It’s an undisputable fact that the waters surrounding the state of Florida provide some of the greatest fishing and diving opportunities in the entire world. In fact, our tropical climate harbors the largest network of living coral reef in the continental United States, and the third largest in the world only behind Australia and Belize. Unfortunately, these biologically diverse ecosystems are in serious threat from overfishing, vessel groundings, coastal construction, ocean acidification, pollution and climate change.
Everyone knows that coral reefs are intricate and delicate living structures that depend on specific water variables and environmental attributes. Reef growth and maturation relies on warm water temperatures, sunlight, correct oceanic salinities that are low in nutrients, and moderate currents to bring plankton and other forage to feeders on the reef. While home to prized game fish, brightly colored tropical species and beautifully adorned flower-like corals, it’s no surprise our reefs account for billions of dollars in tourism each year. Unfortunately, our natural coral reef formations are declining due to human interaction and as slow-growing organisms that are literally thousands of years old, even the slightest damage is significant.
The interior rooms of sunken ships provide juvenile fish a safe haven from powerful currents and relentless predators…
While protecting and preserving our existing natural reefs can be accomplished through marine sanctuaries, proper anchoring techniques and conscious human interaction, in our ongoing attempt to increase essential habitat a growing number of artificial reefs are being constructed and placed off Florida’s coastline using a combination of federal, state, local government and private funds. In coastal regions of Florida where coral growth simply isn’t an option due to environmental constraints, artificial reefs are essential structures that provide food, safety, and spawning sites for numerous species of fish and marine organisms. Artificial reefs also alleviate pressure from existing natural reefs by creating new sites for anglers and divers to visit.
Constructing and deploying an artificial reef is an extensive process, and one that must be approved by several permitting authorities including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Florida Department of Environmental Protection. During the permitting process an in-depth survey of the bottom topography will reveal if the proposed area is a good fit for a permanent structure and devoid of any biological or historical resources. While at one time appliances, abandoned vehicles and anything else that could provide structure was dumped to the seafloor to attract marine life, today the materials utilized to construct artificial reefs are carefully chosen and scrutinized.
Decommissioned and derelict ships are often selected, as they provide ideal habitat for a wide range of marine life. The interior rooms of sunken ships provide juvenile fish a safe haven from powerful currents and relentless predators while enabling numerous species to thrive. They also provide key ambush points for larger game fish…and so the food chain begins. It has been documented that marine life is extremely quick to adapt to newly placed structures, as they offer alternative food sources and adequate protection. In these underwater environments space is premium and new habitat is quickly occupied and put to good use. One such example is the recently sunken USS Hoyt Vandenberg off Key West. Only a year after its deployment divers report a plethora of life with over 100 species of fish recorded, numerous live corals and sponges, massive baitballs and all kinds of sea growth exploding on the superstructure.
While shipwrecks provide accommodating shelter, precision designed reef modules can be made in a variety of shapes and sizes. Prefabricated boulders, domes, pyramids and cylinders are often used to create ideal opportunities for a variety of species to flourish. These structures are highly functional and engineered to allow water to flow over all surfaces of the framework. Distinct nooks and crannies lead to incredible biomass development and productivity.
Whether a reef or wreck, artificial structures promote and accelerate marine growth and provide essential habitat. In the northern Gulf of Mexico, artificial reefs provide spawning shelter for highly desirable species like red snapper. Man-made structures have been placed in these waters for years, but it wasn’t until recently when scientist became involved to determine which precise pattern of artificial reef offers the most natural habitat for juvenile reds. Currently, researchers are experimenting with four patterns of placement for pyramid shaped artificial habitats and are experiencing extraordinary levels of success.
Regardless where around the state you ply your craft, if you’re not already focusing your angling efforts on your local artificial reef system, you’re seriously missing the boat (no pun intended). From baitfish to trophy game fish, artificial reefs harbor an immense treasure-trove of life in all shapes and sizes. Once you familiarize yourself with how to fish these structures effectively and efficiently, you’ll immediately start to reap the rewards and your catch ration will soar.
Wreck ‘em… But Not Too Hard
Successfully coercing big fish from their crusty lairs is more difficult than one would think. Those who are consistently successful, especially with trophy size fish, understand the importance of proper positioning. Depending on the prevalent conditions and particular species in your crosshairs, you may choose to drift, anchor or troll over and around an artificial reef. If you plan on anchoring or drifting, slowly approach your target and make a drift or two over the area to get an idea of the prevailing current and wind conditions, as well as the structure’s overall size and fish-holding features. While doing so, it’s a good idea to study your fish finder to determine if the structure you intend on fishing is worthy of continued investigation. Depending on the size of the submerged debris or wreck, season of the year, and prevalent oceanic conditions, fish may be holding up current or along a particular portion of the structure. In other situations you may find the largest concentrations of life on the down current side. It’s important to note that these hot-pockets of action can change location depending on the tide or availability of forage.
When fishing an artificial reef system with multiple wrecks in one general vicinity, drifting is typically the best option as you wont risk damaging the ecosystem with your anchor, you can cover different depths and different structures, and you’ll be able to effectively pinpoint areas of interest while also enabling several boats to fish the same stretch of productive water. If conditions allow anchoring, you’ll want to find a happy medium between being too close, and too far. Like drifting, you must take into consideration wind and current prior to deploying your ground tackle. Ideally, you want to ultimately position yourself so the structure lies directly behind your vessel. You can effectively fish the entire piece by periodically letting out increments of anchor line. Start by drifting over the structure and plot your direction of movement. Once you’ve determined the direction of the current and any specific areas worthy of consideration you can re-drift the same heading and deploy your anchor when you’re ready as you drift back into position. Remember, no less than a 3:1 ratio on scope.
If you find yourself on a hot-bite, use your best judgment to know when to say enough is enough. A skilled group of anglers can plunder a fertile reef or wreck in no time. Rather than focusing solely on one structure, target several promising pieces of bottom to prevent overfishing. Seasonal influences may impact the action you encounter, so it makes sense to target structures in varying depths in your effort to locate the action you seek. No matter where you fish limit your harvest to a reasonable amount. It’s also important to note that artificial reef sites aren’t just for fishing. Divers also enjoy the underwater bounty and Florida law requires boaters to make reasonable efforts to remain 300-feet away from a boat displaying a divers-down flag.
With improved and increased angling opportunities these structures ultimately benefit coastal communities and those who choose to take advantage of their bounties. One thing is for sure. No matter where in the state you call home, there’s prime real estate in your own backyard.
Location… Location… Location
In an effort to enhance and increase essential habitat, all 35 coastal counties in the state of Florida take part in artificial reef programs. With the FWC providing exact longitude/latitude coordinates for over 2,500 artificial reef sites, there’s no shortage of fishy structures. The most talked about artificial wreck was recently placed off Key West on May 27, 2009. The USS Hoyt Vandenberg is now the largest artificial reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and the second largest in the entire world only behind Pensacola’s USS Oriskany—an 880-foot aircraft carrier sunk in 2006. A county by county listing of artificial reef locations in Florida with detailed coordinates can be found at www.floridasportfishing.com.