Part 1: Getting a feel for bottomfishing

[Originally published in the July 2021 issue of SKI-BOAT magazine]

By Craig Stubbs

THE world of “bottomfishing” is divided into roughly three groups of people — those who are infatuated with it, those who malign it, and those who merely fill up with a few bottoms if nothing else is eating. I form part of the group of anglers who absolutely love bottomfishing, and through this series of articles I hope to arm you with enough knowledge to strengthen your bottomfishing game.
This first article focuses on some basics for “general” bottomfishing, so please excuse the contents if you have already mastered bottomfishing to some degree. In future articles we will take a look at some differing techniques that can improve the odds of catching specific species or catching good fish in specific “zones”. For the purpose of this series of articles, I am going to focus on the bottomfishing style we practise throughout KZN and all the way through to the Kei and beyond. Further south, techniques and tackle differ quite substantially, predominantly due to the relatively shallow water fishery that exists off the Western Cape.
When you start bottomfishing you need to accept that, just like many other forms of angling, catching quality bottomfish is not always easy, and it is not simply a case of rocking up at a mark, dropping pieces of squid and a heavy sinker, and catching nice plump fish for the pan. Sure, you may catch a few smalls, and maybe even get a decent fish or two, but becoming a good bottomfisherman is a complex affair involving the right equipment, bait, boat control and on-the-water experience.
I will get shot down for saying this, but I am of the opinion that it is probably the most “skillful” form of angling that we practise locally. It is also a form of angling that is very engaging, and extremely “hands on”, unlike many forms of trolling which involve some skilful prep and then a shift to a “hurry up and wait” approach. (PS: I love gamefishing too, so no hard feelings!)
So, what makes a good bottomfisherman? Without a doubt, the most successful bottomfishermen are those who have mastered line control. On my charter boat, I see a lot of anglers who may be bottomfishing for the first time, or aren’t very experienced at it, and the most common factor that they have yet to master, is being able to control their line.
That’s where we are going to start, and where better than to begin than to talk about the tools that will be in your hands?

Simply put, the most functional reel for bottomfishing is a traditional “KP” reel. It’s a simple unbraked drum that can cause you untold frustration when first using one, but when you master it, is unmatched in its ability to control line while fishing, and control fish during a fight.
My go-to KP is a 9-inch version which I use for 80% of my bottomfishing. Under deep water conditions (100m-plus), I may go up to a 10-inch version, and for some lighter tackle applications may go down to an 8-inch version, but if you have to choose just one size, then 9-inch is the way to go. They are available in a straight black Standard version, or a Deluxe version which is laminated and prettier on the eye. Functionally they are much the same, so it pretty much comes down to budget. If they’re looked after (i.e. not dropped), these reels are robust and last well, with the only weak point being the main bearing, but that’s cost effective and simple enough to replace.
Spinning reels do have some limited scope in bottomfishing live baiting applications (I will touch on that in a future article), but do not offer any significant advantage over a KP. I have tried them in the past, but they really aren’t suitable tools for the job, unless you are fishing relatively shallow. This is mainly due to the fact that spinning reels don’t offer you the line control that a centrepin reel does, and also that spinning reels work best with a “pump and wind” form of retrieve, which clashes with the generally straight retrieval of line needed for bottomfishing.

Braided line is an absolute must, mainly due to its thin diameter relative to monofilament. It cuts through the ever-present currents we often find in bottomfishing areas, and allows one to fish in a more “up and down” manner, whereas mono will quickly form a belly and drag in the water.
Fishing straight up and down is important for a few reasons. It minimises getting stuck on the reef which is common once currents pick up and your sinker begins to drag, it minimises tangles with other anglers’ lines, and it also gives you far better bite detection. When it comes to breaking strain, I seldom fish less than 80 lb, and most of my reels are loaded with 100 lb braid (I prefer Berkley Whiplash). Such heavy line may sound like overkill, but its simply a good trade off between pulling power and longevity. Braid from 50 lb and below won’t last nearly as long, and can cut fingers like a razor blade under pressure.
Two quick tips: Don’t overfill your reel and don’t fill your reel under immense pressure. I normally load a KP with a few hundred metres of the cheapest 0.80–1mm mono I can find to part fill the drum, followed by 200–300m of braid, topped with a mono leader around 8m in length and again between 0.80mm and 1mm diameter.

These are probably the least important part of the puzzle, but there are a few things to look out for. I have tried them all, and unfortunately many of the best rods aren’t even in production any longer. Rods such as Purglas’s Zulu Skis, Natal Skis and Cape Skis are all legendary, but there aren’t a huge amount of them on the market any longer, so if you have one then look after it, and if you don’t, keep your eyes peeled.
Any decent fibreglass rod in the 9ft range will do the job. In fact, most of today’s economically priced, stiffer “couta” rods are perfect for use as bottom sticks. A few others worth mentioning are the Poseidon Kingfish rod, Poseidon Geelbek (slightly too heavy for me) and the Elbe Explorer 15kg rod.
Some anglers swear by shorter and softer rods, and they definitely do have an argument for them. I have a few Purglas Tiger Specials that I have sourced over the years and rebuilt to bottomfishing setups and they are amazing. Their shorter length definitely means there’s a lot less pressure on your back when you’re fighting fish or fishing long hours.
However, these shorter rods don’t offer the same trace management ability when you’re lifting long traces onto the boat or getting long traces over the gunnel to drop baits, that a slightly longer rod does, so the choice becomes a personal one. I find myself switching relatively often, depending on the time of year and the likely target species.
Whatever rod you choose, make sure the guides are nice and strong and up to the task, and check them regularly because bottom rods do seem to get banged around a bit on the boat.

Now that you have the right tackle, let’s talk about line control. That line control starts right at the boat. Given that a KP has no brake or form of clutch, if it’s left upright in a rod holder, the drum will spin and line will either pile up around the reel arm or peel off onto the deck — or a combination of both. I have witnessed some monumental line bunches that just a few careless seconds can create, so I make sure to always have some small foam wedges in my pockets or lying around the boat that can be jammed between the rod and the reel to prevent the spool from spinning. Trust me, they cost next to nothing to make, and they will save you a lot of frustration.
The next aspect of line control starts when you lift your traces over the gunnel and prepare to drop baits. Always remember that your sinker needs to be the last thing that goes overboard.
If your trace is roughly rod-length, then keep your sinker in one hand while you use your rod top to get your hooks overboard. Once your hooks are cleared of potential hazards, only then should you drop your sinker. If there are other anglers on board with you, consider their lines too, and underhand throw your sinker a few metres away from the boat.
Once you release your sinker, you need to pay attention to your reel. Any line that slips between the drum and the reel arm at this stage is going to cause a problem, so manage this carefully, and use a finger to control the speed of the drum as your sinker goes down. You will quickly find that this routine becomes second nature — trace out, check line is sitting okay on the reel, drop your sinker, feather the reel to control the speed of the drum as your sinker descends.
Once that sinker hits bottom, it’s all about feel. Generally you will be contending with some form of current or wind-induced drift, so you need to maintain contact with your trace at all times. Luckily braided line gives you incredible sensitivity.
I find that instead of focusing on feeling for bites from fish, concentrate on “feeling” your sinker at all times. With your rod at a relatively constant angle, this feel is maintained predominantly by releasing and gaining a few feet of line, constantly using a “soft hand” on the drum of the reel. Allow your sinker to go down if you have lost bottom contact, or make a quick gain of line if your sinker has hit bottom and slack line forms.
You want your sinker on or about the bottom, but not left too loose that you lose contact and not too tight that you are actually lifting the rod against the heavy weight of the sinker. That is the symphony, and when you get it right, it becomes a rather neutral feeling where you begin to feel just what your sinker is doing.
Once you have mastered this, you are 90% of the way there, and through that connection you will begin to be able to feel the difference between how various species, and even difference size fish bite. Establishing that means being able to feel for better bites, leave your bait in the strike zone for longer, and in turn catching more and better fish.
This article was rather elementary, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to establish “feel”. For me that’s the most important aspect of successful bottomfishing, the point where I think bottomfishing becomes a form of art and what separates the good from the great anglers.
In the next article, we are going to take a more indepth look at traces, bait and presentation.

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