Down Deep Part 5

[Originally published in the March 2022 issue of Ski-Boat magazine]

By Craig Stubbs

IF you are a bottomfisherman, you will be well familiar with a grouping of fish we commonly refer to as “reds”, or “red fish” (not to be confused with the well-known American sea bass, the red drum). This generic term covers a number of species, not limited to but commonly including slingers, soldiers (santers), trawl soldiers (trollies/blueskin), dageraad, Englishman and Scotsman. These species are all largely red in colour with a few variations in body shape and body markings, and when they’re fresh out of the water they are often spectacularly beautiful.
Not only are larger specimens of reds great sport fish, providing a solid and stubborn pull when hooked, but they also make for a great tasting meal, with many options whether whole or filleted. My current favourite is a large, whole smoked soldier served with a good sourdough or craft bread and a glass of crisp white wine. Art de vivre at its best.
The red fish species are by far the most common species that you will encounter on bottomfishing trips, and make up the bulk of most catches. Frustratingly, many catches comprise smaller fish, but given that all these species are widespread and all grow to formidable sizes, how does one go about targeting quality red fish, instead of just “smalls”?
I may be repeating some content from previous articles, but it’s all about upping the odds in your favour. There are three important things one needs to take a look at if you want to be in that proverbial group of 10% of anglers who catch 90% of the good fish. These factors are traces, location and bait presentation.

The author’s two-hook trace for targeting bigger red fish.

We covered general traces and hook size in a previous article, but if you only want to target larger red fish, then you can and should adjust your trace accordingly.
Get rid of the smaller 1/0 and 2/0 hooks from your traces, and use a two-hook trace with nothing less than 5/0 or 6/0 hooks. Keep your snoots to around 60cm each and tied with mono of around .80mm line. By eliminating the smaller hooks you should, in theory, reduce your bycatch of smaller fish, and the larger hooks allow you to correctly present larger, well-constructed baits.
I rely on circle hooks for my two-hook traces when looking for big red fish, as they almost totally eliminate smalls which cannot get the hooks into their mouths, while the larger fish which we are targeting have no problem sucking in that circle hook, allowing it to do its work.
J-hooks, although equally effective at hooking good fish, often “accidentally” hook smalls in and around the mouth area, as they don’t rely on the entire hook having to enter a fish’s mouth.
I see many anglers using traces made of 1mm to 1.2mm mono, and they do catch fish, but the line is very rigid which eliminates some of the subtle bait action, and I believe its thick diameter can scare off wary fish.

Each of the red fish species has a preferred water depth range, and this also varies from population to population along the coast, but water ranging from 35- to 90-odd metres is where I catch the majority of my red fish. Trawl soldiers are the exception, as they prefer the deeper end of that range, and occur all the way down to a few hundred metres deep.
Reds are all structure-orientated fish, ranging from reef to reef or sometimes resident on a particular reef. I don’t go looking for massive pinnacles or big drop-offs which are often the home to smaller shoals of fish. Instead I concentrate on more isolated, scattered areas of reef, or areas with a fair amount of flat reef and sand patches. The larger red fish appear to travel in smaller groups of only a few fish and often slightly away from the shoals of small fish which invariably gather right on top of larger pieces of structure.
If my finder screen shows a few small flecks of activity on a flattish piece of reef, that’s when I get most excited and expectant of a bite from a decent fish.
When it comes to hunting these bigger fish, keep mobile on the water. I have had days where every down on a particular spot has resulted in an almost instant pull from a quality fish, only to return to the same spot the next day, but all the quality fish had disappeared and been replaced by smalls.
In a situation like that I will sound around and see if I can locate some fish holding nearby, or else open the throttles and head to the next spot in search of decent bites. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t stick it out in search of bites, but red fish in particular are either present and feeding or not. Although drift after drift can sometimes yield a decent rockcod or the likes, this technique seldom produce bites from good reds that weren’t there the previous drift.
Instead I would recommend you rather move on, and if you are passing by that area later in the day, stop for a down and see if the fish have either moved in or have switched to feeding mode.
Once you find feeding fish, mark that spot and try to time your downs so that one or more of your crew’s lines are in the strike zone at the same time to keep the fish aggressive and feeding.
When moving from spot to spot, pay attention to your depth. If, for example, you aren’t getting bites in 60m of water, don’t spend too much time visiting reef after reef in 60m of water. Rather try shallower or deeper spots in increments of around 10- to 20m.
There are a few theories as to why it happens, but whatever the reason, bottomfish in general seem to migrate from depth zone to depth zone during the day, rather than from reef to reef in a single depth range. Then again, if you find a good bite in, say, 80m of water which suddenly dies down, try other spots in the same depth range and you will be amazed as to how often the bite continues in that zone.

Carl van Hasselt with a big Scotsman.

Sure, a good fish can fall for a hurriedly assembled squashed sardine and piece of sunbaked chokka when they’re feeding aggressively, but by and large, better thought-out and presented baits result in better catches.
It’s essential that you have a prebought box of chokka and a box of sardine baits in the cooler box when you are planning on spending a day fishing for reds. There are days when, for some reason or another, a whole sardine is pounced upon when even live baits don’t get bites, and there are days when chokka is first prize.
Englishman in particular love a well presented chokka bait with a few tentacles, often in combination with a piece of meat bait incorporated.
In general, don’t just try to fit as much meat onto the hook as you can when preparing a bait. That often results in a bait that has little inherent movement and crowds the hook point, resulting in missed bites. Take your time to cut your baits correctly and build them accordingly.
I love a chokka tentacle or two threaded onto the hook followed by a nice piece of fish fillet or portion of sardine or red-eye.
My preferred baits for targeting red fish include:
• Chokka (often combined with a fish fillet or portion).
• Whole sardine or, even better, a whole fresh red-eye sardine (with the tail chopped off to prevent it spinning on the way down).
• Live maasbanker (great bait for large soldiers).
• Live mackerel are often too big for most red fish, but large Scotsman find them irresistible.
• Fish fillets (often smaller red fish), cut and trimmed to size are also very effective.
There are days when bites are subtle and one has to be patient in order to wait for an opportunity to set the hook, but when they’re feeding strongly, a good red bite is aggressive. Once hooked, they shake their heads and bodies which translates into a series of hard head nods being felt through one’s rod tip.
Good luck out there. And remember, there is no right or wrong way to do things to guarantee results, but if you want to be one of those who often catches good fish, then all those “little differences” in your traces, baits and presentation, can produce more, and better fish for you than those around you.

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