How to

Drifting the Deep

DEEP-water bottom fishing is often best done from a drifting boat. Getting a bait or lure down to the fish is a tricky problem at best, as the drift of the boat is a complex mix of the boat’s design, its windage, the prevailing current and sea conditions and the wind on a given day. Off the Gold Coast, where I live, we have two extensive reef complexes on the 36 and 50 fathom line. These rock ridges extend from the Tweed to Point Lookout and are situated roughly 20 and 33 kilometres offshore, depending on which end of the coast you are on. Fishing the 36s and the 50s in winter is extremely popular and snapper, pearl perch, Samson, amberjacks and kingfish are the main target species. If you fish on the drift, as the majority of the boats do, your results are always better if you learn how to best control that drift.

The prevailing conditions make a huge difference to success. Whenever the wind is over 15 knots on the wider grounds, getting a good drift is very difficult, and similarly any current over about 2.5 knots makes life tough. In Southern Queensland the winter days are often still and calm and the current is usually minimal. So for this reason, only pick a forecast for light winds if you want to drift the wider grounds. When it is blowing, we generally fish in closer on anchor.

Getting the drift
When I get to my spot I generally stop and drift before I start fishing. The GPS lets you establish the line of drift. The best drifts are usually in a north to south direction, which drifts you along the reef rather than across it. It is a very rare day when you get a perfect drift without motor control. While we plot our drift, we scan on the sounder looking for fish. Snapper and pearlies generally appear differently on a sounder, with pearlies forming diamond shaped schools that are generally five to ten metres up off the bottom. When you’ve found the direction of drift and the fish, head back up the line so your drift will take you over the fish. We generally fish three methods: a paternoster rig on the bottom with a big sinker, a deep fished live bait and a float-lining rig with a running sinker that descends down slowly. This rig targets snapper. We also fish soft plastics at times.
Weighing up the situation
Choosing the right sinker weight is very important, and often needs to be adjusted throughout the day as conditions change. The aim is to keep the boat above the baits as much as possible. At the start of the drift make sure all your anglers drop down at the same time. This greatly helps in minimising tangles. In perfect conditions the lines will go straight down, but more usually they will trail out the back. At this point put the boat in idle in reverse gear and follow the angle of the line. Make sure all your anglers know the boat is in gear and keep their lines well away from the prop. It helps for both snapper and pearl perch if you can turn your sounder off as the constant sounder pinging definitely puts fish off the chew in hard fished areas. A lot of boats run dual GPS/sounder units and these can be a real pain to fish with as you need to constantly unplug the transducer connection to stop all the underwater pinging. When you start to get bites, mark the spot as an event mark on your GPS, as you can plan your next drift by connecting the spots where the fish were.

If it is hard to get down to where the fish are, there are three main strategies to try. The first is to increase the weight of the lead; at times we may need up to 800 grams to hit bottom, but in general about 300 grams is fine. The second useful tip is to use braid instead of mono. Braid has a much faster sink rate, and while I don’t like it for float lining, it sometimes gets you in the bite zone when mono doesn’t. The third method is to increase the speed at which you reverse into the sea to follow the lines. This usually means if you are driving the boat you won’t be able to fish, as you will constantly be on the wheel. If you adapt all of the above methods it is quite possible to successfully fish in rough conditions and heavy current.

Sometimes when the drift is just too fast you can change methods and still catch fish. Deep water jigging with fast sink metal lures is still very feasible in quite brisk current, and it is surprising how fast a long skinny 400 gram knife jig sinks down. Jigging also seems to be most effective when there is a bit of current present; some of our best days on the jigs have been when it is almost impossible to bait fish due to wind and current.

Your GPS is your friend
When you get a good drift and have marked your “bite spots”, repeat it. I usually try to start right on the first drift plot line on the GPS, but through the day it is almost impossible to exactly repeat every drift as the conditions change a lot throughout the day. On a good day we will usually have our bag limit of snapper and pearlies fairly quickly if we get the drift sorted out early. If it looks like we will get plenty of bigger pearlies we usually set our self imposed minimum limit size up to 45cm. These great fish are amongst the best eating fish in the ocean, and as a ravenous fish eater I chase them with a passion, as does my son. At a limit of five per species per angler, getting a good feed isn’t too hard when conditions are right, but on tough days it can be a struggle.

If we are lucky and have our pearlies and snapper sorted, we go on to chase bigger fish on jigs and live baits. The spots we fish for amberjacks and Samsons are generally high pinnacles and drifting these spots is a bit different to drifting along the wire weed ledges where the pearlies live. We find our spot and mark any big fish, and then do short drifts above the pinnacles. Sometimes it is better to be just wide of the high peak, so on the GPS minimise the range on your plot screen. The effective fishing time on an average drift over a pinnacle may be quite short – only a few minutes – so you need fit anglers for this game as there is a lot of winding. Some really mean creatures live on these pinnacles as well, and bust ups, even on hundred pound braid, are quite common as rampaging amberjacks head into the ravines and boulders. Short, sharp, well calculated drifts are the best for fishing pinnacles, and don’t spend too much time out of your spot over flat featureless ground.

New boat owners often poorly understand deep-water drift fishing, and I hope the above article gives a few tips as to how to make it easier. The key is effective boat positioning and adjusting your gear to suit the conditions. Obviously you need a big range of sinker sizes, but the reverse idle method is the key to getting it right, and use your GPS intelligently, as this marvellous tool enables you to catch fish more efficiently than any other item on the boat.

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