A picture-perfect day out in the Gulf Stream

cdad@hiltonheadisland.netSeptember 11, 2012 

Did you read my column last week? If you didn't, it was all about anticipation and, more specifically, the anticipation right before you head 70 miles offshore to fish in the Gulf Stream. Did I forget anything? Will my alarm clock go off? In addition to these things I also described the ride out in the dark and the beauty of the sun rising over the ocean.

If you are wondering how it went, all I can say is that it was as if I had written a script for that trip. It was eerie how predictably it went. First of all, the ocean was flat calm, and when I say "flat calm," I mean it was smooth as a piece of glass. Dan Cornell, the gentleman I fished with, told me he had never seen the ocean so peaceful.

As we ran offshore on his brand new boat, the conditions got the best of him because he kept inching the throttles forward, especially when the sun began to rise. I didn't say anything but I knew that running at 48 mph was sucking down gas like there was no tomorrow. It was his boat, his gas, so I kept my mouth shut. It wasn't until we started trolling that he looked down at the gas gauge and sheepishly commented, "Uh oh, we sure burned a lot of fuel, and I pray have enough to get home." Then he looked at me and said, "Why didn't you say something?"

All I could do was laugh my keister off.

I had planned to start trolling around in 180 feet of water, but just as the sun came up I noticed birds feeding along a weed line that was in 150 feet of water and, since the water was so warm, I knew there was a good chance mahi and maybe even wahoo would be in this shallower water. So I put out the outriggers, rigged some ballyhoo and started trolling along the edge of the Sargasso weed line. I don't even think I had gotten all the lines out when I heard the distinctive "snap!" as one of the outrigger baits was hit, and a reel started singing. Turning around, I saw a nice mahi greyhounding across the slick ocean, and, since it was first light, that fish looked like something out of a painting. The water was deep blue, the sky reddish orange and that mahi, fluorescent neon green and yellow, was silhouetted against that stunning background. It was one of those rare sights that will forever be etched in my mind. Quite frankly, it was so spectacular that I don't really know how to describe it.

I knew that fishing the Gulf Stream in the heat of the summer would be a crapshoot, and though we caught some nice mahi, the bite was not strong enough to warrant a whole day of trolling. Luckily, I had prepared for this possibility so I told everyone to reel in the lines because we were going to do some bottom-fishing. Running about 10 miles, I pulled back the throttles on a spot I had done well at a couple of weeks before, and, after looking around for a minute or two, I saw the sonar screen light up with fish, a whole lot of fish, down near the bottom.

Bottom-fishing sounds easy doesn't it? You simply put a piece of squid on a hook, drop it down and catch a fish, right? Well, kind of. There is an art to bottom-fishing, especially on this particular day. It was a full moon, the tides were ripping and because I prefer to drift instead of anchoring, by the time my bait hits the bottom I have already drifted several hundred yards. Two of the guys on board had never bottom-fished, so for them it was particularly hard.

I took over the throttles and bumped the boat in and out of reverse to slow the drift, but the problem for newcomers to this type of fishing is this: There are so many fish down on bottom, and the depth is 120 feet. As soon as your bait reaches the bottom, the fish are on it. I am talking before you can even put the reel in the strike mode.

I use circle hooks that pretty much hook the fish on their own, but different species of fish are suspended at different depths. For instance, black sea bass are right on the bottom, while snappers and triggerfish are usually about 10 to 15 feet from the bottom. Having bottom-fished all my life, I instinctively know about where to stop the bait while it is going down so I catch the triggers and snapper, but for newcomers, it can be a humbling experience.

Also, different fish take the bait differently. Sea bass just grab the bait, while snapper tap, taps at it and often comes up toward you with the bait in its mouth, so you need to reel as soon as you feel the line go slack. And grouper? Using live pinfish, grouper shoot out of their holes and grab the fish. This is when you need to let them eat it and resist the urge to set the hook. It took a while, but finally all those on board started getting the hang of it, and fish started coming over the side two at a time.

Oh, one more thing about bottom-fishing: It will wear you slap out! Reeling up two struggling fish at a time from that depth and then doing it over and over again will have even the biggest, strongest guy crying uncle after a while.

I wouldn't say we crushed the fish, but it did take me nearly an hour and a half to clean what we caught. Full moon or not, it was a picture-perfect day, and, if I remember correctly, we had all of 10 gallons of fuel left when we hit the dock thanks to Dan "Mario Andretti" Cornell.

I still can't get the image of that first mahi mahi we hooked out of my mind. That image alone made the whole day worth it, even if we had not caught another fish. But we did, and all week long I have been eating like a king. Tonight I think I'll have blackened triggerfish over yellow rice. So what are you having for dinner?

God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.

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