In case you haven’t noticed, thick schools of sardines have begun showing up in droves throughout the islands. There’s a good chance you’ve seen them swimming around in the canals or basins, and I’m certain that more than a few of you have already loaded up your live wells a time or two with these terrific baitfish and have had great success with them.
If you haven’t, I highly suggest breaking out the cast nets and sabikis while they’re still around. Sardines are outstanding baits that work incredibly well both inshore and offshore for a variety of different species.
Offshore, sardines are effectively fished either slow trolled on the surface, or while anchored up and live chummed. They are nearly irresistible to wahoo, yellowtails, mangroves, kingfish, sailfish, jacks, tunas, dolphin and more. You name the species, and it will be hard pressed to pass up a lively sardine.
Inshore, sardines are ideal for fishing around bridges and cuts, as well as for pitching at docks and rock piles. Everything from snook and tarpon to snapper and grouper will eat a live sardine when presented to them. Just cast one out, and hold on!
While we’re on the subject of live bait, ballyhoo are still extremely thick out on the reef and now is a great time to fill your bait freezers with wintertime trolling baits. Anywhere from the patches out to the edge of the reef you should have no trouble finding large schools of hoos congregating in your chum lines.
And while you’re out there, don’t be afraid to put out a spread of live ballyhoo on the surface and in the mid-water column depths. There are plenty of aggressive cero mackerel around to keep us occupied while we wait for the larger pelagic game fish to arrive in the months ahead. Live ballyhoo also work great for targeting mutton snapper and mangroves on the bottom; however the cero mackerel have been so thick that it can be difficult to get a bait by them and all the way down.
Also on the reef the yellowtail fishing has been solid, albeit difficult on occasion. At times we’ve had to drop all the way down to 10-pound leaders to entice the larger fish to eat, making it a challenge to get the fish to the boat. The fish we are catching have been quite large—with flag tails up to 20 inches—so while the quantities may not always be there, it doesn’t take too many quality yellowtails of that size to produce a nice bag of fillets.
Offshore, we’re still experiencing a respectable dolphin bite with schoolies and small gaffer-sized fish scattered from 400 feet to 25 miles out. While on the humps, the lack of Gulf Stream current has slowed down the tuna bite, though it should heat back up soon when the current returns.
Your Best Bet for the Week Ahead: Follow the Bait!
Whether planning to fish inshore or offshore, I highly recommend loading up the boat with live sardines. A live well full of these excellent baitfish will help keep your rods bent, while dramatically increasing your chance of reeling in the big one.
And don’t fret if you don’t have your own boat or can’t catch bait. I or one of the Best Bet Sportfishing captains would love to take you out and show you first-hand just how productive live bait fishing in the Florida Keys can be.
Yellowjacks– Yellowjacks (like these two that were caught on live sardines) provide an excellent light tackle challenge.
Tarpon– Jeff Reilly with a Middle Keys tarpon that couldn’t resist a live sardine.