Insatiable Insanity

Find Out if a Single Fish Can Drive You Mad

Waqaas Quraishi January 14, 2009

230-feet, drop ‘em down…came the voice over the loudspeaker. At 3:00 a.m. that is exactly what it was – loud. I knew this voice, for I had heard it many times before and when it spoke, it spoke clear and true. This early in the morning voices will do strange things to you, more so when you have been up for 30-hours and the only thing keeping you from permanent somnolence is a viscous coffee-type liquid affectionately called “mud.”

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Sailing from Key West, Yankee Capts prepares to head offshore in search of snapper success. Photo: Waqaas Quraishi

The voice beckoned me to the pulpit, where I had been diligently fishing my offerings in the depths below – all on a quest for a trophy mutton snapper that had evaded me all too many times. In my deftness, I continued to try. I had a decent cooler of fish, a smattering of bottom fish including a number of “muffins,” an endearing term for those juvenile specimens of the one I was after.

This much-fabled and almost legendary network of reefs and wrecks 70-miles off the coast of Key West remains home to some of the best bottom fishing in the country.

Almost in unison, two-dozen secret baits went down, each affixed to an angler with a dream. The trip to the bottom seemed like an eternity. The rather large man next to me hits the bottom first and settles into his holding pattern. Soon I feel my weight hit the sand beneath as well. I come tight and become comfortable with the steel pulpit, to which I was now merely an ornament. I was a sniper with one bullet and only one shot. Do or die.

Those not so transfixed soon started to toss out random remarks and heckles. This early, many things find an air of hilarity they might not at a decent hour. I laughed, but I almost didn’t care. All that mattered was the line, keeping it free, and making sure that my weight did not bounce at any cost. Minutes passed and I began to doubt myself. Was my bait still on? Was it tangled? Should I check it?

Trophy mutton snapper fishing is a waiting game. It will drive you absolutely mad! I wait. The fish waits. Who would give in first? Tired and determined at the same time, I left the bait on the bottom. Then it happened. At first it was a small tap, then it was followed by two strong thumps on the line. The fish had eaten the bait. Then came the run. My years of casting bass reels saved me from a career-ending backlash as the determined snapper steamed off. I was almost too scared to come tight for fear of losing this chance. As long as the fish was running I still had it on. But step up I must. I threw the reel in gear and frantically turned the handle past the point of lactic acidosis.

It came tight. The reel began to peel 50 lb. mono as if it was in free-spool. The first run alone was near 50-yards. I then had to get to work. I kept the line tight and again, the rail was my ray of light. The fish shook its head and I began to get discouraged and tightened the drag down a little to get this over with. I was done playing.

The silhouette barely came into view and the calls started. It is at this point where everyone is an ichthyologist. In my delirium I even thought I heard “striper.” I kept an eye on my rod tip, not wanting to confront the imminent disappointment below. Then I heard the voice from the captain’s deck. “Mutton, a good one. Get the gaff!”

Sure enough, the rising fish assumed the identity I had sought for so long. A swift gaff shot and the formidable trophy lay before me. At 38-inches and near 24-pounds, she was the largest mutton snapper I had even seen in person, let alone caught. My arms were shaking from the excitement and I could barely muster an intelligible word.

Similar tales are indeed reality every year in the Dry Tortugas. This much-fabled and almost legendary network of reefs and wrecks 70-miles off the coast of Key West remains home to some of the best bottom fishing in the country. Boat options range from day jaunts in private center-consoles to multi-day trips aboard large specialized vessels run by captains with intimate knowledge of the Dry Tortugas fishery.

The advent of large party-boat excursions over the past 25-years brought many contenders, with only a few operations still doing well today. They provide anglers with comfortable access to these fertile waters and the possibility of trophy-class fish, which have seen few baited hooks if any. The result has been a multitude of full coolers and IGFA world records.

As the Dry Tortugas are one of the largest spawning grounds for many reef fish of the southeast United States, they were quick to draw the attention of conservationists and national fisheries departments alike. Years of legislative battles have brought large areas of the Dry Tortugas under federal protection. With the recent closure of other spawning areas and the threat of more, could the once-booming Dry Tortugas fishery once again be inaccessible to anglers? Suffering from a terminal case of “mutton madness,” I had to get some answers. Who better than Captain Greg Mercurio, owner/operator of the Yankee Capts sailing from Key West, Florida. Mercurio is a pioneer who has been in the trenches for over two-decades, and the skipper that led me to my monster mutton.

W.Q.: Regarding the issues confronting the Dry Tortugas (DT) fishery, Yankee Capts claims to be one of the originators of party-boat style fishing in the DTs. How long have you been fishing here?
MERCURIO: Since 1984.

W.Q.: Have things changed over the years?
MERCURIO:I don’t think much has changed. Fishing is just as good. Seasonal conditions actually dictate how effective we are at catching fish. My favorite quote is “Mother Nature knows how to take care of her children in the Dry Tortugas.” Case in point, when the Gulf Stream meanders into 100-feet and washes over the reef, forget about holding bottom unless you are fishing two-pounds of lead!

W.Q.: Many claim the fishing is nothing like it used to be, what is your opinion?
MERCURIO:I manage the same catches year after year. Give me decent conditions and I will show you brilliant fishing.

W.Q.: Some say zone closures will shut down your operation. Is that true?
MERCURIO: What? The new zone closure is for the western half of the DT National Park. The depth there is less than 30-feet! “Some” need to get their facts straight.

W.Q.: Are party boats such as yours the cause for the decline in fish populations?
MERCURIO: As far as a decline in any fish stock, there are many possible causes – recreational anglers abiding by the rules and regulations will NEVER deplete a fish population.

W.Q.: If I handed you a rod and gave you the choice of bait, what would it be?
MERCURIO: Fresh king mackerel.

W.Q.: Is it easy for a beginner to catch a trophy-class mutton snapper?
MERCURIO: Expect a learning curve, but after a brief “How To,” even novices are hauling them in.

W.Q.: Some believe “deeper is better” when it comes to large mutton snapper. Thoughts?
MERCURIO: I can’t say that I agree. I have seen crazy bites in 40-feet. However, for consistency, the best depth range in the DTs is 140 to 175-feet.

W.Q. Is there a best time to target mutton snapper?
MERCURIO: My favorites months are November and December, conditions permitting.

W.Q.: Is the stern the best place to fish?
MERCURIO: Anglers believe the stern has the most access to fish. Truth be told, any spot on the boat is as good as any other. I have seen some of the best catches by anglers fishing on the pulpit, while on other trips the stern produces better. In a hard current, the stern may make it a little easier to fish, but otherwise everyone is fishing baits on the bottom.

W.Q.: You must have seen some crazy things in all those years on the water. Does anything come to mind?
MERCURIO: I remember a 24-hour wide-open mutton bite. A customer said to me, “I bet I could catch one on a bare hook.” He sent it down and twitched it three times. Five-minutes later I gaffed an eight-pound mutton for him.

W.Q.: Rumor has it that a passenger pulled out a handheld GPS while out at sea and that on discovering this, you kindly confiscated it and nailed it to the wall. Myth or Fact?
MERCURIO: Fact! I have also tossed a few overboard. I don’t mess with the livelihoods of others and don’t appreciate passengers messing with mine.

To contact Captain Greg Mercurio or for more info on fishing the Dry Tortugas aboard the 90-foot Yankee Capts, visit www.YankeeCapts.com

It might not seem so, but there isn’t much magic to mutton snapper fishing. However, two things you absolutely need to entice the largest fish are patience and persistence.

With so many tackle options, what is the best outfit for Dry Tortugas mutton snapper fishing? Seventy miles out and locked into a trophy-fish is not the time or place to realize your’re under gunned. Yes, muttons in the five to 25-pound range are the main quarry, but hefty black grouper two and three times that size are a real possibility. This is why one needs a high-speed conventional reel with a serious drag system to match. There are many quality reels on the market that fit the bill, largely dependant on your budget. If you are just getting started, don’t overlook the affordable and dependable Penn Senator 4/0.

Party-boat decks rise high above the water, especially up in the bow, so one needs a rod that can quickly sweep line while providing constant pressure to raise determined fish. While there are again many options here, a medium/heavy action stick in the eight-foot range is ideal.

A myriad of options also exist with line. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. Fish a line that you have a good feel for and know its limits. As a rule, stick with either 40lb. or 50lb. test clear monofilament and make sure to inspect it after every fish.

Terminal tackle is an area rife with unnecessary voodoo. Sinkers are sinkers, whether they are painted or coated with sand, they all serve the same function – keeping your bait in the strike zone. There is no one magic sinker size as you’ll have to alternate from 4oz. to 16oz. with the conditions.

Fifty-pound monofilament leader rarely experiences any problems. Leader length, however, is VERY important. Leave the 30-foot leaders in Bimini. In the DTs, a six to eight-foot leader will suffice.

Mustad’s #9174 short-shank bronze live-baits hooks work fine, as do any of the high-end “boutique hooks.” Hook size depends on bait size with 5/0 – 7/0 the most popular. Hooks should be snelled to prevent them from doubling back into the bait.

Party boats fishing the DTs provide thawed squid and ballyhoo. On several occasions, I have been shown up by a “guy” who ran down from the wheelhouse, dropped down house bait and was doubled over to a beefy mutton before I even hit bottom. That being said, choice of bait is always a subject of heavy discussion. The consensus is that fresh is best with pinfish, goggle-eye, blue-runner, ballyhoo, mackerel and herring all accounting for quality catches. “It’s all about presentation,” Captain Greg constantly reminds his passengers.

Mutton snapper are wary feeders, which frequent the sandy outskirts of the reefs where they pick off unsuspecting prey. They investigate bait several times before deciding whether to eat it or to move on to something more enticing. If anything seems odd during this investigation period (i.e. an egg-sinker bouncing up and down) a mature mutton will spook. When an inquisitive fish does eat, a mutton snapper will do so in several steps. The fish will grab the bait, which is the first thump one might feel. Then the snapper will turn the bait and crush it, which translates into subsequent thumps. It will then swallow the bait and run off, which is when line begins racing off the spool. Now you have to hook the fish. No need for a dramatic made-for-TV hook-set. Simply lock up and reel tight. If luck is on your side, you should be in store for a wonderful fight and a trophy fish that will leave you smiling for days.

Imagine. Monster mutton snapper… backbreaking black grouper…yellowtail snapper until your arms fall off…all of this and more all real possibilities during the same trip? To believe it; I had to see for myself if the fish tales emerging from the deck of Yankee Capts were fact or fiction. One phone call to the vessel’s skipper and I was booked for an angling expedition that would keep me glued to the rail for 36-hours straight! I learned first hand that a multi-day Dry Tortugas mutton marathon can be so intense, it drives even the most determined sinker bouncers to the brink of no return, to a distant state of consciousness somewhere between insanity and delirium.

While you may think this sounds extreme, those of you who have experienced a trip of this caliber know that I speak nothing but the truth. You see, a two or three-day expedition to the DTs is not your ordinary overnighter – not even close! Aboard Yankee Capts, an aluminum-hulled party-boat fishing Gloucester June through August for cod, New Bedford for tuna during September and October, and Key West for monster mutton snapper and more during winter and spring, it’s a journey into the unknown, always hoping your next bait may entice a monster from the jagged trenches deep below.

After fishing until I just couldn’t fish anymore (thank God for the rail), I headed home more than satisfied during my first venture aboard this fish-catching machine, scoring a 184 qt. Igloo overflowing with trophy-class mutton snapper to 23-pounds, a personal best red grouper and way too-many quality yellowtail to count. Include the ferocious strikes I blatantly missed, the handful of fortunate fish that came unbuttoned and the limitless king mackerel I did my best to avoid, and it was an epic trip filled with non-stop rod-bending excitement. If I wasn’t hooked up, somebody else always was. Barely minutes went by without a weary angler heaving back against a stubborn fish determined not to leave the security of its watery lair. My fellow anglers won some and lost some of these extraordinary battles.

If you’ve never experienced it yourself, let me tell you that a 20-pound mutton will rock your world! If you’re lucky enough to have a 40-pound grouper inhale your butterflied ‘tail, you’re leaning back, rod bent over begging for mercy. Days after my trip and I still can’t seem to get that fantastic feeling out of my system. I hope it never goes away.

While I believe I did well, the half dozen “regulars,” some of whom have been enjoying Tortugas trips aboard Yankee Capts for over a decade, faired even better. How does more than a dozen monster mutton topped off by a pair of slob grouper sound? However, it wasn’t just the fishing that stood out and made this three-day excursion so memorable. It was the entirety of the trip – an angling adventure that unfolded something like this.

We left Key West in our wake just after noon on Friday, arriving at our first drop just in time for the sunset bite, or as the crew likes to call it, “Sunset City.” From that very moment until our last drop on Sunday morning, it was non-stop fishing, or I should say non-stop catching! Drops ranged from 120-feet to 180-feet, each resulting in a mixed bag of possibilities for the 23 anglers aboard.

With only minutes between drops, catching any shuteye simply was not on my agenda. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving and I had committed to this trip for one reason; to complete a three-day Dry Tortugas mutton marathon for myself, something I had yet to accomplish in my angling career. To say I was utterly exhausted after close to 40-hours at the rail; would be a vast understatement. Yet the moment we hit the dock, I was ready for more.

In reflection, if I had not landed a single quality fish I would still speak accolades of the experience. While spending a long weekend on a party-boat with a couple of dozen strangers and few amenities may not be every anglers cup of tea, those who truly have a passion for hardcore bottom fishing and appreciate the rewards that come with fishing distant fertile ledges where an abundance of life exists, the Dry Tortugas simply can’t be beat.

Along with Yankee Capts, there are other professional operations that fish these same grounds. Surely you’ve heard of Captain Andy Griffiths, owner/operator of a fleet of 46-footers’ specializing in multi-day trips to the Tortugas. His vessels continue to produce legendary catches and while I have yet to fish with Andy, all accounts claim his overnighters leave little to be desired. What I do know for certain is that after tenure as a deckhand on a party boat prior to working my way up to the wheelhouse, the crew aboard Yankee Capts proved to be nothing short of fantastic. Neither Captain Greg nor Captain Matt sat still for long. If the bite didn’t ignite or fizzled out, the diesels were fired up and the anchor hauled. Immediately it was off to another set of numbers in search of a consistent bite.

I know good mates when I see them and John, Sean and Nicole each did an exceptional job for the entire duration of the trip. I watched as they constantly attended to tangles and gaffing duties, going as far as re-rigging and unhooking every fish for many of the passengers. Every questionable-size fish was carefully unhooked with a proper device, measured, and those that didn’t make the cut, surgically vented with what appeared to be a Ventafish tool before being released unharmed. It was nice to see a crew on a party-boat so in tune with conservation measures.

Often overlooked, you can’t ignore the meals aboard this vessel. I don’t exactly know how she did it, but the young lady manning the galley managed to create culinary masterpieces meal after meal. Forget about what you’ve eaten on party-boats in the past. How about homemade baked ziti and meatballs or grilled pork chops and creamy red potatoes. Add fresh salads, warm garlic bread and tasty deserts, and the welcomed rations easily exceeded my expectations.

After a first hand account, I can tell you with certainty that if you’re in search of a bottom fishing adventure like no other, an angling expedition that will test your patience and angling skills, one that will take you to your very limits, spend 48-hours aboard Yankee Capts or one of the other local charter operations fishing these grounds, and see for yourself why the Dry Tortugas are famed the world over. Here it is barely a week since my trip, and the anticipation of deploying another fresh gog into the depths is simply too much to bear.

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