Setting up your bottomfishing traces

[Originally published in the September 2021 issue of Ski-Boat magazine]
By Craig Stubbs

IN the first of this series of articles (see July/August 2021 issue of SKI-BOAT), we looked at rods and reels, and then spoke about that almost subconscious aspect — “feel”. Bottomfishing tackle can seem a little clumsy or cumbersome to start with, but after a while it will start to “click”, the gear will begin to make sense, and that all important feel will begin to develop. However, feel is nothing if you haven’t got the correct terminal tackle down in the deep, and that is what we are going to look at in this article.
Straight off the bat, you will need to establish what likely species you are going to be fishing for, as there is no, “one size fits all” solution. In the same areas that you’ll find a slinger, with its rather small mouth, could be a big rockcod, with its colossal jaws, and your hook, line and bait choice is all important.
In order to give advice on the traces and hook sizes I would consider, I will break it down to three relatively well-defined categories. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and no physical boundaries exist to stop fish behaving outside the norm. That’s the beauty of bottomfishing — one never knows what one’s next bite may be.

Trace for shallower water.

(30–50m deep with common species being slinger, bream, emperors, soldiers, Englishman and rockcod)
The action in this shallower zone can be very exciting. One generally doesn’t wait long for a bite, but the fish are often on the smaller size.
Generally, the size of the hook is less important that the size of the bait you are presenting, as small mouthed species like slinger, bream and smaller soldiers will peck and chew at big baits on big hooks, but you will battle to hook them if you don’t present a smaller bait, on a correspondingly small hook. When targeting those species, I would recommend a 1/0 to 2/0 size hook, my go-to choice being a good old Kendal Round or a stronger and sharper Mustad Big Gun hook.
Don’t forget that large fish may well be in the area, so a recommended rig when fishing this zone would be a three-hook trace, consisting of a 5/0 or 8/0 Kendal Round hook on the bottom snoot, and two smaller 1/0 or 2/0 hooks above it. My bottom snoot is around 1m long and the smaller hooks on snoots around 50cm each. Using 1/0 three-way swivels should keep you tangle free with recommended monofilament of around 0.8mm.
On the smaller hooks, I thread chokka (don’t forget to add a tentacle or two to give the bait some action) or fish fillet baits. We usually keep a few small redfish which we descale, removing the fillets and cutting those fillets into strips.
On the larger bottom hook, I like a flapped whole bait (mackerel/maasbanker/sand soldier), a whole fillet strip or even a nice live bait if you have one.

Trace for deeper water

(50–90m deep with common species being soldiers, Scotsman, Englishman, musselcracker and rockcod)
As one moves to this depth, and deeper, so the probability of catching slinger and the smaller bream species decreases, and the likelihood of some larger species increases. The number of rockcod species you may encounter grows, and the chances of catching some of those dream fish, like big cracker and copper steenbras start to become feasible. This doesn’t, however, mean that one will only catch big fish, as many scavenger species and smaller soldiers etc can be pests some days.
I generally do away with the 1/0 hooks when I’m fishing this depth, and tend to go slightly larger, using a 10/0 hook on the bottom snoot, a 5/0 hook on the middle snoot and a 2/0 hook on the top snoot. I have fished J-hooks for years, but have found myself leaning more and more towards circles these days in this depth zone. I cannot say one exceptionally outperforms the other, but I am achieving consistently good results with circles, so will stick to them for now. Three-way swivels in the 1/0 t0 2/0 range are sufficient and snoots varying from 0.9mm to 1mm on the big hook, to a slightly lighter 0.8mm on the remaining hooks.
You need to give special attention to baits in this zone. I seldom just thread on blobs of chokka and go down, but rather spend time building some qood quality baits. My bottom hook will often be a live bait, of which my favourite is a mackerel. As gruesome as it sounds, it can yield good results if you cut a few deep slices into the side of the livey or snip its tail off prior to sending it down. This makes the bait act exceptionally erratic and vulnerable which really does produce results.
If you have no live baits, a whole flapped dead bait, or a combo of squid tentacles and a big piece of fillet can make a great bait for rockcod in particular.
On the middle hook, look to form a nice bulky fish fillet, half a red-eye sardine or sometimes a smaller maasbanker (a live one is particularly irresistible to large soldiers). On the top hook, put together a mix of chokka or fresh fillet.
You will notice that I’m not the biggest fan of fishing with chokka. This is because it far too often becomes one’s default bait. Anglers become lazy as it’s easily obtainable, tough on the hook and easy to work with, and they stop spending time seeking live baits and creating fillet baits etc.
Take care when rigging your baits. If you don’t rig them in a streamlined fashion, they will spin as you drop them, and very quickly you will find your traces twisted and your presentation getting a bit messy. Keep an eye on them for the first few metres as they go down, and if they are “helicoptering” bring them back up and reform them.

Two-hook trace for big fish.
Single-hook trace for big fish

There is no specific zone where one can exclusively target big fish, and by big fish, I’m referring to the likes of musselcracker, Cape yellowtail, amberjack, red steenbras and big rockcod.
’Cracker, ’tail and ambers are most prolific in the 50- to 70m depth range off the KZN coastline, and copper steenbras slightly deeper.
All these fish like good structure, and prominent pinnacles, but there are exceptions to the rule, and I’ve caught many fine ’cracker on relatively flat reef.
All the above species can and will be caught on the same tackle, traces and baits as described in the sections above, but if I am specifically targeting them, I will adjust my tackle, baits and tactics accordingly.
In that case I do away with the 2/0 and 5/0 hooks, and fish either a single 10/0 J-hook or big circle hook on an approximately 2m long snoot or I use two 10/0 hooks on slightly shorter snoots of around 0.90mm to 1mm mono.
This pretty much immediately rules out the chance of catching most of the redfish species (with the exception of very large soldiers and good size Scotsman), and narrows your target species to big fish, looking for a big bait.
If I am fishing just a single snoot trace, my first choice of bait is a live mackerel, but most common larger live bait species put you in a strong position for a good bite.
When fishing a two-hook trace, try to fish a live bait on one hook, and a whole sardine on the other hook (a fresh redeye sard is first prize). That sardine does a great job of drawing fish in, and if it gets plucked off the hook, the live bait is next to go. If you don’t have a whole sardine, then a big fillet bait, or juicy flapper also works well.
When fishing for copper steenbras in particular, a whole redfish is also a great bait, but in this case you have to be very patient on the bite, and give the fish a chance to get the bait properly in its mouth before you tighten into it.
The key to this style of fishing is patience. You have eliminated a lot of the smaller fish from the potential bite list, and large fish are simply not always prevalent or feeding, but persisting with this mindset can deliver some exceptional and memorable catches.
You would have noticed I have left daga salmon and geelbek off the mix in all of the above. These species can be caught using the above-mentioned techniques, but numerous articles have been written and run in SKI-BOAT on targeting these fish specifically, as well as the various tricks and techniques to up the odds in your favour, so I won’t repeat what’s already been said.
To wrap up this article, I will touch on what I consider to be one of the most important aspects of catching good quality bottomfish: STOP STRIKING AT EVERY BITE!
Regardless of the depth at which you are fishing, the size of hooks or the bait you are using, you need to allow a decent quality fish to find and eat your bait.
Bearing in mind that small “peckers” vastly outnumber quality fish in most locations, there is a fair chance that a lot of your bites will come from those small fish. If you end up striking at each peck and pull, you are just going to continuously pull your bait out of the strike zone or end up hooking loads of smalls.
I see this often on my charter boat and it’s something I try to drill into my clients.
So, what is the right way to do it?
Let the “smalls” feed while you maintain contact with your sinker. If you have built up some decent baits they will be able to withstand some abuse before the hooks are cleaned, so be patient and wait for a better enquiry.
Once you feel a better pull, use your KP reel to
maintain contact, but do not fish an overly tight line.
This requires a bit of micro-adjustment as you compensate for swell surge etc, but it’s fairly easy once you get the hang of it.
Only when that fish commits to the bait and you actually feel it pull you down, is it time to drive that hook home. On a bottomfishing setup, the majority of that work is done by the reel. Keep the rod at a horizontal or slightly raised angle, and reel hard into the fish as it pulls you down. That is plenty of power to sink the hook.
If you reel into it and miss the fish, immediately let the baits go back down and you may be lucky with the fish giving you a second chance.
In the next issue we are going to look at some potential fishing structure as well as boat handling techniques that should make you a better bottomfisherman.

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