The Gulf of Mexico may not feature lush coral gardens with crystal clear water that’s common in the Atlantic, but from Key West to Naples and beyond there are a variety of underwater structures that beckon adventurous anglers. Whether you depart from Key West, Marathon, Flamingo, Chokoloskee or points further north, the Gulf is littered with holes, ledges, wrecks, towers, cave systems, springs and artificial reefs within 50 miles from shore. The biggest problem with targeting these retreats is the same as with most productive wrecks—you’ve got to find them!
Created to protect the fragile ecosystem, Everglades National Park (ENP) stretches through Dade, Collier and Monroe County and encompasses a vast network of wetlands and coastal estuarine habitats. Freshwater from the Everglades mixes with saltwater from the expansive Gulf and the resulting estuary provides prime habitat for a host of birds and marine animals. The numerous basins, mud banks, mangrove shorelines and grass flats that encompass ENP also create the ideal ecosystem for trout, redfish, snook and tarpon.
If you get your catch away from these giants you’ll have to run the gauntlet of sharks because they eat almost everything the goliath grouper miss.
As phenomenal as the fishing is within the park, there are proposals to close off many sections and restrict access to this legendary angling destination. Because of this, increasing attention is being directed to the various wrecks and bottom facets outside park boundaries. These shallow structures yield outstanding catches of grouper, snapper, redfish, snook, cobia, permit, barracuda, jack, mackerel and unfortunately, big sharks and relentless goliath grouper.
I can remember 40 years ago when guys were lugging all sorts of junk out past park boundaries and dumping it on a recorded site. It didn’t take much to attract fish out there because the bottom is just sand and anything that creates a break in the current attracts baitfish, which then attracts predators. This strategy worked pretty well for a while with only a select few knowing the secret spots and reaping the rewards. That is until a severe hurricane would blow through. Still, many man-made structures remain. Some are mounds of lobster traps dumped at the end of the season, and some are major debris piles that have held up to powerful tropical disturbances.
Captain Randy Towe is based out of Islamorada and has over two dozen of these honey holes that he fishes regularly, jockeying from one to another until he finds one loaded with life. While there are some amazing spots way out in the Gulf that can produce world-class results, you should know they are a long run in a flat skiff so the weather has to be picture perfect if you plan on making the trek in a smaller platform.
Once you locate one of these hidden gems there are several ways to effectively fish. There are often schools of permit and cobia on the surface, so it pays to have a spinning outfit rigged and ready. On other occasions there will be schooling jack busting bait in the area, so while you are searching for that magic piece of structure below it is a good idea to have someone keep their eyes peeled for surface activity. The first time you spot a new structure on your sounder you should immediately mark it on your plotter. You don’t want to get distracted and have to start the search all over again.
The next step is to anchor up current so your baits and chum drift back to the structure below. Honing your anchoring skills in relation to the current, wind and location of the structure is critical to success. You should also rig a quick disconnect polyball so you can drift off the structure after hooking a big fish. A hooked fish’s first instinct may be to charge the debris in an attempt to sever the unfamiliar tether, but the greater risk is that a goliath grouper will devour your prize. These fish are no joke and even the wrecks in less than 20 feet hold massive goliaths. I’ve personally witnessed a gargantuan inhale a 25-pound permit in a single gulp! If you get your catch away from these giants you’ll have to run the gauntlet of sharks because they eat almost everything the goliath grouper miss.
While anchoring is effective, you can also drift for permit and cobia. Since these species might be circling a good distance off the wreck, drifting can be the best way to get connected and stay connected. Once you are hooked up you can continue drifting to avoid the structure and the larger predators lurking below.
My first trip to an oasis in the Gulf was with Captain Andy Novak of LMR Custom Rods & Tackle in Ft. Lauderdale. We launched out of Chokoloskee and ran south looking for pilchard. Andy found a new wreck in only 15 feet of water loaded with snook just a few days prior, so he was pretty excited about the action we were going to encounter. We netted a bunch of bait in relatively short order and headed offshore. About a half hour later we approached a dark shape on the light colored bottom. The surface was ruffled by a light breeze and we could see a dark mass just off the wreck—it was a school of massive snook! Andy set a drift, threw out a few scoops of live pilchard and everything went nuts! I was using a 10-weight fly rod with a full sinking, high-density line—my favorite combination for deep water fly-fishing. That day we caught over 20 snook on baitfish patterns and at least a dozen were over 20 pounds. Yet again, the sharks made their presence known.
On subsequent trips we’ve specifically targeted permit with impressive results. In the summer they school up on Gulf wrecks and can be caught on crab flies with great success. They usually aren’t right on top of the wreck, but they will investigate the chum line. However, the best way to take one on fly is to look for the big schools that are usually circling the wreck, sometimes a good distance out. The strategy is to drift down on the school and throw a fly right in the middle of the pack. I throw either a slow sinking clear line or fast sinking line with 6 feet of leader tapered to 20 lb. fluorocarbon.
If fly-fishing isn’t your thing, you can also score big along these shallow wrecks with a sturdy spinning outfit loaded with 30 to 50 lb. braid and a fluorocarbon leader. Live pinfish, pilchard, mullet and crabs are best for the biggest fish. Use live shrimp and the juveniles will eat you alive…then the goliaths will destroy them and your tackle. If for whatever reason you are keen on battling a large shark or goliath grouper it will be in your best interest to bring the heaviest outfit you own. An 80-wide is not out of the question!
As you leave Florida Bay and head deep into the Gulf you will find even larger structures and more predators. Captain Randy Towe remembers a particular day with his friend Dave Crusiger. They were headed to the Blue Hole, which is a misleading name because it is a spring about 50 miles offshore of Marathon. Dave is a pilot and an experienced diver who wanted to get a firsthand look at what was thriving around the rim of the hole. The depth to the edge of the hole is around 40 feet and then it drops to more than 125 feet. As Dave worked his way to the bottom, the first thing he noticed was a 600-pound goliath hovering directly beneath the boat. When he reached the bottom he could see dozens of goliaths lingering around the edge. As Dave looked up, he spotted a massive school of permit swimming overhead, just before a dozen bull sharks surrounded him. Needless to say he was out of the water ASAP and his facial expression confirmed our suspicions…there are a ton of sharks in the Gulf!
While there are a host of shallow water springs, wrecks, sinkholes, cracks, caves and crevices along the otherwise desolate stretch of Gulf bottom, many of the most productive sites are closely guarded secrets. There are a few public sites that provide excellent starting points. Approximately 30 miles southwest of Gordon Pass is the Naples Black Hole. This sinkhole is located in 65 feet of water, has an opening that is 100 feet across and a drop off extending beyond 215 feet! The Captiva Blue Hole is commonly known as The Crack and is about 30 miles southwest of Boca Grande Pass. A glance at a nautical chart with reveal these and more. From here it’s up to you to put in the time and effort. Whatever structure you find in the Gulf you can be sure it will attract life along the otherwise barren stretches of seafloor.