I had to wonder how a fish could end up so far in the mangroves. Perhaps an osprey had lost his grip on dinner. Or even better, was it a new species of long distance jumping fish? A puzzling question, though once broken down very simple to figure out; TOO MANY HURRICANES! All you have to do is mix ferocious wind, needling rain and flooding tides. Combined this chaos helps water find its way into the most inaccessible areas, including desolate mangrove keys. Fish squirm and wiggle through the dangling finger-like roots and wander deep into flooded island interiors. After the next hurricane, don’t be surprised to find fish relocated to even the most improbable locations.
What more can be said? Everyone in South Florida knows the deal. It’s the price we pay to live in such an elite fishing haven. The Conch Republic has suffered some from all these windy tyrants, though we do feel lucky from ducking these nasty storms. The Florida Key’s are just like that local corner bar; always open and ready for business. Through all this hurricane madness, you would figure that our world-class fishery had to somehow suffer. The simple fact is it’s just gotten better. I tell it like it is. When fishing is slow, I say it’s slow. But slow has been erased from our vocabulary for some time now.
My first choice this time of year would have to be good ol’ faithful bottom fishing. I love the whole routine of anchoring, chumming, and even spending time rigging. The Upper Key’s reef system is a fish metropolis. Just like a production car factory, this beautiful coral city pumps out fish after fish. Expect balling schools of yellowtail snapper to litter the edge of the reef between 50 and 80 feet. They’re generally not monster size ‘tails, but nice eatin’ size in the pound and a half to two pound range. Chasing schooling baitfish, cero and king mackerel will also push into this depth. If the ballyhoo population peaks in these areas, all hell should break loose. Don’t forget the bottom; it should be crawling with suspicious bait eaters. You know the usual suspects; muttons, groupers, and possibly notorious cobia.
Expect the same shady characters to be active farther off the beach in 120 to 150 feet where the deeper reef line plummets into the depths. The names are the same, just somewhat bigger in size. We must add wily wahoo and the growing population of sailfish. If we venture farther off the upper Key’s we’ll find plenty of action. Deep water humps, bumps, hills, and dips hold a variety of our pelagic friends. These deep spots, including artificial wrecks of all shapes and sizes, house varieties of bottom dwellers including gargantuan AJ’s. Troll over these rises and expect plenty of blackfin tuna and bonito bites. Sailfish, wahoo, and even a rogue marlin can be caught while fishing these structure.
Deep trenches or breaks in the bottom between 400 and 700 feet are good places to kill time when the surface bite shuts off. Whip out the electric rod and use chicken rigs loaded with squid, bonito chunks or even stinky ’cuda strips. This will coax tilefish, snowy and silky grouper, and even giant porgies to take a stab at an easy meal.
The Middle Key’s reef lights up too. Hard bottom with coral heads is the place to go. Even shallow patch reefs will produce on windy days. Try fishing the patches when the water is a bit murky. Muttons swarm around these areas and will gobble live pinfish and pilchards. Oily sardine chum ignites the bite and live chumming with pilchards or sardines is like squirting lighter fluid on a lit grill. Hurl shrimp on a 3/4 ounce HookUp jig head with 20 pound fluorocarbon leader. Let this setup lay on the bottom. Hogfish seem to love this idea, minus the hook. These members of the wrasse family are a local favorite – absolutely delicious.
Offshore and farther to the edge of the reef, expect yellowtail, mutton, and grouper to be found hugging the carpet. Cylindrical readings on your bottom machine will expose better activity. If you like to hunt cobia, try focusing just inside the edge. 15 to 30 feet over light bottom where stingrays wander is a good place to start. Cobia follow these winged bandits, eating what the rays disturb and kick up from the bottom. Boats with towers or fly-bridges make locating these bronze bombers an easier task. Don’t be fooled through, cobia are often mistaken for small sharks.
If you find a pile of cobes, be prepared. Keep a supply of grunts on hand. Choose a medium action rod with a Penn 7500 spinner loaded with 20 pound PowerPro. Add a 2 or 3 ounce egg sinker and tie to a Sea Striker barrel swivel. Next attach a four foot piece of 60 pound fluorocarbon leader and finish with the hook of your choice. I prefer circle hooks, but a chemically sharpened J hook will get ’er done! When you’ve targeted a pack, chuck a live grunt in front of them. They don’t normally travel quickly, and spooking is minimal. Cobia inhale their prey, so wind fast and stick ’em hard!
The most important thing to remember when wrestling these vacuum cleaners is your gaffing etiquette. A ticked off cobia slung over the gunwale will do damage. Docile in the water, cobia go absolutely ballistic when injected with a gaff. Watch those nasty spikes on their backs; ouch! Like they say in show business, break-a-leg!
Farther south, the Lower Key’s reef fishing scene is just as exciting. Showering bait on the edge will tune you in to kingfish action and sailfish blitzes. Clustered yellowtails will tie tack the edge of the reef. Wreck fishing is a guaranteed rod bender. Muttons are quick to slurp a live pilchard or ballyhoo; or step up with a live runner or pinfish for big grouper. Let’s not forget a chance at an African pompano! Historical Key West is always happening this time of year. If the wind is blowing too hard, you can always share some fish tales in any of the local watering holes.
Head west from Sand Key Light and this ocean jungle gets wild and unpredictable. The Marqueses and Tortugas are a wilderness of untapped resources. A wandering reef line leads the way to the Promised Land. Drag feathers while looking for high profile bottom structure and large cero’s will light you up. Piles of fish lounging just off the bottom will make the scope glow. Make sure you’re selective and pace yourself down there. Observe rules and regulations and always be conscious of fish counts; they add up fast in the heat of battle. For all the hard core grouper fishermen chomping at the bit to troll some type of apparatus, go for it. Break out the big Rapalas or stretch 30’s and fire away. Work between 20 and 40 feet around coral heads. Both black and red grouper will test your knots and provide you with flaky white morsels for the dinner table. Keep the boat in gear or they’ll take you home and slam the door!
If you aren’t interested in trolling the reef or bottom fishing, try livebait fishing via kite. Don’t be intimidated if you’re a novice kite flyer. Kite fishing is a really fun, easy to learn, simple technique that’s very productive. String live goggle-eyes or runners out and let the fun begin. Kite fishing produces sails, kings, wahoo, tuna, dolphin and much more.
Heading north on the Gulf side, fish will occupy any and all structure. Massive migrations of pilchards and sardines flood the inshore Gulf waters. Wrecks and rock piles swarm with life.
Just west of Everglades National Park, Gulf Banks crawls with action. Schools of Spanish mackerel flourish in 10 to 15 feet. Scattered and mixed in this aquatic collage are snappin’ size bluefish. Find an area to target and drag a chum bag in a large circle. Anchor and continue chumming. Fish live shrimp or pilchards with 50 pound mono leader with long shank hooks. The alternative may be a short trace of #2 wire with circle hooks. The local sandy bars and beaches will hold pompano. Yellow jigs tipped with shrimp do the trick. Lunker snook may also be captured around these sand coated areas. Jig shorelines or bounce jig heads with large shrimp off the bottom in the surf for snookies and the occasional red.
If you really want to test your strength and stamina, break out the big guns. My Howitzer is an 80 Penn International on a wicked solid glass stick with large guides. It’s spooled to the gills with what might-as-well be rope. This outfit kills fish just for looking at it! Attach a 12 foot piece of #15 wire, an 800-pound barrel swivel and a ridiculous oversized hook. Bait selection can be just as comical. My favorite choices are either large butterflied bonito or a 20 pound live AJ. Drift this set up over humps or wrecks where schooling tuna and jacks zip around. It shouldn’t take long before Mr. Shark sniffs it out. Bring a Snickers bar; you won’t be going anywhere any time soon. Throttling up will insure the hook digs in when the bite occurs. Mako’s, tigers, and bulls are always on the menu when sharking. Sandbar and reef sharks are the most commonly caught, and we can’t forget the fat T- heads too. Be careful and protect those fingers and hands. Big bait, big fish, big teeth!
The Everglades allows anglers places to hide during windy streaks. Leeward shorelines and mangrove islands work well for ducking the breeze. Channels and creeks are fun to fish. Black drum, reds, and snapper huddle in these creeks and channels. Shrimp and small crabs will instantly get consumed by these guys and gals. For simple rod bending action, drift grass beds for sea trout, ladyfish, and jacks. Popping corks and shrimp are standard, or use power tubes and jig heads; root beer is a favorite.
Let’s not forget the bones. Bonefish dig and grub on shallow water flats close to home. These silver bullets will willingly take shrimp and quarter-size crabs. Flats around bridges where tides rip allow bones to effortlessly comb the grass and mud-stained bottom. Chumming shrimp pieces will lure eager ghosts right to your doorstep. If the bones are hiding, an alternative suggestion is slinging tube lures for large ‘cuda in the shallows.
For all those seafood lovers, dust off the dip nets and check those lanterns; it’s shrimp time! For crab eaters, break out the chicken wire basket nets. Both shrimp and blue crabs will get up on the surface when the wind blows cold from the north. Crab cakes and shrimp cocktail always liven up any party. For the stone crab claws though, I’ll visit Key Largo Fisheries. Don’t forget the mustard sauce.
Let’s not take all these opportunities for granted. Get out there and stretch those lines. Remember, this is the time of year when we can stay close to home and still have tons of fun. Have a great winter, fire up the fish smokers and rip some lips!
Good luck, Capt. George Clark, Jr.