First off, if you don’t enjoy lengthy boat rides, move on. Fishing the edge of the shelf hours west of St. Petersburg requires big boats, taxing fuel bills and plenty of endurance. However, the rewards are substantial—lunker grouper, sow snapper, smoker kingfish and, oh yeah, don’t forget tuna, wahoo, dolphin and billfish.
The source of the attraction is the narrow zone where the shelf drops from its gradual decline—approximately 250 feet in 100 miles—to the precipitous plunge into the oceanic abyss. A trip I made with a friend not long ago was one for the record books and really opened my eyes to the quality of fishing that is available.
Not that missing a big fish is a tragedy out here; you can be sure that there are dozens more eager to take its place.
There is only a short list of captains who really know how to fish these distant waters safely and successfully, and Tommy Butler is at the top of that list. Butler is a third generation tournament-winning captain and has been plying these fish-infested waters for his entire life. Tommy practices what people call, “aggressive-technology advanced fishing.” By combining fast, state-of-the-art boats and long distance hauls with a compromise for nothing-less-than-success attitude, Tommy’s clients catch tons of big fish, whether aboard his boat or their own. Warsaw grouper over 200 pounds prove Tommy has this fishery dialed in.
After a four-hour run in his turbo-diesel race-inspired 45-footer, we were at The Elbow, a jut of rocky peaks and valleys where depths range from 140 to 175 feet before plunging downward into the bottomless sea. On the first drop with nothing more than frozen sardines, all four rods bowed over long before baits hit bottom. We winched up four smoker kingfish. Next drop, same story. And the next. It was obvious these unpressured waters were brimming with healthy kings.
“We’ve got to get away from these things if we want snapper,” advised the skipper.
We didn’t have to move far. Four miles away we found another peak where the masses of bait and bottom fish on the sonar practically begged us to make a drop. As soon as the anchor was set and baits dropped all four rods bent to the water. Minutes later some of the largest mangrove snapper I’ve ever seen hit the deck, all while I was still pumping up a heavy fish. After an arduous battle a massive mutton snapper well over 20 pounds finally came into view, a sweet sight indeed.
Most charter captains wouldn’t dream of revealing the numbers of their secret hot spots, but Captain Tommy Butler says there are so many quality numbers along the edge that he doesn’t mind sharing a few spots.
- Twin Peaks: 27°43.91′ N – 84°10.41′ W
- The Elbow: 27°43.39′ N – 84°10.29′ W
- West Drop: 27°43.78′ N – 84°10.54′ W
- No Name: 27°43.88′ N – 84°10.43′ W
Get Hooked Up
Captain Tommy Butler
X-Treme Fishing & Consulting
Know The Law
Before heading to the edge, carefully review current limits by visiting myfwc.com. Between federal regulations and state laws, knowing what you can harvest and when can get confusing.