Big snapper visit artificial reefs each spring, and you should too!
We all get a little loony when it comes to mutton snapper fishing. It’s well known that the best bite seems to come around the full moon in April and May, when legions of anglers track the lunar cycle like school kids awaiting summer break. Does that make us lunatics? Not really. Just people who know a good fish when it hits the dinner plate.
Mutton was on the menu for Dan Embon when he rushed for the deep rod and seized it from the holder on a wreck off Haulover Inlet. Just the slightest bump hinted that something was pestering the live pilchard 100 feet beneath the surface, but a loud hoot across the boat from Dan’s friend Bob Hassell instigated a rapid sequence of events.
The fish didn’t show an ounce of fight until Dan wound up the slack on the 25-foot leader. Suddenly, in typical snapper style, the fish charged back for the wreck.”Wind, wind, wind!” yelled Capt. Dennis Forgione. The brief tussle ended when Forgione lifted a bright pink snapper over the gunnel. It wasn’t a large fish, as muttons go, but it was a nice addition to a several fat kingfish and Spanish mackerel we’d stashed in the cooler over the course of a busy morning.
Dan’s fish, an early-season surprise, didn’t come from some secret spot known only to a closed-book cadre of insiders. In fact, Forgione’s Dusky Free Spool was anchored over one of many publicly funded reefs off the Dade and Broward coastline.
In the wake of a ban on fish traps, mutton snapper are visiting these reefs in greater numbers, and it’s a sure bet the habitat has encouraged population growth of the hard-fighting, great-tasting snappers.
GPS coordinates for the sites are easy to obtain, and consequently invite a lot of fishing pressure. But muttons move around more than other members of the snapper clan, cruising over nearshore coral patches in winter and lumbering off to deeper wrecks in 80 to 200 feet of water as the water warms. Consequently, a wreck that was vacant one week could have a pile of snapper the next. “I like to dive some of the wrecks to see how the fish are lying on the structure,” Forgione said while we waited for another bite. His theory is that muttons congregate around the wrecks as part of spawning behavior. Whatever the case, congregate they do.
“I’ve seen ’em stacked on top of each other,” he added. “Sometimes they’re on the upcurrent side, sometimes downcurrent, but they’re always in the sand around the wreck. On days when there’s less current, they seem to be more scattered.”
The drill when fishing public wrecks is to locate a potential GPS site, circle it a few times and observe the depthfinder. Are there fish holding around the wreck? Which side are they on? Is there a cloud of baitfish hovering over the site? Make a mental inventory of the visible details, then turn your attention to the wind and current, as these factors will play an important role in your next course of action–anchoring.
Anchoring in deep water requires some planning. First off, you’ll need enough line to allow yourself scope to properly set the hook. The generally accepted formula is at least three feet of line for one foot of depth, so between four and six hundred feet should be adequate. This doesn’t mean you’ll need to deploy that much line–it’s just a reference point. Extra chain lets you get away with shorter line; Forgione, for example, uses 15 feet of chain to anchor his 25-foot center console. After pinpointing the wreck, move well upcurrent before dropping anchor. How far you move depends largely on how fast the current is flowing, and it may require a couple of tries to position yourself where you want to be. Repeated attempts can be reduced when you use some form of marker buoy, and many anglers now use a GPS unit as an electronic marker. Once you’ve made a positive ID on the depthfinder, program an exact waypoint for the wreck, then cut the engines and drift with the current. In a minute or so, hit GOTO and the unit will tell you what heading you’ll need to recover the position. Now simply return to the waypoint and maintain the heading upcurrent or upwind before anchoring. If it’s not right, at least you have a reference point to work around.
The current will also figure into your angling strategy. In deep, swift water, frozen block chum has little affect on fish that are hanging 100 feet beneath the boat. A handful of cutbait such as herring or bonito upcurrent every so often will get their attention, but some veterans believe excessive chumming will turn off the bite. Your most important chore, however, is to get a bait to the fish–which, if they’re down there, should eat regardless of how much greasy gunk you slop into the water.
One particularly useful bottom rig for this type of fishing consists of a brass three-way swivel and a 12-inch monofilament dropper ending in a surgeon’s loop. By threading egg sinkers onto the dropper and looping a bank sinker to the end, you’ve created an easily adjustable weight. Another approach is to employ a sliding egg sinker that rides on the running line above a swivel, the standard fishfinder rig. With this one, though, you have to rerig to adjust the weight.
It might sound a little excessive, but fishing at anchor over a wreck in 100 feet of water with a 2- to 4-knot current can require over a pound of lead. Anglers who work broad areas of natural reef often drift, which allows them to get away with much less weight, but we’re talking here about fishing a small spot directly beneath a boat at rest–which means you’ll need to gear up to compensate for the current. For best results, you want your bait pinned securely to the sandy bottom around the wreck.
To the business end of the swivel, tie a long–up to 30 feet–40- to 60-pound mono leader ending in a sturdy, offset, shortshank livebait hook in the 6/0 range. To make things really foolproof, tie a Bimini twist or spider hitch in your main line before you fasten it to the swivel.
Thirty-pound conventional tackle with a stout rod is ideal for hoisting big fish away from the structure, and you’ll obviously need some backbone to handle a string of heavy sinkers in the current. During other times of the year you can get away with lighter gear over shallow wrecks and reefs. This past winter found loads of smaller muttons in the finger channels and on the patch reefs south of Key Biscayne, and some of those fish no doubt are still there. They fall for just about any bait, live or dead, are tough customers on 8- or 12-pound spinning gear, but they’re puny compared to the big guys that move onto the wrecks in the spring. To give you an idea of the potential for truly bodacious mutton snapper, Forgione’s biggest last year was 23 pounds. He also bagged a 22- and two 21-pounders.
A mutton that tops 10 pounds is a brawler, easily capable of gaining the safety of razor-sharp structure if you don’t play your cards right. And a trophy 20-pounder–well, that’s the kind of fish that takes some persuasion.
The pilchard probably tops the list of mutton snapper baits. You can buy these by the dozen at bait shops or you ca
n catch your own. If you choose the latter, keep in mind that the superior baits are the larger, oceanside pilchards and not the little fellas generally found over inshore grassbeds.One way to get at the choice baits is to anchor over shallow nearshore patch reefs. Let a block of frozen chum thaw in a mesh bag tied at the stern–the tiny tidbits of oily paste will attract schools of pilchards within sabiki or castnet range. The early bird gets the worm here, as predawn hours are best for raising light-sensitive sardines.
Another approach is to work buoys, pilings and ledges around Government Cut, Haulover and other inlets. You might spot a pelican working, but the best way to locate baits in the fast-moving, deep water is to watch the depthfinder and probe suspicious markings with a sabiki or gold hook rig. The stuff that pilchards eat–tiny copepods and other planktonic life–is basically at the mercy of currents, so on an outgoing tide you’ll find them on the outside and vice versa for the incoming.
There are many ways to hook pilchards, although Forgione has developed his own specialty. For starters, he ties on the hook with a 1/4-inch loop. “It allows the bait to swim freely,” he explained, which seemed like a good idea considering his next move.
The skipper withdrew a hearty, palm-size pilchard from his livewell and threaded the livebait hook through the fish’s vent and out near its pectoral fin.
“A mutton snapper eats a pilchard headfirst, and having the hookpoint aimed toward the rear is extremely important,” he said. “The bait stays lively, and I hardly ever miss a bite.” If pilchards aren’t available, try a live pinfish. Lately Biscayne Bay has been swarming with these prickly little porgies, and they’re quick to crowd about any kind of chum over grassbeds. A small hook and piece of shrimp does the trick, although a castnet will fill the well in less time. For deployment, hook these baits through the lips.
Another excellent live bait is a small live ballyhoo, which you can chum up over patch reefs and catch with a small, longshank hook and a piece of shrimp or squid under a little float.
Dead baits work, too, and folks have dreamed up some pretty interesting rigs over the years. The butterfly ballyhoo plug is elevated to the status of high art by many skippers, but there are numerous acceptable ways to dress up ballyhoo. The basic idea is to rig a headless, tailless ballyhoo (the “plug”) with one or two hooks embedded in the flesh. You can also pin a whole ballyhoo to a deep-jig, although you’ll need a pretty hefty jig if you plan to work it at anchor. Lots of muttons fall for pieces of dead mullet and herring, too, but when the chips are on the table, I’d like to be holding a live pilchard in my hand.
While you’re soaking deep baits, be sure to put out a flatline bait and, if the wind allows, a kite bait to tempt the oversize kingfish that prowl the reefs in spring. As insurance against toothy jaws, use about eight inches of No. 2 or 3 single-strand wire attached to a 40-pound mono leader with an Albright knot or a small black swivel. A small, sharp, offset livebait hook means the fish generally stick themselves on the strike.Your primo mutton bait also happens to be a dandy kingfish pleaser. Hook that big pilchard through the back for use under a kite, and through the nostrils or belly for the flatlines. We found smaller kings thick on that wreck off Haulover, and once the mutton bite slowed we decided to pay them some attention. Bob Hassell pitched over a live pilchard on an 8-pound spinning outfit, which was promptly inhaled by a sizable king that set for the horizon like a scalded cat. After a 5-minute, drag-burning tug-o-war, Forgione gaffed a fish that weighed in at 12 pounds–a fine light-tackle catch, and reminder not to neglect the surface while you’re probing the depths for muttons this spring.
Anchoring in deep water requires a few specialized tactics. For starters, manually pulling up an anchor in 100 feet of water puts the strain on anyone’s arms and back. A buoy with a sliding ring allows the boat to do the work. Simply clip the ring to your line and motor away from the wreck. The line slides through the ring, and the buoy supports the vertical load as the boat pulls the anchor to the surface.There’s also the problem of fouling your anchor on the wreck or nearby rubble. Forgione uses a breakaway system that makes it easy to dislodge a Danforth anchor in the event of a hang up. First, drill a 1/4-inch hole in one of the rectangular surfaces on the crown of the anchor. Shackle your chain to this new hole and secure the chain to the top of the shaft with a piece of 80- to 100-pound-test monofilament (see diagram). The anchor holds solid, but when you’re stuck, you can motor upcurrent, reversing the direction of pull, which breaks the monofilament and pulls the anchor out backwards.
Generally, wrecks and reefs in the 80- to 120-foot range off South Florida are productive spots for muttons during the spring spawn, but deeper and shallower sites are worth checking, too. Luckily, many good loran numbers are available, and latitude and longitude coordinates continue to be added to lists of our public wrecks. Ken Banks, with the Broward County Department of Natural Resources, has compiled a very good list that you can obtain free of charge by calling (954) 519-1230. The Dade County Artificial Reef Program is slowly switching to the more reliable GPS system. Contact them at (305) 372-6699 for an updated list of reefs.
Regs and Records
Mutton snapper stocks seem to be doing well now that fish traps are banned from South Atlantic waters, and sensible size and bag limits should ensure a bountiful recreational fishery. Minimum size is 16 inches, with a daily bag limit of 10 fish per person. Don’t forget that means an aggregate bag of 10 snapper of any species.
The current International Game Fish Association all-tackle world record for mutton snapper is a 28-pound, 5-ounce fish taken by Bennie Kilgore on September 4, 1993. Kilgore caught the fish from a long-range partyboat over the Middle Grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.
Most anglers agree that a mutton in the double-digit class is a big fish, although any legal-size specimen is a praiseworthy catch.