In the Zone

If dropping bait to the bottom in hopes of fooling monster snapper doesn’t tingle the deepest part of your inner being, then you may want to continue flipping the pages. This editorial is about extreme snapper fishing and a desire to beat the relentless forces of nature. You’ll find what you are about to read both informative and instructional, and certainly not intended for those less than 100% committed to pushing the bottom fishing envelope. The boundaries of that envelope? How about standing at the rail for 33 hours and 56 minutes straight from the first drop to the very last without a wink of sleep—all for the sole purpose of connecting with one of the most prized denizens of the deep—trophy mutton.


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Captain Carlos Rodriguez and Captain Steve Dougherty pose with an impressive set of American reds. With a limited red snapper season, cashing in on this fishery was a privilege. Photo: Steve Dougherty

We recently returned from our annual Thanksgiving weekend mutton marathon aboard Yankee Capts—the undisputed pioneer of Dry Tortugas overnight party boat fishing trips. This recent three-day expedition was one that we’ve anxiously waited for all year, all the while hoping that someday in the not so distant future we’ll be able to fish these fertile grounds much more often.

…sleep is for sissies and when an impressive variety of fish are at stake, you’re going to need a bulldozer to pry me away from the rail.

Our 2010 outing was extra special, as Florida Sport Fishing sponsored the trip, which departed Friday afternoon and returned to the dock midday Sunday. Our goal was to set the stage for an exciting holiday weekend well before the first bait ever hit the bottom, starting off by distributing loaded goodie bags to each passenger as they confirmed their arrival with Captain Greg Mercurio, the Yankee Capts illustrious ring leader. Everyone onboard received T-shirts, tackle samples, complimentary subscriptions and more, with prizes awarded in numerous categories. Blessed with pleasant sea conditions and solid fishing, the trip was a huge success and Captain Greg and I are already planning to eclipse the performance in 2011 with something even more exciting.

With such a wide variety of species and so much to talk about, narrowing down a precise editorial direction presented its challenges. How about the decent yellowtail bite? Maybe we should talk about the ferocious kingfishing. How about a stroll down Grouper Boulevard or maybe a long walk down American Red Snapper Way. Of course, we could always stick with the star of the show—big muttons.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to take a different direction altogether and determine what distinguishes extremely successful Dry Tortugas snapper fishermen from those who can’t seem to get dialed in. While I’ve fished these grounds multiple times and continue to hone my skills with each passing trip, there are some serious snapper specialists out there who can really teach us all a thing or two. Here is what I’ve learned so far.

Anxious anglers headed to the Dry Tortugas, a prolific fishery 50 to 80-miles off Key West, must understand that there are a number of different aspects to successful snapper fishing that need to be considered. Consistently scoring large fish requires much more than simply dropping bait to the bottom and holding on. There’s no secret, rather a combination of factors that must be taken into account when attempting to persuade the biggest fish in the pack. Unlike other areas and other species, healthy snapper and grouper inhabiting these ancient reefs are extremely wary. These fish didn’t get big by being dumb and while you may find success at home, down here if you’re not at the very top of your game you’ll be spending time watching rather than catching. If “been there done that” quickly comes to mind, you better read on.

Step one to slaying slobs is having the right mindset. Make a firm decision well before the boat ever leaves the dock. Are you planning on spending your time targeting big fish or not? If so, don’t waste precious time or valuable energy chasing ‘tails. Put away the chicken rigs and prepare for serious battle. How often do you get shots at snapper and grouper this size? For most of us, the answer is rarely so take full advantage of every minute of rail time. Be prepared for long fishing days and sleepless nights. Fight the relentless forces of nature with coffee and adrenaline. I’ve always believed sleep is for sissies and when an impressive variety of fish are at stake you’re going to need a bulldozer to pry me away from the rail. I’ll sleep on the ride back to port thank you.

Rail position is the next consideration as open party boats offer 360° fishability. Some regulars swear by the stern while other fishermen equally adept at persuading these brilliant predators wouldn’t dare fish anywhere other than the bow. I’ve also witnessed an angler at midship walk away with high hook honors. What this means is that proper presentation is much more critical to your overall success than an assigned rail number.

Don’t show up to a bear fight with a butter knife. Some would consider the Dry Tortugas a hostile environment with deep water, jagged reefs and ferocious fish. I have watched too many ill prepared fishermen connect with quality fish, only to bust them off due to inadequate equipment, improper drag settings or some other sort of preventable failure. Not only will the correct equipment put you in the game, the right rod and reel combo will provide a fighting chance when slamming the breaks against a 30-pound black.

While variations abound, proven Dry Tortugas terminal gear consists of a rudimentary fish-finder rig with 6-feet of 50lb. leader. Thread a small plastic bead between your egg sinker and barrel swivel to prevent spooking skeptical snapper. Mature muttons are smart and quickly detect when something doesn’t smell right, look right or sound right. Complete the rig with a 5/0 J-hook. Nothing fancy, but deadly effective. Do not bounce back and forth between different rigs. Johnny “The Viking” is the hardest working head boat deckhand I’ve ever met and said it best: target snapper and hope for grouper.

If you are not catching quality fish, take a good look at the guy 20-feet from you who just landed his fourth slob of the morning and I would bet the barn he is fishing fresh bait. While preferences range from goggle eye, ballyhoo and mackerel to kingfish, bluefish and houndfish, choice bait must be ultra-fresh in order to appease to a mature snapper’s discriminating taste. I’ve always had excellent success with fresh ballyhoo and remain convinced that presentation and freshness far outweigh everything else. Big muttons…American reds…giant porgies and margate…grouper and AJs…everything out here eats a fresh ballyhoo plug!

With smart snapper in the crosshairs, proper presentation cannot be understated. If you can, utilizing an underhand cast flip your bait as far from the boat as possible. Once your sinker comes to rest on the bottom, fish with the reel in free spool while allowing the bait to slowly drift with the current below. Do the very best you can to keep your sinker firmly positioned on the bottom as “sinker bounce” is a leading cause of mutton snapper panic.

Keep close tabs on your offering by monitoring both your line and your rod tip. The goal is to present your bait naturally as any unnecessary movement will send cautious mutton scattering. Due to prevailing conditions, this type of methodical bait presentation is not always possible and is far from easy to perfect, but having a clear understanding of how your bait behaves in the zone is essential to snapper fishing success.

As a strike is detected, which may be as subtle as a little extra weight on your line or as obvious as a slap to the face, lock up and crank. It’s imperative you come tight before attempting to drive the hook home. You’ll know within an instant if you’ve done things right. If so, hold on, take a deep breath and compose yourself because another extremely important factor just entered the equation—finesse.

You’ve just come tight to a powerful fish plowing for the bottom. Maybe it’s a 15-pound mutton or American red. Maybe it’s a fat red grouper. Line is peeling off your reel in short bursts as the determined adversary 200-feet below is far from willing to leave its domain. This is exactly when inexperience costs the greatest number of fish. Relax and remember that your reel manufacturer invested millions developing an adjustable drag—use it. Begin to gently and firmly coerce the broom-tailed powerhouse towards the surface with the pump-and-reel technique. Work the fish slowly and easily with a smooth rhythm, applying only as much heat as the fish will allow. The ticket to a successful outcome is a balance of patience and finesse. If you don’t overreact, it’s like poetry in motion and a beautifully painted snapper or grouper will be lying on the deck in a matter of minutes.

Finally, I have said this before and I will say it again; 90% of quality fish that are lost come unglued due to some sort of angler error or tackle failure that could have been avoided. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. That’s why I am a stickler for religiously changing my leader or applying a fresh top-shot of monofilament anytime I detect an abrasion that may cost me a quality fish. I spend time in between drops rigging and making sure I am fully prepared for what may be prowling the deep on the very next drop. I will leave you with this. Make every minute at the rail count and you’ll walk away from a Dry Tortugas overnighter a winner with much more than a cooler full of quality fish. That’s a promise!

Yankee Capts

  • LOA: 100′
  • HP: 1,500
  • Berths: 42

Fishing the Dry Tortugas from November through May, Yankee Capts is committed to quality service. No one knows the area like Captain Greg Mercurio who handles the day shift and Captain Matt Earl who mans the helm from 7:00 pm to 7:00 am. The vessel’s impressive track record and quality standards are maintained every trip. Everything you need is here on this boat including what matters most, a dedicated crew with a clear understanding of ocean conditions, bottom structure and the behavioral patterns of the targeted resident and migratory species. Whether you’re a veteran or first timer, a lone angler or organizing a group of 40, Yankee Capts has the expertise and the positive attitude to ensure your overnight fishing trip will be a huge success.

Yankee Capts

Proper Preparation

While everyone has their own idea as to the perfect Dry Tortugas bottom fishing outfit, experts in the field confirm the following outfit fits the bill perfectly with enough sensitivity to detect flag yellowtails, and enough backbone to beat brawny grouper. If possible, carry a second and even third outfit of the same proportions. During a wide-open bite is not the time to deal with frayed running line or a loose reel seat. If there is one thing you can count on during these extreme bottom fishing adventures it’s that multi-day Tortugas trips will test your tackle to its very limits.

8-foot medium/heavy action boat rod rated for 30 to 50lb. line. The extra length provides increased underhand casting distance and helps keep vulnerable monofilament away from the vessel’s jagged hull when the current is running under the boat. Sturdy guides and long grips for increased comfort and leverage compliment the perfect stick.

30lb. class high-speed conventional reel (carry extra monofilament). When retrieving nearly half a pound of lead from 150 to 250-feet countless times in a single trip and fatigue quickly catching up, you’ll appreciate the benefits of 6:1 speed. Adequate torque and smooth drag are also essential.

Terminal Tackle
6oz. Egg Sinkers (36), Plastic Beads (36), 100lb. Barrel Swivels (36), 50lb. Clear Monofilament Leader (100 yards), 5/0 J-Hooks (100)

Pliers, Hand Towel, Bait Cooler, Bait Knife, Multi-Tool, Small Flashlight

Deck Boots, Rain Gear, Change of Clothes, Toiletries, Blanket, Pillow, Cooler

RECAP: Seven Steps To Snapper Success

  1. Big Fish Mindset
  2. Adequate Rod & Reel
  3. Rig It Right
  4. Fresh Bait
  5. Proper Presentation
  6. Finesse
  7. Avoid Angler Error & Tackle Failure