The Usual Suspects

With a majority of anglers locked in the grips of another winter, tropical sportsmen in the Florida Keys live the good life celebrating Christmas in the Caribbean. Stretching over 200 miles from Key Biscayne to the Dry Tortugas, the Florida Keys are a collection of limestone and coral structures that form one of the world’s most extensive coral reef communities. In addition, the fertile reefs of the Keys are the only genuine coral reefs in the continental United States.


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Contrary to popular belief, mature mutton snapper can be found roaming shallow patch reefs. Photo: istockphoto/thinkstock

This unique ecosystem creates a distinct profile along the coast, with the edge of this extensive reef community beginning along shallow seagrass beds that support thriving inshore communities. From inshore shallows the depths gradually fall from Hawk’s Channel to the main reef tract. Along the way coral outcroppings dot the shallows and form patch reefs that make up the first significant coral habitats of the Keys. Seaward of these spotty structures that parallel the coast the water begins to deepen and intermediate reefs of this extensive tract gradually slope to deeper depths. These reefs often form spur-and-groove structures that lead the way to deeper reefs that slope at even greater angles.

Finding a promising reef isn’t difficult and can be accomplished by looking at a nautical chart, studying your depth finder, or simply peering through the water.

During the winter much of the attention will be on migrating species like sailfish, wahoo and kingfish, although the action along the area’s fertile coral reefs remains solid all year long and shouldn’t be overlooked. Ranging far and wide, snapper are the most abundant species along reefs, wrecks and artificial structures of the Keys and can be caught with relative consistency.


When visiting the coral archipelago of the Florida Keys you aren’t left with too many travel options. Overseas Highway is the name of the game and you’ll soon be in awe by the numerous bridges spanning the shallows and connecting the sparsely populated islands. Jewfish Creek is the official entry to the Keys and is where reality fades away and time seems to pass by a bit slower. While you may traverse these bridges with little regard, nearly all of the bridges in the Keys offer decent opportunities with a variety of snapper. Some bridges are best approached by boat, while others offer prime shore-bound opportunities.

No matter your approach, timing the tide is the greatest influential factor in Keys bridge fishing. If the tide is too strong, it will be impossible to make a natural presentation. With a lack of current your baits won’t go anywhere. New and full moon tides can complicate the situation even more, with extreme tides rushing water through the narrow channels. In addition to timing the tides you’ll also want to keep an eye on the wind, with breezes out of the north or west resulting in dirty water and poor fishing conditions.

Since there are many bridge spans and seawalls in the Keys you’ll have plenty of space to yourself and be able to set a wide spread to capitalize on any opportunities that may develop. If you choose to fish from a boat it’s important you give the shore-bound anglers their space, with proper anchoring techniques a must. You’ll want to position yourself so you are within casting range of several pilings. Mutton and mangrove tend to hold tight to bridge abutments, as the break in the current enables them to use less effort to hold position while waiting for forage to be delivered. At these age-old structures a tipped jig is one of the best offerings to fish, but live pinfish, shrimp and pilchard fished on knocker and fish-finder rigs also work well. Light fluorocarbon leaders and 1/0 to 3/0 hooks will keep you tight with a variety of game fish. The good thing is that you never know what’s coming up next. Mangrove, mutton, yellowtail, schoolmaster and lane snapper are only some of the tasty species you may encounter. Like all snapper endeavors, chum will help turn on the bite.

Most of these bridges have been refurbished since the days of Flagler and many now exist solely as dedicated fishing and walking platforms. Being able to fish both sides lets you target both incoming and outgoing tides, with most bridges offering easy access and parking. However, at smaller structures you may fish only feet from traffic and find poor access. Some of the more productive and accessible bridges in the Keys include Channel 2, Channel 5, Long Key, Tom’s Harbor, Vaca Cut and Spanish Harbor. Don’t hesitate to look around other bridges, as most feature scattered piles of submerged rubble in the vicinity. These are some of the oldest artificial reefs in all of the Keys and a majority of visiting anglers drive right past them without hesitation.

Patch Reefs

Another area you’ll find concentrations of snapper is in Hawk’s Channel. Similar to anglers passing by bridges with no remorse, anglers often speed by shallow patch reefs in search of deeper structures. This is a big mistake because during the winter game fish move to shallower structures to capitalize on the influx of baitfish. Ballyhoo are one of many baitfish species that move to shallow water during the winter and this migration can really put patch reef predators in a feeding frenzy.

These fish holding structures can be found anywhere from 8- to 40-foot depths. Finding a promising reef isn’t difficult and can be accomplished by looking at a nautical chart, studying your depth finder, or simply peering through the water. With good visibility you’ll be able to see dark patches and fish swimming below even before you deploy your anchor. Once you’ve motored up current of your chosen structure and tossed anchor in the sand let out enough scope so the reef rests about 40 feet behind you. From here it’s time to get a chum bag in the water. If there are no signs of quality life after 30 minutes, pick up your anchor and reposition to another patch. While on your search be sure to keep a diving plug in the water to capitalize on any hungry mackerel or grouper in the area. You’ll be surprised at the action you may find by moving only a few hundred yards. When fishing patch reefs you definitely want to put baits on the bottom, but free-lining light jigs or weightless baits is incredibly effective at enticing snapper feeding higher in the water column. You’ll have the greatest sensitivity free-lining baits and jigs on 12 lb. and 15 lb. spinning outfits.

Deep Reefs

Although bridges and smaller patch reefs hold schooling snapper, for the largest specimen and most intense action you’ll want to hit the deeper reefs and wrecks. Deep reefs from 80- to 120-feet can be effectively fished at anchor, while reefs and wrecks deeper than 200 feet should be fished on a drift. When fishing deeper water, power drifting does the trick when anchoring isn’t efficient or effective. When you approach a deep reef or wreck make an initial drift to get a general idea of your direction of travel. While passing over the structure keep your eyes on the sonar and try to decipher what part of the structure is holding the most life. Mutton snapper typically stage behind the structure, with yellowtail holding above. Once you’ve found a concentration of fish the captain will use the boat’s engines to remain in the area long enough for baits and jigs to reach the depths.

Successful bottom fishing requires a firm knowledge of currents, game fish habits and how to position properly in relation to the structure below. The good thing about fishing in the Keys is that if your first plan falls through there are a lot more options and you’ll always find something biting. Whether you strikeout offshore and use the reef action as a backup or head straight to the reef for non-stop catching, don’t let the winter blues keep you off the water.