Muttons from the Deep

Summertime turf wars in the Straits of Florida.

The writer, Suroviec, in the pink with a mutton snapper.

The mutton snapper would easily be the fullback of any fish football team. Power, size, speed and durability are all attributes of this hard-fighting snapper. They’re also savvy, learning to shy away from fishing lines and sinkers. And when they do fall for a hooked bait, muttons have an uncanny knack for diving into coral formations and wrecks, breaking your line in the process.

One way to improve your landings is to target low-relief, bait-rich structure in deep water. That means 110 to approximately 275 feet, where scattered live bottom formations hold bait schools. These are also areas that tend to hold grouper, amberjack and roving pelagics—all hard-fighters. No one I know complains about “rogue” 25-pound black grouper or scraps with a 40-pound amberjack, or five!

One of the guys I fish with in these deepwater arenas is Capt. Mike Biffel of the Big Dawg sportfishing team out of Key Colony Beach in the Florida Keys. Mike has made it his duty to inspect these areas with his clients and we have developed a few tested techniques that will lead to great days of deepwater fishing.

For starters, we’re not talking about wrecks and other high-profile sites often associated with mutton snapper fishing. It’s common practice to anchor upcurrent of wrecks or ledges in spring and early summer to fish for muttons, usually 80 to 120 feet. In June, you’ll see clusters of boats anchored up in strategic quarters of Florida’s southern Atlantic coast. You’ll catch your share this way, especially if you put in your time chumming with chunks of pilchards, goggle-eyes or other oily fish.

Biffel’s approach zeroes in on much smaller sites in deep water. Out here, the best strategy is drift fishing. Along Florida’s southern Atlantic coast, most days it’s impractical, if not impossible, to hold bottom in 200 feet of water—given 2 or 3 knots of current, you’d need way too much rode, and you’d spend way too much time dropping and retrieving the hook. Anchoring is risky for another reason: Stay for too long, and someone’s bound to notice.

On a good deepwater mutton spot, the fishfinder will show little more than a small “grass fire” look, as opposed to the flat, hard bottom of nearby sand. What you’re looking for are sea fans, whips and other soft corals, which don’t reflect as well as the hard stuff. The change in relief may be a matter of inches, instead of feet.

Guys like Biffel spend years logging (and guarding) productive spots, but anglers with an astute eye for bottom contours while trolling for dolphin often find drops worth checking. And, if the day’s plan involves drifting or slow-trolling live baits topside, it’s always wise to run a bait all the way to bottom. Inside of 300 feet of water, it’s inevitable you’ll pick up a mutton here and there; but it’s up to you to log the numbers and make repeated passes to distinguish a pattern.

Rigging for Deepwater Drops

For general bottom fishing, it’s best to use as little weight as necessary, to avoid spooking the fish. Not so for deepwater mutton fishing. Out here, sheer depth, as well as unpredictable counter-currents in the water column, make it challenging to maintain a tight line. The more line you have out, the less feel you have topside. Most times you can get by with a 4- or 5-ounce weight but I have them up to 10 ounces when the current is steaming. To accommodate heavier weights, many fishermen prefer a three-way swivel rig; tie a short monofilament loop to one eye and add a bank sinker of appropriate size.

A mutton takes off like a freight train deep below after hitting the bait.

No matter how you rig, using a single large weight is best, as multiple weights tend to spiral and tangle in that long drop. I like using 60-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders and making them very long (at least 15 feet) to keep the weight well away from the bait. Finish with a very sharp hook in the 5/0 size and you have the makings of a mutton slayer rig. In Atlantic waters, we favor a shortshank J-hook, such as the Mustad Power Point. On the Gulf side, non-stainless circle hooks are required by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Use the smallest black swivels you can to eliminate kingfish cutting off the swivels on the drop. That bubble trail and the shiny swivel spells disaster for a deep-dropper.

Baits are hooked through the lips from the bottom to the top and should be in the exact center to keep spinning to a minimum. Live pilchards, pinfish and sand perch are top baits for this sort of drift fishing in deep water.

As you begin your drift, lower the rig gradually, maintaining contact with the sinker and pausing now and then to let the leader straighten out. Dropping all the way in freespool tends to make the leader twist around your main line. Assuming a fish chooses to hit a bait behind that mess, you could end up with a knot that breaks off. You think it was cut by a shark or a king when in reality it was a twisted knot that gave way 200 feet below.

Deepwater mutton snapper fishing requires constant adjustments until you find that particular day’s setup that takes the most fish. Some prefer braided line here, but in my experience braid pulls too many standard J-hooks. I stick with mono unless I am working a jig, in which case the no-stretch braid is useful. For most deepwater bait-fishing, however, the stretch of mono is what keeps those lightly hooked muttons from coming off. I prefer 20-pound test for monofilament and the higher 30- to 50-pound test for the braid stuff. The 20-pound-test is plenty strong for most deepwater applications as the fighting takes place mostly in open water, away from wrecks and other vertical cover.

I like using high-speed conventional reels for this work, as the gear ratios make for less reeling in a long day of fishing. The best areas are not grand in scale; often we’re looking at small reefs few anglers know about, and even fewer fish correctly. That means potentially a lot of cranking as you dial into the action. Learning to use the current and wind direction as well as the engine power to facilitate your drift comes through experience. I like to read the GPS to get a line on my drift, and then adjust the drift to the spot until we hit a fish. Then it’s merely a matter of repeating the sequence until you catch your fill or the bite stops.

I usually like to take a few fish from an area and then go to a different spot. Stay too long, and other fishermen are bound to notice. Smart anglers “farm” these spots, maintaining their productivity by not overfishing them. Some of these spots have a tendency to produce muttons and groupers while others produce an occasional grouper, amberjack and muttons. Keep notes and pay close attention to your GPS; after awhile you’ll see patterns of which spots produce best on what current or weather condition.

It takes time on the water to get good at this sort of thing, but the rewards can be fantastic. And of course there are surprises. Many days, I’ve been sitting there with my deepwater rod in hand, only to see dolphin swim to the transom or a curious wahoo or smoker king loom out of nowhere. Having several medium-action spinning outfits with hooks at the ready has added some great catches to my fishbox. Another good option is bucktail jigs with strips of Powerbait or some other scented plastic. It pays to be ready in water as deep as 275 feet, where just about anything can happen.

Landing Snappers in the Deep

The rapid pressure change associated with a trip topside in 200 feet of water has physiological consequences for muttons and other snappers. These fish lack the ability to quickly equalize their swim bladders; the organ stays inflated and actually begins to lift the fish topside in deep water. That means there’s no reason to jerk and reel fast—with steady, even pressure, you’ll be netting your prize in short order. Most fish will rise behind the boat and remember that long leader we spoke about earlier? When the sinker reaches the rodtip, gently pull the leader hand over hand and slip a net behind the fish, allowing it to drop into the net. Doing this will allow the net to fully open and it will not catch on an exposed hook or a fishes outstretched dorsal spine. Many great fish are lost when you’re in a rush. Cool, calm net technique wins hands-down.

Another benefit of gradual reeling is you minimize trauma to undersize fish. Beyond 80 feet or so, snappers frequently come to the surface with everted swim bladders and bulging eyes, and may be unable to swim back to the bottom on their own. The effects are worsened by rapid reeling; some fishermen make a practice of slowly recovering fish they sense may be undersize.

If necessary, you can equalize the fish by inserting a venting tool (hollow, sharpened needle) beneath the skin about one inch behind the insertion point of the pectoral fin. Poke the needle forward at about a 45-degree angle until it begins to hiss, releasing pressure.

Venting tools are currently required of anglers fishing for snappers and groupers in waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and may soon be required of Atlantic-side fishermen as well. They are widely available from tackle suppliers today.

Muttons and Reds: Cousin Snappers

At left is a mutton, at right a red. The two were caught near the Dry Tortugas.

Mutton snapper are concentrated primarily in South Florida and the Keys, where they range from the inshore flats to the edge of the continental shelf. In depths of 90 feet or greater, some muttons are caught as far north as the Middle Ground in the Gulf of Mexico. On the Atlantic coast, stragglers may range to Jacksonville. Inversely, red snapper are far more abundant in North Florida, inhabiting all sorts of reefs, ledges and wrecks.

One place where the two frequently overlap is west of Key West, toward the Dry Tortugas, where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Straits of Florida.

The two species are similar in appearance, reddish with deep profile; the black spot on the mutton’s flank is one identifying trait, though in rare cases, some muttons are spotless. Muttons commonly have greenish backs, whereas the red snapper is uniformly red.

Size-wise, muttons have been recorded to 30 pounds, 4 ounces; reds to 50 pounds, 4 ounces.


Management of Muttons and Reds

North Florida anglers who enjoy (or did enjoy) fishing for red snapper are sometimes astonished to learn of the year-round recreational limit for mutton snapper: 10 per person, 16 inches minimum.
While some mutton fans would like to see the limit tightened (perhaps 5, as in the case of mangrove snapper), the fishery seems to be holding up, by most accounts. However, the controversial closure of all red snapper fishing in South Atlantic waters (up for possible revision this month) has implications for all snapper fishermen.

In 2007, federal regulators and a few non-fishing conservation groups began pushing unrealistic management goals for red snapper based on a revised life history picture, incomplete historical catch data, and limited independent data.

The new dim outlook was surprising because the species had seemed to be thriving under tight regulations implemented in 1992, including a 2-fish recreational bag limit and 20-inch minimum.

The foundation for change was laid at Southeast Data Assessment and Review (SEDAR) workshops in South and North Carolina, where scientists (predominantly from the Carolinas and the NMFS Miami science center) assembled and agreed to move forward with certain assumptions about red snapper biology and landings.
To the dismay of many, a stock assessment portraying a red snapper population crisis rumbled along like a freight train. Its momentum caused approval of a complete closure of all red snapper fishing in South Atlantic federal waters, and now it’s currently threatening a complete closure of ALL bottom fishing in 98 feet to 240 feet, from roughly Melbourne, Florida north through Georgia (see On the Conservation Front).

Correcting the red snapper management plan and its disastrous consequences for recreational fishermen is proving more difficult than prying out a rocked-up gag with an ultralight spinning rod. Authorities simply point to the SEDAR report as “best available science”—a euphemism for “only available science.”

The lesson for all snapper fishermen: When these management plans come up for review, participate, and question. Most importantly, participate and question early.

Stand by at www.floridasportsman.com for updates on more assessments.

Jeff Weakley, Editor

 

Florida Sportsman Classics  June 2010