Queen of the Deep

Capt. Steve Dougherty November 19, 2009

In the dark depths surrounding The Bahamian Archipelago thrives a snapper few of us will ever see. For those who do come face-to-face with these fascinating fish, it’s an experience like no other. Read on and learn how you, too, can take full advantage of this amazing fishery.

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Photo: Steve Dougherty

It’s highly arguable there’s no destination within close proximity to the United States that holds as many world-class angling opportunities as The Bahamas. This fertile barrier reef archipelago encompasses more than 700 islands, roughly 100,000 square miles, is home to numerous IGFA World Records, and at its closest point lies a mere 50-miles from Florida’s East Coast. The waters of The Bahamas do indeed offer fast and furious action with highly desirable species both inshore and offshore, however, like every angling destination there are transitional periods when connecting with highly migratory species can be hit or miss. If marlin are long gone, the yellowfin tuna schools are fickle or the wahoo haven’t yet arrived, what’s going to be your next island endeavor? If you were a passionate seafood aficionado in search of the ocean’s top bounty you would have already overlooked the aforementioned species for the mystical demersal that resides in the dark depths of the sloping continental shelf affectionately known as Queen of the Deep.

Queen snapper have the magical ability to put huge smiles on anglers’ faces. Maybe it’s the anticipation of retrieving over 1,000-feet of line and finally seeing color materialize in the cobalt blue depths, or it could be the fish’s brilliant red coloration and deeply forked tail. On another hand these snapper, which live deeper than any other species of the family Lutjanidae, make five-star table fare and grow to epic proportions. Whatever the case, these super predators have been known to bring grown men to tears so it’s no surprise productive GPS coordinates are highly guarded secrets. While queen snapper are relatively common along the Florida Keys, the real action takes place in The Bahamas where there are prime stretches of bottom that have likely never seen a baited hook. With this being said, deep-dropping for queen snapper is not as easy as one would think. Sure, even novice anglers can put together a limit of yellowtail, but if you hit the dock with a catch of beloved queens—you’ll be regarded among angling’s elite.

There has been little research conducted on the biology of queen snapper and very few catch statistics are available. This is partly due to the extreme depth of their preferred habitat and little economic importance. Of the research that has been conducted, scientists estimate that the largest fish are always female and that there is a distinct depth-size relationship. Ask anyone who consistently targets queen snapper and they will likely tell you the same thing—go deep or go home. Of course, you will catch the odd few when fishing shallower spots, but in The Bahamas most of the sizable fish will be found roaming the jagged bottom 1,100 to 1,500-feet below.

Targeting productive depths near abyssal plains and sloping ledges is done primarily with the use of specialized electric reels and hundreds of yards of braided line. For hardy souls in excellent shape, or those hunting for an IGFA world record, deep-dropping can also be accomplished with manual big-game conventional outfits. However, unless you’re well versed in deep-dropping and know precisely where to locate the diamond in the rough, you may want to stick with the electrics. Even if you’ve found the honey-hole, one day’s success doesn’t necessarily mean tomorrow will hold the same. Due to the extreme depths and swift currents, everyday is a different story. Setting up a drift to cross paths with your intended GPS coordinates may seem like fishing in a barrel, but it can at times be a challenge. With hundreds of feet of line out, this is certainly no time to be testing new waters with bicep power. Trust me when I tell you that winching up a 10-pound sash weight 1,500-feet to the surface is no walk in the park. Another reason for the use of electric power is due to the fact that the Bahamian Archipelago is home to some of the sharkiest waters on the planet. Once you venture off the reef-line, the ocean is a featureless desert. The vibrations of thrashing snapper being ripped to the surface is like ringing a dinner bell for relentless predators.

Of course, there are some that will claim this type of fishing offers no sport at all and is no more than commercial meat fishing. I beg to differ. Standing next to an electric reel attached to a heavy-duty bent-butt rod that’s doubled over to the waters surface may not seem exciting to you, but it’s intriguing, addicting, and something you must experience for yourself to truly appreciate. There’s a lot more skill involved than one would think and reaching a level of consistency is far from simple. The only task your specialized reel will accomplish is winding. You must decide when and where to drop and most importantly when to retrieve. Novice deep-droppers in search of trophy queens often have no idea what they’re in for. This is partly due to the fact that this fishery is widely overlooked for more renowned species. In the fertile waters of The Bahamas, when conditions are favorable, you can catch yellowtail snapper and a variety of grouper in less than 100-feet. Move only 100-yards offshore to find yourself in prime trolling territory for tuna, billfish, dolphin and wahoo where dramatic pelagics thrive and often times have never seen a trolled lure.

On a recent trip to Port Lucaya a queen snapper rookie questioned the heavy-duty dropper rig as I retrieved it from my tackle bag. “Those hooks are huge and the gap is tiny, you’ll never hook anything,” claimed the novice as he pulled out an over the counter deep-drop rig more suitable for one-pound vermillion snapper. I casually shrugged off his complaints and continued to prepare my rig. Only minutes later the heavy sash weight was racing to the bottom and our eyes were locked on the rod tip. Shortly after, telltale strikes and signs of hooked fish were telegraphed up the line. This is yet another juncture where novices often make a critical mistake. Seeing the bite often initializes an immediate retrieve, but instead let out a bit of line and watch as the rod tip dances. After what seemed like an eternity, our swivel finally approached the rod tip with three bright red queen snapper hanging just below the surface. Having a sensitive touch and being able to understand what’s going on a quarter of a mile below comes with practice and experience.

Since fish at this depth must rely on their sense of smell to locate prey, it’s logical that current is important to draw inquisitive predators to investigate your offerings. However, it’s a give and take because a swift current can make it difficult to hit your target drop zone. Sometimes missing the mark by 100-feet can mean the difference between success and frustration. If your boat is outfitted with a high-powered sonar then luck is on your side. At these depths your bottom finder will more often then not zero in on concentrations of fish sitting on the down-current sides of fishy structures. While I’d be afraid for my life if I were to publicly share proven numbers, to locate solid readings worth dropping on try your efforts north of West End and you’ll surely be in for a pleasant surprise.

Fast Facts

What: Deep-dropping around The Bahamas for giant queen snapper and hefty mystic grouper.
Where: 1,100 to 1,500-feet, north of West End. The same tactics/techniques apply anywhere along the sloping continental shelf around the entire Bahamian island chain.
When: Year-round, with early spring through late summer offering the most favorable conditions.
Best Baits: Fresh squid, barracuda and bonito chunks.
Top Tips: Present your baits directly on the bottom. Pay out line when a strike is noticed, which often results in multiple hook-ups.
Regs: According to current Bahamas fishing regulations, recreational vessels may not be in possession of more than 60-pounds or 20 bottom fish at any given time.

Rig It Right

When world record queen snapper and hefty mystic grouper, a common bycatch, are a real possibility, your rigging must be up to par or your efforts will be futile. While some store bought rigs will suffice, it’s best to fashion your own. I prefer 10/0 and 12/0 Mustad hooks attached with inline swivels. Sure you can dress your rigs up with glow beads and colorful crimp covers, but in my experience I’ve had success keeping it simple and going to extremes. Since there’s no setting the hook, circle-hooks are a must. A typical rig consists of 10-feet of 300-pound mono with four or five large hooks suspended on 150lb. dropper rigs. I’ve also found that longer lead lines, as opposed to shorter ones are more effective. Just be sure that your inline swivels are spaced far enough apart so the swinging rigs cannot tangle.

A heavy-duty ball-bearing swivel will connect your rig and mainline, and a small snap-swivel will connect your weight. The lighter duty swivel holding the sash weight will serve as a breakaway point if and when you hang bottom. In this endeavor if you aren’t fishing directly on the bottom you’re not in the strike zone. Last but certainly not least, a flashing light is essential. Take a quick glance at the predators you pull from the dark depths and you will notice large, specialized pupils that can transmit light in even the deepest depths. You know what they say…No Light, No Bite!

Gear Suited For A Queen

Daiwa
562.802.9589
www.daiwa.com

Dolphin Electreel
800.717.3716
www.dolphinelectreel.com

Electric Fishing Reel Systems
336.273.9101
www.elec-tra-mate.com

Fish-Ng
800.720.3474
www.fish-ng.com

Lindgren-Pitman
954.943.4243
www.lindgren-pitman.com

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