Special techniques for targeting a wide-roaming snapper.
Drifting off Elbow Light in the Florida Keys, our boat lumbered gently from side to side with each passing wave. Our crew was lethargic from hours in the hot sun staring at ballyhoo meant for sailfish that never came. At this point we’d take a bite from anything and decided to put a bait on the bottom. Not long after doing so, everyone jumped back to life when the rod we’d placed in the port corner bowed and started to dump line at a frantic pace.
After one of the anglers in our crew fought the fish up from the depths, we were pleased to see the bright orange sides of a large mutton snapper easing its way to the surface. That fish and a couple others made the day for us after our original sailfish plan proved fruitless.
In the mutton snapper stronghold of South Florida and the Keys, these handsome, good-eating fish range far and wide. They are often caught offshore in water from 50 to 300 feet deep, and may turn up anywhere down the length of the main reefline. They also frequent the numerous patch reefs and rockpiles dotting Hawk Channel, on the Atlantic side of the Keys island chain. On occasion they can even be caught up on the flats, right in bonefish and permit country. More often than not, however, muttons are caught offshore. In looking at ways to target these great fish, offshore techniques are a good place to start.
Contrary to popular mutton fishing legend which says you’ll never get a mutton bite unless you’re running 40 feet of 30-pound leader, these fish will eat just about any kind of rig they see—depending on the bait pinned to it and the water clarity where you’re fishing. Key Largo bottom fishing guru Zane Albury agrees.
“I don’t think you need a long leader all the time,” he points out. “It makes no sense if you are anchored with no current. Plus, there is a better chance to get tangled. I choose my leader length based on current—the stronger the current, the longer the leader. Less current equals a shorter leader.”
No question a mutton snapper in shallow, clear water can be persnickety when choosing its dinner. These are fish with a well-deserved reputation for wariness. Things change, though, when you search them out in deeper or dirtier water. You’d expect a mutton to snack on a bait presented on a yellowtail rod running straight 10-pound test and a No. 4 shortshank hook, but the proof that they will eat about anything is in the number of muttons caught on grouper rigs using 100-pound monofilament leader and large hooks, kingfish rigs made with wire toting several treble hooks, and multi-hook jigs. What really gets a mutton snapper to bite is to present the right bait properly, in lifelike fashion, where they are hanging out.
Here’s how Albury plans an offshore mutton outing.
“I start with catching bait,” he says. “Pilchards, cigar minnows and ballyhoo work best. Next, I decide where to fish and how to fish them. Normally I like to anchor all the time, but if there is a 3-knot current it makes it a little tough. Usually drifting is best when there is not much wind or a strong current is running. Another reason to drift would be if the fish were scattered over a big area. If they were schooled up on a small spot I would try to anchor on them. You don’t always know what they might bite best so to find out I start by fishing one live bait and one dead bait. Once I know their preference I fish two or three of the same to get the max number of bites.”
Offshore, Albury likes the times around the full moon in any month, but says the moons in May and June are the best.
Sensible tackle when anchored or drifting deep starts with 20- or 30-pound conventional gear. Double the mainline for several feet, slide on the appropriate egg sinker and tie on a swivel to keep the lead from sliding down near the bait. Add a length of leader depending on the current and size of the bait. If you’re going to fish for giant muttons with a big bait like a speedo, don’t hesitate to go with leader as heavy as 80-pound monofilament. A live speedo is big and strong enough to carry around this leader and still look enticing. If the current is just trickling keep the leader short, like 4 to 6 feet. With a stronger current lengthen the leader. If you choose a pilchard for bait, drop the leader size for a clean presentation. Even a big pilchard will only be able to carry 30- to 40-pound leader and still swim naturally.
Another option is a light jig tipped with a chunk of bait. Get this rig down alone, or—a neat trick—by using a sandball. If you make your sand mix right you’ll be able to drop to the bottom in 200 feet of water. Make your sand and chum mix into a very stiff consistency so when the ball is built around your bait it is rock hard. Now drop it over the side and pull line off the reel fast enough so that there is slack in the line as the bait drops. You want the sandball to stay together until you pull it apart with an upward lift of the rod. Do that once it gets very near the bottom or hits bottom. That will put your jig-and-bait combo right in the zone for a mutton bite. The breaking sandball will act not only as a visual attractor but will also put some scent into the water near your bait. This technique works best in deep water when the current is very light and the sandballs can be dropped vertically.
Big muttons bite inshore, too. One day we were all crowded back in the cockpit of our center console readying bait rods and looking for the telltale surface raindrops indicating ballyhoo were in the chumslick. We hadn’t been there for more than a few minutes when one of the 20-pound spinners sitting in a forward rodholder bowed up and started to unspool line fast. At first the mystery fish made a strong, steady run straight away, demonstrating some shoulders against the heavy drag of the beefy spinner. As the intense pressure slowed its run, it started to angle for deeper water away from the line-cutting structure of the nearby patch reef. That’s when we knew it wasn’t a grouper but most likely the mutton snapper prize we sought.
After several minutes of tug-of-war, our trusty angler managed to bring a nice fat mutton snapper to the surface.
On this occasion our crew was really at the patch to catch bait for offshore fishing but as a matter of course we put out a pair of mutton rods just in case a few happened to be cruising our chosen bait patch. Mutton snapper can be caught on the patch reefs scattered throughout the Florida Keys during any month of the year but things peak on the Hawk Channel patches from November to January. Cool water and strong frontal winds generate many days of dirty green water on the patch reefs—ideal conditions for the wary muttons. Dirty water puts the big snappers at ease. Don’t be surprised to catch muttons topping 10 pounds on the patch reefs. Lots of them visit these areas during the peak season. As proof, last fall a banner day of patch fishing was had by one Islamorada charterboat targeting the muttons inshore when it was too rough to chase fish offshore. They landed 20 mutton snappers between 5 and 21 pounds while throwing ba
ck numerous fish that were of legal size. This type of quality fishing seems to be happening more often now, with mutton snapper numbers showing somewhat of a comeback when compared to the days before the net and fish trap bans. At the same time, there has been concern that current bag limits may be too liberal. Certainly 10 adult muttons is overkill for one angler.
To target muttons specifically when patch fishing, use bait and tackle suited to their habits and tastes. Optimize your chances by targeting areas around the patch muttons frequent most often. That is what we did during our bait catching expedition. With the boat anchored down so the wind and current-blown chum would head for the patch off our stern, each of the two 20-pound spinners we used was cast directly out to each side of the boat so the bait would lay in the sand a fair distance from coral structure. Muttons often cruise the perimeter of the patch reefs, and this placement puts baits right in their path.
To rig a spinner for muttons, double about 3 feet of the mainline with a Bimini twist; a spider hitch will work just fine, too. Next, slide an appropriately sized egg sinker (usually 1 to 3 ounces will be enough to hold bottom) up the double line. To keep the egg sinker from sliding down to the bait tie on a barrel swivel rated for at least 80 pounds. Next add no more than 4 feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon leader between the swivel and a 4/0 razor sharp shortshank livebait hook. The leader needs to be kept short to facilitate easy casting. The best bait here is a live ballyhoo caught right from the chumslick astern of your boat. Hook the ballyhoo on top of the back toward the tail so it tries to swim toward the surface. Big mutton snapper can’t resist this. Pilchards, cigar minnows, sardines and pinfish will also entice a mutton bite. A frozen ballyhoo is another good alternative—if you don’t have live bait and the ballyhoo are being stubborn. Just thaw it ahead of time and debone it before you put it down. In a pinch even a large shrimp will work. Several years back I landed a 14-pound-plus mutton on a Key Largo patch using a live shrimp for bait. If you do decide to go with a large shrimp for bait remember to lighten the tackle and leader enough to make the presentation lifelike.
More About Muttons
Florida state and federal waters limits for mutton snapper are very liberal, as reef fish go: 10 per person bag limit, as part of the aggregate 10-fish snapper bag. Minimum size is 16 inches, measured as total length.
Important note: Florida anglers accustomed to planning spring mutton trips to The Bahamas must remember that the new island regulations permit the retention of only 20 pounds of scale fish in whole condition (which includes all snappers and groupers) per vessel.
The historical center of abundance for mutton snapper in Florida lies between Miami and Key West, including Gulf of Mexico waters out toward the Dry Tortugas. North of this area, scattered catches are reported, generally in 80 feet and deeper. Recent reports indicate the fish seem to be ranging even farther north. Last winter, Jacksonville anglers reported catching more and more muttons on offshore numbers, mostly starting in 100 feet.