Let me start off by saying that I’m not going to delve into great detail about the value of coral reefs and what an enormous role these fragile ecosystems play in our lives…this should all be clear by now. What I will tell you is that Florida is the only state in the continential U.S. to have an extensive shallow water reef system so close to shore. You should have learned this in elementary school. Hopefully, Ms.Frizzle also taught you that living coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet and home to as much as 40 percent of all marine species. Additionally, the intricate patchworks of delicate coral communities form a much larger ecosystem that can only thrive in areas with specific environmental conditions. What your 2nd grade teacher didn’t tell you was that later in life all of your angling exploits would come to rely on this dynamic ecosystem with tremendous biodiversity.
Florida’s coral reef system came into existence thousands of years ago and they have been growing ever since. However, even with long periods of favorable conditions consisting of clean and clear water, reef growth is incredibly slow. Some corals grow less than one inch per year. All coral reefs are in a constant state of change. While always growing and expanding with fresh polyps on the outer surface, they are simultaneously being ground into sand from storm damage and animals that feed on the reef.
Productive reefs don’t need to be massive in size and you’ll be amazed at the action afforded by even the smallest patch reefs.
In contrast to well-formed weedlines floating on the surface and healthy grass beds carpeting backcountry waterways—both vital forms of structure that play key roles in many of Florida’s recreational and commercial fisheries—natural coral reef formations provide anglers with countless species and consistent opportunities from top to bottom. The diversity of animals and plants living on a healthy coral reef is greater than any other marine ecosystem on Earth. It all starts with microscopic organisms living amongst hundreds of species of coral and sponges. This basic of all aquatic food sources can’t be seen by the naked eye, yet tiny shrimp, crabs, fry and various invertebrates gorge on them through their development stages. Juvenile finfish—hundreds of species strong—and larger crustaceans then consume the same crabs and shrimp, and ultimately become forage for the next class of reef occupants. From here you can follow the food chain all the way up to the ocean’s most impressive apex predators, with certain species of billfish, sharks and tuna all relating to the reef for the same reason—food!
A large portion of Florida’s 350-plus mile reef system lies just a few miles from shore off the fabulous Florida Keys in water only 10- to 30-feet deep. In some places along this world famous island chain the reef reaches a few miles wide and stretches into depths exceeding 60 feet. With so much structure so close to shore, our conch cousins and the many anglers traveling south beyond Florida City have easy access to a vast network of fertile fishing grounds.
Excluding Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Florida Keys coral reef tract is the most recognized, attracting enthusiasts from all over the globe. Boats of nearly any size or shape can reach the reef where visitors enjoy its many riches, may it be by viewing colorful tropical fish through a glass bottom boat, by jumping over the side and snaring a dozen lobster, or by reeling in that once in a lifetime catch!
In its entirety, the Florida Reef Tract actually starts near Miami and hugs the coast as it extends southwest all the way to the Dry Tortugas, some 60 miles west of Key West. Take it from someone who has fished these emerald waters many times…Tortuga reefs yield trophy catches in both quality and quantity. Memorable catches include a monster dogtooth snapper that fought harder than three mutton snapper put together and an epic snapper bite where every bait got slammed by a double-digit red before it hit bottom.
Discontinuous and less biologically diverse coral reef formations continue northward from the Tortugas along Florida’s Gulf Coast to the famed Florida Middle Grounds about 100 miles northwest of Tampa, where a series of submerged pinnacles rise from the depths to within 60 feet of the surface. Big mangrove snapper pushing 10 pounds are famous here, as are hard fighting amberjack.
There are also a series of smaller, less distinguishable near-shore patch reefs on the Atlantic side of the state that parallel the coastline from Miami to Palm Beach. While these relatively small patch reefs are not nearly as consistent or as prolific as the fertile reefs farther south, they do provide anglers in the tri-county metropolis of Dade, Broward and Palm Beach with exceptional bottom fishing and definitely deserve more careful consideration. Productive reefs don’t need to be massive in size and you’ll be amazed at the action afforded by even the smallest patch reefs. You’ll also be surprised at the action you may find by moving only a few hundred yards.
Depending on your primary port of call, the reef means something different to each of us, yet it all boils down to consistent action! For Gulf Coast anglers, fishing the reef requires a long run way over the horizon, while fortunate fishermen along Florida’s southeast coast have healthy sections of reef loaded with life only a mile off the beach. In any case, consistently successful charter boat captains know their home waters well. They know exactly where local reef formations start and where they end, and they know exactly how to take advantage of these natural formations when looking for bait and prized game fish.
Our friends down in the Florida Keys may just have it the best. They depend on the reef for consistent snapper fishing year-round and it rarely disappoints, with yellowtail, mangrove and mutton snapper all highly prized and regularly targeted. The steady chain of reef paralleling the coastline of the Keys is primarily comprised of shallow spur and groove formations made up of a series of ridges and channels where growing bottom fish and crustaceans thrive without the risk of becoming prey. However, don’t believe shallow water only equates to small fish. Every year many impressive grouper fall victim to angling efforts on patches barely 20 feet deep.
A staple for both the local fleet and visiting boaters is to anchor adjacent to a shallow reef—of which there are thousands along the entire island chain—and create a steady flowing chum slick with ground menhaden or some secret concoction of oats, sand and menhaden milk. Spiced with silversides or freshly cut bonito or ballyhoo chunks, it usually doesn’t take very long for the light tackle fun to begin. Most of this fishing takes place with 12 to 20 lb. spinning gear, with either shrimp-tipped jigs or fresh cut chunks and small pilchards deployed on simple fish-finder rigs. Quarter- to one-ounce egg sinkers are often incorporated to accommodate prevailing conditions, since the goal is for the hooked offering to be presented at the same pace as the flowing bits of chum. In situations with very little to no current, it is best to pull anchor and relocate to a different area and depth. Moving water is a must for any level of bottom fishing success.
Various grouper species, including black, gag and red grouper, also relate to the deeper stretches of the reef and regularly stage below the swarms of yellowtail snapper and ballyhoo hovering above their heads. Prized by anyone capable of holding a rod in their hand, big grouper are regularly targeted with large baits and an assortment of jigs. Live pinfish, blue runner and juvenile snapper are favorite offerings for healthy grouper, as are ballyhoo—dead or alive.
Instead of light spinners, these broad-shouldered beasts built with broom-like tails require anglers equip themselves with heavier gear capable of preventing powerful fish from racing back to their lairs, where grouper have mastered the art of rocking you up or cutting you off on the jagged structure below. Most seasoned salts who have lost one too many fights lean on stout 30 lb. conventional gear to get the job done. Reels are spooled with 50 lb. braid with a heavy top-shot of fluorocarbon leader and rods have enough backbone to slam the brakes on even the most determined black.
No matter where they forage, big bottom fish exhibit the same behavior. Snapper and grouper do not survive well out in the open ocean, especially in the early stages of their life cycle. It is far too dangerous out there. On the other hand, the reef is home. The reef means food and the reef means safety. It’s where everything happens all of the time.
Amberjack, almaco jack, banded rudderfish, various porgy species, African pompano, margate, hogfish, cobia and barracuda are only a few more of the many popular reef dwellers calling this type of rich habitat home. Without the reef, they would all be lost, and so would we. Even better yet, Florida’s reef system isn’t only about bottom fishing. The same powerful currents that sweep across the submerged structures and expose crabs and shellfish and flush forage into the waiting mouths of hungry bottom dwellers also create turbulent waters above the reef and set the stage for ideal feeding scenarios higher up in the water column. These mid-water depths are where specialized killing machines like kingfish, barracuda and cero mackerel pick off unsuspecting prey with precision accuracy. It’s an incredible sight to witness dense formations of finger long finfish under siege by packs of merciless predators that leave nothing behind but shimmering scales.
Way above the reef, sailfish, dolphin, blackfin tuna and wahoo—game fish that are always on the move—rely on the very same ancient formations for their next meal. Larger baitfish, including bullet bonito, goggle eye, sardines and speedo, regularly roam the reef in impressive numbers. They use the structures for protection and the game fish know it. This may not be true everywhere around Florida, but you can bet your last dollar that competitive tournament fishermen along the southeast coast regularly slow troll and kite fish adjacent to, and directly over prominent reef lines for a reason. The pros know the targets they seek will almost always make an appearance at the reef.
At some point, every reef inhabitant in every size and shape that lives here also dies here, and the end is usually due to some sort of predator-prey interaction. Still, Florida’s reef system is like no other in the world and it needs to be protected. Unfortunately, coral reefs are under assault and declining at major rates around the world as a result of disease, climate change, and direct and indirect human interaction. Coral reefs can withstand varying levels of natural disturbance, but they are not as resilient to stresses resulting from high population densities and rampant coastal development. Infrastructure projects like the installation of pipes, cables and wastewater outfalls contribute to shoreline erosion and damage coral habitat through the degradation of water quality. Beach nourishment projects in particular, in which large volumes of sand are relocated from offshore to onshore, severely impact local reefs by smothering coral with sediment.
As far as anglers are concerned, Florida’s extensive reef system is like no other form of structure in shear size and scope, and in its ability to harbor so many different species. The reef is an absolute blessing from the fish gods that most Florida fishermen take for granted everyday. I for one couldn’t imagine a world without fertile coral reef systems, so it’s important we enjoy the reef while also doing our best to care for and protect these essential ecosystems.