It looks like a brilliant fireworks display, except it’s underwater. In the middle of the night several days after the August 29 full moon, boulder corals all along the Florida Keys reef tract …
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer
I can’t think of too many outings more fun in winter than going patch fishing off Islamorada.
While you are almost certain to catch big numbers of yellowtail snapper, plenty of other species either hang out or pass through these miniature ecosystems at the same time.
On a late December outing with captain Greg Eklund and mate Cory Nelson on the charterboat Cloud Nine out of Bud n’ Mary’s Marina, our group of four anglers boated nearly 40 yellowtail and gray snapper, a handful of cero mackerel, and the broad head of a big red grouper that got cut in half by a suspected shark. We also released about dozen and half undersized mutton snapper. We couldn’t lower our baits into the current without getting a hit.
“Yellowtail is one of the most important species we have,” said Eklund, a 21-year veteran captain. “They’re delicious. abundant, and fun to catch.”
Check, check and check.
The fishing grounds Eklund chose was a sandy plain in the ocean off Islamorada about 20 feet deep with scattered patches of coral reefs to the north and south. He dropped the Cloud Nine’s anchor in the sand up-current of the live bottom.
“You don’t want to damage the reef by anchoring on it,” Eklund explained. “You don’t want to damage your tackle on the bottom and lose fish on the reef. You bring the fish to you.”
Nelson deployed a chum bag on the transom and prepared a bucket full of raw oats mixed with the oily fish parts. For bait, Cloud Nine had brought live shrimp threaded on 1/4-ounce knock-off Hook Up jigs.
“Live shrimp is a very effective bait in wintertime because a lot of shrimp are going under the bridges,” Eklund said, referring to the spans dotting U.S. 1 that separate the ocean from shallow Florida Bay waters.
The captain said fishing for yellowtail with live shrimp on the main reef tract further offshore doesn’t work as well as it does on the patches because the fish aren’t used to seeing them in wintertime. Most of those migrating crustaceans get picked off by predators long before they make it to the open ocean. Live pilchards, he said, are the preferred bait in deeper waters.
The captain tossed out a cloud of oats and chum from the stern of the boat, waited a few beats, then sent out another one. Within a few minutes, he pronounced, ” I can see them; they’re swarming.”
Flashes of dingy yellow appeared in the green chum slick as Eklund baited my jig with a live shrimp. I lowered it into the water, watching for the line to start zipping through the rod guides. It didn’t take long.
“You’re on,” Eklund said.
I slammed the bail of the reel closed, and came up tight on a feisty fish. It even made the drag sing a little. Within a minute or two, I swung a 14-inch yellowtail over the transom.
My fishing companions–Bud n’ Mary’s owner captain Richard Stanczyk, tackle shop manager Stephen Byrd, and North Carolina charterboat captain Dave Peck–all joined the action, which was constant and frenzied for several hours. Mixed in with the tails was a handful of mangrove snapper; quite a few muttons too small to keep; and several ceros. A heavy bottom outfit yielded the partial grouper.
The weather was bumpy the day we fished, so we pretty much had the area to ourselves. No commercial boats plied the area for yellowtail because NOAA Fisheries had closed that fishery Oct. 31, projecting that the total annual catch limit of about 1.6 million pounds would be reached. Commercial fishing re-opened on Jan. 1.
Yellowtail is considered a success story by both fishers and fisheries managers. Unlike some grouper/snapper species, the stock is not in trouble from overfishing.
Eklund said part of the reason is all the chumming that goes on in the area.
“It’s like a small farm,” he said. “[Yellowtail] will gorge themselves on chum, then go to the rocks and regurgitate and it feeds other fish.”
We scored a cooler full before noon, and I went home with plenty of five-star entree fare to serve at holiday feasts.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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