As I am writing this, another cold front is bearing down on the Florida Keys. Every fall and winter season arrives on the rails of the cold front freight train. Repeated fronts will continue to bring drastic weather variances throughout the winter and finally subside with the arrival of spring. This time of year is not the favorite of many Keys fisherman because of the unstable conditions and the rapid changes they bring. I personally enjoy the challenge. “He who hesitates is lost,” would probably be the best way to look at it.
You must change with the weather in regard to your target species and rigging on a daily basis. If you wait to see what happens, you most likely will miss it. If the wind lies down the wahoo will bite, and we are trolling. If the ballyhoo show-up on the reef, we are live baiting sailfish. If the current dies, we are dropping on the wrecks and hard bottom. There is also an entirely alternate fishery at our disposal as well, the patch reef.
During the warmer months they are usually overlooked and are only a source of bait for other species but in the winter they become a wealth of great bites and some pretty good catches on a day when most other areas are inaccessible. Patch reefs are isolated coral heads inside the reef, which are very abundant in numbers and hold fish very well. I usually start frequenting these areas just after the time change and will fish them hard until the tarpon return to the harbor in the spring. You can easily catch more than a dozen different species on a single coral head … you may as well find a spot onboard for the kitchen sink cause you’re going to need it.
I literally bring tackle from 8- to 80-pound test. I start with a light, bottom fishing rig for the snappers — gray, yellowtail and lane are most common. I will also drop a heavier rig with a pinfish or large chunk bait for the groupers. I always send out large live bait on a balloon or kite for the passing kingfish or barracuda. If there is adequate current, I will set up a flat line drifting for yellowtails, jacks, cobia and be ready to switch over to wire in case the mackerels show up. A large weighted jig with a bonita strip cast way to the side in the sand will produce a mutton snapper on most occasions. Last but not least, the big rig down on the bottom with a whole blue runner or mackerel for the sharks and goliath grouper.
A full day of patch reef fishing will wear you out. Bring everything and rig all of it. Chum is the catalyst, the more the better. Always keep an eye out for the ballyhoo to make an appearance in the slick and have the cast net handy. I truly enjoy patch reef fishing because you never know what will bite next and it is very action packed for the customers. If you capitalize on your opportunities you will also have a table full of fish at the end of the day. It may not be the most glamorous fishing we do but on days when the wind and seas are angry it makes for a day out on the water and that is always a good thing. Good luck and I hope to see you out there.