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The Florida Reef Fishing Menu

Put a mark on the spot and put the meat in the boat.

Parts of the old Bayway Bridge are deployed off Clearwater in 45 feet, a good depth for snapper, mackerel and cobia. Greater amberjack, top right, are more common in deeper water. Photo by Pinellas County Artificial Reef Program; other reef installation photos by FWC Artificial Reef Program.


What kinds of fish might you find on the artificial reefs and wrecks around the Florida coast? That depends on season and latitude, to some extent. In midwinter, for instance, there’s a pretty big difference between the cold, nutrient-rich green water you’d encounter off Fernandina Beach, in far northeast Florida, and the warm, crystal clear Gulf Stream along the Florida Keys. Some fish have certain water temperature thresholds, while others have evolved to thrive in specific habitats, such as high-relief coral cover, or near estuarine nurseries.

Still, new anglers, or those interested in traveling to different parts of the Florida coast, can find it useful to look at artificial reefs (natural bottom structure, too) as classified by three depth ranges. Your angling approaches to these habitats needn’t change much from one stretch of Florida to another. We describe some basic methods on the following pages.

Shallow: 20 to 60 feet

Snapper, Grunt, Mackerel, Cobia, Permit, Sheepshead, Flounder, Cobia, Small Groupers

From gray snappers and grunts on bottom, to king mackerel at the mid-depths, all kinds of good-eating fish lurk around Florida’s shallow reefs. Structures in this depth range also commonly hold a mix of fish normally associated with inshore or bay waters. Sheepshead and flounder, for instance, are not uncommon. Big redfish and snook (the latter mostly in southern Florida waters) are also a possibility.

On reefs whose numbers are widely circulated, groupers—gags and reds, mostly tend to be “shorts.” One grouper, however, that’ll give you a serious pull on a shallow wreck is the goliath. Goliaths ranging from 40 to 400 pounds or more are increasingly abundant on peninsular Florida reefs in the 20- to 60-foot range.

Depending on your goals, your tackle might range from 10-pound-test spinning gear for pan-size snappers, to 100-pound-class tuna sticks for catch-and-release matches with goliaths.
This depth range is usually easy for anchoring. Be sure to figure out the drift before attempting to set the anchor, and begin up-current of the structure.

Chumming is a good tactic here. Start with a block of frozen chum in a mesh bag hanging at the transom. Augment the dissolving mixture with other tidbits appropriate for the fish you’re seeking—perhaps a few live sardines to get the mackerels excited.

Fish bottom rigs with circle hooks (required by law on the Gulf Coast and on the Atlantic side north of Melbourne) and live shrimp or cut bait for gray snapper and grouper. Shrimp also works great for sheepshead and hogfish. Live finger mullet is excellent for flounder; live pinfish, for grouper or cobia.

Concrete Reef Balls like these were added to 45- and 100-foot sites off Pinellas.

Send out a surface line with the largest live shrimp in your well, or whatever small, live finfish you’ve obtained for the day. A cork fastened to the line will help you keep that flatline bait where it belongs, not swimming back to the boat or interfering with other lines. The surface bait is likely to get a mackerel or possibly a large snapper.

Free-drifting small baits on spinning tackle is another excellent method. A bit of cut bait or shrimp on a small hook and very light leader will fool the wariest snappers, such as the larger grays and in South Florida—the yellowtails. Allow the bait to drift freely in the current as you strip line from the reel (putting the rodtip low to the water and using the sur- face tension on the line to sweep it off is a good technique, never allowing the line to tighten to the spool). When the line starts coming off quickly, close the bail and set the hook.

Another specialized tactic for the shallow reefs is fishing a live crab on a jighead or sliding sinker rig. Permit gang up on high-relief structures on both sides of the Florida peninsula, from the Keys (where take is prohibited in summer) north to roughly the “snook line”: New Port Richey to Cape Canaveral. A small blue crab hooked in the corner of the shell is deadly for permit, while going unmolested (usually) by mackerels and other interlopers.

Mid-Depths: 60 to 120 feet

Gag Grouper, Red Grouper, Red Snapper, Mutton Snapper, King Mackerel, Amberjack, African Pompano

Here’s where the grouper fishing usually gets good. Same for red snapper—at least during the pitifully short seasons established for them. These fish can weigh well into the 20-or 30-pound range, and they know how to move their bulk into the line-shredding cover of the reef. Accordingly, you need to tackle up. Thirty-pound-test conventional gear is a good start, for bottom rigs.

Mid-size amberjacks and cobia may be present, too. Near the surface, smoker kingfish, blackfin tunas and other speedsters are on the prowl.

So you’ll need to beef up your fishing tackle. Moreover, if you plan to anchor, you’ll probably need to beef up your anchor gear. Three-hundred feet of nylon anchor line, or rode, is a useful minimum for this range, and many boaters with sufficient storage capacity will carry double that figure. Also, it’s wise to terminate that rode with a length of chain roughly equal to the length of your boat, and increase the size somewhat from what’s commonly recommended for typical “lunch hook” needs. With a Danforth or claw anchor—both suitable for most Florida ocean bottom—the weight of extra chain helps the flukes dig in and hold with minimal scope, or length of line.

If you’re thinking that’s a lot to haul up by hand, you’re right. Unless your boat has a windlass, you’ll definitely want an anchor-retrieval ball to help bring your gear back to the surface. The poly balls are typically purchased with a stainless steel ring which clips around your anchor line. You power up and motor, at about trolling speed, upcurrent and slightly to the side of your anchor line; 20-degrees one side or the other is about right, enough to keep the line from fouling your prop. Once you’re past the anchor position, continue forward while the water pressure forces the ring and buoy to slide down the line until it engages the shank of the anchor and floats it to the surface. Keep the anchor line fixed to a sturdy bow cleat (never the transom!) while performing this procedure, and keep your crewmen away from the line as it tightens. Practice this procedure several times in calm water, close to shore, to get the feel for it. Have a very sharp, serrated knife close by in the event you accidentally foul your prop: In heavy current or any kind of sea, if you’re unable to quickly free the anchor line you may end up stalled stern-to; incoming water (especially in open-transom boats) may flood the deck, leading to major risk of capsizing. Also worth investigating are various anchor designs and components which allow for the anchor to be pulled out backwards if it’s stuck; one solution is to drill a hole in the bottom of a Danforth and shackle the chain there, using sacrificial wire ties to hold the chain along the shank.

Fishing tactics out here vary, depending on what you want to target. A sliding-sinker rig terminating in a live pinfish or other sturdy baitfish is excellent for grouper and large snappers. A fixed-weight dropper rig with one or more hooks (a.k.a. chicken rig) is good for snappers, triggerfish and others on cut bait. You’ll need weights of 2 to 12 ounces, generally, for the 60-to 120-foot depth range.

Always send out a bait on a flatline; even a dead sardine or ballyhoo slowly drifting through the water column may be attractive to roving king mackerel, cobia and other fish.

Drifting while bottom fishing is also an excellent approach, especially for boaters hesitant to drop anchor for the foregoing reasons.

Deep: 120 to ?

Gag Grouper, Black Grouper, Scamp, Red Snapper, Mutton Snapper, Sailfish, Dolphin, Wahoo, Amberjack

The true deepwater reefs, out of range of most scuba divers and very difficult for most boaters to anchor over, are where the powerhouse fish live. Amberjacks to 100 pounds, big gag grouper. Rare catches such as Warsaw or yellow-edge grouper.

Catching these fish is a specialized affair, and anchoring correctly at these depths is often more work than it’s worth for new boaters, requiring more rode than most small boats are set up to carry.

A better approach, if you want to plumb the depths, is to set up a drift so that you pass over the structure, then simply repeat the course. Try a three-way swivel rig with an 8-to 16-ounce ounce bank sinker. On one loop of the swivel, use a heavy monofilament leader for the bait. But tie the sinker to the other ring of the swivel using line that’s a little bit lighter than your fishing line. When you feel bottom, reel the sinker up a little ways so that you don’t snag the structure; if you do snag, the light line should break, allowing you to keep the rest of your rig. Metallic speed jigs or leadhead bucktails with plastic worms are also excellent in this environment.

Chumming is rarely effective at these depths, mostly because the current carries the tidbits away before they can reach bottom.

Of course, reaching bottom might not even be in your playbook on the deepest reefs. Bluewater pelagic fish are a strong possibility in these areas.

Sailfish, wahoo, dolphin and blackfin tuna may be caught all around the state, nearly year-round, on deepwater wrecks. Wahoo seem to be more abundant in the cooler months.

Slow-trolling live baits is an excellent method, and with some current, allows you to set up nearly stationary over the wreck or reef. Blue runners, sardines, mullet, ballyhoo—whatever you can get your hands on and get a hook in is liable to be eaten.

Faster trolling with plugs and skirted baits in the area is also a good option. Sometimes the gamefish are far from the wreck—and sometimes the waters directly over the waypoint are guarded by bait-shredding barracudas. FS

Reef Building Year in Review

Limestone module deepwater installation off Mexico Beach, Bay County.

Included is a list of artificial reefs deployed along the Florida coast over the last 12 months, provided by Keith Mille, Fisheries Biologist for the Division of Marine Fisheries Management and Artificial Reef Program.

The biggest deployment of 2013—apparently among the largest in the state, ever—consisted of three, 4,165-ton loads of bridge rubble from the Bayway Bridge construction project in Pinellas County. The rubble from the old Bayway Bridge was deployed about 11 miles west of Johns Pass.

“That was a project that came to the county at no cost,” said Mille. “The con- tractor determined that it was cheaper for them to leave the huge concrete pieces whole, and deploy them as an artificial reef, than going through the expense of cutting them into smaller pieces to truck them off to a landfill.”

Around the state, reef projects are funded through a mix of sources. Private local funding sources and donations account for about 50 percent of the cost of reef construction. Anglers, too, play a significant part in funding reef development.

“About half the funding for all Florida reefs comes through the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office,” said Mille. “Our office uses federal dollars from the Sport Fish Restoration Program, an excise tax on the sale of recreational fishing equipment. We match those funds with state dollars from the Marine Resources Trust Fund—revenue from the sale of saltwater fishing licenses. Some counties may also add fees to boating registrations, raising more funding for reefs.”

Arrays constructed of natural Florida limestone, such as these going in off Mexico Beach, FL, will quickly attract marine growth.

Mille said this year’s federal funding for reef development was $650,000, and from Florida saltwater fishing licenses, $300,000.

Many of the 2013 deployments consisted of specially fabricated concrete-and-limestone modules. They have sturdy bases and triangular or rounded sides to resist movement in current. Inside are cavities for groupers, snappers and other fish to hide in.

Mille hinted at new types of modules awaiting deployment in 2014—some as tall as 20 feet.

“We’ll be evaluating to see what are the benefits to funding larger single modules, as opposed to using the same funding to construct 10 units of normal size. It may depend on fish species— maybe we’ll see more amberjack and pelagic fish around the higher- profile reefs.”

He also said anglers along the Florida Panhandle (Bay through Escambia counties) should expect to see an upturn in funding for reef projects in 2014 and ’15. “There is funding coming to the state from part of the Deepwater Horizon restoration phase, from BP and the the intent is to offset the loss of fishing [summer of 2010] that was experienced during the oil spill.”

First Published Florida Sportsman June 2014

  • garretburke

    Sheepshead are my favorite and they’re quite easy to catch in Florida waters. All you need to do is find yourself a bridge or a pier with mussels on it. They’ll be close by. You don’t need fancy tackle for these fish. For example, I’ve been using rods / reels combos for them, similar to the ones mentioned here: http://hummingbirdfishfinderreviews.com/how-to-catch-sheepshead-tackle-for-sheepshead

  • RCoddington

    I am lucky to be working on the water this summer building one of the largest natural boulder reefs in South Florida, a pert of the mitigation for the Miami Harbor Deppening project. The reef, once completed will encompass over 9.5 acres and consist of up to 75,000 tons of limestone boulders.

    Amazing is the fact that it is inhabited with fish almost immediately. The first section was used to transplant living coral from the path of the dredge. After just 4 weeks of soaking, the new 1.8 acre section had a walk of lobsters top by with several hundred bugs up to 5 lbs each!

    While building the second section, mangrove snapper showed up in days, followed by Tarpon, Blacktip sharks, and hordes of hog snapper!

    Now while we work, we are met by a resident haswksbill turtle that comes up to the barge every morning and we see him often when inspecting the reef with ROV’s during deployment.

    While we don’t want anyone on the reef during construction,once completed it will be a great fishing area for both bait and reef fish.

    Ron Coddington