The Ground Game

Ruben Villarreal
The Ground Game
EZ hook
I realized recently that many small-boat anglers who occasionally venture offshore have little knowledge of the best methods of tying to a platform, setting a drift (over wrecks or alongside shrimp boats), anchoring over structure, etc. So, with summer and the peak of offshore fishing interest nearly upon us, I thought perhaps we could shed some light on this subject. The basic hardware that gets you in the game includes rig hooks, sea anchors, anchor, anchor line, and chain. These implements are considered "ground tackle."

First, let's cover tying to platforms. Platforms and pipe stands are very popular as they are easy to navigate to and attract good numbers of many species. Two primary considerations here are wind direction and current. Tying on the downwind side is almost always best from a safety viewpoint; however, current from the opposite direction can be dangerous if strong enough to move the boat against the wind toward the above-water structure. A few minutes of study are definitely in order before deciding on your tying location.

A rig hook is the safest and handiest method for tying to above-water structure and there are two common types of rig hooks; the EZ Rig Hook and the traditional long-shank rig hook styled much like a shepherd's crook. Given that the sea is not always calm, sidling to within the few feet of the structure required to attach the shepherd's crook can be a dicey and dangerous exercise; ditto retrieving it. The EZ Rig Hook can be tossed a good (and safe) distance to accomplish the connection and similarly unhooked from a distance via a trip wire that runs through guides on the mooring line.

Mooring line should be stout enough to hold your boat in a gale! While practically any size line will work in calm conditions, squalls can appear suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere. Simply put this is no place for wimpy line. Three-quarters, or better yet, one inch diameter three-strand nylon makes a good choice and one hundred feet is a practical length. While you may not want to position the boat one hundred feet from the structure under calm conditions, being able to quickly and safely lengthen the hitch can save your life and avert damage to your boat.
Being tied to a rig under anything but calm seas dictates that a shock absorber, or rubber snubber as they are commonly known, be included in the rigging to counter the jolt of the boat heaving against the mooring line. Never tie the snubber from the eyes as you would a swivel in a fishing line. Proper rigging technique dictates using a continuous line, knotted at each eye, including slack line between the knots to allow the snubber to stretch, just in case the snubber should fail. The easiest way I have found to accomplish this is with a "bowline on a bight" at each end.

Drifting is an easy and popular method of setting up alongside a shrimp boat or over underwater structure; however, being at the mercy of wind and current does not always allow for thorough fishing. A sea anchor or drift sock is very useful in managing your drift. Essentially a cone-shaped parachute with a vent at the small end, the drift sock is rigged with two lines one on the bridle at the large end for attaching to a boat cleat and another at the small end which allows the sock to be reversed for easy retrieval. Varying the point of drift sock attachment along the hull can help you achieve various angles of drift.

The least popular, yet still highly useful, method of setting up on likely structure is anchoring. Anchoring can remove a lot of guesswork regarding lure and bait placement over targeted structure but there are variables to consider. These are anchor scope, wind direction, current, and length of chain on the anchor.

Scope is the length of line required between boat and anchor to hold position and varies with water depth and sea conditions. On calm days two to three feet of line per foot of depth can be sufficient; whereas in rougher seas six to eight feet of anchor line may be required for the anchor to stick.

Generally, unless influenced by current, your boat will come to rest directly downwind of the anchor. Notice I said generally. An opposing current can cause the boat to lie at some vector to the direction of the wind meaning your lures or baits may not end up over the intended target. Always compare your exact position via sonar and adjust anchor drop as necessary. Another point to consider is any sudden change in wind direction or current velocity, especially when anchoring in proximity to above-water structure. Either of these can cause the boat to spin on its anchor and could get you into trouble.
A few words about anchor chain: I see many smaller boats with very short shots of chain on the anchors. A short shot of chain may work well in the bays but when it comes to your offshore ground tackle, the length of the anchor chain is critically important. Not only does the chain add weight helping the anchor hold, it also adds abrasion resistance should the line slap the seafloor or contact other rough surfaces. A good rule of thumb says chain length should be equal to boat length. Many mariners blame insufficient scope and anchor size when actually all they need is more chain.

I hope this has enlightened you on some of the basic methods for setting up on an area to fish. If you take nothing else from this article, take these key points:

1) Never rig a snubber in the fashion of an inline swivel always knotted into the mooring line with slack (approximately twice the length of the snubber) between knots.

2) Be mindful of the length of chain on your anchor; if it doesn't stick, you probably need more chain or scope. If you have never tested your anchor to discover whether it will hold, consider this: If you lose power or run out of fuel, your anchor is all you have between holding your position and possibly drifting further to sea.