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Bottom Fishing: A Complete How-To Guide

Last Updated: January 5th, 2021
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Saltwater anglers know that many of the most prized species hunt the bottom, especially in the shallower water most of us fish. And even offshore in waters like the Gulf of Mexico, where there is plenty of sun to keep the food chain humming, you’ll find big grouper, fat snapper, and sharks in abundance near the bottom.

Bottom fishing isn’t rocket science, but it helps to know a few basics like what tackle to choose, which rigs to use, and what baits work best.

Do you want answers to these questions?

Keep reading!

Related: Saltwater Fishing Tips

Bottom Fishing: The Basics

Bottom fishing is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of techniques and rigs that enable anglers to work on or near the bottom for predatory species that hunt there.

It’s popular in the salt because many species work the bottom in search of prey. 

bottom fishing for red snapper

Red snapper are among the species that actively hunt the bottom.

And from ambush predators like grouper, flounder, and halibut to active hunters like red snapper, sharks, bluefish, and speckled trout, bottom fishing is an effective way to target a variety of sought-after species.

bottom fishing for grouper

Grouper use incredible camouflage to ambush prey near the bottom.

One great thing about bottom fishing is that the actual fishing techniques are simple: just sit and wait! This makes it great for novice anglers and younger fishing enthusiasts. Another awesome aspect of bottom fishing is that light and heavy tackle can be run side-by-side, using the catch on light lines as bait on the heavy ones.

That makes for exciting opportunities, surprises, and loads of fun--and we’ll talk about that more below.

Fishing Rods, Reels, and Line for Bottom Fishing

We’ve written extensively about saltwater rods and reels before, and it’s worth taking a look at these articles:

Best Saltwater Fishing Rods Reviewed for 2020

Best Saltwater Fishing Reels: Inshore and Offshore 2020 Buying Guide

Best Conventional Reels Reviewed - Big Reels for Big Water

The good news is that you have a wealth of options available for the techniques you use and the places you fish. The bad news is that there’s simply no one-size-fits-all solution.

Best Rods and Reels for Surf-Casting

surf casting rods

Surf casting offers anglers unique challenges and opportunities, all of which are related to ultra-long casts.

Because fishing from the beach typically demands that you launch your rig past the breakers and into the trough behind them, standard rods just don't make the grade. Instead, you need specialized tackle: very long rods that help you get the most from techniques like the snap cast.

A great example of a surf casting rod, and one of my all-time favorites, is the Okuma Cedros CSX Surf. Available in a variety of powers and actions, for most anglers, I’d recommend the medium-power, 10’6” rod rated for 20- to 50-pound line.

Despite being built from high-end materials, it won’t break the bank. But what it will do is launch bottom rigs like a catapult, help you detect light strikes, and turn the odds of hard fights in your favor.

Pair it with an excellent reel like the Daiwa BG or Penn Battle II, and you’ve got yourself an awesome surf casting set-up.

Best Rods and Reels for Pier Fishing

bottom fishing at pier

Pier fishing is popular everywhere along the coast, providing easy, inexpensive access to deep water without the need for a boat or specialized surf casting rods.

Instead, you’ll find typical inshore spinning gear in the hands of anglers there, whether they’re chasing specks, pompano, blues, or flounder.

In some cases, anglers target larger species like sharks or grouper from piers, and then, you’ll sometimes see short, stout offshore rods in use.

Excellent inshore rods like the Hurricane Calico Jack are ideal for pier fishing, with medium-light to medium-power rods being the best choices for most anglers.

Other excellent rods include St. Croix’s legendary Mojo Inshore line-up, which offers the full range of powers from light to extra-heavy. Most won’t want these extremes, and medium-light to medium-power rods are the sweet spot from a pier.

Again, I’d pair these choices with the Daiwa BG or Penn Battle II and never look back.

Best Rods and Reels for Offshore Fishing

offshore bottom fishing

Offshore anglers who work the bottom are typically fishing humps, submerged islands, and other “shallow” water rather than the ocean’s depths.

Big fish need to eat, and they’ll hunt where prey items are common. And it’s just these kinds of locations where they’ll find food.

If you consider species like grouper and sharks, stout, short rods are the norm. 

Among the best, you’ll find the trusted International VI from Penn. Available in a range of lengths, powers, actions, and guide-designs, when monsters are the order of the day, you need a rod like no other to fight them!

Paired with a conventional reel like the awesome Penn Fathom Lever Drag, and you’ve got a rod and reel combo that would make Jeremy Wade envious!

For smaller species like red snapper, step down to a medium to medium-heavy power, but still choose the Fathom.

Best Rods and Reels for Inshore Fishing

inshore bottom fishing

Inshore anglers fish shallow water where working the bottom for species like flounder is common, but you’ll also find specks, pompano, sharks, and blues--among others. These diverse options mean that all-around rods and reels are king, and I typically look for medium-light to medium-power rods unless I’m specifically targeting sharks.

Then, medium-heavy to heavy-power rods are essential.

Check out our full guide on inshore rods and inshore spinning reels

I generally prefer spinning tackle to buck the wind, but I fish with people who prefer casting tackle. Both work well, and both offer advantages and disadvantages that we’ve discussed before.

As I mentioned above, the Hurricane Calico Jack and St. Croix’s Mojo Inshore line-up are outstanding inshore options. But so too is the Penn Battalion Inshore and the tough, budget-friendly Ugly Stik Elite.

Match the power and action to the fish you plan to target, with light-medium covering most of your bases.

If you plan to target sharks, however, medium-heavy to heavy is a far better choice.

And as I have before, I’ll recommend the excellent Daiwa BG or Penn Battle II for fans of spinning tackle.

For anglers who prefer casting tackle, it’s hard to beat St. Croix’s Avid series. Available in a range of powers from medium-light to medium-heavy, they’re very hard to beat whether you chase specks near rocks, reds in a salt marsh, or flounder over a sandy bay.

The Ugly Stik Elite is also available in a casting configuration, and you shouldn’t let the price fool you. While not the equal of the St. Croix, I own this rod and have come to love it. It’s as durable as they come, offers plenty of backbone, and sports a sensitive tip.

For the money, it’s an outstanding option.

For inshore angling, I really like Daiwa’s Tatula CT Type-R. For fast, strong fish like reds, it offers the speed, drag, and torque you need, and it’s great for specks, blues, pompano, and pretty much everything else as well.

If shark is your thing, consider one of these rods in medium-heavy to heavy power, equipping it with the ultra-capable Penn Fathom Lever Drag.

Best Line For Bottom Fishing

We’ve debunked line myths before, and if you want to cut through the marketing hype and get to the truth of the matter, check out this article:

Best Fishing Line - Monofilament vs. Fluorocarbon vs. Braid

Choosing a line for bottom fishing is a question of trade-offs.

While braided superlines offer the best hook-setting when you have a lot of line out, they’re not the best option for knot integrity, shock strength, or abrasion resistance. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have a place, and especially when you run very heavy braid and mono or wire leaders, some of these issues can be overcome.

And when you’re fishing really deep--really working the bottom in open water--nothing beats super-heavy braid as main line. With minimal stretch, you’ll keep more pressure on the hook and land more big fish.

For many anglers, the need for braided line means reaching for the legendary strength of Power Pro in tests like 100 or 150 pounds. Complimented with a shock leader of heavy mono (125-pound+), you’ve got a strong, tough, fight-ready combo that just won’t quit.

But most anglers in shallower water choose monofilament, and their reasons are clear. First, mono offers unparalleled shock strength, knot integrity, and abrasion resistance. Second, it’s available in a wider range of colors, including clear, making it a solid choice with line-shy fish. Finally, that abrasion resistance means that it’s ideal for fishing around debris like rocks, pilings, coral, or wrecks.

More on mono fishing line

And when accompanied by a heavy-duty leader of either very heavy mono or wire, it’s simply unbeatable for fighting big, sharp-toothed fish like sharks.

One of my favorite lines for bottom fishing is Trilene Big Game. Available in test strengths of 8 to 130 pounds, most anglers will find what they’re looking for in this easy to tie line.

Gear-Up for Bottom Fishing: Everything You Need

Irwin Vise-Grip Long Nose Pliers

If you’re going to be working with wire leaders, crimping and cutting your rig into shape, you’ll want a serious wire-working tool. And while fishing pliers can usually get the job done, they’re just not designed to cut heavy wire leader material.

Reach for the real deal--you’ll be glad you did!

IRWIN VISE-GRIP Long Nose Pliers, 6-Inch (2078216)

Amazon 

Rio Powerflex Wire Bite Tippet 40Lb

For toothy fish like blues, nothing beats tough nylon-coated tieable wire.

Rio’s Powerflex is simply awesome for creating nearly indestructible leaders, and when I’m fishing for species that sport a mouth full of sharp teeth, this is what I reach for.

Rio Fly Fishing Tippet Power Flex-Wire Bite Tippet 40Lb 15'. Fishing Tackle, Clear

Amazon 

Malin Wire Leader

For bigger, meaner fish like sharks, I recommend ultra-tough wire leader. Malin is a name you can trust, and their leader material is built to take everything a shark can dish out.

It’s tempting to go for a pre-tied leader with a built-in swivel and clip, but trust me--many brands are not able to deliver on the performance they promise, breaking well under their rated test strength.

If you want to be sure that the shark, wahoo, or king mackerel you tie into will end up on the beach, tie your own leaders from superior material!

I recommend using American Fishing Wire Single Barrel Crimp Sleeves in the size that’s right for the wire you choose. I look for sleeves with slightly larger interior diameters than double my line diameter.

For instance, if you run #15 wire with a diameter of .036”, look for a sleeve size that’s close to (but bigger than) .072”. In this case, I’d select the closest larger size: .082”.

Malin Wire Leader| King Mackerel Wahoo Shark Rigging (#10 (131lb) 163' roll)

Amazon 

Gamakatsu Circle Hooks

For surf casting, where linen lengths are going to create weak hooksets, nothing beats a circle hook. Essentially self-setting, they do the job for you if you rig them correctly.

Strong, sharp, and utterly dependable, Gamakatsu hooks are as good as it gets. Available in sizes from 8 to 8/0, they’ve got the right size for you, whatever you’re after in the surf.

Gamakatsu Octopus Circle Hooks Offset-Point (25-Pack), Black, Size 2

Amazon 

Eagle Claw 8 mm Beads

Beads are an important component for some bottom fishing rigs. Placed between a sliding sinker and a barrel swivel, they can protect your line from the pounding of all that lead.

Eagle Claw A8BEAD20R Plastic Beads, 8 mm, Red, 20 Piece

Amazon 

Ice Sea Sinker Slides

When you need a big sinker to slide freely, a slide is essential. And because of the clip, it’s easy to change sinker weights as conditions change.

ICE SEA 25-50pcs Fishing Line Sinker Slide with Duo-Lock Snap Blue High-Strength Sinker Slider Stainless Steel Snap Kit (Light Blue, 25pcs)

Amazon 

Bullet Weights Pyramid Sinkers

An old fashioned pyramid sinker enables long casts and holds well, keeping your bottom fishing rig where you want it. As it lays over onto its side, the points and flat at the top grip to fight the tide, current, and waves.

Bullet Weight’s sinkers are available in weights ranging from 1 to 6 ounces, making them a versatile choice in any condition.

Dr. Fish Cigar Float

Pesky crabs can ruin live bait on the bottom. But a cigar float can keep your hook afloat, keeping you in the game longer.

Dr.Fish 30PCs Fishing Cigar Float Cylinder Cork Float Foam Float Spinner Crawler Harness Orange Chartreus

Amazon 

Riptail Barrel Swivels

Barrel swivels are another rigging essential, and you’ll need some strong options for big, mean fish. Riptail offers swivels in sizes that are rated for everything from fluke to specks to sharks.

Riptail Barrel Fishing Swivels – Steel with Corrosion-Resistant Finish, Size #8 (45lb) - 100 Pack

Amazon 

Thundermist Lure Company T-Turn 3-Way Swivel

While some anglers like to tie their double-hooked rigs, a three-way swivel is more effective at preventing tangles and allows your live bait to swim more erratically, attracting more bites.

T-Turn Thundermist Black Nickel

Amazon 

Breakaway Super Sinker

Breakaway Super Sinkers are available in standard surf casting weights, offering better grip and a breakaway design for anglers who face rocky bottoms that threaten to snag every cast.

Breakaway Super Sinker 4oz

Amazon 

Best Bottom Fishing Rigs: Three Rigs to Rule Them All

The Fish Finder Rig (A Modified Carolina Rig)

fish finder rig modified carolina

Among bottom fishing enthusiasts, there’s no rig more widely used than the Fish Finder. Essentially a Carolina Rig modified for longer casts and tide-bucking grip, the Fish Finder is a versatile, effective option every angler should know how to assemble.

Pretty much the only situation in which the Fish Finder Rig will let you down is when you’re confronted by an angry horde of crabs! Then, depending on your live bait option, they’ll have access to your hook and steal a meal as quickly as you rig it.

To assemble a Fish Finder Rig, follow these steps:

  1. Slide a sinker sleeve onto your main line.
  2. Follow it with a bead stop. This will protect your barrel swivel from the heavy sinker.
  3. Using a Uni Knot, attach a barrel swivel. 
  4. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  5. Cut 18 to 25 inches of leader, using wire for species with aggressive teeth.
  6. Using a Palomar Knot, attach a circle hook to one end of the leader.
  7. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  8. Using a Uni Knot, attach the other end of your leader to the barrel swivel.
  9. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.

For sharks and other large fish with a mouth full of razors:

  1. Slide a sinker sleeve onto your main line.
  2. Follow it with a bead stop.
  3. Using a Uni Knot, attach a size 4 or 5 barrel swivel.
  4. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end. If you run very heavy mono, it’s probably easier to crimp than tie.
  5. Cut 18 to 25 inches of heavy wire leader.
  6. Run the wire through the eye of your hook, slide on a single barrel connector, and crimp it down tightly with pliers.
  7. Crimp the wire leader to the barrel swivel.

The Floating Fish Finder Rig

floating fish finder rig

The Floating Fish Finder Rig is an exceptional option for holding live bait off the bottom at a known depth. Not only does this put it right where hungry fish can find it, but it also prevents pesky crabs from stealing your bait.

To assemble a Floating Fish Finder Rig, follow these steps:

  1. Slide a sinker sleeve onto your main line.
  2. Follow it with a bead stop. This will protect your barrel swivel from the heavy sinker.
  3. Using a Uni Knot, attach a barrel swivel.
  4. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  5. Cut 18 to 25 inches of leader, using wire for species with aggressive teeth.
  6. Using a Palomar Knot, attach a circle hook to one end of the leader.
  7. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  8. Crimp a split shot or two 3 to 4 inches back from your hook.
  9. Slide a cigar float onto your leader.
  10. Using a Uni Knot, attach the other end of your leader to the barrel swivel.
  11. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.

For sharks and other large fish with a mouth full of razors:

  1. Slide a sinker sleeve onto your main line.
  2. Follow it with a bead stop.
  3. Using a Uni Knot, attach a size 4 or 5 barrel swivel.
  4. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end. If you run very heavy mono, it’s probably easier to crimp than tie.
  5. Cut 18 to 25 inches of heavy wire leader.
  6. Run the wire through the eye of your hook, slide on a single barrel connector, and crimp it down tightly with pliers.
  7. Crimp a split shot or two 3 to 4 inches back from your hook.
  8. Slide a cigar float onto your leader.
  9. Crimp the wire leader to the barrel swivel.

The High/Low Rig

high-low rig

The High/Low Rig is among my personal favorites, and I’ve caught coolers full of croaker, specks, and flounder on this versatile rig.

Ideal for running multiple jigs or live baits, it can help you hone in on what’s triggering bites that day, as well as giving you a second chance to attract a strike.

I’ve also used this rig with a single hook, and it’s just as deadly with little risk of tangles.

If you fish in areas where snags are a constant problem, run a Breakaway Super Sinker or make a dropper line of lightweight mono that allows you to break off your sinker.

Some anglers use a single main line with Dropper Loops and leaders running from them. For this style of rigging, T-swivels aren’t necessary, but in my experience, tangling can be a real issue.

To assemble a High/Low Rig, follow these steps:

  1. Cut 10 to 18 inches of leader.
  2. Using a Uni Knot, tie your leader to the bottom of a T-swivel.
  3. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  4. Cut 18 inches of leader.
  5. Using a Uni Knot, tie that leader to the top of your T-swivel.
  6. Using a Uni Knot, tie the other end to the bottom of a second T-swivel.
  7. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  8. Cut another 18 inches of leader.
  9. Using a Uni Knot, tie it to the top of the second T-swivel.
  10. Wet the knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  11. Using a Uni Knot, attach the free end of that leader to a barrel swivel.
  12. Wet the knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  13. Using a Surgeon’s Loop, attach the sinker of your choice to the lower leader.
  14. At the high T-swivel, use a Uni Knot to attach roughly 10 to 12 inches of leader.
  15. Wet the knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  16. Using a Palomar knot, attach a circle hook or jig head to the end of this short leader.
  17. Wet the knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  18. At the low T-swivel, use a Uni Knot to attach roughly 18 to 24 inches of leader.
  19. Using a Palomar knot, attach a circle hook or jig head to the end of this short leader.
  20. Wet the knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.

If you’d like to skip this complicated process, you can buy a quality High/Low Rig from Tide Rite that’s made from 30-pound mono leader. Tide Rite uses loops at the hooks, so they’re easy to change if you don’t want the Mustad bait holders they supply.

tide rite high-low rig

For bluefish, you can also buy a wire High/Low Rig and then make leaders from wire for your hooks.

Jasmine makes a nice pre-tied wire rig, and it’s available in one- and two-armed versions.

pre-tied wire rig

Live and Dead Baits for Bottom Fishing

A complete list of the species that saltwater anglers use for bait would be too long to print, and the best advice is to ask other fishermen you see on the pier, boat launch, and water.

Generally speaking, any small fish you rig is going to attract the attention of larger predators, but the specific species will vary by your location and the food chain there.

For big fish and deep water, nothing beats live bait like pinfish, blue runners, the various species of scad, small mackerel, and small tuna.

Grouper, amberjack, and snapper simply can’t resist them, and the larger the bait, the bigger the bite!

pin fish

The bigger the pinfish, the better!

As experienced fishing guides will tell you, the best way to come by these fish is by catching them, and it’s always a good idea to bring a medium-light rod with you for just this kind of fun.

I like to have a few lines in the water, well-separated, of course: some to catch baitfish and some for the real score. Catching your bait reduces stress on them, keeping them alive and swimming longer, as Travis Palledeno reminds us

It’s also really fun to catch tons of baitfish while you’re waiting for the bottom rig to hit.

blue runner

A big Blue Runner, lip-hooked on a Fish Finder Rig, is a great option for deep water.

Live croaker is also an excellent bait, and these little guys are fun to catch while you wait for the main event.

dorsal hooked croaker

A dorsal-hooked croaker like this is just waiting for a big blue to take it by the tail.

Live mullet can also be money, and pretty much everything has them on the menu.

mullet rigged through mouth

Hand-sized mullet are an ideal live bait for most species, and rigged like this, expect a speck to get hooked.

And of course, live shrimp can be worth their weight in gold when you’re trying to get a bite from reds and other shellfish-hungry species. We usually bring a cast net with us on the boat, just in case we see them running nearby.

Cut mullet can be excellent as well, and like most saltwater anglers, I’ve used cut bait extensively on the bottom.

Use fresh mullet, don’t over-bait your hook, and choose a good octopus-style that makes nearly a full-circle with the barb, and you’ll be amazed by how effective cut bait can be on the bottom.

In shallower water like the surf or the trough behind the breakers, fresh clams can be magical. 

Specks, blues, and other surf-casting prey can’t resist them.

But don’t forget that each species has its quirks.

As Capt. John Luchka, who fishes the waters off Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, explains, “Striped bass eat prey headfirst, while bluefish go for the tail.” How you hook your live bait can determine which species will bite--and even if you get a bite at all.

Final Thoughts

We hope that this article has helped you gear up for bottom fishing. 

With the right tackle, well-tied rigs, and carefully chosen live or cut bait, bottom fishing can be among the most productive techniques to catch big fish.

If we’ve helped you up your game, we’d love to hear about it!

Please leave a comment below.

About The Author
Pete D
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.
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