Around the Sunshine State and nearby Bahamas, anglers are fortunate to have some of the most productive bottom fishing north of the equator. If the countless reefs, wrecks and ridges aren’t enough, a unique deep water coral reef system exists within a day’s boat ride. For the fortunate few lucky enough to have already experienced these rich waters, the area has proven to yield a bottom fishing bonanza beyond anyone’s imagination.
I first learned of this mythical territory from Captain Greg Mercurio, a reputable skipper who is credited for originating and pioneering Dry Tortugas headboat fishing nearly three decades ago. From the moment Greg mentioned an exploratory trip deep into the Gulf, I was hooked. Only a few minutes into the conversation and I quickly concluded this wasn’t going to be like any bottom fishing trip I’ve ever experienced. This unique escapade into the unknown was going to push the boundaries of any veteran sinker-bouncing junkie. We were headed to one of the few places on our planet where coral reefs thrive hundreds of feet below the surface with very limited sunlight. The mission was to investigate the towering peaks and sheer drop-offs that plummet to near abyssal depths just west of the shelf off a little known area called Pulley Ridge.
The mission was to investigate the towering peaks and sheer drop-offs that plummet to near abyssal depths...
Stretching north to south and encompassing more than 60 miles, Pulley Ridge is one of the most impressive underwater terrains in the entire Gulf of Mexico. Named after Thomas Pulley—a famous malacologist—Pulley Ridge was first discovered in 1950 by research vessels equipped with remotely operated vehicles. The drowned group of barrier islands is widely recognized as the deepest photosynthetic coral reef off the shores of the continental United States. Because of its distant location so far off the southwest coast of Florida, few vessels have dared venturing to these grounds. The trek is also burdened with unstable weather patterns and heavy shipping traffic, which make the long journey that much more challenging. Gulfstar, a 65 foot party boat hailing from Tarpon Springs, has been visiting the northern stretches of Pulley Ridge for sometime, and now Mercurio’s famed 100 foot Yankee Capts departing from Key West is also hunting these waters.
Only a few weeks after learning of this trip, I was packing my Yukon coolers with all of the essentials necessary to conquer whatever I might encounter. We were about to embark towards offshore fishing grounds few had seen. In all honesty, I felt like a little child headed to Disney World for the first time. The excitement dwindled only temporarily on the 12 hour boat ride to the fishing grounds, where the dozen and a half passengers onboard rested in preparation of what was to come.
It was just past 8:00 a.m. the following morning when the captain eased the throttles back as we finally hit the ridgeline nearly 150 miles west of Key West. Minutes later we were deploying baited rigs into the darkness below. The most effective approach consisted of a simple recipe. Starting with 48-inches of 150 lb. extra-hard monofilament leader, a pair of swivel sleeves were evenly spaced to where the branching lines would not reach the hook above or below. On the centerline of the sleeves was a 6-inch branch of the same 150 lb. stiff leader crimped to a 6/0 to 9/0 inline circle-hook. While I prefer to keep it simple like my Cuban ancestors, many chose to attach glow tube, colorful beads and much more in an effort to give the fish a clear target to focus on. What we found was that the bottom was literally carpeted in life and the added attraction proved to be far from necessary.
The simple, yet deadly effective two-hook rig is completed by crimping a 200 lb. barrel swivel to the top of the leader and a heavy-duty ball bearing snap swivel to the bottom. Sinker size depended on several factors, including depth, wind, current and diameter of braid being fished. During the first hours of this multi-day trip, sporty seas required no less than 48 ounces to hold bottom without scoping way out. As we endured the tough conditions, it was clear that anglers well prepared with 2, 3 and 4 pound leads were able to fish the most effectively.
While power assist reels loaded with 50 to 80 lb. braid were the ticket, I opted to go the manual route to see if I could manage…and for how long. The one scenario that was constant regardless of preferred tackle was getting tangled, and let me say that this trip gave the term spider web a whole new meaning with the entire spectrum of braided fishing line colors visible down the rail. Thankfully, Yankee Capts deckhands are the best in the business and were on point throughout the entire trip.
For those who opted to hand crank there was only one option. A stout 8 foot rod matched to a 2-speed conventional reel loaded with 600 yards of 50 lb. braid provided sufficient cranking power and the ability to reach the targeted depths so far below. The outfit would come to be known as The Pulley Ridge Special and many of the biggest fish of the trip were caught on this outfit.
The remaining deep dropping specialists smartly equipped with power assist electric reels and enough 12-volt power to subdue the creatures from the deep drop after drop did some serious damage. However, because you’re fishing with rod under your arm the entire time it’s important to note that comfort and portability are key factors for this particular application. Several manufactures offer a variety of electric reel models that would suit this style of fishing well, although the Daiwa Tanacom Bull loaded with 60 lb. braid proved to be the perfect balance of power and mobility.
Minutes into the first drop and half the anglers were already doubled over with signs of drags straining and determined fish digging toward the bottom. I deployed a bait to the bottom and after connecting in short order it was apparent we were in for a serious treat.
Within the first hour of fishing, we boated nearly a dozen different species including yellowedge grouper, snowy grouper, blueline tilefish, squirrelfish, queen snapper and yelloweye snapper. What makes Pulley Ridge so unique is the variety of shallow and deep water species found here.
More than 60 deep water fishes have been identified in the area and little did we know that we were just getting started. Many of the anglers and crew alike had never experienced bottom fishing of this caliber, and the action only intensified. By day’s end our tally included full totes of blackfin snapper, silky snapper, vermillion snapper, Kitty Mitchell, golden tilefish, barrelfish and several other highly prized denizens of the deep. I vividly recall the last drift of the day when one angler was heaving on his electric combo as it was getting pinned to the rail by something truly nasty. When the massive outline finally broke the surface the mate yelled, “WARSAW!” Simply phenomenal!
As darkness fell upon us, the skipper anchored along shallower depths of the ledge and many anglers stayed busy chasing blackfin tuna and a variety of snapper. Large schools of squid, flying fish, bullet bonito and tinker mackerel streaked through the spreader lights providing everyone onboard with a spectacle of just how healthy the Gulf really is. Juvenile sea turtles, octopus, wahoo, and even a stray sailfish were also intrigued by the lights and swam by to see what all the commotion was about.
The following morning we drifted the edge again only to experience the finest deep water snapper and grouper fishing many of us had ever seen. Within a minute of hitting bottom you were tight…every time! Clearly, our fearless leader was dialed in, evident by the rosy colored queen snapper, picturesque grouper, and highly prized golden tilefish making their way over the rail drift after drift. Coney, snowy, mystic and scamp grouper were also commonplace, as were an abundance of giant blueline tilefish.
It was interesting to see what lengths of bait preparation the anglers had gone through for this trip. Some procured the freshest goggle eye possible, while others brought fresh ballyhoo and speedos. By the second day, a pattern emerged in that there was no pattern. As long as the offering was generous and stinky, you were bound to get a bite.
By day three, the fishboxes were maxed out and the crew began preparations for the long steam home. We tallied over 30 different species in this unique deep water environment, leaving us with an experience of a lifetime. When we hit the dock the following morning the local NOAA marine biologist on hand was absolutely amazed with the variety and size of species encountered. He went on to spend six hours examining and sampling fish for research purposes.
Yankee Capts has since visited Pulley Ridge on several occasions, and trip after trip the action surpasses the previous in both quantity and quality. I don’t care if you like tarpon or tuna, sheepshead or sailfish. If there is one thing you need to do in the coming year it’s book a trip to Pulley Ridge. With the winter season now upon us, it won’t be until the spring when crews return to these prolific grounds. With such a limited number of trips accommodating only a small number of anglers, few will have a chance to experience this last frontier. One thing is for certain…I’ve already secured my spot at the rail!