Channel Surfing

Banging Biscayne Bay’s Unusual Suspects

Capt. Mo Estevez November 28, 2013

We were on anchor in a channel protected by pristine flats where trophy bonefish forage day in and day out. However, today was unlike most in Biscayne Bay and the gray ghost of the flats was taking a backseat to a more productive option given the blustery winter winds blanketing the state. Fifteen minutes into our investment fishing one of the numerous finger channels of Biscayne Bay and the first rod doubled over in a glorious rage of fury.

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While Biscayne’s northern channels hold fish, increased boat traffic makes fishing these areas a challenge. Photo: istockphoto.com/celsodiniz

From Key Biscayne to the north end of Key Largo, natural deepwater channels cut east to west through the shallow flats that provide habitat for world-class bonefish and permit. In addition to these top two flats fisheries, the clearly cut channels also act as thoroughfares for a variety of game fish and forage species to move into and across the shallow bay. When fished properly, these channels produce impressive catches and steady action few anglers in the know are willing to pass up. On any given day a lively finger channel can produce a wide variety of species including mutton and mangrove snapper, black, gag and red grouper, hogfish, mackerel, bluefish, jack crevalle, sharks and barracuda. However, while the channels are occupied by a potpourri of hard fighters, it’s not as simple as posting up in any cut and expecting a banner day.

A promising channel will have a mixed composition of grass, coral, sea fans and other hard mottled bottom.

Fishing the finger channels of southern Biscayne Bay offers great year-round fishing, but the channels really come to life when water temperatures begin to drop in late fall. During these months our region experiences an influx of mackerel and bluefish that follow schools of scaly baitfish south, while snapper and grouper are simultaneously on their annual migrations to shallower structures. The combination of baitfish and diverse predator migrations makes for a great winter fishery nearly any angler can enjoy.

When planning a trip to Biscayne Bay to experience the fun and fast paced action there are a few critical aspects you must take into consideration. First and foremost, you need to be mindful in your selection of a finger channel because location is the single most important factor that will influence your outcome. A promising channel will have a mixed composition of grass, coral, sea fans and other hard mottled bottom. It’s rare that a finger channel comprised exclusively of grass will produce anything worthwhile. In contrast, a bottom composition that features grass, sand, rock, coral and sea fans is where you will find the majority of predatory fish, especially mature snapper and grouper. While you will certainly find fish in areas with strictly rocky bottom, you will end up losing a percentage of battles to unforgiving structure.

Now that you know where to look, it’s time to talk about the ideal presentation and approach. While an angler may successfully drift or troll these areas, I prefer to anchor and chum. And although you can catch fish on any tide—as long as the water is moving—my preferred approach is to fish during outgoing tidal stages. This enables me to anchor over grassy bottom and let the tide carry my chum over the rocky areas of the channels. This will entice fish away from their lairs into the open areas where they have little cover. The trick is to locate a channel where the hard bottom is down current. Thankfully, there are numerous channels with this type of bottom contour and composition.

Once anchored with chum flowing, start by setting a few baits. A 7 foot medium action rod with a 12 lb. class spinning reel is perfect. Rigging is straightforward and involves little terminal tackle. Start by tying a double line connected to a 36 inch section of 20 to 30 lb. fluorocarbon leader. End the simple presentation with a clinch knot securing a #1 or 1/0 offset J hook. My bait of choice is a live shrimp hooked through the horn using as little lead as possible. A 1/16 ounce split shot placed 24 to 30 inches above the hook is usually sufficient. This outfit will provide excellent sport with mackerel, bluefish, mangrove snapper and more.

As larger fish make their presence known, use the same terminal rig on 15 lb. class spinning tackle spooled with 10 lb. braid. At this point you may want to consider switching to live pilchard instead of shrimp. For the best presentation, scaled baits should be hooked through the nose and free lined into the chum slick. This rig is sure to be blasted by the larger fish further back, so don’t hesitate presenting this bait 50 feet or more behind the boat.

When conditions are ideal you should see ballyhoo showering in the area, and this is the time to catch a few livies either by hook and line or cast net. Once procured, drift one back on 20 lb. class gear for respectable grouper that lurk below.

There are also times when you may want to draw bigger fish closer to the boat in an attempt to entice a strike on fly or topwater. With this lofty goal in mind it is best to live chum if you have a sufficient amount of bait. In order to do this effectively, do not over feed the fish. You only want to toss in four or five pilchard at a time. Give them a squeeze or bounce them off the poling platform to create a stunned effect before tossing them in.

While you can find fish in Biscayne Bay during every day of the year, the channel fishery is heavily dependent on current. If there is no current you will be wondering where the fish are. If possible, fish the channels after a cold front has swept through. Not only do the fish seem to turn on, but the slightly dirtier water created by the wind decreases visibility and makes wary fish less sensitive to visible terminal tackle. Still, there are times when it is just not a good idea to fish these channels. Over the years I have observed that 25 knot winds tend to dirty the water too much and as a result, fish move off to find most suitable surroundings. In blustery situations like these, relocating to channels protected by rocky flats tends to neutralize some of the effects of the wind and silt that cloud the water.

Before you head out on your own we should first discuss some common mistakes to avoid. The first is fishing a particular finger channel for too long. As a general rule, if you’ve been in a channel for 45 minutes and not much is going on other than juvenile snapper, it’s a good bet you are anchored on a dud and should likely move on in search of greener pastures. Another common mistake is anchoring too close to a flat. Although anchoring on the edge of a flat can work, it is far from ideal. The center of the channel is where you want to be to ensure your chum slick travels through the deepest part of the cut. Fish move from channel to channel and your goal is to entice them to the chum slick’s source. The last consideration is boat traffic…something there is plenty of around Miami. As with any area with high boat traffic, locating a quiet place all to yourself is key. Avoid areas like Stiltsville that often have a high amount of boat traffic. The fish are there but it’s almost impossible to get a bite going on the weekends. Additionally, if you see a boat anchored in a finger channel avoid them altogether and navigate to another channel. These fish are very sensitive to noise and disruption, so it’s important you show consideration to fellow anglers with the same intentions.

Winter is indeed the most wonderful time of the year to visit Florida, and in Biscayne Bay we have plenty to look forward to. So when the winds are blowing and the itch to fish is burning, the finger channels of Biscayne Bay are sure to keep the action coming.

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