Ensuring success on the water

[Originally published in the November 2021 issue of Ski-Boat magazine]

By Craig Stubbs

AFTER reading the last two articles on this topic, you should have a relatively good idea of the bottomfish species we are looking for, the tackle we are using, baits we are presenting and a few tips and tricks to get started. In this article we are going to take to the water, analyse some structure and talk about how to position your boat and maximise your fishing time.
Most boats are equipped with modern fishfinders, and a standard 600w skimmer transducer will serve you just fine for the vast majority of your deeper water fishing needs. If you can afford a 1kw “mega” transducer, then go for it, but it is not essential. On the topic of transducers, location and fitment are paramount to reliable and effective sounding, so do your research and measuring before you drill, or consult with industry experts and get your transducer perfectly located on your craft for maximum benefit.
A lot of “newbie” electronic users ask about the 50/200khz frequencies that you can select on the majority of units and which one to use for bottomfishing. There are some technical explanations, but basically the 200khz setting is best for fishing up to at least 100m depth, and will give you clearer detail. The 50khz setting will give you depth penetration all the way down to a few hundred metres, but what you gain in depth, you lose in detail and ability to read/reveal smaller details.

So, now that your tackle’s packed, traces are prepped and you’re on the water, you are going to need some “marks” to start fishing. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t easily part with my prized fishing marks, and the majority of experienced bottomfishermen won’t, but there is a reason for that. It’s because they are gained from begging and borrowing and hundreds of hours on the water, bottom scanning and testing spots.
However, what I will do — and most people would for certain people — is share some of the less secretive spots, and from there you are going to be on your own. Luckily that is not as bad as it sounds, as one can, over the course of a few trips, quickly start to build your own knowledge base of fishing marks. If you can glean just a few marks from a few different anglers at your ski-boat base then use that as a starting point and, as you travel, keep an eye on that fishfinder screen. If you see any bottom deviation, stop, sound, mark, and test fish. You will be amazed how fast you will begin to establish your own spots, and the reward of finding some reef yourself and picking up a few good fish is awesome.
The above advice all relates back to what I said at the start of our very first article, and that is, if you want to develop a love and passion for bottomfishing it’s going to take some time. That’s also why I feel that it is one of if not the most technical and skillful forms of angling out there, but if you put in the “hard yards” you will reap the rewards long term.
Let’s take a deeper look into structure. It’s great to see walls of reef, and plumes of fish show up on your finder screen, but unless these showings represent shoaling species such as geelbek, albacore (Cape yellowtail) or amberjack, you may well be a little disappointed with the results when you drop. There is a reason for this, in that, as much as large fish like large structure, so do the “smalls”; they aggregate around this large structure due to the protection and access to food that it provides. This means that a lot of the time your baits will quickly be stripped with no real reward from bigger fish as they simply do not have time to find your bait.
My suggestion, in this case, is to use your fishfinder and “sound” around, within a few hundred metres of these larger pieces of structure. Look for smaller bits of reef or small showings of fish (even a few small “scratches” on the bottom), mark them, and try these spots. This is often where the better bites will come.
Even if you can’t find any smaller patches of reef, learn how to read “hard” bottom on your sounder, because such “flat reef” can hold surprisingly good fish, particularly big soldiers and other large red fish. Some of my most productive drifts are largely devoid of big structure, and I would imagine the bottom to be pretty flat reef, interspersed with patches of sand and the odd crack and crevice that’s too small to show up on the finder, but just enough to be home to some good fish.

Current is one of the most important aspects of bottomfishing that you will need to come to grips with. It can frustrate you, but it is an ever-present factor that you need to come to terms with and learn how to use to your advantage. The predominant currents on the east coast of South Africa are either a north to south current or what we call a “reverse” current which is a south to north current. Both are, to a degree, affected by winds present on the day.
If there’s too little current, although it makes for pleasant fishing conditions, it seldom produces great catches, as the fish tend to spread out. Combine this with a very slow drift, and you simply aren’t covering enough water to find the fish. Conversely, when the current really starts to pick up, it can reach a point where it is impossible to fish effectively due to line drag in the water, and difficulty in keeping your baits near the bottom.
The ideal drift speed for me, is anywhere from 1.2 to 2.5km/h, which is fast enough to cover water, but not so fast that fishing becomes difficult. When the current does pick up, you must be very accurate with your drift and dropping your baits, but often the fish school up tightly and feed well in strong current, so if you can get your bait into the feeding zone, you can get instantly rewarded.
Current also plays a huge part in fishing certain marks, and it is undeniable that certain spots fish better on particular currents. Say, for example, you have marked some coordinates and caught decent fish on a day when you had a moderate north to south current, but the next time you visit that spot you have a reverse south to north current. You may well find that on this different current your drift misses most of that structure and delivers fewer fish. It thus pays to note what marks fish best under what predominant currents, and be adaptable when you’re on the water.
Here’s a quick tip, particularly for those with 2-stroke engines. Don’t drive 20km to your favourite mark without stopping along the way to check the current. It is best to stop a few times along the way, and if you notice screaming current, change your game plan. There will be the odd occasion that the current is really ripping in shallower water but is fishable by the time you reach your favourite deeper spot, but this is the exception rather than the rule. If I find a strong current (particularly north to south) on my way to deeper water, I’ll often turn around and fish shallower.

This image represents a typical winter’s morning. There’s a light north to south current (blue line), combined with a moderate offshore breeze (grey line). By first establishing one’s drift line by stopping one’s boat and using the GPS track (pink line), one can extrapolate that information, and plan a drift that will pass over your marks (red line and X). Depending on current strength, you may need to move well above your first target before dropping baits.

So, how does one approach and prepare to drop baits onto a patch of reef?
The first thing to do when one reaches an area of marks is to sound around and see if you can pick up some decent showings. It’s incredible how one day showings can be strong on a certain spot, and the very next day there is hardly a blip on the screen. By sounding around an area, you should quickly be able to establish if the fish have moved and, if so, where they may have moved to.
Your “track” function on your GPS is your best friend in this case, as it will show you your exact path over a piece of structure, and by conducting a bit of a “search grid pattern” you should find a few showings. Don’t be scared to travel a few hundred metres around a given mark as fish can move considerable distance as ocean currents expose and cover various pieces of structure.
Once you are comfortable that you have located a few showings, cut your engines and keep your eye on your screen for a few minutes while your crew readies and prepares baits. Your track will expose what path your boat will be drifting along, and by using that as a benchmark, you can now plan your first down.
Armed with the knowledge of what path you will be drifting, fire those engines up again and move “above” those showings you saw while sounding around. Depending on how strong the current is running, you may need to move 100 metres or more past your chosen spot, knowing that it takes a little while for sinkers to get to the bottom. If the current is negligible, you may need to move only a few metres past your mark and before dropping the baits.
The worst mistake you can make is to undercompensate for current and drift, so that by the time your baits hit the bottom, you have already drifted past the fish. That means wasting time winding up heavy baits and sinkers. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve had to say to my crew: “Sorry guys, we’ve missed the drift.” In return I get corresponding grunts and glares, particularly when we’re fishing in deep water.
To catch good fish, you need your baits in the best spots for the longest amount of time, so plan your downs carefully, know where your baits are going to end up, and minimise time spent fishing in “the desert” — large barren areas with little structure, and therefore little chance of getting fish.

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