We’ve been zipping across the ocean for about an hour, heading out of Charleston for a quick bottom-fishing trip in a 24-foot Sea Hunt center console.
At the helm is Paul Godbout, one of the Lowcountry’s most experienced offshore anglers. A big, straight-talking guy widely known by his Internet moniker “Sellsfish,” Godbout enjoys a reputation as a local bottom-fishing phenom. By late October, he was leading the Trident Fishing Tournament in seven categories: blackfish, bonito, grouper (two tackle classes), snapper and triggerfish (two tackle classes).
Godbout happily shares his techniques for hoisting huge grouper and snapper from the rocky ledges off the South Carolina coast. He draws big crowds during tackle-shop fishing seminars, and often hosts informal tutorials in the garage of his Summerville home.
Today, Godbout’s taking his show on the road, carrying two anglers to prime hard-bottom spots in 90 feet of water. Throttling back as we approach his GPS numbers, Godbout keeps his eyes glued to the depth finder screen. Slowly but surely, he zeroes in on the tasty but tough target of the day: Triggerfish.
“There’s more fish,” he says as the bottom of the screen starts to register small harsh marks. “See how the bottom looks furry — that’s fish hugging the bottom. That’s fish … That’s fish … Here we have more hard colors — better sonar returns means bigger fish. Lighter colors are your bait fish.
“Look at that!” he says as an arch of blue, red, yellow and white signals moves across the bottom of the screen. “That’s triggers. See all those dashes? That’s textbook triggers. That’s triggers, and they’ve got bait all around them. We’ll drift back right over that school. Let’s go up right above ’em. Look at that spike!
“All right,” he says, throwing the boat into neutral and reaching for his Shimano Trevala rod. “Let’s kill some fish!”
In short order, the action begins. One gray triggerfish, then another hits the deck. Some vermilion snapper come over the side. Satisfied with our test drops, we reposition the boat up current, drop anchor and get to work.
Whenever I drop my double-hook “chicken rig” to the bottom, a horde of fish attacks the little pieces of squid I’m using for bait. It’s tempting to set the hook, but I don’t. Godbout’s already cured me of that habit. Instead, I wait as small grunts and vermilions pick away, their nibbles sending pulses up the braided line. When a nice trigger finally pushes the small fry aside and nails the bait, I feel a solid “thump” and set the hook. Up he comes, a nice 3- to 4-pound gray triggerfish, the perfect size for some nice fillets.
We keep at it, slinging triggers on the deck, two at a time sometimes. Some nice 4-pounders.
In about two hours, we’ve filled the fish boxes with a couple dozen gray triggers, a full limit of vermilions, some hefty black seabass and a couple of nice pink snapper (and I manage to pull the hook on a nice gag grouper at the boat).
Then back to the hill through a sloppy, building sea, for a quick lesson in cleaning triggerfish.
… The fishing was good, no doubt. But it wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds.
Before heading out to load up on triggers, there are a couple things an angler needs to know about these fish.
First, the regulations on triggers are liberal — 20 per person per day, no size limit and no closed season. And anglers should keep in mind that as fisheries managers tighten up limits on other grouper-snapper species, triggers could represent one of the best remaining bottom-fishing opportunities.
Secondly, triggers are tough, tough critters, built for the dog-eat-dog world of offshore reef habitats. The gray, queen and oceanic triggerfish found off South Carolina differ in size, coloration and abundance (grays are the most plentiful). But all three species have leathery skin and incredibly hard scales. Pick one up and it feels as though it’s encased in slippery cement.
Triggers also deploy another impressive defense mechanism, one that gives them their name. A trigger’s dorsal fin features a sharp spike, or spine. Once the fish raises it up, the spine locks into place. The only way an angler can release the spine is to depress another fin directly behind the dorsal — like pulling a trigger.
This spine deters sharks, groupers and other predators from munching on triggers — they’ll wind up with a nasty spike in the roof of their mouths.
Marcelle Reichert, associate fishery scientist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, says this handy defense mechanism serves another purpose. “A lot the triggerfish species live in coral reefs, and it’s believed that some of these species use those spines to actually wedge themselves in holes in the coral, so they can’t be dragged out by predators,” Reichert says.
Lastly, anglers need to appreciate that triggers are expert bait-stealers. Anyone who’s ever dropped squid or cut bait down to an offshore reef has probably fed these rob-and-run fish without realizing it. If you don’t know what you’re doing, all you’re likely to feel when a trigger hits is a quick thump, then nothing. You’ve been robbed.
A small, tough mouth lined with chisel-like teeth is the key to a trigger’s bait-stealing success. Reichert, who’s currently studying triggerfish diets, says triggers specialize in feeding on bottom-living invertebrates with tough shells or exoskeletons.
“That’s why they have those teeth in the front of their mouths,” he says. “They like sea stars and sea urchins. Especially the gray triggerfish — we find a lot of sand dollars in their stomachs.”
Given the fact that triggers make their living by picking apart such tough critters, it’s no wonder they make short work of a piece of squid.
“The biggest thing is people miss them,” Godbout says. “They’ll drop down, and I’ll be fishing right next to them and say, ‘Oops, you missed a bite. You’re empty.’ And they’ll say, ‘I never felt the bite.’ ”
Right-size your tackle
When anglers go bottom fishing, many tend to think big. They use stout boat rods, heavy leaders and big hooks. They pile on huge chunks of squid or cut fish as bait, drop it down and wait for the big boy to hit. Though that technique might land plenty of black seabass and the occasional gag grouper, it won’t fill your freezer with trigger filets. To do that, you’ve, got to scale down a bit.
“Most people just don’t have the right tackle for them,” Godbout says.
Godbout recommends using a stout spinning reel or conventional reel (a Shimano Torium is good choice) spooled with braided mainline. “You’ll do much better with a sensitive spinning rod than a heavy boat rod,” Godbout advises. “I prefer a 5-8 (Shimano) Trevala.”
Godbout usually fishes for triggers with 3- to 4-foot dropper rigs (also called “chicken rigs”) made from 60-pound monofilament leader. This type of rig features two short “dropper loops,” with hooks threaded on the end of each loop (look online for how-to videos on tying dropper rigs). Another loop at the bottom of the rig holds the weight, usually a 6- to 10-ounce bank sinker.
“It’s a basic chicken rig, but for triggers, you’ll notice they’re short drops,” Godbout says, describing the length of the loops. “They’re 3-, maybe 4-inch drops. Not a long drop like we use for snapper and grouper.”
Hook choice is crucial for success with triggers, and Godbout uses 2/0 Gamakatsu live bait hooks exclusively. These hooks may seem tiny, but that’s the point — they’ll fit in a trigger’s small mouth. And people might be surprised at how large a fish these small hooks can handle, Godbout says.
“It’s a short shank, but a very heavy shank,” Godbout says. “They don’t bend out, even if you hook a grouper.”
When targeting triggers, Godbout prefers small pieces of squid or fish. “Any of the little rock bass, the grunts, all of those work just fine. Believe it or not, a smooth-skin fish like mackerel works really well because you don’t have to contend with any scales keeping you from getting a hook set,” Godbout says. “That’s a pro tip! Always, if you are using little grunts or other local fish, scale the fish first, then filet it. I can’t tell you how may times you’ll come up with a scale on the hook tip, and you’ve missed a fish.
“Take the time to scale it before you cut it up into chunks.”
Whatever bait he’s using, Godbout uses it sparingly. Big chunks bury the hook points and make it easier for triggers to get a free meal.
“Little pieces of bait,” he says. “Most people over-rig. There’s no sense in rigging too heavy for triggers. When I open their bellies up, they’re just packed full, ’cause they ate good while we were fishing.”
Even with tiny pieces of bait on tiny hooks, triggers can still rob you blind. The trick, Godbout says, is to be patient and learn to recognize what’s hitting your baits 90 feet below the boat.
“Don’t set on the first bite,” he says. “It’s gonna get mobbed as soon as it hits the bottom.” If you set the hook on every nibble, “you’re going catch little tiny grunts or baby B-liners (vermilion snapper) all day long. Let it sit down there, let them pick at it. You’ll feel the big bite.”
Finding the fish
Godbout catches triggerfish year-round in the waters off Charleston, but finds that they stack up best in the winter.
“Gray triggers are the most common we catch here,” he adds. “We also catch queens, and we also catch oceanics. But the queens and the grays are the two that are normally caught.”
The grays are usually bigger, Godbout says, with 4- to 5-pounders common. Godbout caught his personal best gray triggerfish — the 8-pound, 7-ounce fish that’s leading the Trident tournament — this year at a spot in 155 feet of water he calls “Big Trig.”
But anglers don’t need to run quite that far to find the fish.
“This time of year, pretty much any good piece of bottom in 80 to 100 feet of water is loaded with them,” Godbout says. “Anywhere around the Comanche, the Garden, Y73, down south at Red Banks — I mean, take your pick. … You got a piece of live bottom and you’re getting those hash marks on the screen, that’s indicative of trigger fish.”
Of course, finding a promising area and actually dropping baits into a school of frenzied triggers are two different things. Success often boils down to how well an angler uses a sonar unit.
Knowing how to effectively use a fish-finder takes experience and familiarity with equipment. Godbout’s been offshore fishing for so long, he can look at a depth finder and tell you with a fair degree of certainty which kinds of fish are being marked. For instance, he may look at the screen and know we’re sitting over an 8-foot hard-bottom ledge holding a nice school of triggers and snapper surrounded by bait fish, with a few decent grouper hugging the bottom and a school of amberjack patrolling the edges of the school.
How does he divine what’s going on 100 feet below the boat? By analyzing the size and color of sonar returns, the shape and hardness of the ocean bottom, the location of individual fish, and the shape and density of a school.
And he takes his time.
“You can’t find fish running fast,” he says. “When you get in an area, slow down and look hard. Sometimes the smallest little hump or color change (showing bottom density) is something you want to fish.”
Godbout will make a few “test drops” to make sure he’s over the action. He keeps anglers ready with baited hooks, and when he marks fish, everyone sends the rigs down to see what’s biting. You’ll often know you found the triggers, Godbout says, “because you come up clean or you don’t even feel the fish.”
Once he’s found what he’s looking for, Godbout maneuvers the boat back up current and drops anchor. He’s a big fan of a good anchor chain and the “Mighty Mite” anchor, a large grappling-style anchor with hooks that can straighten out if it gets caught on a reef.
Godbout also recommends serious bottom-fishermen invest in a poly-ball anchor retrieval system. This contraption features a floating buoy attached to the anchor line with a large split ring. When it’s time to weigh anchor, the captain moves the boat back up toward and past the anchor; the ball moves down the anchor line, pulling the anchor upward with its buoyancy. When the split ring reaches the anchor, it locks on, and the anchor and ball float to the surface for easy retrieval. This system makes pulling the anchor a breeze, which means a crew can try different spots with ease and zero in on the triggerfish schools.
“I don’t anchor until I find what I’m looking for” Godbout says. “I might check two or three spots. When I find what I’m looking for, I’ll set the hook.”
Eat ’em up
Once properly anchored up over a school of hungry triggers, anglers can quickly load up a couple of coolers.
Back home, cleaning such a catch will yield a pile of white, restaurant-quality filets … along with a very dull knife.
But that’s a small price to pay.
Some of the area’s finest restaurants feature triggerfish dishes on the menu, and many seafood connoisseurs prefer the taste and texture of triggerfish over grouper. Both Godbout and Reichert, the fishery scientist, say triggers are one of their top choices for table fare.
Groups that advocate sustainable seafood practices also recommend triggers as a good substitute for grouper and snapper, which suffer from far more intense commercial fishing pressure.