In winter, shallow wrecks, banks and markers attract all sorts of visitors to the leeward side of the Florida Keys.
“What’s this guy doing over here?” Capt. Chris Daly wondered aloud.
He was holding a yellowtail snapper, which he’d caught on a small jig over a wreck in 10 feet of water.
Yellowtails are commonly associated with deep Atlantic coral ridges along the Florida Keys, and not the green, grassy expanses of Florida Bay.
Of course, Chris may have been having a moment of self-reflection. Had one of his buddies happened by, seeing Chris with a light spinner in the back of a bay boat, the observer may have voiced a similar question: “What’s that guy doing over here?
But, they know better than to play where they work. Chris, it so happens, is captain of the Finnster, a cherry, 47-foot Buddy Davis out of Islamorada. His “office” is the Atlantic side of the Overseas Highway, where he targets sailfish, dolphin and reef fish.
Each morning, Chris checks out of his slip and heads southeast. At the same time, Capt. Juan Garcia is often heading the other direction—west into Florida Bay, with a load of fresh shrimp and chum aboard his 22-foot Bay Ranger. The two are friends, and on a breezy spring day, Chris joined Juan for a “fun fishing” excursion out into Florida Bay.
I was stoked to tag along. My own experiences in Florida Bay have been primarily of the skinny-water sort, poling banks like Rabbit Key, Twin Key and Peterson for bonefish and redfish. With Chris fresh off a week of sailfish action, together we brought some energy.
Our day began as many do, loading up with dozens of live shrimp and several blocks of frozen chum, at World Wide Sportsman, on the bay side of Islamorada. Juan had already loaded up some live pilchards that he’d penned up at La Siesta Resort, where he keeps his boat.
“I like to keep the baitfish and the shrimp separated,” he explained, adding water to the crustacean well in his bay boat.
No sense buying live pinfish: Within seconds of deploying a chum block over a little wreck, Juan was able to dipnet pinfish right off the back of the boat!
The first wreck we hit was just out of sight of land, out past Sprigger Bank, about a 20-mile run from port. The water was 10 feet deep.
Wrecks in Florida Bay come in many forms—scuttled shrimpboats, lobster boats, derelict skiffs and such—but they’re hard to find. There’s nothing in the way of artificial reef development on this side of the Keys. State and federal bureaucrats have long sought to discourage placement of structures here. Public numbers, as such, don’t exist. Locating bay wrecks is a catch-as-catch-can endeavor.
“One thing I look for, when we’re running, is a white spot,” said Juan. “It might be little rocks or hard bottom, but the grass didn’t grow there for a reason. Lots of times seagrass doesn’t grow around the edges of a wreck or rubble pile. You can see the sand around it.”
Sea turtles are another tipoff; loggerheads commonly snooze around reefs. Schools of baitfish dimpling the surface is another good sign, on days when it’s calm enough to see them. Attention to these kinds of details may reveal a shallow-reef jackpot anywhere on Florida coastal waters.
Juan divides his time between the ocean side of the Upper Keys, where there are countless coral heads and hard bottom patches, and the boundless backcountry—the Bay side, or Gulf side, depending on who you’re talking to and how far you are from Everglades National Park. His log of GPS numbers for the backcountry is impressive.
Florida Keys captains guard the location of bay wrecks carefully, but in recent years another group of sentinels has arisen to thwart the efforts of would-be snapper and grouper fishermen: the goliaths.
The first spot Juan, Chris and I fished had a notorious heavy lurking next to it. When you’re the non-local on the boat, it’s something of a masochistic rite of passage to try your luck with a goliath.
Juan rigged up a dead ladyfish on a giant circle hook, with 400-pound leader and a 50-pound-class outfit. He pitched it close to the wreck and the bait slowly sank. We went back to the business at hand—catching Spanish mackerel, snappers and other light tackle fish. When the rodtip pulsed, I reluctantly picked up the big rod, reeled down and promptly got rocked up. I backed off the drag.
“We think that fish buries itself under the wreck,” said Juan.
I thought about the sitation for a few minutes, then had an idea. Juan’s boat was anchored alongside the wreck, which was about 50 feet to port, with about that much anchor line. The fish, I realized, was big enough to literally steer our 22-foot boat toward the wreck.
“Juan, put your wheel hard over to starboard, crank the engine, and when I say so, hit it in reverse.”
After a few minutes, I picked up the big rod again, reeled up the slack, and hollered at the captain.
Suddenly I was locked in a ridiculous triangle, the 250-horse outboard pulling one way, the ¾-inch anchor line holding fast, the goliath pulling the other way. It was like I was a medieval heretic being drawn and quartered.
Fortunately the hook straightened before I ruptured a disc.
Chris was the one doubled-over in pain, laughing.
The wreck looked plenty promising, especially with the hordes of pinfish holding at our transom. Cobia, kingfish and football-size mangrove snapper are common on these kinds of spots, especially November through April. Big redfish, too, sometimes blitz the bay wrecks.
“In winter, when it gets really cold, those schools of big bull reds in the Gulf of Mexico push in closer to the edges of Everglades National Park. We catch them once in a while on structure,” Juan said.
“And all these wrecks have sharks on them.”
Some of the best shark fishing occurs on the nearby banks, where Garcia will chum with barracuda, ladyfish or jack crevalle carcasses tied off to the boat. Here, with little structure or depth, you can sight-fish sharks on somewhat lighter tackle than would be advisable around wrecks. But not too light.
“We were doing one afternoon shark trip, and we were waiting on the fish to show up,” Juan recalled. “We see this giant tail sticking out of the water—it was a 9-foot tiger shark, all lit up in 3½ feet of water. My customers fought that thing for an hour or two. It was a beautiful fish.”
For anglers who prefer to catch fish that’ll fit in an icebox, mangrove snapper are the cream of the crop in Florida Bay. Because these waters are managed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Council, circle hooks are required if you’re targeting snappers and other reef fish with natural baits.
Live shrimp are excellent mangrove baits, fished back in a chum slick on a 2/0 or 3/0 circle hook with a splitshot sinker. Pinfish steaks are even better, mainly because they hold up to the incessant pecking of juvenile snappers and other critters.
Garcia has good luck casting artificials for snappers while drift fishing open grassflats. “While we drift, I’ll have guys throw ¼- to 3⁄8-ounce bucktails. As we drift, the pinfish follow the boat, then the ladyfish, and then the snappers follow. The longer the drift, the more fish follow.” At times he’ll add scent-impregnated Gulp! tails to the jigs; either way—plain or seasoned—a traditional J-hook jig is permissible, as long as your forego natural bait.
Seatrout are another great option, and the fishery has been strong in recent years.
“We usually fish in 4 to 6 feet of water, in lakes between the banks,” said Garcia. “I look for tall, healthy seagrass and good current. Where the tide from the Gulf of Mexico is flowing in or out, it funnels a lot of bait. A good trout in Florida Bay is 24 inches, but last year we got one that was 31 inches.”
We made a few drifts in a good-looking stretch near Blue and Oxfoot banks, and Chris and Juan brought several trout to the boat in the 20-plus-inch range. Both fished a jig under a popping cork. The loud, splashy cork is great for calling in fish, when you’re making long prospect drifts across open water.
We finished our day at the western edge of Everglades National Park, almost within sight of Flamingo. The boundary markers—permanent structures gathering marine life along migratory routes of countless gamefish—produce a variety of catches, including jacks, tripletail and cobia. Juan said the cobia sometimes hunker down on bottom around the markers, and it pays to spend a little time fishing there, especially during the winter. Tripletail, too, show up more and more as water temps cool.
“We fish for tripletail more in the winter, but they’re here all year,” said Garcia, “What helps is the stone crab traps— when the crab season opens in October, they lay up traps all around the park boundary. You can go from one buoy to the next, looking for tripletail.”
As Garcia’s bayboat skimmed across a green Gulf chop, we could see innumerable traps stretching to the horizon. Some of the buoys held those suspicious, shaggy-brown shapes that, on closer inspection, reveal themselves to be nothing more than anonymous blobs of algae. Others turn out to be tripletail. Using live shrimp, we caught a few fish right on the edge of the minimum size, 15 inches total length. There can be a surprising amount of current out here, and that turned out to be the case. Juan and Chris fired their casts upcurrent and a little beyond the fish, reeling to pick up line and direct the corks so that the jig-and-shrimp combo would slide right into the tripletail’s field of view.
It’s a visual treat, watching a tripletail peel away from its patch of shade to eat a bait. And if you get a keeper, it’s an epicurean treat, later that evening, to cook up that tasty, white meat.FS
Accommodations and Getting Around
We stayed at the Postcard Inn at Holiday Isle, a refurbished beachfront hotel in the heart of Islamorada at mile marker 84. Rooms were clean with a nice ocean view.There are charter and rental boats at the marina, and a paved boat ramp for hotel guests. Tiki Bar is still a tourist hotspot, but Shula Burger is where you’re likely to bump into Keys residents. There was plenty of parking for a pickup truck and bayboat trailer, but call ahead and confer with the front desk before holiday periods. See www.holidayisle.com or call (305) 664-2321.
There are many other options in this part of the Keys. La Siesta Resort (305-664-2132) has Gulfside and oceanside slips at mile marker 80. Among the room options are self-contained suites and bungalows with kitchenettes. Cheeca Lodge (305-664-4651) has long been popular among visiting anglers looking for luxe digs.
Countless guides serve the area. You can find boats at the marinas, or through the Tourism Development Council (www.fla-keys.com). Juan Garcia’s website is www.fishingcharterinislamorada.com; Chris Daly’s www.finnstercharters.com.
Navigating open waters of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico is pretty straightforward with a GPS or paper chart. Lakes and banks in Everglades National Park require more caution. Visitors are advised to get a copy of the “Florida Bay Map and Guide,” produced by the Florida Keys Guides Association and Everglades National Park. Check with marinas and boating supply shops or see Resources page at www.ecomariner.org.