If you live in the Florida Keys, or are a frequent visitor, you know that the fishing forecast can be extremely unpredictable in the winter months. One day it’s flat calm with 2- to 3-foot seas offshore, and the next day the wind may be blowing 25 knots, ruining any chance of heading out in search of our favorite blue water pelagic species. That unpredictable weather is especially prevalent during the winter months when cold fronts move through. Even though we’ve experienced some windy days and even some chilly ones over the last few weeks, the fishing has still been fantastic.
Offshore the sailfish bite continues to get better and better as the season progresses. Last week on a charter, I had a triple header: three sailfish hooked up at one time. I was drifting live bait on my outriggers, in 160 feet of water, off the coast of Marathon when we hooked up to the pack of fish. Other captains across the Middle Keys are experiencing similar success targeting sailfish. As you walk along the charter docks, look for the sailfish flags flying from boats’ outriggers. Captains often raise one flag for every sailfish caught and released.
Besides sailfish, there’s plenty of pelagic species to target while you’re offshore. There has been a large number of kingfish and some big wahoo swimming in our offshore waters. Use a deep rod with a stretch of wire leader if you want to target these fast swimming, razor tooth, torpedo-shaped fish. Even if you’re not specifically targeting these toothy species, I still suggest to have a spinning rod rigged with a wire leader in the rod holder for quick access. Last week we had a pack of wahoos pop up while we were dropping for mutton snappers on a wreck. Fortunately, we were prepared and were able to land a nice fish that weighed more than 30 pounds.
If you’re headed offshore and plan on using surface rods, use combination of wire and fluorocarbon leaders. This method will target a large variety of pelagic species, including sailfish, blackfin tuna, and dolphin (mahi mahi). You may run the risk of getting cut off, but you also increase your chances of catching a trophy fish that may not take baits that are rigged with wire.
Mackerel fishing along the reef has also been active, providing great fun on light tackle. Pitch a bait out on the surface with a stretch of wire and get ready for a drag screaming fight when you hook up with a big cero. Mackerel fishing on light tackle is great practice for kids and beginner anglers who haven’t done much saltwater fishing. In addition on the reefs, the grouper bite has been great since season closed at the beginning of the year. Remember, you have to release any grouper caught in the Florida Keys until the season reopens on May 1. Take a photo and release your fish for another day. If you’re interested in catching some tasty snapper, the mangrove bite continues to be excellent from 20 to 40 feet, fishing live pilchards on jig heads.
Closer to shore, the snapper bite is also outstanding at the bridges. We’ve had great success at the Seven-Mile Bridge bouncing piling to piling while fishing live pilchards on jig heads. Bridge fishing is a great alternative in the winter months as the bridges are usually fishable in windy conditions. Plus, in addition to big mangrove snappers there are a variety of other species you might catch. Keys bridges also hold grouper, mutton snapper, yellow jacks, hard-fighting jack crevalles, sharks, snook, tarpon, and more.
Over in the Gulf, the cobia bite has really heat up thanks to last week’s cold front. The best area for cobia action has been on the wrecks from 12 to 20 miles out. Kingfish are also showing up in large numbers in the gulf. Several captains are reporting nice-sized kingfish, up to 40 pounds, being caught. Large amounts of kingfish also means there will be plenty of delicious smoked fish dip floating around Middle Keys tables.
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.