The cooler November weather brings a massive influx of baitfish to the Marathon waters, ballyhoo most notably, and with them come our wintertime pelagic species.
A day of fishing starts by filling the live well with live ballyhoo, as every fish along the reef eats them.
Anchor up on a shallow patch reef and chum the area until the ‘hoos come in. This can take as little as five minutes or as long as 60 minutes. If you don’t see any after a reasonable amount of time, move to other patches until you find them.
Once you have acquired sufficient ballyhoo (the SeaSquared boats like to have a minimum of two or three dozen in the live well), proceed to the deeper edge of the reef to begin your search for the pelagics.
As a side note, while waiting for the ballyhoo, fish the bottom for snappers and groupers.
Our pelagic targets on the oceanside this time of year are sailfish, cobia and king mackerel. You may also encounter dolphin and blackfin tuna right on the reef edge, all attracted to the ballyhoo.
Scan the horizon for frigate birds to indicate bait sprays created by sailfish and dolphin chasing ballyhoo in 20 to 30 feet of water. Pitch one of your baits into the melee and hang on.
This bait-spraying action typically lasts until about mid-morning. When it slows down, head out to the 100- to 150-foot depths, put out a spread of live ballyhoo and drift the reef edge. This is where you will pick up the majority of the blackfins and kings.
While drifting, keep a rod within 15 to 20 feet of the bottom with a live ballyhoo, pilchard or even a pinfish and you may catch m
uttons, groupers or bonus cobias while waiting for the pelagics.
The shallow edge of the reef is loaded with our year-round resident snappers, groupers and mackerel, all looking to snack on the ballyhoo as well.
Good amounts of yellowtail, mangrove and mutton snappers plus black and red groupers are in the 20- to 35-foot areas. Live ballyhoo, pinfish or pilchards fished on a jighead serve best for the mangroves, muttons and groupers, while flatlining is most productive for the yellowtails.
Now is a great time to fill your smoker with mackerel. Put a live bait out on the surface with a trace of wire but no weight to catch passing kings and ceros.
The action heats up on the gulfside this time of year also, with the deeper wrecks holding most of the pelagics, specifically cobias and kings. Also, the gag groupers begin to move up shallower and feed heavily. Just about any live bait will draw the interest of these three species.
Goliath grouper, sharks, jacks, bluefish and loads of mangroves round out the fun to be had around the gulf wrecks.
Closer in, at the eight- to twelve-foot depth range, is where you will find the Spanish mackerel. Hard-bottom areas and wrecks are the most productive areas for filling your smoker in preparation for the holidays. Live shrimp on a jighead works best, although chunks of pinfish will also do the trick.
There are plenty of mangroves here along with the occasional cobia. Blacktip, spinner and lemon sharks follow the schools of mackerel. Put a small, live Spanish mackerel on a balloon, float or kite to tangle with one of these big, toothy critters. You may also be surprised by some huge king mackerel at 30-plus pounds.
Marathon was dealt a severe blow by Hurricane Irma, but we are rebuilding and will be more beautiful than ever. The fishing is still spectacular. And, there are all sorts of accommodations, restaurants, stores and attractions open for business and anxious to serve you. What we need more than anything is for our tourists to come and enjoy a fabulous fishing vacation in the heart of the Florida Keys. Hope to see you soon!
Capt. Chris Johnson specializes in offshore, gulf/bay, reef/wreck, sailfish, shark, tarpon and lobster fishing with SeaSquared Charters in Marathon. You can reach him at 305-743-5305, http://SeaSquaredCharters.com and http://Facebook.com/MarathonFishing.