The go-to fishing venue remains the reef, where the snapper and grouper bite is red hot.
Yellowtail snapper of all sizes are abundant.
Fish ranging from just keeper size to as big as 25 and 26 inches are making their way into fish boxes throughout the Keys.
The yellowtails are fattening up for their annual spawning ritual. Provide them with lots of chum and they will respond aggressively, eating just about anything delivered to them.
Light tackle is essential to catch the larger flag ‘tails as they are much more wary than their younger siblings are. A good start is 12- to 15-pound test with 15-pound fluorocarbon leaders and #2 or #4 hooks. Baits such as silversides, glass minnows, filleted chunks of ballyhoo or peeled shrimp all work to entice bites.
Intermingled with the yellowtails are mangrove snapper and some rather nice size mutton snapper.
If you think you may have mangroves or muttons in your slick, tempt them with slightly heavier tackle, such as 15-pound test, 20-pound fluorocarbon leaders and a #1 to 2/0 live bait hook. Drift a larger chunk of ballyhoo or sardine back in your slick as you would for the yellowtails.
A 2- to 3-inch pinfish on a ¼ to 3/8 ounce HookUp Lures jig head presented back or near the bottom in within your chum will often entice these larger snapper to bite. You may also catch small bonito or blue runners while fishing for the snapper. These make fine cut baits.
Feeding on the smaller snapper are red, black and gag grouper.
Large live baits, such as grunts, small blue runners and larger pinfish, will tempt them. Fish the baits on 30- to 40-pound tackle with a 6/0 live bait hook with a 40- to 80-pound fluorocarbon leader. I tend to use lighter leaders when the water is super clear and lean toward the heavier leaders as the water clarity decreases.
If you’ve been out grouper or snapper fishing, you know there are quite a few Caribbean reef sharks and bull sharks, all of which just love to take their share of your catch. If you find they’re getting more than you are, move on to another spot.
If you’re looking for a gut-wrenching 2-plus hour battle, try to catch the sharks.
Large baits, such as bonito fillets and mackerel chunks, usually garner a bite. If you land one, be cautious when you bring it to the boat for de-hooking. The shark’s behavior can be erratic and unpredictable.
While we’re on the topic of toothy critters, the shark fishing on the bay grass flats and inshore wrecks has been excellent for both lemons and blacktips, with the occasional bull also taking a bait.
Most of the blacktip sharks average 3 to 4 feet in length and are great sport on light tackle. The lemon sharks are in the 4- to 7-foot range and put up quite a fight when matched with spinning gear. Catch-and-release shark fishing in waters as shallow as 4 or 5 feet, with sharks swarming around the boat, makes for awesome summer fun fishing.
There are tons of schoolie dolphin in Florida Keys waters these days.
You just have to be willing to put in the time to pick through the masses to find the keeper size fish. (Dolphin must measure 20 inches to the fork.)
The schoolies are being caught just about anywhere from the reef out to 30-plus miles. I’ve heard of larger fish being caught as far a 40-plus miles, and one charter captain was so far out he could almost see the mountains of Cuba!
I don’t recommend novice boaters traveling so far. You’re better off going with a professional charter boat operation that is fully equipped with safety gear and is more accustomed to fishing in the depths.
If you’re offshore and find a floater or a substantial weed line, you may stumble upon a wahoo. Trolling diving plugs or wire-rigged ballyhoo on a planer should serve you well for these tiger-striped speed demons.
There are plenty of amberjack and large jack crevalle on the deeper wrecks and rough bottom patches along with a decent mutton snapper bite. Large pinfish will suffice for the jacks. The muttons prefer cigar minnows or threadfin herring, although a small pinfish will work in a pinch.
On a side note, one of the families that fished with me last week mentioned they were going out on a fishing trip with a neighbor they met on the dock of their rental house. A self-proclaimed “shrimper.” Father-son who “charter fish” when they’re not commercial fishing. It is illegal to do both. Our laws and regulations require you choose to register as a charter/recreational vessel or a commercial vessel – but not both. Who knows if these guys have all the proper safety equipment on board, and I’d bet they don’t have the same class of fishing equipment you’ll find on the SeaSquared. Please don’t ruin your vacation by fishing with anyone who is not a professional charter boat captain.