Fortunately, the rocks around nearshore reefs and livebottom areas are open - wide open - for fishing business. With species that drive the fishery in warmer weather gone for a long vacation, those rocks and reefs are filthy with trophy bottomfish ready to offer at the tasty offerings dropped into the deep by bundled-up anglers.
Grouper and red snapper are off limits, but some of the best-eating fish remain abundant and within range of most seaworthy boats. Some of the largest black sea bass and triggerfish inhabits these locales in large numbers, offering a tasty bonus for anglers in the dead of winter.
Capt. Englis Glover of Tea to Sea Fishing Charters in Myrtle Beach, S.C., covets every opportunity to go bottom-fishing.
"You just never know what you will bring up with a chunk of cigar minnow marinating on the ocean floor," said Glover (843-655-5459). "Black sea bass, grouper, vermillion snapper, porgies, grunts, and triggerfish are several of the usual suspects on these trips, but anything could be patrolling these underwater kingdoms looking for an easy meal."
According to Glover, baits rarely last too long on a good ledge or reef, especially during the dead of winter with fish ganged up.
Not every ledge or livebottom area is created equal and will not hold large groups of fish in winter; location can be a critical factor. Fish are cold-blooded and must find waters in their preferred temperature range to survive. It's not uncommon in February for surf temperatures to plummet to the low 40s, with nearshore reefs out to 25 to 35 feet deep also well below the 60-degree mark. But as you travel further off the beach toward 100-foot depths, the water down deep takes longer to cool. Water temperatures near the bottom will be much warmer than the surface, offering temperate conditions for cold-blooded fish and baitfish as well.
However, baitfish and bottom-dwellers choose to limit their travels too far offshore. In fact, many bottomfish move inshore into waters just warm enough to survive in order to avoid the winter vacation destination of the millions of pelagic predators near or in the warm Gulf Stream. This warm current originates at the southern tip of Florida and shuttles warm waters within approximately 65 miles of the jetties at Little River Inlet.
Glover limits his offshore travels to locales just beyond the sight of land that are filled with these tasty critters.
"Winter bottom-fishing ideal locales are found where water depths range from 60- to 85-feet deep, and (they) can be as close as 17 miles from Little River Inlet," he said, naming familiar spots including: the Jungle, the Little River Offshore Reef, BP-25, Capt. Bill Perry Reef, the Parking Lot and many other places in-between offering unique conditions preferred by bottomfish. "Livebottoms, reefs and ledges are the places to look to find groups of bottom fish."
The nearshore area off Little River is covered with places where schools of fat black sea bass, snappers and triggers can be found: livebottom, artificial reefs and shipwrecks. Some areas are better than others, and while Glover's GPS is loaded with pages of "numbers" produced in past seasons, he heavily relies on offshore fishing charts that show underwater topography, hardbottom and livebottom areas and low-relief/high-relief areas.
Glover patrols these areas, drifting baits over these ledges and livebottom areas until a good bite occurs. Depending on how many bites he gets and the quality of the fish doing the biting, he may re-drift the area, anchor or move to another location. When he's fishing a ledge, he will often move no more than a quarter-mile and make several more drifts looking for bigger fish or a bigger concentration of fish. Even when the bite is good, he will often move when the average size of the fish begins to deteriorate.
"Usually, the larger fish attack the baits first, and then the smaller ones will get a chance to feed," said Glover, who expects fish to bite immediately because they're typically famished during the winter.
Capt. Randy Elliott of Fisher of Men Charters out of Calabash, N.C., concentrates on irregular bottom features as well.
"Reefs, ledges, and livebottom areas are all good areas for finding bottom fish," said Elliott (843-249-8662), who prefers ledges with major topographical changes - high-relief ledges that offer more surface area where fish can live. "Ledges are out primary target for locating bottomfish in winter in 90 to 120 foot of water.
Elliott honed his skills as a commercial offshore fishermen in the late 1980s through the 1990s, locating places that regularly held bottomfish during the winter.
"We scan the ledges and livebottom areas to mark bait before dropping the first line," he said.
Often, ledges will stretch for miles along the ocean floor, and certain areas may offer better conditions for baitfish that are not readily visible from charts and sonar equipment. But schools of baitfish will show up and are easily recognizable on high-resolution bottom machines.
These livebottom areas, in fact, are actually alive. The livebottom or hardbottoms are essentially areas on the ocean floor with a firm, irregular or vertical substrate highly-favorable for attracting sea life. Sponges, corals and marine plants adhere to these hard surfaces and serve as retreats for small fish and invertebrates.
Black sea bass, snapper and other bottomfish eat mostly small fish but will eat almost anything during the winter. Bait choices are fairly simple: use some sort of oily fish. Glover initially relies a hodgepodge of baitfish from warm-weather trips that he stores in his freezer for the winter, then using frozen cigar minnows he buys from local retailers.
"We always catch live bait for charters in the warm seasons. After each trip, I dump the remaining mullet, menhaden and cigar minnows into the deep freeze to serve as part of our buffet for winter bottom fishing trips," said Glover, who believes that bottomfish tend to be less selective in the winter.
Glover cuts his cigar minnows in half and fishes them on a homemade "chicken" or "double-rig," featuring 80-pound mono with two surgeon loops and short-shanked 4/0 to 7/0 J-hooks. At the bottom, he ties a dropper loop with a a weight between eight and 16 ounces, depending on the current.
"If anglers are missing a lot of fish, most likely triggers are the culprit, and we quickly downsize to smaller 4/0 and 5/0 J-hooks," said Glover, who spools his reels with 80-pound braided line. "Bottom-fishing and braided line go hand-in-hand. The reaction time is crucial to feel that bite, and the zero-stretch characteristic of braid allows for more hooksets and a happy angler."
Fishermen from both Carolinas can and do take advantage of the bottom-fishing opportunities off Little River during the winter, even in the coldest days in January and February. Fortunately, Carolina winters offer enough fair, warmer spells that fishermen can take advantage just a short ride beyond the jetties. Finding schools of trophy bottom fish in the winter can capture every angler's bent-rod fixation, and the targeted species are guaranteed to satisfy even the most-finicky culinary palate.