Tortugas Tales

More than a year ago, I was graciously invited to join Yankee Capts on an overnight mutton snapper trip to the famed Dry Tortugas situated 50-plus miles west of Key West. After a week-long weather delay, I finally departed on their scheduled Thanksgiving trip on November 26, 2008, and proceeded to enjoy one of the greatest reef fishing expeditions I had ever experienced—one that ultimately provided more than 30-hours of hardcore rail time. Standing on my feet for that long without a moment of rest definitely tested my wits and my tackle to their very limits. You can catch up on the results of that trip in an article titled Insatiable Insanity in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue.


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Photo: Steve Dougherty

Consequently, when the invite came across my desk to board Yankee Capts on a limited load mutton marathon this past November, I couldn’t help but jump at the opportunity; especially after learning the trip was scheduled to last 60-hours with more than 45 consecutive hours of fishing time. For someone who enjoys bottom fishing as much as I do, an extreme trip of this caliber was right up my alley.

…without more than an hour of rest over the last two days; I believe I am also a bit delirious…right now there is simply nowhere else in the world I would rather be.

Make no mistake, this article is not solely about Yankee Capts; it’s about spending three days at what might arguably be the richest bottom fishing grounds in the world—certainly in Florida. It just so happens Yankee Capts is the best in the business when it comes to open boat overnighters. They pioneered multi-day Tortugas trips more than three decades ago and continue to lead the pack today.

Anyone who fishes in Florida, or dreams of doing so, knows that volumes have been written about this fishery. Not only about the quantity and quality of trophy bottom dwellers residing at the Dry Tortugas, a vast expanse of reef and ledges, but also about every tip, trick, tactic and technique employed to coerce the highly prized predators residing there. Instead of recounting the same, I’ve decided to take a different approach while also touching on key points that will keep you connected when you, too, finally venture out to these famed fishing grounds. My intention is to share my experiences first hand with anglers who have not yet experienced a trip of this nature in the hopes of tempting you into finally booking a trip to the Tortugas. Why? Because I know for sure that once you experience this fishery first hand your name will be added to an exclusive list of extreme anglers who just can’t get enough.

It’s sometime between 1:00 and 5:00 a.m. early Sunday morning, I don’t know exactly because the precise time of day means very little at this point. As far as most passengers are concerned when fishing multi-day mutton marathons, it’s either daytime or nighttime. We left Key West in our wake at 4:00 a.m. Friday morning and after a six-hour ride to the fishing grounds, we’ve been hitting it hard ever since. I think we’re anchoring on our 18th drop, although it could very well be the 8th or 28th for all I know. The only thing I do know for sure is that I am on a mission. And without more than an hour of rest over the last two days; I believe I am also a bit delirious. Nevertheless, right now there is simply nowhere else in the world I would rather be. I am on my second batch of tickets (passengers receive identifying tickets which are stapled to fish before they meet their final demise in a large fish box situated in the stern), and I’m working on tempting another prized mutton.

The crew secures the anchor line with a few half hitches around the stanchion just as a familiar voice over the hailer says, “Ok guys, 155-feet, looks good.” Confident, I disengaged my reel and deployed a baited hook into the dark depths, anxiously anticipating the moment the 6 oz. egg sinker lands in the sand 15 stories below. The trick here is to fish in free spool, avoiding “sinker bounce” at all cost.

Spooked by the hefty anchor and 80-feet of massive chain, experienced passengers know it takes a few minutes for our targeted quarry to settle down. Big muttons are wary. You know the saying; big fish don’t get big by being dumb. Like a page out of an instructional manual, not long after I glance down the rail and notice a guy in the stern bent double over. He’s in. Moments later, a second and then a third angler come tight to big fish. Looks like Carlos is into another monster, adding to his already impressive catch of a dozen big muttons. I’m silently praying my turn is next, and it is. I feel the familiar thump that all mutton maniacs cherish. Suddenly, line peels off my spool at a feverish pace. A big fish has inhaled my fresh bluefish chunk and is racing toward the security of its lair. Instinctively I know what to do next but I pause for a moment, relishing the feel of line melting off the reel. Mutton snapper are inquisitive predators. They’ll approach a bait, eye it up, sniff it, and if all looks and smells good, they’ll inhale it in one smooth motion. Once the bait is securely in their crushers, they’ll characteristically turn and charge away.

Two seconds later I lock up, point the rod tip at the line slicing through the water and begin reeling whatever slack remains. With each turn of the handle I feel the line come tighter and tighter to the point drag is now peeling off the spool. In one smooth motion I sweep the eight-foot rod upwards and drive the hook home. I’m in! Instantly, the rod buckles under the strain of another powerful fish. Persuasively, I cautiously coerce the mad mutton up from the depths below, all the while the rod pumps as the broad shouldered snapper digs for the familiarity of the bottom. Minutes later a beautiful sight powered by a broad pink tail emerges from the darkness. The skilled mate sinks the gaff and it’s game over. This is the Tortugas.

This same scene played out many times over the last 40-hours or so, sometimes resulting in a mutton snapper of mammoth proportions and sometimes in a flag yellowtail, large jolthead porgy, or one of many other prized demersals residing in these prolific feeding grounds. Here, you just never know what the next bait will bring. A few drops and a few fish later, and its time to call it quits and point the bow back toward the barn. Exhausted, I’m somewhat relieved, but more disappointed than anything else. My only reprieve is knowing that one thing is certain; I’ll be back aboard Yankee Capts in November 2010 on their first mutton marathon of the season for another episode of Tortugas Tales. If you think you have what it takes, join the Florida Sport Fishing crew on the reef fishing adventure of a lifetime. With great prizes, tackle giveaways and a limited number of rail spots, reserve your spot today by calling 305.923.3926.

What to Bring

  • 30lb. class 7′ or 7’6″ med action conventional outfit for yellowtail snapper
  • 30-50lb. class 7’6″ or 8′ med/heavy action conventional outfit for mutton snapper
  • 60-80lb. class 7′ or 8′ heavy action conventional outfit for grouper duties
  • 50, 60, 80, & 100lb. leader material (pocket spool of each)
  • 4, 6, & 8 oz. egg sinkers (10-20 of each)
  • 100lb. barrel swivels (50)
  • 3/0, 5/0, & 7/0 hooks (10-20 of each)
  • Pliers, bait knife, hand towel, multi-tool
  • Small cooler for bait (large coolers remain in your vehicle until vessel returns to port)
  • Fresh bait (goggle-eye/ballyhoo/pinfish/etc.)
  • Sleeping bag/pillow/towel/toiletries/foul weather gear/extra clothes

What NOT to Bring

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Handheld GPS
  • Inadequate tackle

Yankee Capts

Built from the keel up in the early 80s, Yankee Capts is a massive aluminum hulled party boat stretching nearly 100-feet from pulpit to porch. In June, July and August, she ferries passengers, 30 or so at a time, to famed bottom fishing grounds such as Cashes Ledge and George’s Bank off Gloucester, Massachusetts, in search of cod, haddock, pollack and other tasty cold-water ground fish. During September and October, she slides over to New Bedford where owner/operator Captain Greg Mercurio leads the team on overnight hunts for pelagic tuna, swordfish and dolphin. However, it’s November through May when Yankee Capts is back at her homeport in Key West, Florida, running a feverish schedule of two, three and four day overnight reef fishing trips to the fertile Dry Tortugas. Anxious anglers from all over Florida and beyond book months in advance, knowing a trip aboard Yankee Capts provides their greatest chance at prized bottom dwellers. While trophy mutton snapper to 20 pounds are the primary target for most regulars, countless yellowtail snapper, a variety of grouper, porgies, jacks, smoker kings and more always spice up the take. Rarely, if ever, does an angler disembark disappointed in their catch.

While you won’t find plush accommodations or blazing fast cruising speeds on this vessel, what you will find is a serious fishing machine owned and operated by a dedicated crew with decades of experience fishing these prolific waters. Yankee Capts originated overnight Dry Tortugas trips and continues to be a top producer with literally 2,000-plus productive GPS coordinates to fish. To say Captain Greg and co-Captain Matt have this fishery dialed in would be a vast understatement as both have a knack for finding fish. Passengers can expect multiple drops in depths ranging from 100 to 250-feet, with neither captain sitting still for very long once the action tapers.

Worthy of mention is the finest galley menu on any head boat, anywhere! Tempting breakfast (If you’re man enough, order the Fisherman’s Special) and lunch options are only bested by three course dinners with garden salad, entrée and desert. Stuffed chicken breast, ice cream sundaes, who would have thought? Bottomless coffee cups, and a variety of snacks and beverages are always available.


Yankee Capts