From small yellowtails to monster muttons, bottom fishing in the Keys heats up!
If you enjoy reef and wreck fishing as much as I do, the spring season in the Florida Keys is definitely the time for you. Throughout March, April and May, gargantuan size mutton snapper like the ones pictured here can be found inhabiting just about every piece of offshore reef, rubble and wreckage. Sure the mutton spawn over in Bimini can be outstanding, but why cross the Gulf Stream when you can find all the rod bending, drag screaming action you’re looking for right here in our own tropical archipelago. Let’s not waste any more time and get right to the point as to how and where you can go about slaying your fair share of braggin’ size slobs!
To kick things off, a number of mutton snapper along with equally famed mangroves and yellowtails can be found everywhere from the countless shallow water bridge abutments to the many deep water ledges and wrecks that dot our coastline. At last count, the Key’s is home to 42 bridges and around most you’ll find numerous species of snapper lurking around the pilings and scattered piles of submerged debris. The old 7-Mile bridge is famed for its productive rubble. The entire span of the bridge provides multitudes of ambush points which make great habitat for numerous species in the snapper complex. In addition to the actual abutments, the scattered piles of submerged debris around the bridge also yield fantastic catches. Snapper, along with sheepshead and an assortment of grouper patiently lie in ambush while waiting for the tide change to push bait through in the swift currents.
There are a number of techniques utilized to tackle bridge snapper. One method in particular that is gaining in popularity when targeting big muttons is trolling deep diving plugs. I’ve had excellent results with Spro’s DD Minnow 65. The chartreuse color works great as well as the mackerel finish. You’ll want to troll two of these baits parallel to the bridge with tackle that’s a bit on the beefy side. Penn Senators or the new Penn graphite series of conventional reels make great choices. I use 30 lb. Big Game Trilene with a bimini twist to a Spro heavy duty swivel†and an 8' length of 50 lb. Vanish leader material.
3 to 4 knots is a good trolling speed and when the rod double over indicating a strike, remember to keep the boat in gear so the fish doesn’t take you back into its hole. Depending on conditions, you may have to adjust your speed and/or the amount of line you have out. The goal is for your plug to be swimming as close to the bottom as possible without getting snagged. When you hook up, it’s also a good idea to hit ‘save’ on the GPS for future use. There is a particularly appealing piece of structure holding fish there and you’ll want to check that particular spot out again during future outings. While trolling deep diving plugs, don’t expect continuous action although the small number of bites that you’ll get will generally be from big, big snapper and the occasional grouper.
After you’ve trolled the area for a while and would like a change of pace, anchoring and chumming is an extremely effective alternative. Set your ground tackle on the up-current side of the bridge and ease your way back into position. Ideally, you want your chum slick to flow behind your boat towards the bridge abutments. My personal preference is double ground chum from Bionic Bait. This particular chum is infused with menhaden milk during the manufacturing process and is finely ground through tiny º “ holes, assuring the entire 7 lb. block is utilized.
Both mangroves and muttons will be enticed by the slick and various size fish should keep you quite busy. When chumming snapper around bridges and depending on the prevalent size of the fish, I prefer 12, 15 and 20 lb. test spinning gear. Penn’s new 460 and 560 Slammers are great choices as they offer smooth drags and no anti-reverse switch to go south on you during a battle. On the 12 and 15†lb. test, double up with a spider hitch and finish things off with a 3’ piece of 30 lb. Vanish leader connected via a Spro power swivel. Finish things off with a pink or†chartreuse 1/4 oz. ‘Hook Up Lure’ jig†tipped with a small live pilchard, pinfish, crab or shrimp. Toss the bait back into your chum slick and allow it to flow naturally with the current. When a mangrove or mutton picks it up and they will, tighten up, lift the rod and you should be hooked up! The same technique also works really well at night with the slight alteration of a glow in the dark jig head.
On the slightly heavier 20 lb. spinning gear, I again prefer a spider hitch but rather than a jig head/bait combination, I prefer a fish-finder rig. A 1 to 3 ounce egg sinker†will be required depending on the velocity of the current and a short length of 50 lb. fluorocarbon leader tied to a 5/0 Gamakatsu octopus hook will complete your terminal gear. A large pinfish, mullet chunk or ballyhoo plug is great for this bottom bait. Just don’t be surprised when a hungry grouper inhales your snapper offering.
When visiting the middle Keys, another area you’ll find great action with mutton snappers as well as a decent amount of yellowtails will be Hawks Channel. This reef system runs for about 2 to 3 miles in an offshore direction. You can find the large humps and ridges by simply studying a local chart. You’ll also find a number of productive shallow water wrecks and coral heads dotting the same area. For consistent action, fish these spots the same way by creating a steady chum slick and drifting back live baits. Your baits should be hooked under the jaw and out through the top of the mouth. Basic bottom rigs and jig heads will both be equally effective fished on 15 to 20 lb. spinning gear.
Not to be ignored, the inside patch reefs can also yield fantastic results. Patches of hard bottom in the 25’ to 35’ depth range will yield a variety of mangroves, muttons and yellowtails. Look for pieces with high relief. The water is often gin clear here and you can actually make out the reefs from the surface and jump from patch to patch without the use of a GPS. Though when you do find a special ‘spot’, save the numbers for future visits. With heavy chumming, this shallow water action should be fast paced and you’ll know within the first 15 to 20 minutes if you should make an adjustment.
For unknown reasons, the best bite on these shallow water patch reefs occurs when the current is westerly and wind easterly. Not to say you can’t put fish in the box during other conditions but years of experience have proven the above to be the most productive. Typically, plenty of small yellowtail and a mix of decent size mangroves and muttons will make up the bulk of your catch. The larger snapper will often hold up below the scattering of yellowtails so slightly heavier jig heads and sinkers will be the key to scoring with larger specimens. The 3/4 oz. chartreuse ‘Hook Up Lure’ has consistently worked well for me here. On the patches, my bait of choice is a live pilchard or a fresh cut chunk of sardine or ballyhoo.
To get the snappers really fired up, try chumming with handfuls of small live pilchards. When you see fish busting the surface, lose the weight and free line a livie. The helpless bait should be picked up immediately. Count to 3, set the hook and again you should be hooked up! A short length of 30 lb. leader material tied to a 2/0 Gamakatsu octopus hook is all that’s required for this exciting top water action.
For an added level of excitement, top water plugs will entice surface feeding snapper into striking. I’ve had excellent results with the Tormentor. Made by Abu Garcia, this top water plug is available in 1”, 2” and 3” models and all work equally well. My favorite colors are the blue back and black back finishes. Cast the plug out into your chum slick and slowly retrieve with a slight twitching action. There’s no need to wiz the plug across the surface. When the snapper are really chewing, they’ll smash the plug even when it’s at a dead stop!
These same inshore patch reefs also produce excellent results when trolling with deep diving plugs. In addition to Spro’s plugs, the Mann’s Stretch series also produce heart stopping strikes. Use the same beefy tackle for trolling deep diving plugs as before. In addition to plugs, wire line outfits with a Hook Up Lure triple hook rig finished off with a fresh ballyhoo will produce. Flag yellowtails, chunky muttons and the occasional grouper will most likely make up your catch.
Though bridges and inshore patch reefs provide fantastic action and variety, you’ll need to head offshore into deeper water if you’re looking for the real monsters. Deep water reefs and wrecks in 100’ to 300’ of water is where most of the gargantuan size snapper will be found. Most of these spots are roughly 4 to 5 miles offshore and the reef ledges drop off fast so you’ll need to keep a sharp eye on your color machine. Look for jagged bottom contours and more importantly, marks indicating concentrations of bait and fish. As a rule, when targeting monster snapper, I’ll initially head to a productive set of GPS numbers simply as a starting point. Once on location, I’ll methodically search the area and more often than not, I’ll run across concentrations of fish a few hundred feet away from where I caught them last time. It’s important to fish on the fish and not just on the same numbers you were on last time you scored.
On these deep water reef edges, drop anchor up current from where you marked the activity and drift back over the spot. Extremely heavy chumming is the best thing you can do to increase your odds here. Commercial yellowtail fishermen often go through 20 boxes a day, so enough is never enough. Flags will usually be the first to come up into the slick to investigate. Flat lining a chunk or live bait is the best way to connect with these fish. For these big yellowtails, I typically use my Penn Slammer series spinning outfits and tie the hook straight to the line with no additional terminal gear. If I get busted off one too many times, I’ll add a short length of heavier leader. The hook I prefer for this application is the size 4 Gamakatsu O’Shaughnessy.
While actively fishing for yellowtails is a world of fun, dropping down a live pilchard or pinfish all the way to the bottom is where the excitement is really at! I recommend using 30 lb. gear at a minimum and 50 lb. or 60 lb test leaders are a must. For newcomers, oversized spinning reels like Penn 8500’s and 9500’s are perfect to battle these fish on. Once a big snapper inhales your bait, keep pumping and reeling so he doesn’t take you back into the reef or wreck. Once you turn the fish’s heads, applying steady pressure will keep him heading your way.
On occasion, especially when 20 plus pound fish are lurking below, even 30 lb. tackle just isn’t enough. This is when I whip out a couple big guns. Short, stout rods matched with 30 Internationals usually do the trick even for the largest of snapper. Top off your reels with 50 lb. test and fish an 80 lb. leader. Up to 16 ounces of lead may be required to hold bottom and a 10/0 to 12/0 circle hook is a great choice. These heavy rods are usually kept in the rod holders and fished with large baits such as big blue runners or grunts. Once the rod doubles over, reel like mad until the fish is coming your way. Once you’re in the clear you can take the rod out of the holder and enjoy the fight.
Giant snapper will often inhabit deep water wrecks and it’s not uncommon to be fishing in excess of 200 feet. In this situation, I prefer to drift over the appealing bottom rather than anchoring. When I hook a fish, I can pull them away from the wreck with the assistance of the boat. For deep water wreck fishing, a quality color sounder is a must. Turn up the gain so the sensitivity is high enough to read the structure, any bait or fish concentrations on the wreckage and even individuals hanging off the main body of the structure. Big muttons have a habit of patrolling their territory around the perimeter of a wreck, so don’t be afraid to drift through the entire vicinity. I’ve caught monster size muttons as far as a mile away from the actual ‘spot’.
When deep water wreck fishing, equally as important as a quality fish finder is having the right bait and plenty of it. Live pilchards seem to work the best and just about every species out there eats them up. Live pinfish are a close second and numerous bait shops throughout the Keys do sell them. Catching your own bait is obviously a great choice but if you run into a problem, there is one place that I know of that does sell live pilchards, and that’s Big Time Discount Bait & Tackle, (305)289-0199 mm 53 in Marathon.
As I mentioned in the opening of the article, I really enjoy reef and wreck fishing. All snappers in every size range provide tons of fun and plenty of mouth watering meals. But if you’re looking for brutal tug-of-wars, big monster size snappers make worthy adversaries. With large broad tails and beefy, muscular shoulders, these fish are incredibly powerful and will challenge you and your tackle to the absolute limits.
In conclusion, stop wasting time and get your gear together because the spring season is Snapper Time!!! Good Luck and great fishing, Capt. Jack Carlson
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