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Scuttle Me Timbers

Scuttle Me Timbers
Scuttle Me Timbers

Man made reefs just keep getting built, and anglers love 'em.

Anglers seldom anchor over submerged wrecks to bait up pelagic fish, but that's exactly what we were doing only minutes after our anchor line came taut. From a livewell brimming with bait, Jeff Weakley was tossing handfuls of wiggling pilchards behind our anchored office boat, the mighty Manta (pride of the Stuart fleet).

Colorful corals attract a wide variety of fish.

Much to our surprise, except for Jeff, who seems to expect these things, a dark sail popped up only 20 yards astern, within easy casting range. It casually eased around, gulping single baitfish that suddenly found themselves between the devil and deep blue sea, so to speak, with nowhere to run. Or hide; that big sail was making short work of them. Another handful of bait was flung out, with crew members pointing at the twisting sail. I groped for a fat pilchard in the well and pinned a brown, offset circle hook just forward of its eyes.


Florida has a good slate of new reefs for this year.
 

The medium spin outfit arced that livie right into the strike zone, which for sailfish must be about 20 yards, and the line quickly came tight with the reel in gear. When the rod was bowed up like a banana and the drag singing, I pumped it twice and handed it off to my son Ian, who hung on while the sail smoked for the horizon. Sandwiches flew in the air, and getting the anchor line on its buoy was a comedy to watch, since our crew of offshore veterans, wives and teenagers had not previously worked together as a team. One motor sputtered to life and I spun the boat around and began to follow the fish, Ian easing up to the bow, keeping the rod high and bent.

Free to follow, our only worry now was a wad of sargassum weed on that 20-pound line. More than a dozen leaps later, we unhooked the sail and released it after pictures. The circle hook had done a perfect job. So had the wreck, for that matter, which attracts a lot more critters than just bottom fish. Back on our anchor buoy, we were soon live-chumming bonito, with doubleheaders hooked up. A nice dolphin soon came aboard, along with several bottom fish.

New Florida Reefs

For a complete list of new reefs in florida, go to our bonus story at: www.floridasportsman.com/bonus/050324

 

You gotta love Florida's offshore artificial reefs; they simply attract fish across the entire spectrum, from billfish to snapper. With several thousand permitted artificial reefs, Florida just keeps building more all the time. (Today's reefs are greatly refined from earlier years, when fishermen dumped the wrong stuff over the side, even refrigerators that floated away. That's why today's materials are restricted mostly to concrete and ships).

Dropping concrete offshore is easy, with the right gear.

“We have our state artificial reef fund secured for this year, another $600,000,” says Bill Horn, an environmental specialist in the artificial reef section of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “All are scheduled for sinking before the end of June, because the permits expire then. You have to get a permit for a reef, and they won't give you one if your site is near live bottom. We're trying to enhance non-productive areas, so we stay away from live bottom.”

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As it turns out, Florida has a pretty good slate of new artificial reefs scheduled for this year. First in line is Oriskany in Pensacola, the Vietnam-era aircraft carrier that is more than 800 feet long.

“ Oriskany needs about 20 percent more cleaning.” Horn said in January. “We're waiting for final approval from the EPA before sinking her. There will be PCBs left on board, for instance. She's scheduled to be sunk this spring. We've found a spot in 212 feet of water, so the carrier's top will be 60 feet below the surface. The site is about 25 miles southeast of Pensacola, towards the DeSoto dropoff. It's only 30 miles from Destin. The only access divers will have is the island portion (above the flight deck) which has been thoroughly cleansed of wiring. Below the flight deck will require some advanced certification for diving. It's a hard sand bottom, with no rock or live bottom for several miles around. The currents there depend on local tides, but there is no constant current there like the Gulf Stream.”

Some ships are sunk with a crowd-pleasing fireball.

According to Horn, nearby Okaloosa County that surrounds Destin has four grants from the state this year, and it looks like they'll be concrete modules, probably reef balls. There are three manufacturers of reef balls, so they will be put up for bid. Each of the four offshore sites sits in 100 to 110 feet.

Farther south on Florida's Gulf Coast, Citrus County has built some units with concrete light poles, and put them together like Lincoln Log sets. They're building 10 of these in 40 feet of water. Each unit weighs 140 tons, and they have a 10-foot relief above bottom.

Pelagics Like It On Top

Some days there's more action on top than below, and it begs the question: Shouldn't more anglers pay attention to pelagic fish around Florida's popular, published wrecks, instead of automatically dumping lead and baits on every rod?

“Wrecks are very useful for finding pelagic fish,” says Capt. George LaBonte in Jupiter. “Our local guides target wrecks for baitfish and barracuda, but t hat bait cloud usually present attracts other pelagics. Baitfish are the big attractor, not the wreck itself. A wreck concentrates everything, while a long, natural reef or live bottom scatters bait. Wrecks offer pinpoint fishing, and certainly offer a better shot than trolling in open water with no bait around. In open water, you're just trying to cross paths with a fish that's looking for bait.

“So, any time I bottom fish on a wreck or reef, I always have a high line set out, with a live bait back behind the boat. You can put up a kite rig (or helium balloon) and that surface bait is completely out of your way. We also fish a mid-water bait, far enough back to stay out of the way. Think surface, middle and bottom,” LaBonte said. If bait is frying on the surface, then something is down there making them nervous, and it may be pelagic fish. Baitfish don't even like the surface, because there are diving birds above.

“Only problem is, there are not enough wrecks off Jupiter or the Treasure Coast. Broward and Dade are covered up in wrecks, but the bottom fish there really get scoured. If you're the first guy to visit those wrecks just after a storm, and before the divers arrive, you might catch some decent bottom fish. Only a storm can rejuvenate those spots.”

LaBonte, known occasionally for his sardonic wit, offered this advice: “Would you please advise everyone to stay off my favorite wrecks.”

 

Palm Beach County—an active reef-building county in recent years—got a big grant of $60,000 for a limestone boulder reef. They're going to place boulders between shipwrecks already offshore, to lead divers back and forth.

Dade County is putting down 1,000 tons of boulders offshore. The boulders are very close to natural reef rock, so there are lots of nooks and crannies for the fish. This is a county that has deployed a great many wrecks over the years, and it will be interesting to see how these new low-relief boulder piles produce.

“Martin County is putting in 35 ‘Florida Special' pyramids,” said Horn. They're tetrahedrons (three-sided pyramids), hollow concrete frames with metal attached. We've had a lot of success with them in the Panhandle; Walter Marine in nearby Alabama builds them. They hold a lot of fish, and they hold up well in hurricanes. They rise up 10 feet, and the current passes through them.”

As for hurricane damage on Florida's artificial reefs, the state has documented several older wrecks with visible damage. Off Martin County (a favorite romping ground for two of last year's hurricanes) the Rankin, a cargo ship sunk in 1985, was visibly banged up; in fact it was cracked and split. It didn't move, however. Deep-water sites such as the 168-foot Wickstrom sunk in 190 feet east of Stuart, were reported intact and producing large numbers of fish. Off nearby St. Lucie another cargo ship, the Muliphen, had its bow cracked off.

“Generally we had good luck with the concrete reefs; they tend to survive way better than tire reefs. Over 1,000 old tires washed ashore after Hurricane Ivan. They were last sunk offshore in 1990, so these tires were at least 14 years old. They're unstable and they move,” Horn said.

The very large warsaw grouper prowls above Wickstrom Reef, a small ship sunk in deeper water.

Around Stuart a number of new rock ledges were uncovered by the two hurricanes that hit there. Other ledges, fished for years, have disappeared beneath shifting sands. So, it's a new ballgame there.

On the Gulf Coast, the Organization for Artificial Reefs (OAR), based out of Tallahassee, with assistance from Franklin County and the Florida Department of Transportation, disposed of the old St. George Island bridges a little more than a year ago. In doing so they created a huge artificial reef off Franklin County's coast in Florida's Big Bend.

Which Wrecks are Best?

The Jacksonville Offshore Fishing Club (JOFC) has built over 300 reefs offshore in the last few years, so they know a little something about artificial reefs. They get their share of plane and private boat wrecks, as well.

Captain Dennis Young has been heavily involved with JOFC, and fishes constantly out of Mayport. He may have forgotten about more trips over artificial reefs, than many anglers will ever know. Which types of wrecks are his favorite?

“That depends on the area you're in, and the pressure,” he explained. “A wreck off Miami in shallow water would be worn out. Here off North Florida, a site in 40 to 100 feet can be great, if it's kept quiet. Aluminum plane wrecks are best for snapper. Wooden wrecks attract loads of flounder. There are other factors: In July and August, even September, barracuda will ruin any pelagic fishing and trolling with live baits around our reefs. 'Cudas ruin a lot of snapper inshore; sometimes they get half of them. We like it when they leave in the fall.

“If we troll in summer around a wreck, we stay at least 100 yards away to avoid the 'cudas, hoping instead for kingfish, bonito,

AJ's, even African pompano.

“I prefer smaller wrecks, because it concentrates the fish. You can anchor within a few feet of them every time, with a little practice. A washout hole beside them in the sand can be detected, and that's usually great for fish. Or a hole in the side of a wreck. Storms

can fill these in, but the tides wash them clean again.”

“With those huge wrecks, the bottomfish move around too much. Can you imagine anchoring on the Oriskany? It will be good for trolling wahoo and maybe yellowfin tuna, or jigging for amberjack, but I'm not so sure about the bottom fishing.”

Sometimes, Capt. Young sees more than he bargains for. “I was fishing in 78 feet of water around Christmas, hoping for amberjacks and a fishfry. Something was cutting off our amberjack, which is unusual in colder weather. Then a sea turtle came up and looked at us. Two white sharks followed him up, and each one was 15 or 16 feet long. They kept trying to take a bite out of him. But he would turn sideways and they couldn't quite fit their mouth around him. It was quite a show. I see white sharks off Mayport all the time when the water is cold. They're here through March, following the right whale migration.”

 

“The bridge project turned out very well,” says Scott Vascavage, who runs OAR. “We took a mile of old bridge and created a reef offshore, that stretches 1.5 miles by a quarter mile wide. We created three lines for trollers, and in between lines we dumped rubble. Often we had continuous lines made up of 50- by 28-foot, solid bridge sections left intact. Each piece weighed 210 to 220 tons. There are 75 of those sections.

“They had to use rollers on the barge; a big crane could hardly pick up a piece of concrete that heavy,” said Vascavage. “Today they're sitting on rock substrate offshore. They really blew out the sand when they landed. That bridge was 45 years old, and the pH level of the concrete had really dropped off. As a result, macro organisms started growing rapidly. We're talking about a lot of coral growing there. The snapper population moved in there so quickly, that was the most surprising thing. People were catching fish on one end, before we finished the project. Kings showed up in the summer. When snapper season opened, a lot of fishermen caught reds and mangroves. It was almost impossible not to catch them. Last winter, grouper replaced the snapper.”

Vascavage's group has been at the forefront of reef-building in recent years, an example of a successful partnership of grassroots individuals with local and state governments. “This year, we're applying for a new reef off Wakulla County,” he said.

“But that depends on the Corps of Engineers. We've picked out a site about six miles southeast of our Marker 24 reef. This one will be Prefab modules—maybe fish havens or reef balls with some culverts thrown in. They may be prefab modules, perhaps made by ReefMaker in Alabama. They're tetrahedrons made out of rebarb and concrete. They snag hooks, unfortunately, but we'd like to see how they work with fish, and monitor them. We want reef designs that work best.”

FS




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