Cruising sailors have a long tradition of trolling fishing lines behind the boat while sailing, with widely varying degrees of success at attracting the mahi-mahi and tuna that roam the upper layers of the world’s tropical oceans. It can be a productive way of supplying the crew with fresh and tasty protein on an ocean passage.
As fun, and productive, as that can be it is only scratching the surface of what is available. With just a little bit of equipment, and some knowledge of technique, the deep waters that surround the islands we visit can help supply some of the best eating fish that swim.
Although we fish a LOT from our boat as we cruise, we tend to avoid fishing in and around the shallow reefs. By not eating reef fish, we reduce the risk of ciguatera poisoning, and avoid competing with the local fisherman. Many tropical islands rise steeply from the ocean floor and a very short distance from our anchorages are waters over 200 feet deep that are rarely fished, and are home to some of the tastiest fish in the ocean.
In many cases, fish that start out their lives in shallow water on the reef, then move deeper and deeper as they grow and mature. The Red Hind Grouper is a popular example of this. You will almost never find a fish over 5 lbs less than 80 feet deep, but over 100 feet deep they are all that big—and bigger. In addition to being bigger and good eating, it is almost unheard of for fish from more than 150 feet deep to be contaminated by ciguatera toxin. Finally, since very few people bother to fish this deep, fish are much more common and less wary of biting baits and lures.
Of course there are downsides… you are fishing with heavy weights in deep waters. It is hard work. Winding in 1000 feet of line is not anybody’s idea of a fun time. Even with no fish attached, the two, three, even six pounds of lead sinker are a chore to retrieve. This is not “sport” fishing. It is fishing to put meat in the freezer. It takes some specialized gear, and the deeper you want to fish, the more specialized it gets. For “normal” deep water fishing the gear can be shared with more typical fishing techniques, and can earn its space on the boat doing several jobs.
As you look at fishing deep, there are a couple of choices to be made. Bait? or artificial lures? and Deep (100 to 400 feet)? or REALLY deep (down to 1500 feet)?
If you are a beginner, and want to explore vertical jigging with artificial lures fishing modestly deep, from 100 to 500 feet, I recommend a spinning rod. Not so long ago this would have been a crazy recommendation, but with modern high tech lines replacing nylon monofilament, the spinning rig has a lot to recommend it. It is light, it has a high retrieve speed, it is flexible, and it is easy to handle. Modern spinning reels have the power needed to crank a large grouper up off the bottom.
In our page on “Jigging Tackle” I have a number of specific recommendations that will help you get started with tackle for vertical jigging.
For deep dropping bait, read on…
The more common way of fishing deep is with bait such as strips of fish or squid. Here we need to drop a heavy weight (sometimes as much as 8lbs!) down sometimes over 1000ft.
The most important piece of gear for this kind of fishing is actually the kind of line that you put on the reel. There is no compromise possible here, you need to use one of the modern “super lines”. Made of Spectra, Dyneema, or other high tech fiber they are extraordinarily thin for a given breaking strength, and have almost no stretch. In this video, Line Choice Video I explain why I make the recommendations I do for this kind of specialized fishing.
The small diameter of these lines is critical because with 1000 feet of line out, minimizing the resistance of pulling that through the water as the boat drifts along is critical to keeping lures and baits at the depths needed to catch fish.
Picking a breaking strength rating for the line is a bit of a give and take. Heavier line means less chance of breaking off a truly large fish, but the larger diameter makes keeping your bait on the bottom more difficult. For most people, a line of between 50 and 80 lbs breaking strength is a good choice. It also makes sense to get a line that is color coded by depth. There are lines that change color ever 25 feet with markings every 5 feet. It really helps keep track of how far above the bottom your bait is.
For this outfit I have a hard time deciding on my favorite line. The choices are PowerPro Depth Hunter, which is color coded and marked for depth, which is nice to have, or PowerPro Maxcuatro which is not marked for depth, but is 25% thinner for the same strength which will let you get deeper with lighter weight, but at significantly higher price. The 65lb Maxcurato line is actually the same diameter as the 50lb Depth Hunter. Decisions, decisions.
For fishing bait this deep, a hand held rod just doesn’t cut it. The best rod for this application are ones that are designed to fish from a rod holder, and have “bent butts.” The other important feature is all roller guides, and a swivel roller tip. The best bargains on this kind of rod is from a small USA company called Okiaya. They make a great line of saltwater trolling rods and reels that are very well made, and come with very reasonable price tags.
People who are going to be fishing this way a lot go with an electric reel. It certainly makes bringing up the line from a quarter mile under the boat a lot easier. But… while electric reels have come down in price a lot, they are still beyond what can be justified based on the fish that will be caught. Check out this link for a low budget, yet fully functional solution to this problem: Deep Drop Fishing–On the Cheap
Here is the reel that works for this system: A Penn Senator 115L2. About $150. A bargain!