The Bahamas islands provide such incredibly diverse fisheries that there’s always something to catch. However, Florida fishermen heading across the ’Stream often have blinders on as they focus on a particular task at hand. Whether it’s trolling for blue marlin and dolphin, chunking and jigging yellowfin and blackfin tuna, or high speed wahoo fishing, there’s generally a purpose to each adventure. While it’s never a bad idea to have a game plan in place, one can’t always expect everything to unfold as predicted. Consistent success across the Gulf Stream means visiting anglers must always be willing to adapt.
From May through July, you’ll often see our Mercury-powered Three Buoys in The Bahamas searching for yellowfin tuna. We have the game dialed in and rarely head home without meat in the box. However, on a recent trip we stumbled upon an exciting fishery that we never knew existed, and I’m about to let the cat out of the bag.
We still catch fish on chunks, but started fishing butterflied goggle eye with much greater success. Interestingly, the average size of fish has also skyrocketed.
It was early June and despite the unfavorable weather forecast for later that day we decided to make the crossing and hope for the best. It was smooth sailing from Palm Beach to West End, but as luck would have it we arrived at Old Bahama Bay to clear customs just as a nasty squall blew through and blanketed the area with a torrential downpour. If that weren’t bad enough, in wake of the rain we were faced with a stiff easterly breeze and knew the run deep into the Northwest Providence Channel wasn’t going to be fun. We also knew that it wouldn’t be easy finding active fish in the channel under such adverse conditions. We had to make a decision and were close to heading home deflated with nothing to show for our efforts when at the last minute we decided to try and make something out of nothing. The only place we could fish comfortably was in 30 to 40 feet of water in the lee of the island, so that’s exactly where we headed.
Rigged and ready for tuna, we stripped the 50 lb. Sufix fluorocarbon from the set of Shimano Talicas in exchange for 30 lb. leader. With our sights originally set on open water fishing, we didn’t have any reef fishing tackle on the boat, including sinkers, so we were already starting off at a huge disadvantage. Fortunately, I always carry a Plano box loaded with a variety of VMC hooks. Additionally, Three Buoys is equipped with the latest Humminbird Side Imaging sonar and the technology enables us to find and fish specific structures like never before, so besides our tackle limitations we still had a few tricks up our sleeve.
While drifting in 40 feet of water we began tossing the pre-cut sardine chunks originally intended for attracting hefty yellowfin tuna. As we watched the oily pieces flutter to the bottom we could see small finfish coming out to pick at the scraps. Just at the limit of seeing bottom from the surface, we could also point out faint silhouettes of larger fish cruising the open terrain. With the same technique used when chunking tuna, we free lined chunk baits until they reached the strike zone, and after only a few drifts we were pleasantly surprised to have a few mutton snapper in the box. Far from a slaughter, this newfound fishery was obviously not an anchor fishery, meaning anglers must cover ground to find fish by means of drifting through likely areas.
Having since returned to the same spots several times now, although much more prepared, we’re constantly amazed by the surprising mutton snapper action we encounter in such shallow water. While we didn’t have the ideal rigs on our inaugural trip, we have since perfected our presentation and now deploy multiple baits with 3 oz. sinkers and 30-foot leaders, in addition to a pair of flat line baits to better cover the water column. We also switched reels and now fish the Shimano Torium, which has a star drag compared to the lever drag of the Shimano Talica, giving anglers an advantage when engaging the drag…once you flip the lever you are tight. And while most bottom fishermen prefer braid, for this fishery we spool with 20 lb. monofilament mainline. From here we attach a 30 lb. Sufix fluorocarbon leader and 4/0 VMC SureSet offset circle-hook. Catching fish in the corner of the mouth, circle-hooks enable anglers to fish lighter leaders and smaller hooks required to fool line shy mutton snapper in shallow water.
While tuna fishing requires long hours of preparation spent cutting sardine chunks and procuring countless live baits, mutton snapper fishing is a bit simpler. We still catch fish on chunks, but started fishing butterflied goggle eye with much greater success. Interestingly, the average size of fish has also skyrocketed. During the winter season we spend a majority of our time in Florida kite fishing with live bait. Aboard Three Buoys we’ve started to keep a bucket filled with slushy saltwater brine on the deck and now save all of our dead bait for bottom fishing endeavors, and I highly recommend you do the same.
We have since caught mutton snapper along these same shallows during every season of the year, but found the best action to occur in the spring and summer. Beginning around late April, mutton begin their annual spawn throughout South Florida and The Bahamas. And while it is believed that the majority of mutton move to deeper water and spawn well above the seafloor, there’s also a mutton migration and annual spawn in shallower depths. Looking to evade predation in warmer waters, these wary fish move from 100 to 200 feet where they typically reside, to only 20 to 50 feet of water.
Most snapper exploits require copious amounts of chum, but we’ve found that it’s best to avoid traditional ground chum. While it works for many snapper species, in The Bahamas it really only attracts sharks. Instead, it’s best to litter the area around the boat with large chunk baits that sink to the bottom at a rapid pace. And although moving water is generally key, here on the shallows we often fish slack tide and achieve impressive results. One of the most important aspects is to drift through the same area you’ve previously chunked, because more and more fish will come in to investigate what all of the commotion is about.
In many parts of The Bahamas, bottom fishing can be difficult because the reef edge typically makes a drastic drop to near vertical depths. It can be challenging to stay in a particular depth for long, but in the shallows the bottom slope is much more gradual. We look for patches of coral, sea fans and rock that meet barren expanses of sand. Many areas like this, which see very little pressure from outsiders, exist up around Memory Rock off West End, all over the Isaacs, and along the western shores of Bimini. And while drop offs, wrecks and reefs generally hold the life we seek, some of the largest mutton often cruise open sandy bottoms a good distance from the nearest structure.
Facts of Life: Mutton Snapper
Similar Species: Lane Snapper, Dog Snapper
Spawning Period: May–August
Min. Size: Atlantic & Gulf – 16″
Bag Limit: No more than 60 pounds of fillets, or 20 whole fish per vessel when fishing in The Bahamas. Anglers must abide by FWC regulations of 10 per harvester when returning to Florida.
Florida State Record: 30 lb. 4 oz. (Dry Tortugas)
All Tackle World Record: 30 lb. 4 oz. (Dry Tortugas)