When the topic of reef fishing is brought up in conversation most anglers immediately think of bouncing sinkers in 100 feet or more. While large predators certainly lurk near deep formations in the vicinity of impressive bottom contours, the shallow patch reefs you pass by en route to deeper waters also offer incredible action that shouldn’t be overlooked. Because these small patterns of live coral are located inside the main reef edge they are most often fished when rough seas prevail, although they definitely deserve more careful consideration. Productive patches don’t need to be massive in size and you’ll be amazed at the action afforded by even the smallest patch reefs. Fortunately for you, these relatively small coral outcroppings are numerous, easily accessible, and offer a wide variety of worthy adversaries.
Florida is blessed with an incredible collection of natural and artificial near-shore reefs, however, the patch reefs spoken so highly about feature living corals that require sunlight and warm, clear water to flourish. Because of these stipulations, patch reefs have a geographical boundary that’s limited to the southern stretches of the state. Patch reefs in the Florida Keys and nearby Bahamas are some of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. Because sand and seagrass often surround patch reefs, pinpointing the hardest structure is key to your success. While you will likely notice a flurry on your depth finder, if the visibility is good you should be able to visually see the color changes and locations of the darker patches. While some productive areas may be noted on a nautical chart, a majority of the most fertile patch reefs aren’t documented.
Once you’ve found a promising location you’ll need to set your anchor. These ancient structures are slow growing so you’ll want to take every precaution not to damage the frail and ornate corals. You’ll also have a slow day on the reef if you’re not positioned properly. This shallow, a few feet can make all of the difference in the world and within the first 20 minutes of fishing you’ll know if you need to make an adjustment. Before you deploy the anchor find an area of sand up-current or up-wind of the patch reef you’ve chosen to fish. Toss your anchor in the sand and pay out adequate scope so you drift back to the patch. In an ideal situation the reef will be 30 to 50 feet off your transom. Now it’s time to get some chum in the water.
The perfect boat positioning will have your chum flowing at an angle that takes it right to the reef. If you’re positioned directly above the reef your chum may be ineffective as it flows past the reef. Even though patch reefs are small structures, the shallows are dotted with coral formations and predators move from spot to spot on their daily search for forage. A constantly flowing chum slick is essential to draw inquisitive predators to your honey hole. While homemade concoctions certainly do the trick, for its ease of use and effectiveness my personal preference is Bionic Bait’s double-ground menhaden chum. To really heat things up try spicing up your slick with handfuls of small pilchard or glass minnows.
The variety and abundance of game fish found patrolling tropical patch reefs is incredible, with hogfish, mangrove, mutton, yellowtail and lane snapper present year-round. Black, gag and red grouper migrate to these shallow structures during the cooler months of winter, with king, cero and Spanish mackerel also found in the vicinity of fertile patch reefs.
With anchor set and chum flowing, it’s time to get hooked up. Since these waters are shallow and clear, a natural presentation with minimal terminal tackle is essential. Think small, streamlined and stealthy. A variety of outfits including 10, 20 and 30 lb. spinning gear will cover all of the bases.
Your lightest outfit should be used for free-lining baits into the chum slick. For the stealthiest presentation skip the swivel and connect your leader and mainline with a uni-to-uni or blood knot. Fluorocarbon leader is critical and 36 inches of 20 lb. will suffice for your free-lining efforts. Snell a 2/0 or 3/0 octopus circle-hook and you are ready to go. While you can fish a live pilchard with great results, shrimp are hard to beat. Live shrimp are excellent offerings and most prefer tail-hooking to let the bait move as unrestricted as possible. Insert the hook sideways near the base of the tail and get ready for the sneaky bite of a mangrove snapper. For a stealthier approach remove the shrimp’s head and peel the shell off the body. Insert the hook point through the top of the bait and thread the shrimp along the hook shank. No matter the offering and rigging technique you select, when free-lining baits it’s important you keep the bait moving with your chum. You want to continue paying out line until you detect a strike.
Next you’ll want to rig a 20 lb. outfit with a jighead. The current’s velocity and your target depth will determine the appropriate size, so outfit yourself with jigheads from 1/8 to 1 oz. Again, rig with 36 inches of fluorocarbon leader. One of the longstanding favorite offerings for Keys patch reef fishing is a headless shrimp threaded onto a jig. You can also rig a live shrimp on a jighead by bringing the hook through the top of its head. If you choose to rig a live shrimp in this manner be sure to avoid its vital organs.
The 30 lb. outfit should be rigged with a knocker rig. This rigging technique utilizes an egg sinker that can slide all the way to the hook. The benefit of this approach is that when a fish grabs your bait it won’t feel any resistance from the weight. Another advantage of the knocker rig is that initially the bait and weight stay close together and when fished around jagged structure like sea fans, sponges and corals you have a lesser chance of snagging bottom. Shrimp, ballyhoo plugs, fish chunks and live bait can all be fished effectively with a knocker rig.
While the above recommendations will get you headed in the right direction, you should alter your approach to what you experience on the water. Ultra clear waters require you to downsize your terminal tackle to fool finicky snapper. You may have to scale down to 12 or 15 lb. fluorocarbon leader. Conversely, dirty water will enable you to use slightly heavier tackle. While moving water is key, there will be days when the current is too strong.
If you really have the fish frenzied there’s another approach that offers incredible surface strikes. While an untraditional tactic, topwater plugs and subsurface divers will entice strikes. Hard-body plastics in the 6-inch range are ideal, with natural and chartreuse patterns the most productive.
Some coral outcroppings hold more life than others, so when you find a good spot be sure to mark it so you can come back another day. The beauty of fishing patch reefs is that it doesn’t take a whole lot of knowledge or tackle to achieve consistent success. But don’t think this is child’s play because shallow water predators are sneaky and you’d better have a quick draw and detailed game plan to stay connected.