Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’
Mix it up with groupers, amberjacks and other heavy hitters on South Florida wrecks.
By David Trafton
Mike Squillace got us off to a good start on a windy winter morning off Miami. His first strike appeared to be a sizable fish. He reeled like a madman, quickly taking up what little slack there was in the heavy braided line. After a few moments, we realized it wasn’t one of the big black or gag groupers we’d been hoping for. The rod just didn’t have that arching bend that sends butterflies to your stomach.
Even so, Mike’s fish was no letdown in the surprise category: a scamp grouper, common in the Gulf of Mexico, but somewhat rare for the South Florida reefs we were fishing. Scamp aren’t the brawlers of the grouper family, but as far as eating fish go, we couldn’t have asked for anything better.
The fish pegged a live pinfish over a rubble pile in 210 feet of water. In summer, a spot like this, close to the metropolis of Miami, might give up an undersized red grouper, maybe a small snapper or shark. But come winter, it’s a different story. If you’re not expecting it, a 50-pound black grouper or amberjack could punish you with brute force.
When the winter bite is on, big fish show up on South Florida wrecks and reefs ready to eat. Among anglers in the know, that fact is reflected in seasonal tackle trends and fishing methods.
When Capt. Dennis Forgione pulled out the gear Squillace and I would be using that day off Miami, I must have had a perplexed look plastered on my mug, because the response I received was, “Just wait and see.”
His tackle equaled, in some ways, what I might use on a night out farther offshore battling broadbill swordfish. One-piece aluminum frame reels were spooled with 80-pound braided line. The braid was tied to a snap swivel connecting a 15-foot, 100-pound fluorocarbon leader terminating in a 10/0 circle hook. The drag was set at “don’t even think about moving.” A foot-long piece of mono tied to the swivel held a weight of 24 ounces.
It all seemed a bit of overkill, but both the captain and his client assured me, the fish they had been on recently were not your typical just-over-legal-sized grouper. Photos from a trip a few weeks earlier showed blacks and gags well over 30 and one pushing 50 pounds.
So close to the Gulf Stream, a strong north-bound current of several knots is not uncommon even close to shore over the reefs in Miami. To relay how much current there is on a given day, local bottom fishermen talk about the pounds of weight needed to hold a bait on the bottom. One pound equates to very little current, while four pounds means the current is ripping.
Some days you can scale down for more sport. For tackle in the 20- to 30-pound class, slide an appropriately sized egg sinker on the main line, then tie on a swivel and a length of monofilament leader, 80-pound test or so. Some anglers prefer to swap things around so that the sinker slides on the leader itself, butting right against the hookeye. The knocker rig, as this is called, seems to minimize tangles when dropping baits, and probably does nothing to deter bites.
I will say that I do agree with the extra-long leader theory. In the past, many anglers settled for eight feet or less of leader. Nowadays the thinking is, a longer leader allows more freedom for a live bait to appear natural. Also, when a predator eats your bait, he will be less likely to drop it, as many mutton snapper will do the instant they feel any resistance from the line. Is fluorocarbon worth the extra price? Bottom fish can be a finicky bunch, and in the generally clear waters along Florida’s southern Atlantic coast, a fat mono leader can be a turnoff. The slightly smaller diameter-for-equal strength fluorocarbon, combined with its near invisible appearance, could mean the difference between an okay day and an outstanding day.
Finding a spot to drop on is as easy as heading to your closest tackle or boating supply shop. Charts by Florida Sportsman magazine and other entities are peppered with coordinates for the many public reef sites off Miami and regional fishing ports. You can find free access as well as updates to many of these numbers through state and local government Web sites, for instance www.co.miami-dade.fl.us/derm/reefs. Here you will find names, GPS coordinates, water depth, size and makeup of the sunken ship or material, and the date it was sunk.
A couple of the more popular wrecks in the Miami area are the Andro and Deep Freeze. Andro is a 165-foot vessel that sits in just over 100 feet of water. It was sunk in 1985, but Hurricane Andrew split it into three pieces and it holds just about every conceivable species one would target. One of Miami’s oldest, the Deep Freeze is a whopping 210-foot freighter in 135 feet of water. While heading in from a so-so day offshore chasing pelagic species, this wreck produced a beast of an amberjack for a friend of mine. On the boat for a quick pic and a safe release, my buddy was left worn out, smiling from ear to ear. The most recent addition to the artificial reef list took place October 28, 2003, when the 165-foot freighter Dema was sunk by the county in 80 feet of water about three miles east of Key Biscayne.
There are over 300 wrecks charted in the state of Florida, with Miami-Dade County boasting over 40 alone. Note these are “charted wrecks,” the majority of which were scuttled intentionally and documented by fishing clubs or county reef agencies. The true number of rocks, 50-gallon drums and old vessels sunken and marked over the years during dark, quiet nights and witnessed only by the moon and stars will never be known.
What do you slide on the end of a hook to entice big bottom fish? Groupers, jacks and
other wreck-residents tend to be opportunistic feeders that will happily take a cut bait or even a jig. But having a variety of live bait certainly leaves options open.
Fall and winter are prime for finding live baits in and around South Florida inlets. In the Greater Miami area, Bakers Haulover, Government Cut and Bear Cut all can produce. Government Cut, a short jaunt from most public boat launches, is by far most consistent. In addition, many canals along the Intracoastal Waterway this time of year still have schools of mullet which you can cast-net with ease. A No. 6 sabiki or equivalent rig is perfect for those areas where the pilchards or threadfin herring are hanging too far below the surface to toss a net on. The Fisher Island ferry dock on the eastern end of the MacArthur Causeway has provided every conceivable form of bait at one time or another, including blue runners of every size, massive schools of sardines, cigar minnows, pilchards, threadfin herring and goggle-eyes.
Although any of the above baits is adequate, I know from my grouper digging years on the Southwest coast of Florida that nothing tempts a fat grouper out of his hole like a frisky pinfish. Pins are the optimum bait this time of year, which coincides with their abundance around the range markers just offshore.
“In the winter, on the bottom, grouper want pinfish,” Forgione said, confirming my preference. “I’ll put a goggle-eye down if they’re really finicky, but pinfish is the choice on the bottom.”
The tilting range marker just outside of Government Cut will hold schools of pinfish periodically throughout the winter. Deploy a chum bag near the range marker in about 20 feet of water and if the bait is there, it will show up almost instantly. Small hair hooks tipped with a piece of shrimp or cut pilchard can be freelined in the chum slick for quick and easy hookups. As long as the chum is available the school will follow the boat away from the marker, so anchoring is not necessary, nor is maneuvering the boat to stay right on top of the marker.
An easy target, dead bait is always an option as well. A bag of mackerel, ballyhoo or even shrimp can be just what the doctor ordered when the big guys are feeling lazy. A 1/2-ounce jighead with a 6-inch, green curly grub tail is often all that is needed when the amberjack are nearby. It is not unheard of for large amberjacks to be taken on fly, when the schools are thick and brought near the surface.
Later in the day, Forgione moved to a shallower wreck in about 100 feet of water, and Squillance nabbed a second scamp and a 12-pound red grouper. Their larger cousins eluded us, but we maintained continued vigilance for the big bite.
Data collected by the Florida Marine Research Institute shows that most red grouper on our coast will spawn January through March. Black and gag females have been documented as “ripe” nearly every month of the year, though it is generally accepted that January through April is the prime spawning period. Another species, the yellowfin grouper, is native to all South Florida waters. Known as non-migratory spawners they tend to reproduce between January and June. While there is ongoing debate in the sportfishing community over the ethics of fishing for grouper that are actively spawning-the big ones become suicidal in their feeding habits-ample conservation measures should keep these fisheries in a recovery mode. Among those measures are no-sale provisions on commercial catches during spawning months, as well as tight recreational bag limits (two gags or blacks per person, no more than five aggregate of all grouper species).
Your anchoring position largely determines the makeup of your catch. Grouper hold close to a wreck, but mutton snapper, another prized reef catch, will tend to be slightly off the wreck. Amberjack and African pompano (see related story) tend to sit slightly above the wreck. Amberjack can be chummed up off the structure, which helps you avoid getting your line sliced when a big one grabs the bait and turns for the safety of the wreck below.
I’ve already alluded to the challenge of getting baits to bottom in a 2- to 4-knot current, so it goes without saying that anchoring can be a chore. You’ll want a minimum 400 feet of anchor line, connected in 50-foot sections with quick-release clips (allows for adding and subtracting line as needed, as well as quickly picking up and moving to follow pelagic line-burners like sailfish). Start upwind and allow plenty of scope in your line to hold bottom. Once holding, let out line slowly until you are in the perfect position to drop. An anchor ball retrieval system is an economical version to a windlass anchor winch; one of the two is a must-have for any bottom fishing trip in the deep, swift waters of Florida’s southern Atlantic coast. Your back will thank you later.
It is well known that Miami has an incredible pelagic fishery. Most weekend anglers rely on the consistency of something on the surface biting just about every month of the year-sailfish, dolphin, kings and more. Very few in this area have put in the time to really understand the bottom fishery on the reefs which begin just a few yards from shore. Well, times are changing. There is a newfound faith in bottom fishing Miami-style and it’s the anticipation of the next big one that keeps us all coming back for more.
The African pompano is one of the most distinctive winter residents of South Florida wrecks. If it’s one of these guys you seek, don’t let your bait hit the wreck; keep it up 10 to 15 cranks off the bottom (be prepared for a few cuda cutoffs or hookups if using circle hooks). Pilchards and other small, live fish are preferred, and Africans will take a white bucktail or plastic-tail jig. The table quality of these big, silvery members of the jack family is quite high, but in recent years there has been concern about overfishing, particularly on wrecks where the fish often gather in tight, aggressive concentrations-you’ll know them when you find them. Use conservation-minded discretion when considering keeping one of these beauties.