Bottom Fishing: The Complete Guide
Aug 18, 2020 | 11 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 11 minutes

Bottom fishing is the go-to technique for countless anglers out there, and it’s easy to see why. Known for its fun, action-packed outings, it can produce catches of pretty much any size. And while it might be a simple technique in theory, bottom fishing does come with its ifs, buts, and maybes. To that end, we decided to write a complete guide to this fishing method.

a smiling angler holding a snapper on a fishing boat

What is Bottom Fishing?

First of all, let’s get the obvious question out of the way. In essence, bottom fishing involves lowering a weighted hook or lure to the bottom of the water column. Sounds simple enough, right? But there’s a bit more to it than that.

One of the things that makes bottom fishing so addictive is the fact that you can practice it in an endless number of ways. Depending on the water you’re fishing, and what you want to catch, you can choose from a number of fishing styles. You can use different bait and tackle, and play around with different presentations.

two anglers posing with thei catch

In this guide, you’ll learn about each of these factors. By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll know everything you need to make your next fishing trip a blast. Let’s dive right in! 

Where to Bottom Fish?

Anglers often say that the ocean floor is a giant desert with beacons of life scattered about. Whether you like the metaphor or not, these isolated spots do exist, and they attract an astonishing number of sea creatures. Here, fish gather around underwater structure, looking for shelter, or for something to eat. 

an underwater wreck and fish swimming over it

Just like the ocean, freshwater bottom structures house their own host of bottom-dwelling fish.

You’d be surprised with how many fish can gather around the smallest structure, mind you. Whether it’s reefs, wrecks, or any underwater formation for that matter, these places are a bottom fisher’s treasure trove.

Of course, not all structure is the same. Bottom fishing from the shore is a lot different than prowling the depths 50 miles from the coast. Here are a few examples of where you can cast your bait, depending on where you are.

  • Shore fishing: Bridge pylons, rocky banks, and piers.
  • Nearshore fishing: Wrecks, natural and artificial reefs.
  • Offshore fishing: Wrecks, artificial reefs, and oil rigs.
  • Freshwater fishing: Bridge pylons, piers, rocky formations and drop-offs.
pike fish swimming near the bottom

Common Catches

We’ll let you in on a little secret: the list of fish you can catch bottom fishing is impossibly long.  This technique can get you anything from a tasty Panfish to a giant Grouper, and everything in between. In a nutshell, if it lives near the bottom, you can catch it.

a smiling angler posing with a Red Snapper on a fishing boat
Red Snapper is one of the most iconic bottom fishing catches

In freshwater, that means anything from Perch to Bluegill, to Carp and Bass. Saltwater angling lets you set your sights on tasty Flounder or Sea Bass right off the coast. And then offshore, bottom fishing kicks into high gear. From iconic fighters like Snapper and Grouper, to giant Amberjack and Tilefish, there’s no telling what you can catch in these parts.

Essential Gear

As with most fishing techniques, the where is going to determine the how. In other words, you’re not going to pull out a monster Grouper of an oil rig with an old Bass rod. To show you what works best, we’ll go over a few tried and tested approaches. But before we do, let’s quickly cover several bottom fishing items every angler should have in their arsenal.

fishing rods packed in the back of a truck

No bottom fishing expedition would be possible without three essential items. These are the sinker, the hook, and the line. Combined with a few other optional items, they make up what’s called a rig. When a good fishing rig is coupled with quality bait, you get a combination no bottom fish can ignore.

We’ll cover the best bottom fishing rigs in a bit. First, let’s go over the pros and cons of various hooks, lines and sinkers.

Sinkers

A sinker is nothing more than a lead weight used to lower your bait to the bottom. Depending on the type of structure you’re fishing, you’ll want to use one of these three variants:

  • Egg sinker: A round-shaped sinker with a hole for the line in the middle. The key advantage to using one is that a fish can take your bait and move off with it without feeling any resistance from the weight. 
  • Bank sinker: Shaped like bowling pins, these guys are great around rocky bottoms, because they can’t get easily lodged between them. 
  • Pyramid sinker: This type of sinker is great for bottom fishing in the surf, because their sharp tip holds the bottom in the sand.

In terms of actual weight, deeper waters require heavier sinkers. The good thing about using a heavier sinker is that it will quickly glide your hook past any bait pickers on the way down. However, heavier sinkers can make bites harder to detect, and they’re harder to retrieve. Most anglers agree that it’s best to use the lightest sinker that will keep your bait at the depth you want.

The tricky thing about using sinkers is that the same weight might not work every time. The reason is simple: current. As a rule of thumb, stronger currents require heavier weights. To avoid getting sidetracked, we recommend you keep at least a few sinkers in your tackle box at all times.

two boxes of fishing sinkers on a table

Lines

The age-old question of what’s the best line for bottom fishing is something every angler has a theory about. Some like to use braided, others stick to mono, and some like to go with fluorocarbon. Each type of line comes with its own upsides and downsides, so it pays to know which ones to use when.

  • Mono: Inexpensive and easy to handle, mono is the preferred choice for many anglers. MonoThe downside is that most variants of mono are buoyant, making them less than ideal for bottom fishing.
  • Braided: The strongest type of line out there, great for battling big fish in deeper waters. The downside is that it’s expensive, and difficult to handle compared to mono. 
  • Fluorocarbon: Gives good feedback, and is the best choice for bottom fishing in clear water. It’s very resistant, too, which makes it ideal for fishing around rocky bottoms. The downside is that it’s a little more difficult to handle and tie knots with.

In reality, you’ll probably need to use a combination of at least two of these. One of the most common line combos for deep sea bottom fishing is a braided mainline coupled with a fluoro leader. This combination provides ample line strength, but also preserves stealth and precision.

a closeup of a reel with a braided fishing line

Hooks

When it comes to bottom fishing hooks, circle hooks tend to work best, especially if you’re going after large game fish. They lodge themselves into the fish’s mouth much more firmly, and can withstand a good fight without being torn out. Unlike treble and “J” hooks, circle hooks don’t require setting, which makes them a better choice for beginners.

A man's hand holding two treble hooks and a circle hook over water

Bottom fish don’t actually have huge mouths, so you don’t need to go overboard with the hook sizes. If you’re interested in learning more about the pros and cons of each type of fishing hook, check out our complete guide on the subject.

Rigs

Now, let’s take a look at some of the best rigs for bottom fishing. There’s an infinite number of variations out there, so we’ll focus on the ones that are most important and easy-to-make.

  • The sliding sinker rig a.k.a. the Carolina rig, is one of the most effective bottom fishing rigs you can find. It consists of a simple barrel swivel connected to a single leader, with a sinker, bead, and hook at the end.
  • The spreader rig a.k.a. the chicken rig, is a versatile bottom fishing tool because it allows you to cover more ground with its two hooks. It’s often used with bank sinkers, making it a good option for rocky bottoms.
  • A 3-way rig a.k.a. the drop rig, features a 3-way swivel which connects the main line, the leader, and the shorter sinker line. It’s very useful for surf fishing and keeping your hook floating slightly above the bottom.
  • With the egg sinker as its only component, the knocker rig is one of the simplest rigs out there. Because of its “straight-line” configuration, the knocker rig allows you to feel the bite instantly. Another benefit of this setup is that it’s virtually impossible to get tangles, even in high currents.
an infographic of the most common bottom fishing rigs

Baits

Using dead bait is the easiest option for most people, because you can just buy some at the local tackle shop. Sardines, mullet, menhaden, or cigar minnows, they’ll all get the job done. The key is to let the bait sink to the bottom just like a dead fish.

Compared to dead bait, fishing with live bait can feel like a cheat code. It requires more effort to start with, but it pays off in bunches, especially if you’re after bigger fish. If you want to learn how to catch your own live bait, check out this guide

Last but not least, you can use lures. The sportsman’s choice, lures come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Using them requires a little more skill, but is arguably the most rewarding way to catch fish. If you want to know more about fishing lures, this article covers many different varieties out there.

a smiling angler posing with a Giant Trevally caught on a lure
A fishing lure got to this GT

Rods and Reels

Choosing the right bottom fishing combo often comes down to choosing the right rod and reel. Obviously, things can vary a lot depending on what you want to catch and where, but here are a few rules of thumb.

If you’re bottom fishing close to the shoreline, a light spinning combo is the best choice. For most anglers, a 6-7 ‘ rod is a good choice if you’re not casting too far away. Longer rods allow you to cast further, but they’re just not as stout as shorter poles. To learn about which fishing rod is ideal for your needs, check out our detailed guide.

As far as reels go, things depend on – you guessed it – where and how you want to fish. Spinning reels are a great option if you’re bottom fishing from a pier. On the other hand, if you need to make a long and precise cast, the baitcaster is a better option. If you want to learn more about how to choose a fishing reel, make sure to read our in-depth article on the topic.

How to Bottom Fish

With that out of the way, let’s cover the actual “how-to” of bottom fishing. As we mentioned, the way you fish can be very different depending on where it is that you’re actually wetting the line. Bottom fishing from a pier is not the same as angling from the surf. And angling from a boat is another world entirely.

an angler battling a fish from a boat

But that’s no reason to get overwhelmed. Each approach brings its own challenges and excitements. Let’s go over a few tested techniques and useful tips for each one.

From a Boat

If you’re used to fishing from a boat, you know that nothing affects your position in the water as much as the current. Current is especially important for bottom fishers, who need to keep themselves close to structure to find a consistent bite. With that in mind, there are two main ways you can fish the bottom: to anchor your vessel, or to drift.

Anchoring

Anchoring your boat can be a great way to take advantage of a single productive spot underwater. Some anglers like to use a twin anchor system, where doubling down on anchors provides extra reliability against strong currents. The downside to this approach is that it takes time to set up, and can easily spook the fish below.

a look at an anchored boat from below

Keeping your boat still is much easier in shallower waters, but even there, currents can play a big role. Nowadays, modern trolling motors allow you to keep a lock on a specific position in the water. More importantly, they’re a lot quieter than an anchor, allowing you to creep up on unsuspecting fish with deadly accuracy.

In terms of presentation, dead bait is the obvious choice for most anglers. Dead fish aren’t exactly great swimmers, so it makes sense to use them when the boat’s not moving.

anglers bottom fishing from a boat

Of course, you can use live bait, too, but you’ll want to position yourself up current from the structure. This will allow your bait fish to swim naturally towards the boat. You should also make sure to use an adequate sinker, and a relatively long leader. The sliding sinker and the spreader rigs will serve you well in these situations.

Drifting

Ideal for covering larger areas of structure, drifting is an extremely effective bottom fishing technique. Because the boat is moving with the current, drifting works great in combination with live bait. 

a fishing boat in the current

If you’re in shallow waters, aim your cast down the current. This way, your bait will get plenty of “soak time” before the boat catches up to it. The trick here is to let the line spool just enough to accommodate for the drift, but not to let it go slack.

From the Shore

Bottom fishing from the shore doesn’t exactly let you cover much ground, at least when compared to fishing from a boat. Still, with a few tricks up your sleeve, this approach can produce loads of fun, and buckets full of fish to boot. 

From the Surf

If you ever find yourself fishing from the surf or a riverbank, the first thing you should do is check the bottom structure ahead. This doesn’t necessarily have as much to do with catching fish as getting to keep your gear. Not paying attention to weedy or craggy bottoms can make the smallest pond seem like Loch Ness.

A man surf fishing on a beach on Hilton Head Island

But nail your casting technique, and you’ll be able to cover an impressive amount of structure when fishing this way. If you’re fishing a sandy bottom, simply cast out, and let your rig hit the floor. Wait 10–15 seconds, then slowly reel in a couple of turns. To increase your chances of success, go for a spreader rig.

From a Pier

For bottom fishers, angling from a pier is the polar opposite of fishing from the surf, even if you’re fishing the same waters. There are two reasons for this. Number one, you’re presenting your bait vertically. Instead of making long casts, you want to simply lower your rig to the spot you want. 

A wooden fishing pier in Outer Banks, with a bench and several rods

Number two, this is a more passive way to catch fish. Once you make your presentation, all you have to do is remove slack from the line, and wait. For the full “pier rat” experience, you can even set up two rods, as long as your local pier allows it. When you’re casting from a pier, aim for the pylons or other nearby structure.

Pro tip: If you’re fishing above a rocky bottom, use a lighter pound-test line for your sinker. This way, if it gets snagged, you’ll still be able to retrieve the rest of your rig.

A World of Opportunity

Offering an endless realm of possibilities, bottom fishing is the technique of choice for countless anglers. Beginner or expert, this technique will bring the excitement, and keep you learning with every cast. Better yet, with every new location you explore, bottom fishing will always be a brand new experience. 

sunset from a fishing boat

And now, let’s hear it from you. What’s your favorite way to bottom fish? Do you have any particular rigs or tactics you like to use? Share your stories, tips, and tricks in the comments below.

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Comments (4)
  • Jacob

    Jun 12, 2020

    In the diagram with different set ups I think the description for the knocker rig and the Carolina rig are reversed.

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      Sean

      Jun 15, 2020

      Hi Jacob,

      Thanks for reading.

      Actually, the infographic has the correct information, but it was the description in the text that got mixed-up. Thank you for noticing this – we’ve just updated the information.

      I hope the article was otherwise useful.

      Tight lines!

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  • Joel Francis

    Aug 15, 2020

    You haven’t mentioned anything about what rod & reel to use

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      Sean

      Aug 18, 2020

      Hi Joel,

      Thanks for reading.

      You’re totally right, we should have added a section about which rod and reel to choose. A lot of variables come into play when you’re choosing the right bottom fishing outfit. Are you dropping your bait from a pier? In that case, a stout 6-7′ rod should be your choice. Shorter rods have enough backbone to pull a decently-sized fish from the bottom, even when fishing from a pier. On the other hand, if you’re bottom fishing, but you want to cast further, a longer rod will serve you better. There’s a trade-off here obviously, because you lose some of that power. That’s why we’ve written a whole article on how to choose the right fishing rod.

      When it comes to choosing the right bottom fishing reel, it again comes down to what your needs are. A spinning reel is great if you’re fishing rocky bottoms, because they go well with braided line. They’re also easier to handle if you’re a beginner. On the other hand, a baitcasting reel will give you more casting power and precision, but it’s a little harder to maneuver if you’ve never tried it. If you want to learn more about choosing the right fishing reel, check out this article.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Tight lines!

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