Before I start raving about the do’s and don’ts for slaying stellar snapper, I’d like to personally thank the 35 anglers who joined Florida Sport Fishing on our annual Thanksgiving weekend Dry Tortugas Snapper/Grouper Marathon aboard Yankee Capts. I know it’s a long haul to Key West and each of you made a big commitment. With pleasant conditions and hundreds of fish caught, I hope that you too, had a memorable experience and I’m counting on seeing you again on November 29, 2013.
Next, I just can’t say enough about the Yankee Capts crew. We’ve all been on drift boats and charters and are fully aware of the importance of a knowledgeable and professional crew. This is especially true during a trip of this caliber where service and experience make all of the difference. While these guys aren’t miracle workers and can’t force fish to feed, Captain Greg and co-Captain Lyndon, deckhands Josh, Chad and Jake, and of course Joe behind the galley, give it their best to ensure an enjoyable experience. From the outside looking in, these guys are the best in the business and a big reason why a large percentage of their clientele are hooked.
Unlike 2011 when we faced a dismal bite, relentless winds and chaotic ocean for the duration of the trip, the fish gods were apologetic this past November and blessed us with calm seas and a light breeze.
Unlike 2011 when we faced a dismal bite, relentless winds and chaotic ocean for the duration of the trip, the fish gods were apologetic this past November and blessed us with calm seas and a light breeze. Still, after reaching the fishing grounds Friday night the first few drops made it clear that success wasn’t going to come easy. Fortunately, as the sun peaked its fiery head over the horizon the following morning the action intensified. With a healthy mix of yellowtail snapper and a solid showing of red grouper and mutton snapper flying over the rail into the evening, spirits were high as everyone anxiously made up for lost time. When Captain Greg finally announced it was time to call it quits early Sunday morning we had pounded more than two-dozen drops and amassed a quality catch. While I’m not sure of the final count, I can tell you a big number of large snapper and grouper took an unexpected ride up Overseas Highway early Sunday afternoon.
While sharing fish stories during the duration of the trip a few passengers asked how I was going to recap this year’s outing, recalling the various tips and techniques related to snapper and grouper fishing that we covered over the past few years. This time I’ve decided to look at things from a different point of view—the fish’s perspective.
I’m a firm believer that having a clear understanding of our target species’ environment changes everything. If you develop a mental picture in your head of what your quarry sees, smells and how it reacts to its surroundings, you can increase your catch ratio in both quantity and quality. Relating to the Dry Tortugas, this theory is most evident with the trophy mutton snapper that everyone treasures so dearly. These fish just don’t get any bigger and you’re not going to see numbers like this anywhere else. Mature mutton easily surpassing the double-digit mark are some of the wariest and temperamental fish in the sea. In order to successfully target, persuade, and land these challenging adversaries one must think like a fish.
Across the fertile banks west of Fort Jefferson—the iconic stronghold everyone envisions when they hear the term Dry Tortugas—a healthy population of voracious mutton snapper occupy the coral patch reefs protruding from the sand and surrounding muddy bottom in 80 to over 200 feet of water. It doesn’t take much as even minimal relief of a foot or two is plenty structure to attract a plethora of life. Additionally, mutton take residence along the countless ledges and rocky outcroppings that are essential to this world-class fishery. Rarely, if ever will these structure-oriented predators swim in open water unless preoccupied with spawning duties.
Anyone with any level of experience understands that coral patch reefs are where the vast majority of life is found. It starts with nearly invisible planktonic life forms that are captured by filter feeding coral reefs, sponges and various planktonic predators. From here tiny invertebrates thrive in the crevices of ancient coral reefs and are preyed upon by small crustaceans and juvenile reef fish. Everything living in these rich waters eats fish and crustaceans, so it is easy to follow the food chain up from there.
Upon close inspection you’ll notice that mature mutton snapper are built like armored tanks, perfectly suited for survival in this sort of hostile environment. Big mutton feature stout shoulders, a powerful broom-like tail, excellent eyesight and a keen sense of smell. Along with bone-crushing jaws, these tools enable them to catch and consume crabs, lobster, squid, eel and various finfish living amongst the coral community. A hungry mutton will scavenge, but is a master hunter accustomed to catching live prey. With their keen senses and the abundance of forage living amongst the reefs, mutton snapper can be picky and seem to know when you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes. In the real world while roaming the reef the last thing Momma Mutton expects to see is a perfectly manicured kingfish steak sitting on the bottom just waiting to be eaten.
The patch reefs mutton snapper inhabit are independent ecosystems supporting a web of life from microscopic krill to savage sharks. In starts in the upper third of the water column where pelagic predators ranging from king mackerel to porpoises patrol the waters for flying fish, squid and ballyhoo. Any remnants of an attack falling to the ocean floor rarely make it past swarms of indiscriminate yellowtail snapper notorious for picking apart anything worth consuming. The largest of which, called flags, are a prized catch. If an edible morsel somehow flutters past the ‘tails, a host of pesky reef dwellers make short work of the tasty tidbit long before it reaches the bottom.
It’s important to keep in mind that rarely will a 15-pound snapper exert the required energy to eat a scrap. The reward for the effort typically isn’t worth the expended energy. Instead, during a wide-open bite anglers who have been here before turn to fresh ballyhoo plugs, mackerel steaks, slabs of bonito, or a halved speedo or goggle eye. Flying fish and squid caught on scene are worth their weight in gold as well, but are also the most challenging to procure.
The point is that the big mutton snapper we regard so highly are far from dumb. These slow growing fish live in an unforgiving world where nothing comes easy. Additionally, they haven’t reached maturity by making too many mistakes. Big mutton snapper know it’s not safe out there beyond the reef where sharks and goliath grouper lurk in the shadows. Really, something as insignificant as an egg sinker bouncing on a swivel is enough to send these fish scurrying. Think about all of this the next time you are at the rail wondering why the guy next to you is bent double over for the fourth time in a row and you can’t seem to buy a bite. He’s likely dialed in to exactly what’s happening well below the surface while you’re too worried about what’s happening around you.
Prized grouper, both blacks and reds, are brilliant predators too and not easily coerced. Where these specialists gain the advantage is with their tenacious ability to rock you up. Grouper are notorious for devouring a meal and instinctively swimming right back under the jagged lair they just emerged from. You’ve got the fish hooked, but you’re stuck! This doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does patience is the name of the game as your only option is to slack off and wait it out. No matter how hard you pull, you aren’t going to persuade a 30-pound black from its lair unless it wants out.
All in all the Dry Tortugas is a very special place. Regardless if you join twenty other adventurous anglers on the 100-foot Yankee Capts or if you prefer a more intimate six-pack operation like Two Fish Charters or Majestic Sea Charters, you can fish these waters year-round and expect an unforgettable experience. Even when it’s bad, it’s good, and when it’s good, it’s awesome!
Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere intended to protect the Florida coastline. Construction began in 1846 and although 16 million bricks have been laid, the fortress is considered unfinished. Designed as an immense gun platform, Fort Jefferson was to be heavily armed with the capability of destroying enemy ships able to make it across the treacherous reefs. During the Civil War, the fort was used as a prison where criminals were sentenced to Devil’s Island, a fate worse than death. It meant hard labor in the blazing sun with barely any food or water. Convicts dealt with biting insects, hazardous weather, cruel guards, malaria and a ball and chain while working day and night.