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Bottoms up in the Abacos

3/10/2010

George Poveromo, who resides in Parkland, Fla., is a nationally-recognized sportfishing authority who serves as Editor-At Large for Salt Water Sportsman magazine, and the producer and host of his own television series on ESPN2: George Poveromo's World of Saltwater Fishing.

There's a great sense of adventure when setting forth on a 195-mile crossing to a remote, yet very popular Bahamas destination. And once you arrive, the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment is nearly overwhelming.

It was no different when I once again piloted my Mako 284 MARC VI from the Palm Beach Inlet to the Abaco Beach Resort and Marina this past July.

Typically, mid-summer is not a peak fishing time here. However, the weather is usually fair and the crowds have thinned. And while the offshore fishing may be hit or miss, there's always something to be caught on the reefs. In fact, if you know what to look for and how to do it, you can stay very busy tugging on everything from grouper and snapper to big jacks and mackerel. Bottom fishing here is a lot of fun, and you don't have to wait long in between strikes.

The man with the big gun

Lou Volpe is a long-time friend and fishing companion. A U.S. Federal Agent by profession, Lou can usually be found fishing off South Florida, Everglades City on Florida's southwest coast, or Bimini, when he's not chasing down bad guys.

And while Lou does it all, fishing-wise, he's best known for his bottom-fishing prowess. Over the years, he has boated some very notable bottom-fish, including a 77-pound Cubera snapper. He and his family reside in Southwest Ranches, Florida.

Lou Volpe and I came to do some anchoring and drifting along the reefs, not far from the Abaco Beach Resort and Marina. Our first stop was along a shallow reef in 45 feet of water, where we had credible reports of good snapper and grouper action. Once in the area, I fine-tuned my Lowrance HDS-10 unit and searched for hard, ragged-appearing bottom (reefs) with signs of life (yellowtail).

We uncovered a very attractive area and anchored.

Sardine chum is the bomb

Typical of our bottom fishing throughout the Bahamas and South Florida, we chum heavily. We placed a frozen, seven-pound block of Captain Mark's Pure Sardine Chum into a mesh bag, and hung it off our transom.

Almost immediately, the thawing particles of sardines flowed back throughout our target area. We also whipped up a chum supplement, affectionately referred to as "Bimini Chowder". This is merely a couple blocks of thawed Pure Sardine chum mixed with a bag or two of silversides, fine-grain chicken feed and just enough saltwater to create a thick, pasty concoction.

We'd ladle out a shot or two of "chowder" every five minutes or so.

Dance of the yellowtails

Within ten minutes, we had schools of yellowtail in the chum slick. And while we caught them virtually every time we drifted back a bait, they were all small.

We placed a dozen yellowtail in the live well, to use later for a big grouper or kingfish. After an hour or so of bailing small yellowtail, and a few unsuccessful drops for a grouper, I freelined a live yellowtail rigged on a light wire leader.

I tied a balloon about 15-feet up the fishing line, to act as a float and keep the snapper suspended half-way up from the bottom. I placed the bait far back in the chum slick, and put the rod in a holder. My hope was to score a big kingfish.

Within minutes, line was pouring from the reel. I grabbed the rod, came tight to the fish, and saw a barracuda launch into the air. We released the 'cuda, dispatched another live yellowtail bait, and, again, caught another barracuda. It was time to move!

Drifting with Lou

Lou and I ran farther up the coast, searching for deeper reefs and current (which we had very little of at our first spot). We located some high profile bottom and opted to drift a "window" between 100 and 200 feet of water.

We both fished with Penn Torque 100 and 200 reels, paired with 6-foot, 6-inch Penn Torque Jigging Rods rated for 30- to 80-pound test lines (Model TJ3080C66). The reels were filled with 50- and 65-pound test Sufix Performance Braid, and equipped with 50- and 80-pound test Sufix Fluorocarbon leader.

The leader was about five feet in length, joined to the short Bimini twist in the main fishing line with either a Bristol Knot or small barrel swivel.

In the spirit of competition, Lou tied on a Williamson Benthos Jig — a "flutter-style" iron, while I tied on a traditional six-ounce, Williamson deep jig. I occasionally tipped my jig with a small or medium ballyhoo.

Lou and I dropped our irons to the bottom, imparted a radical "hopping" motion confined to within 20 feet of the bottom, and started catching Strawberry grouper.

On nearly every drop, we'd score one of these brightly-hued grouper. A Strawberry grouper isn't a heavyweight by grouper standards, as it rarely exceeds 5 pounds. But what it lacks in size, it more than compensates for with aggressive strikes and quality table fare. Since we were staying in the Abacos for a few days, we released all our Strawberry grouper and the one Nassau grouper I caught.

Purge them correctly

When reeling up a bottom fish from 80-plus feet of water, their swim bladders fill with gasses. This expansion makes it nearly impossible for them to return to the bottom when released. Instead, they flounder about at the surface until they die, or become food for a shark or other large predator.

I keep a venting kit aboard my boat. This is basically a hollow point needle that inserts into the "bulge" just beyond a fish's pec fin. That "bulge" is the trapped gasses, and inserting the needle releases these gasses.

Done correctly, it sounds as if you are letting air out of a bicycle tire. Once the gasses have been released, the fish can swim back down to its environment, none-the-worse for wear.

Channels of grouper

Lou and I scored big, when we explored some of the navigation channels within the relatively shallow Bahama Bank. Some of these channels are adjacent to offshore passes. Therefore, they act as "interstates" for bait and game fish traversing between the offshore and inshore grounds. And, at times, these zones get mighty congested with fish.

Lou and I located a channel which dropped to about 12 feet, from a surrounding bottom of about four feet. We had an incoming tide and could clearly see bottom — and fish! We anchored on the edge, deployed a chum bag, and pitched our baits into the channel.

Soon, shoals of ballyhoo materialized behind the boat, along with two monster barracuda. The 'cudas were there to intercept any snapper or mackerel we had hooked, to steal an easy meal. So, I took a tube lure, made a cast and immediately hooked one of the 'cudas.

After a spirited fight, we released the fish. Bottom Fishing Trick # 1: Once you give a barracuda a sore mouth, it leaves and takes its companion with it. So, now, we were 'cuda free and ready to catch fish.

The big Horse-Eye jacks showed next. These are incredible light-tackle fish which aggressively consume anything within their path. They put up a fight that, on a pound-per-pound basis, is as strong as that of any saltwater game fish. Lou and I caught several big Horse-Eyes at this spot. However, our interest was focused more on the two or three grouper we could see swimming up and off the channel ledge behind our boat, and under our chum slick.

I was the first to hook into a grouper, but with a light spinning outfit. It didn't take long for it to run off the ledge and down into the channel, where it kept going full steam ahead until my line parted.

Lou took a heavy outfit, one with a Penn Toque reel spooled with 80-pound test Sufix Braid and rigged with an 80-pound test fluorocarbon leader and extra strong 9/0 VMC hook. He pinned a live yellowtail onto the hook and sent it down. Within minutes, we watched the big grouper move up to the bait and engulf it.

Lou struggled with the powerful fish, but soon had the big grouper alongside the boat! After a few pictures, we released the fish.

This scene played out two more times, with me releasing a big grouper and Lou releasing another. Not only did we score our biggest grouper in 10-feet of water, but our trip proved that quality fishing does indeed exist within a lot of these navigation channels.

What's surprising, is that few people know just how good of a fishing hole each channel can be, especially when the winds kick up and you can't get offshore.

Until next time

As expected, Lou and I wrapped up our Abaco bottom fishing trip in a fun and productive fashion. We not only caught a lot of fish, but the weather was postcard perfect. Even during our long, 195-mile run home, the seas were flat and we skirted around the very few rain showers building over the Bahama Bank.

We'll return here, perhaps in the spring to focus on the big dolphin run and also blue marlin. Either way, there's always something to catch in these waters. Add in the adventure of taking your own boat this deep into the Bahamas, and it's little wonder why we never tire of fishing here.

For more on "George Poveromo's World of Saltwater Fishing," visit www.georgepoveromo.com.