Scouting Blue Water

Short trips pave the way for better fishing.

Originally Published August 2011 print edition

A classic color change setup where you’ll find fish today, and more than likely, tomorrow too, especially if you know where it is before you go.

If only you knew the conditions in the blue water before you left the dock. You can, by scouting for a few hours the day before. Those few hours can help you identify the species to pursue, the depths to pursue them and the gear to prepare, saving time and fuel burn on your daylong trip.

Now, you can’t expect to scout waters of The Ledge off Jacksonville or The Cones off Canaveral. At those distances from shore, sea surface and current charts, along with recent firsthand observation from other anglers, provide the best scouting intelligence. But from many Florida ports you can check offshore water conditions, currents and bait supplies well enough in short order to produce a predictor of the next day’s likely hotspots.

Given a stable weather forecast, you can expect sea conditions and bait aggregations to hold for at least 12 hours, up to a full day or two, or until the next significant change in weather, wind speed or direction. Forecasts for the east coast of Florida, says Mitch Roffer of Roffer’s Ocean Forecasting Service, are reliable for 12 to 24 hours, but “not more since the conditions change relatively rapidly.” What changes those conditions? Current direction and force, Roffer advises “are determined primarily by the amount of water leaving the Gulf of Mexico through the Straits of Florida. Meanders in the current change the current direction and velocity. Local and regional scale winds also affect current flow.”

So, you can get a good, though not exact idea of what it’s going to be like the next day from a scouting trip. Captain Rob Harris of Gotta Go Charters in Key West often uses the scouting technique to get the heads up. To add efficiency, he runs scouting trips on his Hydrocat 35, the smaller of his two boats.

On one particular scouting trip Harris wanted to check conditions to the southeast of Key West, around American Shoals, before a planned run the next day to the End of the Bar.

“This short, 3-hour trip gives us a chance to make the 20-mile run to the east in the smaller boat without having to do it in the big boat, and then having to make a 30-mile run down to the west, where we know that there are good conditions. So it saves us that 50-mile run without having fished at all.”

Even on scouting trips, it doesn’t hurt to pickup a fish or two, like this dolphin, found commonly in Keys waters all year.

Harris wanted to check those waters for the prospects for kingfishing and live baiting for tuna, plus get a drop on an amberjack or two to check bottom fishing prospects. The primary concern was water conditions. Hard north winds had been blowing, pushing green water out over the reef and moving the productive color change to the south. But how far south? That day, we found the color change in 300-foot depths, but even still, winds blew bay weeds and benthic growth, churned up from the Gulf’s grounds, along the surface in the blue water—a certain indication that warm Gulf Stream currents were not in strong presence at those depths.

Offshore conditions are created by local dynamics mixing with regional current and weather forces. In the Lower Keys, you get the effect from Florida Bay, Harris explained, which gets turbid with a lot of north wind, and that water washes to the south over the reef with the tide changes, but since there isn’t a great volume of water coming from the north in the Bay, that dirty water hangs around and washes back and forth with the tides. “Finally a good push of blue water from offshore will carry that green water away, but that doesn’t happen on a regular basis,” he says. The good side is that where the blue and green water meet, a color change forms and that’s a surefire place to look for fish.

At 420-foot depths, the temperature of the water jumped up a degree and half and as you’d expect, that’s where we found some sargassum weed, birds and dolphin—two release fish followed by a keeper. So the warm water line was drawn at 420, a benchmark for the next day.

“As long as I have the same wind conditions,” Harris said, “it will tell me where the current edge is holding, in what depths, so I’ll come out and know where to expect to see that edge the next day. On the way out, I’ll be looking at the weeds, how well-formed are they, also look at the rips to tell what direction the water is going, look at the water temperature. A degree difference might make a difference. I’ll look the whole way, but I’ll be betting on fishing at about 400-foot depths.”

Rob’s read of the dolphin bite: Some fish were passing through to the east on that warmer current, and the incoming tide brought a little more warmer, cleaner offshore water in closer.

“The key is that we’re on the incoming tide, and water will push in. I will still head west, because we’ll leave in the morning tomorrow, with a falling tide. If we want to find these conditions up here, we’ll probably have to run out farther, maybe to 600 to 800 feet, a longer ride. We know that we can find the conditions we want at the End of the Bar.

“We want to fish where we have the best variety of options in the smallest geographic range, so we can effectively fish all day,” Harris says. “Now that we know the conditions, we have a good idea of what we’ll do, so we can get better prepared with tackle and rigs. In the morning all we do is put rods in the holders and go.”

The next day to the west, Harris and his friends boated 11 blackfin, a few kings, ceros and released a few amberjacks. FS