Well-tuned anglers who consistently find success offshore all have their own opinions about the sweetest boats, the most effective lures and trolling spreads, the best tackle and rigging techniques, and so on and so on. However, there is one common denominator they all share; an undeniable attraction to floating debris.
Weedlines…pallets…palm fronds…tree branches…trash…it doesn’t matter, if it’s visible on the ocean’s otherwise featureless surface, we’re on it like bees on honey! Yet with today’s increased recreational fishing pressure and depleting fisheries, unless you are the first crew to stumble across pay dirt, a few casual trolling passes may not be enough to fully capitalize on this popular blue-water fish magnet.
…focus your efforts on bright Sargassum with a fresh, golden hue. Sargassum’s characteristic gas-filled berry-like floats should also be firm and plentiful.
Along with tasty tripletail, all of us know that dolphin of all sizes are notorious for hunting in the shadows of floating debris, but lurking deep below may lie an even greater reward – wahoo! It should also come as no surprise that in a wide-open ocean; even the smallest irregularity attracts all sorts of attention. In an effort to maximize our opportunities, lets take a closer look at the different forms of floating debris and determine what makes them so special.
Of course, the most popular and attractive of all flotsam, well-formed Sargassum weedlines are the epitome of fish attracting devices. Thick beds of floating vegetation broken off from the Sargasso Sea provide a myriad of living space for a wide array of marine life. Follow the food chain up from its inception, and it’s no wonder this sort of nursery ground attracts so many highly prized game fish.
Don’t be fooled though, not all weedlines are created equal. Generally, you’ll find the poorest results on weedlines that are sparse and pale in color – indicating dying or dead vegetation. Rather, invest your time and focus your efforts on bright Sargassum with a fresh, golden hue. Sargassum’s characteristic gas-filled berry-like floats (pneumatocyst) should also be firm and plentiful. Brown weed with deflated pneumatocyst’ is a sign that the vegetation is on its last leg and will soon be sinking to the bottom.
If possible, pull alongside the weedline you intend to fish and scoop up a large handful of weed. Shake the bundle of vegetation on your deck and pay close attention to what falls out. If the weed is fertile and alive, an assortment of barely visible crustaceans will be flopping around at your feet – a solid indication the weedline is holding life and worthy of further investigation.
Conversely, stay away from thin strands of eelgrass floating in loose formations. I’ve never had notable success on this sort of grass and doubt that you will.
Wood & Lumber
Whether in the form of a pallet, tree branch or discarded plank, wood is a natural material and a favorite form of floating debris voted most likely to attract and hold large dolphin and wahoo. Because of wood’s natural tendencies, “growth” is immediately attracted and begins to take hold from the moment a branch or pallet comes in contact with nutrient rich seawater. Soon thereafter, barnacles and tiny crustaceans will occupy the same structure. You know what unfolds next.
As a rule, don’t overlook even the smallest piece of floating lumber. Eighty-miles out in the Gulf, you would be surprised how much life a single small plank can attract and hold. Low lying lumber does present a problem though; they are very easy to lose sight of. This is why it is a good idea to carry some sort of brightly colored floating buoy that you can deploy as a marker. Simply throw the marker toward the plank and use it as a reference point for subsequent trolling passes; just don’t forget to retrieve your buoy before departing the area.
Use extreme caution here; large sections of discarded netting from careless commercial fishing fleets end up in Gulf Stream currents. A serious danger to boaters and their running gear, discarded netting certainly does a fantastic job of attracting prey, and in turn the many pelagic predators that feed on them. I recall one particular incident when I stumbled across a large piece of dark green netting about 20’x20’ in size. Let the truth be told, I was running a 45-foot Hatteras at the time and literally came within feet of running it over while trolling for tuna in a popular canyon. With more than a hundred miles between me and the nearest port, I was extremely thankful to have averted disaster as getting that piece of net tangled in my running gear would have caused some serious damage. I was also pleasantly surprised to see 100 large tripletail occupying the net. To say we cleaned house is a vast understatement. Not only did we load up on tasty tripletail, but it also took six of us to haul the net into the cockpit so it could be properly disposed of back at the dock without it any longer creating a severe hazard to navigation. The point is commercial netting attracts fish! The vast majority of the net hovers just below the surface and creates a three-dimensional haven.
This is my least favorite form of floating debris and actually disgusts me when I see it. Trash lines often form from garbage discarded off cruise ships, freighters and other abusers of the sea. I would love to believe all recreational anglers take the necessary measures to properly dispose of their trash and not damage our fragile marine ecosystem, but I am not so sure we aren’t part of the problem.
Regardless, trash lines contain plastic bags, cardboard boxes and anything and everything else deemed unusable. Game fish, turtles and migratory sea birds often meander in and around these trash lines in their ongoing search for an easy meal. It’s sad but they are usually disappointed in their efforts and often end up digesting plastic and other fatal debris. When it comes to trash lines, my recommendation is stay away!
Usually no larger than a basketball, Styrofoam floats which are used as lobster and crab trap markers somehow or another seem to make their way into our offshore arena. In most cases, these buoys trail a piece of polypropylene rope so don’t get too close. While they are small, they attract fish! The day before Hurricane Wilma devastated Florida’s southeast coast, I made an impulse decision to sneak out for a couple hours of trolling during the calm before the storm. In 225-feet just outside of Boca, we deployed our spread just as a trio of Styrofoam floats appeared into view. Four trolling passes resulted in a pair of gaffer dolphin, a smoker 40-pound kingfish and best of all, a wahoo in the same size range. With a handful of quality fish in the boat and the impending storm, we figured we better not push our luck and headed straight for the barn. You may call it luck; I call it just another example proving that even the smallest flotsam is worth investigating.
Trick ‘em on the troll…
It’s obvious the vast majority of floating debris is encountered by crews involved in the act of trolling. Reason being, most debris is carried in and out of our waters by powerful currents such as the Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Stream flowing along the Eastern Seaboard – the same strike zones where a large percentage of offshore anglers spend their time. Much of this debris does meander off in eddies and eventually makes its way closer to shore, however by that time, the flotsam has likely been stripped clean many times over. That doesn’t mean the same tree or pallet won’t keep producing day after day because as long as it’s in the right depth, it certainly will, but obviously the more fishing pressure any piece of floating debris sees the less likely it is to yield quality fish.
It is also important to realize that the vicinity around any floating debris is just as likely to produce as the area immediately surrounding the structure. In other words; don’t be afraid to fish within a 100-yard perimeter around any weedline or plank. Game fish do not sit still.
While your favorite trolling lures will do the trick when exploring any sort of floating debris, I continue to experience excellent results trolling naked ballyhoo and believe it is an impossible bait to beat. You may have to rig and fish the ballyhoo weedless, but slow-trolled at an enticing three or four-knots along the perimeter of a well-formed line, you are sure to draw attention.
Jack of all Jigs
Few feelings in the game we play compare to getting slammed on metal. Dropping a jig below any form of floating debris is a perfect place to practice your vertical jigging skills. Benthos…Butterflies…it doesn’t matter, wahoo and big dolphin lurking deep below savagely attack the metal! What’s nice about these jigs is they offer anglers the ability to work a lure through a large portion of the water column. I prefer to let my jig fall as far as 300-feet before working it back towards the surface. Remember that wahoo are not only a possibility but a target, so precautionary measures are a must to avoid losing quality fish and expensive terminal tackle to their unforgiving strike.
Like It Live
When all else fails, frantic live bait almost always produces. Be sure to fish baits not only on the surface, but also well below where wary game fish are likely lurking. Pilchard, goggle-eye, blue-runners, they all entice strikes, as will the myriad of juvenile jacks and runners occupying the same floating debris. This is the forage the game fish are keyed in on so why not give them exactly what they want. A simple sabiki rig is all that is necessary to procure a handful of quality baits right on the spot!
Live baiters also go as far as chunking with freshly cut herring, mullet or other readily available baitfish. Not a bad idea as a consistent chunk slick is often too much for any nearby predator to resist.
The Casting Craze
Often overlooked, casting jigs and stick-baits often reserved for inshore use toward any floating debris is another surefire way to bend a rod. D.O.A.’s rootbeer TerroEyz thrown on a light spinner is a proven tactic, though just about any soft-plastic/jig combination mimicking an injured baitfish will do. White SPRO bucktails, shiny spoons, even Rapala X-Raps draw strikes from schoolie ‘phins. Because these baits are relatively light, you’ll need to cast downwind for maximum reach-ability so position your vessel accordingly.
In conclusion, the next time you are out plying the deep blue blindly trolling in hopes of a screaming strike, keep your eyes wide open. The best of us know that it is a good idea to keep a pair of binoculars easily accessible so you can constantly search the surrounding area. If you are fortunate enough, you may just find fantastic flotsam fishing!