Fall is a time when many of the pelagic fish start showing up in the Florida Keys as the water temperatures begin to cool. Species include kingfish, wahoo, tuna, a few cobias, and one of my favorite fish to catch — sailfish! And a great bonus is, all of these fish can be caught just a few miles from the dock. You don’t have to run 40 or 50 miles to get to the fishing grounds. Within minutes you can be anchored on the reef catching snapper and grouper, or just beyond the reef targeting pelagics. There are so many options, and you can break up your fishing trip by trying different things on different days.
These past two weeks, I began each charter by trolling for tunas and wahoos in anywhere from 130 to 240 feet of water. I’ve been using tuna lures on the outriggers as far out as I can put them. I also have been trolling with a deep diving lure about 200 feet back, as well as two Billy Baits with a ballyhoo and steel leader on the flat lines. This fishing method has been quite productive for me during the first few hours of sunlight hooking blackfin tunas, wahoos, kingfish, and an occasional sailfish.
As the sun gets higher, the trolling bite has been slowing down, so I’ve been switching to live bait. The tuna seem to be pickier during the day, so I’ve been going down to 30-pound fluorocarbon as a leader with a small live bait hook. I also always keep two rods ready with 20-pound fluorocarbon, just in case I get the tuna busting around the boat and they’re turning down the heavier line. Sometimes, just dropping down in line size can be the difference between getting that bite or watching the tunas come and go.
The patch reef fishing is historically excellent throughout the fall due to the increased amount of baitfish, most notably ballyhoo, that push onto the patches as water temperatures drop. Big mangrove snapper, as well as yellowtails, muttons, grouper, and mackerel can all be caught in good numbers fishing between 20 and 30 feet of water. Start out with a well full of pilchards, or small pinfish, and then try and catch your ballyhoo with the cast net or using hair hooks when they swim up in the chum slick. Live and fresh cut ballyhoo fished on a jig-head will catch any one of the species, and should help send you home with a tasty bag of filets.
In addition, fall is when the mangrove snapper bite starts to heat up at the bridges. Fish the pilings with pilchards fished on a jig head and you can put together quite a nice catch of big mangroves, as well as jacks, mackerel, and the occasional keeper grouper.
On the deep reef, I’ve found that fall can be hit or miss for yellowtailing. Some days it can be excellent, while other days the fish just don’t want to cooperate. If the conditions are favorable, give it a shot and see if you can get the tails up. While you’re anchored you may also want to fly the kite with a large pilchard, blue runner, or other active live bait that can draw the attention of a hungry pelagic. Sailfish, wahoo, kingfish, and even an occasional dolphin can be caught on your kite bait while out fishing the deep reef.
During the last full moon, I had a daytime sword fishing charter. Normally, I prefer to daytime swordfish during the dark phase of the moon. My theory is that when the moon is bright, the swordfish feed all night and don’t seem to be very hungry for my bait during the day. But lucky for my customer (and unlucky for my scientific fish theory career), the swordfish were biting much better then expected. We had four aggressive bites, landed a smaller 55-inch ‘swordy,’ and lost a nice fish right next to the boat. It’s been quite awhile since I’ve been daytime sword fishing, and I was starting to forget how much fun it can be when the fish are biting. Now I’m hooked again and am ready to get back out there
The action in Florida Bay also starts to turn during the fall. This is a great month for targeting keeper gag grouper using live pinfish, as well as live and fresh cut ballyhoo. One of the nice (and convenient) things about fishing the Bay this time of year is that there is usually a ton of bait around. Within minutes of anchoring you should have ballyhoo, pinfish, and even pilchards gathered behind you chum bag. Don’t forget to take a cast net, or sabikis, with you when you head out.
Capt. Ariel Medero is the captain of Big Game Sportfishing, located at the Hammocks of Marathon, MM 48. For more information, check out his web site at www.biggamesportfish.com or email him at [email protected]. Friend him on Facebook, too.