It’s that time of year when you are practically guaranteed your day of fishing will reward you with tasty eats. Snapper, grouper, dolphin, tuna – your palate is sure to be pleased.
All of the snapper species are in various stages of spawning. Their lustfulness causes them to lose their usual wariness. They become very aggressive and seem to feed on just about anything that fits in their mouth. If you have a hankering to catch flag yellowtails, big muttons and five-plus pound mangroves, now is your chance. All can be found on the reef but each requires slightly different tackle and tactics.
Yellowtailing is all about light line, light leaders, small hooks and smallish baits, such as filleted pieces of ballyhoo, small pieces of shrimp or glass minnows. For the muttons, pull out your 20-lb spin tackle and long 30-lb fluoro leaders. A whole dead sardine or a butterflied ballyhoo drifted back in your slick is hard for them to resist. The heavier tackle allows you to land these fish with a bit more ease as some can be 15 pounds or more. Small live bait, such as a pinfish, pilchard or even smaller live ballyhoo, presented on the bottom will often bring a viscous strike from the mangroves. Again, 20-lb spin tackle will do the trick but add a 4-oz egg sinker to get to the bottom. As with all snapper fishing, a copious amount of chum is the key to attracting and holding the fish behind your boat. He with the most chum wins! Most snappers have been found in 60 to 90 feet of late, but that can change day to day.
These same snapper species can be caught at night employing the same tactics. However, the mangroves will more often appear at the surface in your chum slick rather than on the bottom, so you don’t need that 4-oz egg sinker. The larger flag yellowtail – five pounds plus – can be taken with slightly heavier leader material, such as 20-lb test, which will aid in preventing them from reaching the reef and breaking you off.
Respectable size grouper are attracted to the aggregations of spawning snapper. Large live bait on 30 to 50-lb tackle placed very near the bottom, but not quite on the bottom so as not to get hung on the reef, will often draw a strike and one heck of a battle. These grouper want nothing more than to get back into the reef and break you off.
There is also a fair number of large kingfish being caught in these same areas. If you wish to target them, I suggest 20-lb tackle with a foot-long trace of wire. They can be taken on either live baits or cut baits, such as half ballyhoo or a whole sardine drifted back in your slick just as you do for yellowtailing.
On the deeper wrecks and rough bottom patches there are quite a few amberjack, with most in the 20 to 40-lb range. You can catch them on larger live baits but I prefer using butterfly jigs with the lighter Trevala Shimano fishing rods specifically meant for the butterfly jigging system. These fish can produce some epic battles and are great fun on lighter tackle. They are also fine eating if treated and cleaned correctly. If you don’t care to eat them, please release them taking care to ensure they do get back down as they are often “bent” when they get to the surface. A venting tool or simply a headfirst plunge to get the fish started downward will usually work.
Offshore, the dolphin fishing has been good with many, many large fish being caught. I heard of one weighing 72 pounds caught on a private boat out of Duck Key last week. Now, that’s a big dolphin. They have been found anywhere from the reef line out to 35 miles. They tend to follow the edge of the Gulf Stream, which changes from day to day. Trolling ballyhoo with skirts or plastic trolling lures all seem to work. I prefer the run and gun approach, looking for birds or even the fish themselves cruising the surface.
While you are offshore, check the humps for blackfin tuna crashing baits in the rips. You may also be surprised by catching one while yellowtailing inshore as evidenced by the 30-pounder my angler caught last week.
Enjoy the hot, calm conditions. Take your fish to one of our many fine restaurants for “hook-and-cook” or prepare it yourself at home. Either way, there’s nothing finer than a fresh Florida Keys fish dinner!
Capt. Chris Johnson has been involved in the charter fishing business since he was a kid at the Jersey Shore. He now specializes in offshore, gulf/bay, bottom, wreck and reef fishing with SeaSquared Charters out of 7 Mile Marina. You can reach him at 305.743.5305 or SeaSquaredCharters.com. Follow him on Facebook: SeaSquared Fishing Charters, or Twitter: MarathonFishing. Book now for night snapper fishing and tarpon trips on our comfortable 28-foot center console.
Chris Price of Lakeland FL booked a half day of yellowtailing with Capt. Chris Johnson and SeaSquared Charters out of 7 Mile Marina. They went to the edge of the reef off Marathon in about 80 feet of water. No sooner did they get their chum slick going than a pack of schoolie dolphin showed up and they boated 8 or 10 of them. Finally, Chris had what he thought was a nice ‘tail hooked up, but following his 45-minute fight, realized he had a 30-lb blackfin tuna on his yellowtail rig (12-lb test, 15-lb fluorocarbon leader and a light wire circle hook with a piece of ballyhoo for bait)! In the end, Chris had dolphin, the blackfin and a nice bunch of larger 4-lb ‘tails. Here he is back at the dock.
Capt. Chris Johnson and SeaSquared Charters out of 7 Mile Marina took the McKee/Barrios group for a day of dolphin fishing. He took them about 15 miles out where he found birds working dolphin in the rips. They caught 21 heavy lifters and gaffers and Bert Barrios (shown here) caught a hefty 42-lb bull that he fought for 40 minutes.