For many anglers, offshore fishing conjures up images of big fish caught on big rigs while fishing from really big boats.

While that's a frequent saltwater scenario, it's certainly not the only productive fishing opportunity available. That's particularly true during the cold winter months, when a lot of the traditional saltwater action at the South Carolina coast is somewhat diminished.

However, bottom fishing for several species, notably black sea bass, snappers and groupers, is actually a red-hot item. February is a prime time to take these fish in limit numbers and big sizes.

Mike Cox of Awendaw (near Mount Pleasant) fishes for a variety of saltwater species and said February is prime time for sensational bottom fishing.

"Bottom fishing can be good year-round, but I really enjoy it this particular time of year," he said. "Part of the reason is we're between deer and turkey seasons. But from a pure fishing perspective, we're also between the major saltwater fishing seasons that I enjoy. It's still a couple or more months before yellowfin and dolphin fishing crank up. Plus, the inshore action that's so great in the fall has cooled off.

"But bottom fishing for black sea bass, snapper and grouper is prime during February. For openers, from my fishing experience, there's a lot less bottom fishing pressure during this time of the year. The fish stocks seem to be good, partly because there's less fishing pressure on them. That's particularly true at a number of the offshore wrecks and reefs that a lot of fishermen know about.

"But even on the live bottom areas, some that we've found and marked on our own, the fish just seem to be stacked up in better numbers and sizes at this time of the year."

Another plus, Cox said, is there are a variety of ways to fish. Plus anglers don't have to have a huge boat to get to some of the best fishing areas, especially if you can hand pick the days you go out.

"We've found excellent bottom fishing in fairly shallow water, from 40-feet deep down to about 125 feet," he said. "Of course, the farther out you go, the more boat you generally need, just to be on the safe side. In addition, as a general rule, the deeper the water you fish, the larger the average size of the fish you'll find at this time of the year as well."

Cox said once you reach the 90-foot depth of water, anglers have an excellent opportunity to catch snappers and groupers as well as black sea bass.

"Of course, you'll likely catch a smorgasbord of fish species when bottom fishing, regardless of the depth," he said. "But we're typically focusing on the black seas bass and if fishing further out, snapper and grouper as well."

The rigs can be as simple or as complex as one wants.

Bruce Olsen, also of Awendaw, notes that bottom fishing rigs are generally easy to prepare, and it's a good idea to have several ready as replacements.

"A lot of fishermen will buy the commercially-prepared bottom-fishing rigs," he said. "These work just fine and, if a person doesn't get to go a lot, that's probably the best way to work it. However, if you go frequently, it's worth the effort to rig up your own and have an ample stock ready to replace rigs that become snagged and lost.

"When bottom fishing in the right areas, one of the hazards is getting the rigs snagged on some cover and structure. You need the structure on the bottom to attract the fish, so expect to occasionally lose a rig."

Olsen said versatility is the keys to successful bottom fishing rigs. When bottom fishing, the size of the hook and weight at the end of the line will be determined by a variety of factors. These include fishing depth, amount of current and the sizes of fish.

"The hooks we use will range from 4-0 up to 8-0 in size," he said. "We generally use the Eagle Claw short-shank hooks. To the bottom of the rig we'll use anything from a 2-ounce sinker to an 8-ounce sinker depending on the depth and current.

"For example, when fishing in 40- to 60-foot water, we're generally focusing on black sea bass," he said. "One instance occurred when we were fishing in fairly slack water and used 4-0 hooks with 2-ounces of weight in about 50 feet of water.

"We had good feel of the rig and were catching fish like crazy. Then the tide started pulling hard and we had to go up to 4 ounces of weight to maintain good contact with the bottom.

"When fishing offshore, conditions are going to change frequently and you simply have to adapt."

Olsen said rigs are typically setup with a bell sinker on the bottom attached with a snap so it can be quickly changed. About 6 to 10 inches up the line, he uses a leader of 6 inches with a hook. Then about the same distance up the line, he'll add another leader and hook. According to Olsen, the rig is really that simple.

"Bottom fishing should not be complicated," he said. "The biggest key to success regarding the rig is to ensure you have the right sinker to maintain good contact with the bottom for feeling the bite. Plus, keep the size of the hook, and the bait, proportional to the size of fish you're after."

Cox said he typically anchors when fishing a specific bottom area. He said at times the area may be large to drift fish, but he usually has more success finding the fish in a concentrated area then setting up to fish vertically.

"It's essential to use the anchor that matched to the size of your boat," he said. "We use the fluke style with a sliding ring with at least 3 feet of chain on the anchor end of the line. These anchors are sized to match the size of the boat and it's critical to have the correct size of anchor.

"Let out at least three times as much anchor rope as the depth of water you're fishing. The wave action on the boat will tend to bump an anchor off the bottom and your boat won't stay in the right place, unless you have enough anchor line out."

Cox said he also makes his own reef markers to show a potential hot spot once he's seen something he likes on his graph.

"Obviously the fresh water markers that are available commercially are far to small to work in offshore fishing, but having a marker is crucial," he said. "We use 2- to 3-pound weights and a large marker that's highly visible color.

"We actually have several made up with different lengths of line already tied to them. This way we can drop a marker with the right amount of line for the depth we're fishing. Once the marker is set, it makes it much easier to line up the boat correctly for anchoring and ensuring we're directly over the fish."

Cox said a lot of the "little things" add up to make a huge difference. In the open ocean, a few yards to the left or right of a target area will make a big difference in the number of fish caught.

Actual fishing rigs can vary a great deal as well, Olsen said. Sometimes, when fishing only 40 to 50 feet of water, heavy-action freshwater largemouth bass tackle will suffice.

"A lot of the fish in this depth of water at this time of the year will be sea bass in the 1- to 3-pound class," he said. "Unless conditions are rough this is effective and fun fishing. But once you get further out in deeper water and the potential for hooking much larger fish becomes likely, we use the standard saltwater equipment.

"In these cases we can successfully use 17- to 20-pound-test line. When fishing areas where we may encounter much larger fish, we'll use perhaps 40- to 60-pound-test line."

Cox uses level-wind Penn GT320 or the Penn 650 spinning reels, especially when fishing for black sea bass.

"When we get out to the 80- to 120-foot depths, we usually are catching bass up to 4 pounds and larger," he said. "I like these larger rigs for that deep water fishing with heavier weights."

If focusing on larger fish such as the big snappers or groupers, Cox employs his 4-0 Penn Senators.

"Some of the snapper will be in the 15- to 20-pound class and the groupers can get up to 80 pounds or larger," he said. "If you hook into one of these big fish, you need to have adequate tackle to handle the fish.

"Any brand of reel and matching rod will work fine, as long as you have the proper set up for the depth and size of fish," Cox says.

Bait is of course a key to success. Olsen again notes that his philosophy is to keep it fairly simple.

"Squid is a prime bait for wintertime bottom fishing and it is my preference. Cigar minnows and cut menhaden will also work fine, as will a lot of other cut bait. But I like to get the larger squid to cut up because the hide is tougher. This helps it stay on the hook a bit better. Of course if you run out of bait while fishing, you can always just cut up some of the ringtail porgies or other fish you catch. While bait is important and I prefer squid, the real key is setting up the boat properly on good structure loaded with fish. Get most baits on the bottom in a situation such as this and you're going to catch fish," Olsen adds.

Other equipment that's handy to have on board according to Olsen is a big landing net and a gaff, especially for the really big fish.

Finding good places to bottom fish is usually not a big problem. Some of the better places Cox and Olsen have found are areas they have marked while moving from one location to another. However, there are a number of ways to get started with some good reference points.

"The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) has placed a number of reefs and all of these are good places to bottom fish at this time of the year," Cox says.

"One of my favorites is the R84KI reef out of Charleston. A lot of fishermen know about this one and fish it. During February this place is not fished very heavily. You can easily get to this reef out of the Charleston Harbor or out of the Stono Inlet to the south of Charleston near the Folly River area.

"There's a lot of sources for getting GPS coordinates for the many offshore reefs that hold fantastic black sea bass fishing."

The DNR web site is a great place to get bottom-fishing information. There are also books with GPS information at many tackle shops or large stores at the coast. Plus, when you're out fishing and moving from place to place, keep one eye glued to the graph and you'll likely run over some uncharted live-bottom areas. These can be the real hot spots you can return to time after time and make great catches."

Because of the complicated regulations regarding creel and size limits for bottom fish species, Cox and Olsen both recommend anglers check the latest regulations before going offshore. Often news rules will go into effect at the beginning of a calendar year.

"Plus, you have federal regulations as well as state regulations that come into play when offshore fishing," Cox said.

Cox has one final statement about this wintertime fishing.

"When you get onto a place that's stacked with black sea bass, snapper or grouper, don't loaf," he said. "Fish hard and be efficient.

"Sometimes the action will only last a short period and can be significantly influenced by the particular tide or water movement.

"We often end up with limits of quality-sized fish for everyone in the boat in short order. But we may have to work hard with few fish to show for it before finding that type action.

"I prefer to get in on this fantastic fishing when other anglers are huddled up by the fireplace thinking about spring. Plus, as table fare, it's hard to beat these three species of fish anytime of the year."