“This is between you and me!” Jeff “Shug” Schucker shouted at a fish 150 feet below the keel of Kevin Sneed’s 31-foot Pro Kat. “And you better believe I’m gonna win this one!”
Schucker, a muscular 6-foot-4, 230-pound Blandon, Pa., native, alternately strained against his rod and screamed at the water. His biceps bulged as he almost drowned out Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” heavy-metal classic, blasting from a smart phone belonging to a friend, Chris Glauser.
Schucker, Glauser (who now lives in Stanley) and three more Pennsylvania friends — Jeff Deamer from State College (now living in Gastonia), Ron Frey of Temple, Pa., and Greg Dreibelbois of Reading, Pa., (also living in Gastonia) — were aboard Sneed’s boat for a bottom-fishing trip that began early at a Holden Beach dock.
“I discovered Kevin’s guide service three years ago, and we’ve been making regular trips with him,” said Glauser, 40, who helps members of the group coordinate their vacations so they can fish with Sneed, who runs Rigged&Ready Charters out of Holden Beach.
Summer fishing may be easier closer to shore, as the buddies have caught flounder, red drum, spotted seatrout, king mackerel and Spanish mackerel with Sneed. But this time, they wanted the thrill of hooking up with big fish in deep water.
“We’re heading out about 33 miles,” said Sneed, looking at his GPS unit. “I’ve been adding marks for the last 10 years. My grandfather, Bill Sneed, who taught me about saltwater fishing, also shared his best places.”
Because his group wanted to targeted grouper, Sneed was headed to rocky bottoms in 135 to 165 feet of water, a two-hour ride from land. Sneed has plenty of spots marked that he can fish in the general area, he said, because fish will move around.
“That’s the good thing about having lots of (GPS) waypoints,” he said. “You always have another place to try if you aren’t getting bites.”
Although he had a good supply of frozen cigar minnows and squid for bait in a cooler, Sneed also wanted live menhaden to entice other species, such as gag, red and black groupers, and after some fruitless searching, he found them on the western tip of Oak Island and put about 200 in his livewell, noting that grouper will sometimes eat cut menhaden as readily as live ones.
“Sometimes you can’t get live baits down to groupers because (amberjacks) eat live baits before they reach the groupers,” he said. “But cut bait also attracts sharks, and the smallest sharks seem to make groupers disappear.”
Since Sneed knew his anglers wanted to catch magnum-size fish, he’d chosen a location far enough offshore to hold big grouper and perhaps other tackle-busters.
“We could stop and fish a little closer to shore, but the grouper are small, and I know there are some big ones farther out,” he said. “Also, if we fish inside, small sea bass will eat up our baits.”
Because his anglers wanted to catch big-shouldered fish, Sneed had rigged three rods with Precision Auto Reels, electric cranking attachments that rewind line and pull fish from the deep. Produced by Anthony Ng of Fish-Ng Accessories, Inc., Winterville, N.C., these reels plug into 12-volt outlets built into a boat’s sides. They fit certain sizes of Daiwa and Penn reels. For his electrical set-ups, Sneed attached two Penn reels to 51/2-foot, bent-butt Daiwa Saltiga rods and the third to a 7-foot stand-up jigging rod.
Without electric reels, most anglers are exhausted after pulling a big fish to the surface from the deep. But the Pennsylvanians were eager to challenge fish on stand-up equipment. Sneed’s jigging rods for smaller fish had 130-pound Power Pro braid backing with 10 feet of 80-pound Momoi Diamond leaders. The shorter, electric reels had 200-pound braid and 130-pound Momoi leaders for battling trophy fish.
For smaller fish, Sneed rigged some jigging rods with three-way swivels and line tied to 10-ounce ball weights. Above the weights he tied two 4-foot dropper lines with small circle hooks. Stand-up jigging rods had barrel weights with 10-foot leaders tied to 225-pound Power Pro swivels. The leaders, below the sinker, had 9/0 circle hooks for bigger fish.
Deamer mostly used the two-dropper electric jigging rod and chunks of squid to catch gray triggerfish and a variety of snappers. His friends preferred stand-up equipment with live bait or bait chunks for groupers, amberjacks and sharks. One jigging rod was set up for snappers, and Frey used it to land a beautiful hognose snapper.
Bites seemed to come in waves, and confusion reigned with fishermen hooked up at the same time. They fought fish around the anchored boat, trying to avoid crossed lines and the anchor rope. Whoops, yells and grunts filled the air as Sneed moved from angler to angler with a de-hooker or gaff.
“It’s rare to go to a spot that held a lot of one species in the past and only catch that kind,” Sneed said. “Snappers, porgies, AJs, triggerfish, groupers and sharks hang out anywhere with good, rocky bottom structure.
“You never know what you’ll get.”
Amberjacks ranging from 20 to 50 pounds or better presented the greatest challenge. They are strong fighters that can test anyone’s will and physical strength.
After Sneed moved several hundred yards from his first spot, Glauser was first to drop a live pinfish to the bottom. After a few seconds, a large fish bent his rod double. He grunted as he pulled his rod tip toward the sky, then cranked his reel, trying to regain line.
After several rod-bending, drag-pulling runs, Glauser’s fish slowly began to give ground. When a long, silvery shape flashed 20 feet below the surface, it was clear a big amberjack had taken the bait.
When Glauser got the amberjack to the top, Sneed stuck a short gaff in the fish’s jaw, pulled it over the gunwale and dropped it on the deck while the angler gasped for air.
Then Schucker’s rod jerked down sharply, and he screamed. In short order, Sneed gaffed another amberjack of approximately the same size as Glauser’s.
A few minutes later with a stand-up rod, Dreibelbois outfought the day’s largest amberjack, weighing at least 50 pounds. After photos, Sneed released each fish alive.
Schucker then outfought the day’s largest fish, a 9-foot dusky shark, the first of two caught that day. Sneed cut the leader and the toothy critter glided into the deep.
Deamer picked up one of the heavy-duty Saltiga bent-butt rods for the day’s top catch. After a growling battle, the Precision Reel’s gears overpowered a beautifully mottled 35-pound gag grouper.
Sneed spotted two cobias swimming toward the stern and told anglers to toss chunks of menhaden at them. He gaffed both fish a few moments later after splashing battles.
“Cobias are curious fish, and (they) often come to the top to investigate when you land other fish,” he said. “For a day that started out so rough, it turned out well. That’s what happens when a bite turns on; you never know what you’ll catch. I think that’s why people enjoy this kind of fishing.”
HOW TO GET THERE — Holden Beach is in Brunswick County, just west of Oak Island. It is most-easily accessed from US 17 and NC 130. A public boat access is on Ocean Boulevard, just east of its junction with NC 130.
WHEN TO GO — May through October.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Rods for bottom-fishing can vary from stiff, 51/2-foot models with electric reels to 61/2- to 7-foot stand-up rods. Spool reels with 80- to 200-pound braid. Barrel swivels and three-way swivels are the connecting point to bottom rigs for smaller species or bigger grouper and amberjacks. Fish in the grouper/snapper complex require circle hooks with natural bait, and 9/0 hooks are about the right size. Use 4-foot leaders for dropper lines with snapper tackle and 10-foot leaders for larger fish; 130-pound Momoi Diamond is a popular leader material. Live menhaden and pinfish are favored baits for grouper, but some anglers prefer cut menhaden because amberjacks will hit live bait before it can hit the bottom. Other species will take squid chunks or frozen cigar minnows.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Kevin Sneed, Rigged&Ready Charters, 910-448-3474, www.holdenbeachcarter.com; Rigged&Ready Bait & Tackle, Supply, 910-842-3474; The Rod & Reel Shop, Supply, 910-842-2034. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Gray Gull Motel, Supply, 910-842-6774.