Slowly but surely the “cold” weather pelagic (migratory) fish are beginning to arrive in the Florida Keys. Wahoo, sailfish, kingfish, cobia and more are all showing up on cue and providing us a glimpse into just how incredible this fall/winter fishing season has the potential to be.
Currently, we’re holding in a transition pattern and waiting for water temperatures to drop so that large schools of these fish can push in. However, it is an extremely encouraging sign that we have already begun catching a few of these species throughout the islands; especially when you consider how blistering hot the weather has been.
Hopefully, what this means is that as soon as we get one or two cold fronts (we’re supposed to have a mild one this weekend), that we’ll start seeing mass numbers of these fish enter our waters. Right now we’re only experiencing a highlight of what’s to come, but all indications are that what’s to come is going to be some truly amazing fishing.
Part of the reason that these fish are beginning to show up (despite the heat wave) is that there are still tons of bait fish around, mainly ballyhoo. If it’s anything like last season, and these large packs of ballyhoo stick around after the temperatures drop, it’s highly probably that we could experience yet another record-setting sailfish season.
Last year’s season was simply incredible, with handfuls of sailfish being caught by professional charter captains and crews on a daily basis; but this year could be even better—and I fully expect it will!
For those of you ready to get in on the early action and take your shot at the pelagic fish that have already moved in, I suggest fishing depths anywhere from 25 to 200-feet of water, and keeping your eyes open for frigate birds and bait sprays.
One of my favorite ways to target these species, especially sailfish, is to sight fish for them. I find it more effective to search for frigate birds or bait spraying on the surface, and then run to that spot and pitch out a live bait (usually a ballyhoo or large pilchard), then I do to troll. This doesn’t mean that trolling doesn’t produce excellent results—it does. It’s just that I prefer the excitement and the hunt of chasing down a fish and trying to entice it to take a bait.
On days when it’s a little bumpy or overcast, or you don’t have live bait, trolling is the way to go. Tack back and forth in 80 to 200-feet of water, possibly using downriggers or planer boards if you want to pursue wahoo and kingfish, and you should have great success. And if you have the opportunity to load up on live bait, put out a full spread (some rigged with wire and some without), and slow troll the same areas. You’ll have a shot at a wide variety of species this time of year, including dolphin, cobia, blackfin tuna, and all of the species mentioned above.
Another great way to fish for wintertime pelagic game fish is to fly a live bait on a kite. Small blue runners or large pilchards are superb kite baits, and just this past week I caught sailfish and kingfish on the kite while out fishing the edge of the reef.
In addition to the pelagic fish that are moving in, there are still packs of dolphin (mahi mahi) in the eight to 12-pound class that can be found in the shallows and just offshore. Just keep in mind that you may need to be patient while trying to get these fish to eat. With all the ballyhoo around, the dolphin are not nearly as hungry or aggressive as they are during the summer months. Just stay on the fish, get a live bait in front of them, and eventually they should eat.
Inshore, the snook and tarpon bites continue to be red hot. Expect future cold fronts to slow these fish down a bit however, so I suggest heading out now for your best shot at hooking up with one of these hard-fighting fish. Look for snook to be active around mangrove islands and around structure (such as open-water docks), and for both fish to be feeding around channels, cuts, and on the edges of flats.
Your Best Bet for the Weeks Ahead: Pursue the Wintertime Pelagics
Large migratory game fish are beginning to show up throughout the Keys and very soon our waters will be teaming with these acrobatic and exciting species. Stop by the Best Bet boats located on the Key Colony Beach Causeway and I’ll be glad to take you out to target them, or offer up some more advice on how to catch them on your own.
WAHOO: This 38-pound Wahoo was quite a battle on 15-pound test; taking over a half-hour to bring in.
MIXED BAG: What a great day aboard the Best Bet! Shown is a mixed bag of dolphin, Wahoo, mutton snapper, yellowtail snapper and kingfish.