Just a few weeks remain until all species of grouper will be off limits. NICK BORRACCINO/Keys Weekly

The weather is cooling down, and the fishing is heating up. It’s winter, finally, and that means hot action to be had.

We’re not doing much offshore right now, as the mahi are few and far between. The good news there is that the ones we’ve found are nice-size fish. There are singles to quad packs of fish in the 10- to 20-pound range on weed lines, but there are hardly any birds out there and not nearly enough fish to warrant driving around looking for them. 

I’m also finding it hard to justify going the 20-plus miles to the humps for tuna. The sharks have been ferocious and the tuna are tiny. With tilefish and snowy grouper closed, our offshore treks right now would be primarily targeting swordfish, but that could definitely be well worth the ride.

With that covered, the bay and reef have been very active. On days with good current, the yellowtail in 50 to 90 feet have been quite reliable. As always, chum hard for at least 15 minutes before free lining your small cut bait on 12- to 15-pound fluoro. 

Also known as ‘reef donkeys,’ amberjack can put up a heck of a fight. NICK BORRACCINO/Keys Weekly

There are only a few weeks left before grouper season closes on Jan. 1, so keep a big bait a few cranks off the bottom on heavy gear.  We’ve had some really nice black and red groupers on the reef recently. If it’s a little breezy or the current out there isn’t great, Hawks Channel usually provides great rod-bending action of snappers, mackerels and jacks. There have been some big muttons snooping around in there too. Live pilchards or ballyhoo on a light wire will get you plenty of mackerel bites, and fresh cut ballyhoo, live pilchards or small pinfish on a jig head or knocker rig sitting on the bottom will eventually get gobbled by a snapper or grouper.

Out in the bay all the grassy areas are active with Spanish mackerel and mangrove snapper, and any structure, bank or channel should have those and also jacks and runners to keep you busy.  Live shrimp usually gets it done out there.

Let’s go get ’em!

Captain Nick Borraccino is the owner and operator of Noreaster Sport Fishing, based out of the Island Fish Co. in Marathon. A Massachusetts native, Nick grew up commercial fishing for bluefin tuna and striped bass. He has been fishing in the Keys full time since moving here in 2005. Noreaster offers everything from flats to offshore on boats ranging from 18 to 35 feet.