Jonah Yick is an experienced angler who regularly fishes the continental shelf around Tasmania (Australia). This article provides an overview of deep drop fishing with electric reels, and how to set yourself up for success. While Jonah’s article focuses on the Tasmanian continental shelf, his advice and techniques can be applied to deep drop fishing in any location around New Zealand and Australia.

When I first heard of fishing with electric reels over 10 years ago, my first thoughts were; that isn’t fishing, it’s cheating, lazy, and unskilful.

It wasn’t until I was given one of these reels as a birthday present that I decided I might as well give it a try, as an additional technique if the tuna fishing was slow, or something else to do while berleying or sword fishing over the continental shelf.

I soon realised it wasn’t as simple as it appeared, with my first few attempts resulting in empty hooks, or just the odd fish here and there.

Big Blue-Eye Trevalla are the holy grail of deep dropping, and are regarded as one of the best eating fish in southern Australia. This 16kg pig was caught out of Eaglehawk Neck, Tasmania in very average conditions.

Although I had dropped baits over the continental shelf with a conventional reel, the time and effort it took to wind a rig up from those depths meant that it was difficult to prospect an area effectively. As I began to work out likely looking habitats and made a few improvements to the electric reel technique, I began to turn over better and better numbers of fish, as well as a range of species, of which the majority were delicious. It got to the point where rather than using the electric reel as a secondary means of fishing, I began dedicating whole trips to this method.

Not only was it exciting exploring new ground and seeing the bites instantly after dropping, but eskies full of fish soon became the norm. With the price of local seafood only continuing to increase, deep drop fishing is a great way of getting out and catching a variety of great table fish, where people of all ages and fitness can get involved.

Where and when to fish

The main location I target when deep dropping is over the continental shelf, which can be overwhelming given there are no landmarks, and above water it appears as a big expanse of ocean.

In order to gain insight into where to start fishing, it’s important to acquire a bathymetric chart application, either on your phone, or on your GPS plotter. With this alone you can start to have a few trial drops, even without reading the bottom. However, having a sounder which is suitable for these depths is a big advantage, as it allows you to mark bait and fish. We’re lucky in Tasmania in that the continental shelf borders the east, south and west coasts, and even more fortunate that the shelf edge is quite a short steam from the majority of the main boat ramps on the east coast (20-40km in most cases).

A bathymetric chart of the sea floor surrounding the continental shelf east of Maria Island, at a location known as Riedle Canyon. This structure is ideal for bottom fishing, with some of the likely looking spots circled.

Before you head out fishing, it is worth spending some time on dry land to work out exactly where you plan to drop. Do this by inspecting your bathymetric chart application and start looking for areas of interest on the continental shelf.

Look for the area of ground closest to the boat ramp you plan to launch from, then start to inspect the contour lines. Look for kinks and sharp bends in the lines on the shelf slope, as well as canyons (multiple circles), which could indicate bait-holding structure which in turn could potentially attract the target species of fish.

The depths from 350 to 500m have always been most productive for me, therefore mark any suitable structure in this depth range. Now when you head out to fish these marks, take note of whether you catch any fish on them, and if you do, what species they are.

Some fish will prefer the hard edge of ledges and drop offs, while other species will congregate over the flatter, muddier substrate. You will begin to see these patterns when you start to drift around different areas of the continental slope.

A couple of beautiful Blue-Eye Trevalla caught out of 450m of water at Eaglehawk Neck.

Although there is no strict season of when to go deep dropping, the continental shelf appears to be most productive in Tasmania from November through till April. However, I have caught good numbers of bottom fish all year round, and at times the difficulty is more related with lining up favourable weather to access the offshore grounds.

Rigging up

Buy yourself the best electric reel that you can afford, because as with most other tackle, you get what you pay for. It’s no fun winding up fish manually from 500m depth when the motor dies, especially if you’re on a hot bite (speaking from experience!). Depending on how your boat is setup, you can either use a bent or straight butt, with bent butts being most popular as the rods present horizontally when put in the gunwale rod holders. Most importantly ensure the rod has a sensitive tip, but still has plenty of strength back towards the reel, as bite detection is imperative when fishing at these depths.

In Tasmanian waters, you’re allowed a maximum of five hooks per outfit, and the rigs for these can either consist of a main monofilament stem with individual monofilament snoods which can be clipped on and off, or a three way swivel connection with the five snoods permanently attached to the rig. I prefer the snoods which can be clipped on and off as it means I can instantly replace any which get too chaffed, or I can also change the size of the hooks. It also means that if you hook a shark or something bigger, I can unclip some of the snoods making the leadering process much easier and safer.

A standard deep drop rig with clip on snoods. Black Magic Tackle 400lb Tough Trace is ideal for both the backbone leader and the snoods, withstanding constant abrasions from sharp fish teeth. Black Magic Tackle 8/0 and 10/0 KLT® circle hooks are also ideal to facilitate self-hooking.

I prefer to use Black Magic Tackle 400lb Tough Trace for the monofilament sections as it’s very abrasion resistant, which is critical given the majority of deep sea fish have sharp teeth. It’s important to use a self-hooking hook like a circle hook, as due to the amount of line required to reach the bottom, it is not effective to strike at bites, and therefore you rely on the fish being able to hook themselves. I prefer to use the Black Magic Tackle 8/0 and 10/0 KLT® hooks , as I’ve found the finer gauge of these hooks assist with hook ups.

Lumo sleeves are also a good addition to the snoods as a visual attractant. Sinkers ideally need to be in the 1.5 to 2kg weight range, and it is important to use a lighter breaking strain monofilament when attaching it to the main rig to avoid losing everything if you get snagged. Small diamond lights can be attached to the rig, however I have not noticed a big differences in catch rates when fishing without them. Deep sea bottom dwelling fish are not overly fussy and will take a range of baits, both fish and squid. The most important thing is to ensure the bait is durable enough to last the long drop to the bottom, as well as all the smaller pickers. You want every drop to the bottom to count, given the time it takes to retrieve it.

Loaded up on a string of tasty bottom fish.

Deep drop strategy

Now that you have your spots marked out, and your rigs sorted, it’s time to put everything into practise. When looking at your depth sounder, bait or fish will appear either as a “furry” layer over the bottom, or you may see a thick band in mid-water or just above the bottom, which can be anywhere from 50 to 300m thick. This layer is known as the “deep scattering” layer or the “scatter” layer and is an accumulation of various organisms which can include lanternfish, squid, hydrozoans, and pelagic tunicates.

All of these organisms are sought after prey items for deep sea bottom fish, therefore seeing a thick scatter layer on your sounder is a very good sign. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re guaranteed to catch fish, as sometimes the predators are not present or they’re simply not willing to take a bait. At times it’s worth having a prospective drop even if there are no signs of life present on the sounder.

When dropping your baits down, be aware that your reel line counter will always show more line out than the depth you’re fishing, due to the excess belly in the line. To reduce the belly as much as possible, ensure you use an appropriate sized sinker for the conditions, and reverse back on the line if needed, so it drops as close to vertical as possible.

If you see a scatter layer on the sounder it’s worth stopping your bait in that zone to see if there are any fish feeding within it. However more often than not, if the bottom fish are present they will stop your sinker from dropping when they grab the baits, which will appear as though you have reached the bottom prematurely. If this happens, flick the reel in gear, watch the bites, and wait for the rod to load up then start the retrieve.

This sounder shot shows an area of the shelf with high productivity, and a high chance of catching fish. The main scatter layer which stretches from 300m to the bottom (543m), is likely to consist of the organisms below

Lanternfish and Pelagic Tunicates, both are taken from the stomachs of bottom fish which were caught while targeting a specific scatter layer.

If the current or wind is strong, it will be necessary to continue to back up on the bait to stay in contact with the bottom. It’s also useful to continue to let line out frequently. However, if you’re catching fish in the mid-water scatter layer, reversing is not essential as you can allow the bait to drift up in the water column. By using these principals, it’s still possible to deep drop effectively even in average conditions, in wind speeds up to 15 knots. However, it won’t be overly comfortable.

The hardest part when deep dropping can be interpreting the bites and knowing when to start the retrieve. It’s difficult to know whether one set of bites is from an individual fish, or multiple fish attacking the baits. To set the hook on a set of bites I’ll retrieve at high speed for a few seconds, then stop the bait. If I get more bites I’ll repeat this process. Eventually I’ll make the call to wind everything up.

If you want to prospect more of the bottom you’re fishing in, simply take longer drifts, and make note of what species you catch at particular stages of the drift. If you label the marks on your plotter by species, you will soon have a good pattern of species/structure in that particular area of the continental slope. Deep sea fish can come on and off the chew with the tide and time of day, so don’t write a mark off completely simply because you didn’t catch anything on it on a particular occasion. It’s worth fishing your marks at different times of the day, but also mix it up by moving between marks spread over the shelf.

The likely species

Blue grenadier (Macruronus novaezealandiae) are by far the most commonly encountered species when fishing over the continental slope. They can be found over the flat, muddy substrates as well as over the structure, and are a good species for beginners given their tasty soft flesh, and can be readily caught in big numbers in most areas. The pink ling (Genypterus blacodes) is another species which is regularly caught over the flat, muddy substrates, and also reaches weights in excess of 12kg. At certain times of the year big numbers of pink ling can be caught over the mud, and given their larger average size, finding a bunch of these fish can result in a fantastic feed. Their flesh is firm and flakey, and suits curries, soups, as well as baking and crumbing. Gemfish (Rexea solandri) can be caught quite consistently on the shelf edge as well as on the slope, over the harder bottom. When they are thick, big numbers can be caught in a single drop, and have a distinctive sharp tapping bite. Generally speaking, if you encounter gemfish, you are fishing the appropriate grounds for the highly prized and most sought after deep sea species, the blue eye trevalla (Hyperoglyphe antarctica).

Pink Ling can be quite prolific at certain times of the year, and are usually found over the flatter, muddy bottom.

Gemfish are regularly encountered while deep dropping in Tasmania, and are commonly found on hard bottom, which is associated with the shelf slope, the edges of canyons, and kinks in the shelf. If you catch these, you know you are also in good spot for the highly prized blue eye trevalla.

Gemfish are regularly encountered while deep dropping in Tasmania, and are commonly found on hard bottom, which is associated with the shelf slope, the edges of canyons, and kinks in the shelf. If you catch these, you know you are also in good spot for the highly prized Blue-eye Trevalla.

Pink ling can be quite prolific at certain times of the year, and are usually found over the flatter, muddy bottom.

Blue eye trevalla bite and fight harder than any of the other bottom dwelling species, and there is usually no mistaking when you have one or a few on the line, as they will head shake persistently almost to the surface. They are commonly found on ledges and hard bottom, and are arguably one of the best eating fish in southern Australia. Given their average size can range from 4 to 10kg, you don’t need to catch many to end up with a delicious feed. If you find a patch of them make sure you mark the spot carefully, and ensure anyone fishing with you is trustworthy! The second most sought after fish by Tasmanian deep droppers is the rays bream (Brama brama). This impressive looking fish resembles a saltwater piranha, and forms dense schools both mid-water and on the bottom. At times if they are feeding within a scatter layer, big numbers of these fish can be caught in a short amount of time. They are delicious eating with firm, buttery fillets, which suit all styles of cooking.  The beauty of deep drop fishing is that there is a huge range of other species available, and most are also delicious!

A haul of stunning imperador caught while fishing the hard edge of a canyon in 460m.

Blue grenadier or hoki as they are referred to in New Zealand are probably the most common species of fish encountered when deep dropping. They can usually be found on muddy substrates on the flatter sections of the continental slope.

Maximising your time on the shelf

Once you get comfortable with the technique of fishing with one electric reel over the continental shelf, there are many other ways you can maximise your fishing time, and increase your chance of catching more fish. At the end of the day, you should have plenty of time to do other things while waiting for bites, considering you don’t need to hold the rod during the deployment, fishing, or retrieval stages. If the conditions allow, you can fish two electric setups doubling your chances of catching bottom fish. Putting a line down for swordfish is also another way of passing the time while waiting for your electric rod to load up. Berleying can also be very productive, not only for mako sharks but also other pelagic fish like albacore, southern bluefin tuna, and kingfish. Casting back into the berley slick with soft plastics/poppers is a good way of keeping busy and increasing your chance of catching pelagic fish. Or if the sounder is lit up with a thick scatter layer you can try dropping a knife jig down to that depth and working it back up. This can be a deadly technique for aggressive schooling fish like the rays bream.

There you have it, electric reel fishing is not as bad as it sounds, despite my continual need to justify this to other anglers who haven’t experienced this form of fishing before! You can make it a leisurely, relaxing experience, or you can use it to keep busy, and undertake other forms of fishing while the baits are down. First and foremost, if you like prospecting the dark, cold waters of the continental shelf while simultaneously catching a feed of premium table fish, then deep dropping might just be the thing for you.

Article written by Jonah Yick

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