It takes perserverance and good weather for anglers to catch some of the best-tasting fish of the Continental Shelf.
|Photo by MIKE MARSH|
Reeling up a snowy grouper from 400- or 500-feet is best handled by using an electric reel.
He keeps his 30-foot Bimini model Grady White boat at a marina in Atlantic Beach, a short overland drive from his home-based business in Winterville.
On a warm summer morning, dawn promised a perfect day of fishing as the center console boat left the dock, heading eastward through Beaufort Inlet then across an ocean so slick it felt like the boat was skimming across a pool of mercury. At 40 miles, the boat passed the Big Rock, a normal destination for fishermen out of Morehead City area with a day of trolling on their minds. But Ng continued across the slick sea another 10 miles before idling his 250 HP Yamaha four-stroke engines.
There are not many days when a center-console boat can go that far for bottom fishing without profoundly pounding the anglers. But that’s what makes snowy grouper ideal for small craft. Fishermen can certainly catch the deep-dwellers from large craft. But superbly slick conditions are the only conditions for when they are likely to be caught.
“There’s the break,” Ng said. “Look at those snowy grouper down there.”
Ng circled the area, searched for fish with a color depth-finder. Different-colored patches just off the bottom indicated concentrations of predators.
Snowy grouper also are called chocolate grouper and golden grouper. But N.C. fishermen and federal regulatory agencies call these amazing fish snowy grouper because of the coin-sized white spots on the sides of young fish. As the fish age, they turn coppery or brassy colors and lose their spots. A dark patch running along the top of the dorsal fin further distinguishes them from other groupers.
The depth indicator read 450 feet at the first sheer drop Ng found at the edge of the continental break. Another peak jutted just offshore from the initial dropoff, showing part of the underwater cliff had dropped away, teetering before falling into deeper water, according to a geologic timetable. An underwater valley in between held the greatest concentration of fish.
The trouble with catching them was getting baits to that extreme depth inside a relatively small target area, then reeling up snowy grouper, that can exceed 20 pounds.
While some anglers feel using electric-assist drives with fishing reels isn’t sporting, by the time they reel a grouper 400 to 500 feet, they change their opinion. Add a 2-pound sinker to the terminal tackle and even reeling in a fishless hook represents a challenge.
Ng owns Fish-Ng Accessories, Inc. and his main product is an electric-reel assist called the Precision Auto Reel. Catching snowy grouper and other deepwater species creates an unparalleled testing opportunity for perfecting his equipment.
“When we fish for snowy grouper, we modify our motors by switching the push-button switch for a toggle switch,” he said. “You can’t hold the thumb switch down that long without your thumb getting sore so we offer the toggle switch as an option.
“You leave the rod in the holder, watch for the tip to twitch and hit the toggle switch to set the hook. Once you have him hooked, you keep him coming. Once he’s above the ledges, he’s high enough the rig won’t get hung. But he still might pull the hook because they’re strong fish.”
It sounds easy. But there’s more to deep dropping than dropping bait down and reeling fish up. The difficult part of catching snowy grouper is finding a day with the right conditions and still making yourself head that far offshore when so many fishing opportunities are located between the bank and the break.
The angler must dedicate a special trip to catching snowy grouper because it’s unlikely he ever will catch them fishing shallower water
Another problem is a boat can’t anchor in 500 feet of water. Letting the boat drift at the mercies of wind and current is the only way to keep baits in front of the fish. The calmest days are the only times for attempting an assault on snowy grouper ledges. If it’s too windy, the baits won’t reach bottom because of line drag with the boat moving too fast. Even during a calm day a fishermen can arrive at the break and find current too strong for baits to reach the bottom or at least drift them too far off-course to catch fish.
Ng’s initial drops resulted in fishing-time-eating tangles. A couple of reels full of 130-pound superbraid created a super bird’s nest and the only way to unravel the mess was to cut line. Losing a quarter-mile of heavy super braid is an expensive proposition, so as much of the line was retrieved as possible before the amputating the knotted parts.
Despite the propensity to tangle, superbraid is necessary because the smaller diameter compared to monofilament line reduces water friction. Low-stretch braid also helps the angler detect strikes for faster hook sets.
The answer to tangles was heavier sinkers to counteract a strong deep current, invisible at the surface. The current prevented the bottom rigs from making solid contact.
Ng uses Penn Senator 114 6/0 reels and 115 9/0 reels with electric drives. His rods are 5-foot, 6-inch straight or bent-butt medium-heavy to heavy action. The reels drop baited rigs at 300 feet per minute with 32-ounce sinkers. Even with the heavy sinkers, the process of baiting and dropping a rig takes several minutes.
Retrieving rigs to re-bait them would seem a serious problem to anyone who never has fished for snowy grouper. But, while there are top-quality game and food fish, including snowy, yellowedge, and misty groupers, golden and blueline tilefish and red porgy, there are few bait-stealers to rob hooks.
When you get a bite, if you‘re quick enough on the reel switch, the result is nearly always a hooked fish or two.
Ng uses cut pieces of large squid for baiting his hand-tied, two-hook bottom rigs. Squid is tough enough to survive the long ride down at 5 feet per second and durable enough to force a fish to bite hard to try to dislodge it from the hook.
He uses three-way swivels to tie his rigs because the swivels prevent the leaders from twisting during the long descent. He ties, rather than crimps, the leaders to the swivels and hooks, using what he calls a grouper knot because metal crimping sleeves can cut the leader.
Once Ng made the switch to heavier sinkers, he reeled up a double hookup of tilefish. One was a golden tilefish and the other, a blueline tilefish. The elongated tilefish can weigh 20 pounds, although most weigh 5 to 10 pounds. They’re good eating fish as are the deepwater bottomfish species. But the golden tilefish is considered to be the most delectable tilefish.
Another tilefish within the same regulatory group, the sand tilefish, is a similar but much smaller species found in shallower water.
The recreational bag limit during this trip, which took place in 2006, was five snowy grouper included in the aggregate bag limit of five groupers for all species. But that changed substantially as of the Oct. 23, 2006. Under Amendment 13C to the South Atlantic Snapper Grouper Complex Management Plan, tilefish are now included in the five-fish grouper limit and only one snowy grouper or golden tilefish may be included within that bag limit.
In 2005 and throughout most of 2006 snowy grouper were included in the aggregate recreational bag limit of five fish for all legal grouper species, which meant a recreational fisherman could retain five snowy grouper. However, in November 2006, under Amendment 13C, the South Atlantic Snapper Grouper Complex Recreational Regulations were changed to allow only one snowy grouper of any length to be included in the total grouper bag limit of five fish. Golden, blueline and sand tilefish may be of any length and must also now be included in the total grouper bag limit of five fish. Only one golden tilefish may be retained.
Despite lower limits, anglers who want to try their luck with snowy grouper and tilefish will find exciting fishing off the coast of North Carolina, all along the coastline where there is 400 to 500 feet of water.
Ng questioned the data used by the ASMFC to amend the snapper grouper regulations, saying there are not enough data to justify such a severe cut in the snowy grouper bag limit. The problem from Ng’s point of view appears to be that the fishery management plans must be based on the best available data. In the case of snowy grouper and the associated deepwater fish species, there is so little catch data that Ng questioned its accuracy.
Recreational fishing for snowy grouper always has been of minimal-to-no impact because of the distance anglers must travel and the depths at which they must fish. There are fish easier to catch living much closer to shore.
But a snowy grouper has always been a worthwhile catch for those who want to add unique species to their lifetime catch list. Dropping the bag limit will simply mean that anglers who want to catch snowy grouper and golden tilefish may want to target those fish first, then fill out the rest of their five-fish bag limits with red grouper, gag grouper or other groupers present in the shallower grouper ledges inshore of the break such as the ledges around the Big Rock.
The snowy grouper fishery is a year-round fishery, depending only upon the wind, sea and current conditions and not at all the time of year for success. The temperature is a constant 64 degrees at that depth, so the snowy grouper, which are structure-oriented fish as are other grouper species, stay in the same place all the time.
The bite is good when you can get the bait down to the fish because there’s little protein down that deep. The grouper Ng caught ejected several species of crabs, which consisted more of thick shell than anything of nutritional value.
Paul Rudershausen, a Research Assistant with the North Carolina State University Department of Zoology, was along for the trip. He was gathering catch-per-unit-of-effort data for a comparative analysis of the fishing, based on a similar survey taken during the 1970s when the fishery was first discovered. The data he was gathering may have been incorporated into the statistics resulting in the new regulations since the trip occurred while the regulations review process underway.
“There’s not much to eat down that deep,” he said. “That’s why the fish bite so well. If you get anything in front of them, they’re going to eat it. There are only tilefish, snowy grouper and a few other species in the mix and not many small fish.
“I’m going to keep one of the golden tilefish for the N.C. Museum of Natural History because they don’t have one.”
Another angler in the party was Dale McKinney, a friend of Ng’s. He hooked many nice fish, including a double hook-up of a snowy grouper and a blueline tilefish.
“I come with Anthony when I get a chance,” McKinney said. “You never know what you’re going to catch next. Every fish you catch down deep is a pretty fish, and they’re all good to eat.”
Ng caught a misty grouper and the crew also some red porgy. But the big bite came from snowy grouper.
Ng moved as the bite shut down. While some anglers believe the bite ends when the grouper in an area have been caught, he has other theories.
A fish had just tossed a hook a few minutes before. When a fish throws a hook near the bottom, Ng thinks the escaping grouper signals danger. The other fish move away from the ledge.
“You lose one fish and all of a sudden, you stop seeing them,” he said. “Sometimes you can still see them, but they stop biting. It happens too often to be coincidence.”
Another important thing to remember before an leaving an area is to watch for fish that were hooked but escaped too high in the water column to swim back down because of gas bloating. These floating fish are netted easily and with the snowy grouper limit now at one fish, watching the surface for floating fish is wise conservation.
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