Of all the the venues and approaches available to Florida anglers, bottom fishing is the most popular. Regardless if you are fishing a reef, wreck, steep ledge, rockpile or sharp pinnacle from a bay boat, center console, sportfish or open party boat, there are literally dozens of species anglers of all ages and skill levels can catch in depths ranging from 30-feet to over 900-feet during nearly any day of the year. Talk about options!
Although there are numerous species-specific rigging techniques utilized when reef, wreck and bottom fishing, the simple two-hook chicken rig is an all-time favorite producer for various snapper species, porgies, seabass, tilefish, triggerfish and more. Often referred to as a dropper loop rig or hi/lo rig, this two-hook wonder has at one time or another taken nearly every species of fish that feeds near the bottom. However, things are not always as simple as they seem, and there is a certain skill required with small details that add up to make a big difference!
While the light duty chicken rig is simple and stealthy, this deep water presentation is enhanced with the addition of a strobe light, beads, glow tubes or small squid skirts.
Depending on the depth of water and target species, chicken rigs can be designed for light duty and heavy duty applications. They take a bit more time to tie than single hook rigs, but by fishing a bait 12-inches above the lead and a second bait suspended up to 36-inches off the ocean floor anglers are presented with numerous benefits. First and foremost, two-hook rigs provide anglers with the option to experiment with different types of bait, whether it be squid, ballyhoo, shrimp or sardines. An additional hook also gives users a second chance without having to reel all the way up in the event of a missed strike. Furthermore, two hooks can result in doubleheaders!
To add to their versatility, chicken rigs can be quickly and easily modified to adapt to changing conditions. Bank sinkers, which are ideal for light tackle rigging, can easily be changed to heavier or lighter weights to accommodate depth, velocity of current and speed of drift. Hooks can also be swapped out with ease to match the bait size and target species.
When building a chicken rig you have a couple of different options. The first is a very simple dropper loop rig that is ideal for relatively light tackle applications. It features a pair of hooks spaced evenly along a length of leader and there’s no additional terminal tackle, which makes for an economical and stealthy approach. In addition to the dropper loop knots that are tied directly into the leader, a large loop is tied on the bottom and a tiny loop on the leading edge of the rig where it is attached to the mainline swivel.
The only trick with this rig is making sure the branches you created in the leader can pass through the eye of the hooks you intend on using. For vermillion and yellowtail snapper, seabass, porgies, gray tilefish and other small bottom fish, 50 lb. Diamond Presentation fluorocarbon works great. While fluorocarbon is more expensive than mono, it is stiffer and I have noticed that it helps keeps branches and mainline separated. For this rig I prefer VMC 5/0 SureSet circle-hooks (#7381). Sinker weight varies depending on conditions, with 4 to 12 oz. bank sinkers covering the vast majority of conditions.
For heavy duty applications in deeper water where large golden tilefish, snowy, mystic and yellowedge grouper, barrelfish and queen snapper are present, I recommend a different approach altogether. Rather than creating loops directly in the leader, branches are connected to the mainline via three-way swivels or leader sleeves. This rig requires a great deal of terminal tackle, but results in fortified connections for beating big fish. I always start with Momoi Extra Hard 150 lb. test and typically utilize 7/0 or 9/0 circle-hooks depending on the species I am targeting. Do yourself a favor and rig with ultra sharp, thin gauge circle-hooks, which penetrate fish’s rubbery lips with as little resistance as possible. When targeting large fish in ultra deep water with 2- to 8-pound sash weights, hooking a pair of quality fish simultaneously is not uncommon, which is exactly when the 150 lb. test proves its worth in salt. Plus, at these extreme depths where there’s little light penetration bottom fish are not line shy. While the light duty chicken rig is simple and stealthy, this deep-water presentation is enhanced with the addition of a strobe light, beads, glow tubes or small squid skirts.
In either approach, the proper technique involves utilizing the freshest bait possible with circle-hooks fully exposed. From here it’s time to drop the rig to the seafloor. Once you hit pay dirt, lock up and reel in any slack. You want to maintain as vertical of a presentation as possible without the lead bouncing up and down on the hard bottom and scaring away everything in the near vicinity. Depending on conditions, this may require occasionally paying out a few feet of line at a time to ensure you remain in constant contact with the substrate. Of course, in order to be as effective as possible, chicken rig fishing requires a balanced rod and reel, as the entire system needs to work in unison in order to maximize its effectiveness. Focusing your efforts on prolific structure likely to hold the target species is also vital, as fish are not everywhere.
While I was admittedly stubborn at first, I now fish braid for all bottom fishing endeavors. For light duty applications up to 400-feet I spool with 20 and 30 lb. Diamond Braid and bump up to 50 and 60 lb. Diamond Braid in ultra deep water approaching 1,000-feet. With near zero stretch, the sensitivity factor is simply outstanding, and braid’s ultra thin diameter-to-strength ratio allows me to work with the lightest weight possible for increased sensitivity while still maintaining a vertical presentation. However, I highly recommend a monofilament top shot ranging from 20- to 50-feet in length. I normally go with 50 lb. test on the lighter stuff and 100 lb. test on the heavier gear. The top shot provides a level of shock absorption to help avoid pulling hooks and it is also much easier to deal with in the event you get rocked up, or tangled.
With your rig in the strike zone, monitoring the line between your fingers and intently watching the rod tip will allow you to detect even the most subtle strikes from keen bottom dwellers. It may sound strange, but in 800-feet of water the bite from a 25-pound snowy may feel like nothing more than a grunt picking at your bait. Yet on other occasions, a 5-pound fish will strike with vengeance and try to pull the rod out of your hands. In either scenario, allow the culprit a moment to consume the bait while resisting the urge to swing for the fence. This isn’t largemouth bass fishing and with so much line stretched out you won’t be able to drive the hook home. Instead, simply crank the handle and allow the circle-hook to work its magic.
While a chicken rig isn’t ideal for every situation, there’s a reason charter boats and party boats targeting reef-related species recommend passengers rig this way. Chicken rigs put fish in the box and plaster big smiles on anglers’ faces.