Wow, what a fantastic year of awesome fishing. The majority of people who spent time on the water will testify that this year may be the most productive we’ve had in some time. This past spring set the pace with an outstanding run of sailfish. Marinas resembled used car dealerships with countless numbers of release flags flapping in the wind. All varieties of fish stayed active and hungry, including a great migration of cobia, wahoo, kingfish and all the popular reef and wreck dwellers. The exciting spring action boiled over into the summer as the nutrient rich blue water currents of the Gulf Stream provided some very impressive dolphin catches and calmer sea conditions than most anglers expected. The real bonus this past summer had to be the visiting schools of yellowfin tuna. These dynamically shaped trucks surprised many fishermen who ventured offshore, and tested the skills of numerous unsuspecting dolphin hunters. Many anglers found themselves a bit under-matched. The other saltwater Olympians that wreaked havoc were blue marlin. They provided more than a handful of lucky anglers with world class acrobatic shows.
If you’re a skinny water fisherman, then you know you too had equally phenomenal opportunities to clobber monster tarpon in the shallows or duel nasty bones on the flats. Let’s not forget the great summer run of powerhouse permit, ravenous reds and electrified snook. By no means is the fishing frenzy over, and don’t even think it’s time to put the rods away and cover the boats. We can expect more dolphin to squirt through the Florida Keys this fall, and as far as the tarpon are concerned, it seems that they vacation here later and later with each passing year. Being a full time charter captain and guide, I look forward to our offseason. September is when things slow down a bit and we have a little time to relax and regroup. We spend more days fun fishing and exploring during this time of the year since fewer families are vacationing. Finally fishing less than 8 days a week provides me an opportunity to work on my tackle, equipment and accessories. Since these chores don’t require month’s worth of attention, I often get to sneak out and pull on some fish myself. Less boat traffic, fair weather and consistent fishing make the fall a wonderful time of the year for both resident and visiting anglers. During the fall, hard core sinker bouncers will get their fill of hard fought battles. Kicking it off down south, the Tortugas and Marquesas will swarm with life. Reef fishermen can expect to find balled up yellowtails, muttons meandering through the sea fans and grouper occupying coral encrusted caves.
Slightly higher up in the water column, cero mackerel make a point to regularly visit bait busy areas. For all hell to break loose, add some Bionic Bait or Tournament Master chum and enjoy. Quality double ground chum will quickly get the party started. I use the oiliest stuff I can find, especially if the chum is infused with Menhaden Milk. Don’t forget to bring some shrimp. Devilish looking hogfish love them, and we love hogs!
The lower Florida Keys are definitely a fun place to fish. Scattered wrecks provide explosive fisheries for any number of species. The action here can erupt at any time with muttons, groupers and big AJ’s hanging in the wreckage while blackfin tuna, kings and the occasional wahoo can be baited just below the surface. During the fall, you can count on something chewing!
The middle Florida Keys will have a spark of their own, as migratory baitfish settle in. Huge numbers of runners, cigar minnows and ballyhoo dictate where larger fish concentrations will be held. For starters, look for schools of yellowtail snapper balled up on your bottom machine. Any grouper or larger mutton snapper in the vicinity will be hanging below. A big grouper’s favorite past time is picking off careless yellowtails that have wandered a bit too far into their territory. An angler in the know would fish a live grunt or ‘tail right on the bottom!
Geographically, the upper Florida Keys may change a bit, but reef fishing will be every bit as good. Anchoring in 60 to 70 feet over a solid patch reef will produce consistent action. Head out even deeper for the larger snapper and groupers.
If you’re venturing to the Gulf side of the Florida Keys, you can count on a rewarding experience. The Gulf of Mexico houses tremendous resources, though blindly fishing in such a large area may leave you short of your expectations. High profile structure oriented areas such as bars, rock piles and wrecks are the main targets you should focus on. In particular, artificial reefs dotting the shallow Gulf side should be flourishing with life. All of your usual grouper species are locals to these communities. Headlining the area are monster goliath grouper. These fish have huge, broad shoulders and remind me of diesel powered Mack trucks! They’ll readily inhale any wiggling bait dropped to the fringes of their lairs. Beefy conventional tackle is a requirement for even standing a chance at stopping one of these runaway brutes. Don’t forget to fasten your fighting belt and adjust your drag before dropping down.
For the shear battle of a lifetime, try landing a goliath on spinning gear. I use a Penn 6500ss loaded to the gills with 20 pound PowerPro connected to 60 pound leader material. Tie on quarter ounce jig head baited with a pilchard, pinfish or jumbo shrimp. Pesky snapper will get a running start at this rig but when Moby does get to your bait first, hold on for dear life baby ‘cause you’re in for the fight of your life! While visiting the Gulf, shiny jigs and spoons rigged on short traces of light wire can be worked above these same spots to pick off Spanish mackerel, cobia and the possible bull redfish.
Speaking of redfish, the Everglades flats remain very busy with these brute members of the drum family. Look for muddy pockets of activity where mullet are being chased. Schooling reds will bully and batter these helpless vegetarians. In the heat of the carnage, reds will allow anglers opportunities to get right into the strike zone. Walking topwater stick-baits through the busting fish should result in an immediate connection. Soft plastics should also not get overlooked. Make sure to fish depressions and pot holes in the flats while keeping a keen eye open for tailing reds picking off the bottom. Whenever there is redfish action on the flats, you can count on sneaky snook being close by. As an alternative, try runoffs and creeks, especially mangrove-shaded areas with heavy tidal flow. Nighttime snook fishing is very good, as these fish prefer to prowl after dark. Think about illuminating your favorite fishing hole. We’ve really enjoyed experimenting with a HydroGlow light stick and have had excellent results. This soft green light attracts swarms of bait and shrimp. It’s like opening the door to a bait buffet. Fish the edge of the light where the fish will be popping.
Fishing the flats throughout the fall is also really enjoyable. Sight fishing in the shallow crystal clear water is awesome. Like buoyant logs with destructive smiles, ferocious cuda will travel out of there way to crash agitating topwater plugs. Bonefishing will remain consistent. Large shrimp make excellent projectiles to launch in front of schooling bones. Try a quarter ounce pink Hank Brown jig on the hard bottom flats for a thrilling experience with tracking bones.
On the Atlantic side, expect kingfish to be leading the madness on the edge. They’ll be fired up and skyrocketing through schools of bait. Bonito will travel through the same areas and will fill in the gaps. Dagger toothed wahoo will get in on the fun and will quickly chase down a speedo, runner or small ‘bullet’ bonito. Wahoo are as incredible to eat as they are to catch. Their racing-striped bodies indicate they mean business. Be sure to top off those trolling reels when targeting these zebra painted rockets. I use Penn International 30’s for these guys when dragging wire rigs, while high capacity 9500ss spinners will work well for live baiting the hoos.
Keep looking east for sails when the cold fronts finally approach and the water temperature has cooled. Plan ahead and rig and repair tackle, kites, and cast nets before the first reports. Though we despise windy, harsh cold fronts, they bring this fascinating fishery to life. The end results are well worth battling sloppy sea and brisk breezes. Besides, it’s still much, much colder up north.
If you are new to live bait fishing for sails, here’s a quick run down on getting started. First, spool four 7500ss Penn spinners with fresh 20 pound mono. Splice 10 to 12 feet of 50 pound leader using a double uni knot. Finish things with a 6/0 live bait or preferably, circle hook. A short piece of copper rigging wire can be twisted around the reel seat to allow you to fish an open bail without line pouring off your reel. When a bait gets smashed, the copper pin will trip and allow line to freely dump back to the fish. The sailfish consuming your tasty offering will feel no pressure and you’ll have an easier time coming up solid. A several second drop back is generally enough before winding tight and striking. Before you know it, you’ll be proudly flying your release flags on your way back to the dock.
Well I hope you get in on all this fun, stay safe, good fishing and stay bent baby!