Patch reefs and wrecks pay off on a winter’s day.
Originally published in the December 2010 print edition.
For some of the easiest, surefire fishing to be had in winter in Florida, motor out to the Keys patch reefs. In minutes you’ll be on top of mutton snapper, yellowtail, grouper, mackerel and other fun fighting, good tasting fish. It’s the closest you’ll come to a guaranteed good time in saltwater fishing that I’ve ever seen.
Last time I fished those reefs was earlier this year, in early spring, with Capt. Lee Lucas of First Love Charters out of Duck Key, along with his friend, Joey Boucher. Last winter’s extreme cold had just about shut down a lot of fisheries around the state, but it brought extraordinary fishing to those patch reefs, where Gulf species on southerly migration patterns shelter themselves from cold in the Atlantic-warmed waters. Reef species, too, like bigger grouper and muttons, move in to the patches to feed on the aggregated bait schools. And then there are the year-round residents of the patches, like yellowtail snapper and cero macks.
Even in winters with more normal temps, terrific fishing days often start on those patch reefs for Lucas and many other local anglers. The patch reefs can either be the headline feature of a day’s mixed bag fishing or a fallback position for rough weather or bad luck days. And Lucas, all-around angler that he is, and no stranger to long runs to the Humps for tuna and dolphin and trips to the Gulf for cobia and kings, enjoys the good ol’ fun fishing of the patch reefs as much as any other game in town.
“The patch reef fishing was red hot this past winter,” he told me as we set up on a patch almost within swimming distance of Marathon. “And it was always changing from one day to the next, and from patch to patch. It went from 2-, 3-, 4- and sometimes 5-pound mangrove snapper each day, to five or six keeper grouper from around the patches. I caught more keeper grouper on these patch reefs last winter than I ever have. One was a 40-inch black grouper in 20 feet of water. And,” he sighs with admiration at the bounty around him, “it’s solid patches all the way from here to Key West.”
For that matter, coral patch reefs pepper coastal waters in the opposite direction, as far north as Fowey Rocks off Key Biscayne.
We were inside the reef, in 15 feet of water, and we could look at the fishfinder screen and see big fish holding right off the bottom. Below us were big rocks, sea fans, benthic growth, patches of sand edged by seagrasses, where lobsters, conch, crabs and baitfish all mingled. We had Lucas-designed Castaway Rods “Lee 704 Inshore Series” rods in hand. We had our chum bags out and our baits all ready—we didn’t even bother to get live bait except for shrimp from the shop. We had frozen cut baits.
“There couldn’t be anything easier,” Lucas says. “That’s a mangrove snapper eating my bait right now. We’re not trolling and spending gas money, we’re just hanging out and catching fish.”
And catch fish we did. We caught 2-pound mangroves, keeper muttons, near-legal grouper, and mackerel, mackerel, mackerel. In winter, pompano sometimes blitz those reefs, as do yellowtail, permit and the occasional cobia.
“It depends on which patch you go to what you’re going to catch,” Lucas says, “and also what the current is doing where you are. I’ve caught many cobia on the backside on the wrecks in the Gulf, and the biggest ones come from a grunt, but you’ve got to let them swim with it and get that hook before you put pressure on them.”
You simply can’t go wrong on the patches if you like mixed bag fishing. You’ll be inside the barrier reef, mostly fishing in 12 to 35 feet. Out of Hawk’s Cay, for instance, the outer reef begins at about 5.5 miles, in about 40 feet of water in places and grows out to 60-foot depths. With good water clarity, you can easily sight the shallower patches by their dark coloration, and then stop and investigate with a chumline to find out who’s home, or you can target patches that are marked on charts in advance. If you’re out searching for patches, remember to keep a line out trolling a spoon or a plug for mackerel, grouper and hungry snapper and a lure to cast to fish at the surface. Otherwise, just bring some live shrimp, some cutbait, chum, and plenty of leader, including light wire to prevent cutoffs from the macks, and you’re home free. On the spot, remember to shake that chum bag every once in a while to keep its contents flowing. We used 20- and 25-pound fluorocarbon, and 1⁄4-ounce weights slipped onto the leader and a variety of jigs and hooks with wire leader.
“Go to the 4/0 hooks with a big chunk of ballyhoo. Everything hits that arrangement,” Lucas says. “Last year, when it got cold in the Gulf, the big mangroves came down to the patch reefs and took up residence, and we had a ball with them.”
Of course you need the current moving to spread your chum, and if the current dies where you are, pick up and move, or change your terminal tackle to get to the bottom, where the fish will be milling about.
“You can get off the rocks and anchor upcurrent a bit and chum the fish up to you so that you don’t get them rocking you up so much,” Lucas adds.
The flatline is a good technique to use, either by drifting back light jigs or an unweighted live bait or shrimp. If you don’t watch your line carefully, you’ll lose fish, and in such shallow water, freelining with a rod in the holder is asking to get robbed. You can use a baitrunner reel or use a wire clip rigged to hold the line, Lucas suggests, but you’re still pressing your luck with fast-hitting mackerel and rock-loving grouper. Anyway, acquiring the right touch for each of the variety of species that frequent the patches accounts for most of the fun of this style of fishing, so a hands-on approach really is the best. When the action is right, you’ll have your hands full.
The fishing may be consistently good, but there’s no guarantee on the weather. A 15-knot wind or higher will chop up the water pretty good, but any wind under 15 should be manageable in most craft. On the other hand, fishing right after spates of hard wind, or in the first moderation of temps after shocks of cold, can be great timing for the patch reefs, and being the first boat on a good patch on the first fishable day after a blow can pay off in big mangroves, cobia and grouper.
On my day in the sun with Capt. Lucas, we hit a couple patch reefs and then moved out to the main reefline and anchored up in search of even bigger mackerel, ceros and Spanish. It’s a short transit, just a few minutes, to the reefline from most of the patches. To finish off the easy day, Lucas wanted to put us through the calisthenics routine with the amberjacks on a wreck another mile and a half out, in 140 feet of water. In a vicinity only about 7 miles from Hawk’s Cay, a number of good wrecks hold solid numbers of fish. In winter and into spring, some of those near-reef wrecks are loaded with African pompano, permit, mutton snapper and cobia—“a little bit of everything,” Lucas added.
We started with 50- and 60-pound monofilament leaders fishing for the amberjack, and weren’t getting hits. Meanwhile, Capt. Jim Griffith and his anglers were nailing two and three amberjacks on every drift over the wreck. Finally, we unlocked the key. Lucas lightened up the leader by going to fluorocarbon, 50-pound, and we immediately started getting bites. We also got hits on a rod with 40-pound fluorocarbon, basically a mutton snapper setup. For bait we had grunts, pinfish and blue runners, but the amberjacks showed a distinct preference for the grunts and runners, the bigger baits. So come prepared, and be ready to switch up your presentation on the wrecks.
The best part of all for that easy day in the sun: The patch reefs, main reefline and many nearby wrecks are all within close proximity, and all close to the comforts of the islands on a brisk winter day.
Capt. Lee’s Boat Tips
Capt. Lee Lucas, a former surfboard shaper and pro skier before his life as a Duck Key charter captain, and now a rod designer for Castaway Rods Lee Series, has innovated plenty of gadgets to streamline his operation. A few good tips I picked up on my trip with him:
1. Variety of rigs for patch reef fishing. Use wire leader and you’ll spend less time re-rigging, Lucas suggests.
2. Better chumming. The chum bag goes into a plastic bucket within a larger 5-gallon bucket to hold the mess, wasting little chum and keeping the deck clean. The big bucket has its own custom-made railed-in holder on the swim platform, saving space on the deck. For fast action, Lucas clips his chum bag to a bar of stainless hardware attached to his boat. That bar is hardware for a Bimini top called an eye snap, made by Taylor, and available at West Marine.
3. Wire straightener for singlestrand stainless steel leader. Straight leaders help presentation and solid hookups. That eye snap on the gunwale holds hooks while knots are tightened.