in a rod holder and conveniently wind up line. Save your stamina for fighting a fish. And even then, the rod holder has provided many an angler with a relaxed advantage over bottomfish.
Unlike horsing a big fish off a wreck, it’s the opposite out deep. Granted, a grouper could hole up in structure. But for the most part, tilefish, barrelfish, queen snapper and others are easy pickings; there’s usually no significant structure to pose a serious threat. Once tight, simply relax and wind at your own pace while keeping tight to the fish. There’s something special about enjoying a fresh fish dinner that you had to work for.