May 16, 2011
Was it really your biggest snook ever, or just one of those bodacious baby jewfish?
Snook fishermen throughout the Ten Thousand Islands cannot help but notice a strange phenomenon taking place. Big snook have stopped jumping. For as long as anyone can remember, a snook's attack has been the same: a pop like an underwater bazooka, followed by a startling, gill-rattling golden jump, and then the climactic run into the mangrove roots where the trophy fish inevitably wins the battle.
These days, however, that has all changed. Ask any angler about his day, and the story is always the same. Lots of small snook caught, but the big ones just were too strong-barreled like bulls right into the trees.
This sounds normal enough, but if you ask them if those wily leviathans jumped, the deflated fisherman invariably says, "Naw. Probably didn't have to. The brute was so strong he just ran straight under the bank. Felt like it was fifty pounds!"
The weight might not be an exaggeration. This new generation of jumpless snook is, indeed, large. Occasionally, someone is lucky enough to land one of these Larry Birds of snook, and he discovers that these snook do not even look like a traditional snook. The color is too dark, the stripe is all muddled and vertical instead of horizontal, and the fish's shape is oddly much like that of a grouper. In fact, those with an identification book might even say that thissnook looks almost exactly like one of those giant jewfish that haunt the offshore wrecks around Florida. Several years ago, jewfish populations had collapsed. The fearless giants were easy targets for commercial spearfishermen who would hop from wreck to wreck slaughtering the jewfish that came out to investigate. Other commercial take as well as recreational fishing added to the pressure, and by the end of the 1980s the species was in danger of annihilation. Fortunately, jewfish were granted protection in 1990 that completely restricted any taking, and the leviathan of our inshore waters was saved.
The recovery has been relatively quick and very successful. Offshore jewfish in some areas are extremely plentiful and are, in fact, now considered a liability by many anglers who consistently lose their grouper, snapper or even permit to these aggressive fish. No one is complaining, however, in the backwater, where juvenile jewfish to 75 pounds have become a common year-round catch. This species has just added one more exciting, large target to an already appetizing backcountry selection.
Of course, most jewfish hits are actually mistaken for snook. The jewfish hang under the mangroves like the snook, and they always run under the trees and often break the line. Guides do not help this case of mistaken identification. When a customer's rod is slammed to the gunnel by a fish that bolts under the bank and breaks the line, and the angler is dancing around the boat boasting about the world record snook that just humbled him, there are not many captains who go out of their way to correct him. In fact, under the pressure of a slow day, I, myself, when asked what unseen monster had just stripped my angler's reel, might even, just once, have mumbled, "Probably a big snook; in fact, that had to be a hell of a snook. There was no stopping him."
Guides might not want to admit it, but there are slow days even in the Ten Thousand Islands, and I didn't go to college for nothing; so, when my 8-year-old daughter suggested that when snook, redfish and tarpon are dieting, a tussle with a few broad-shouldered jewfish is a lot better than nothing, it only took me a few years to give in. Thus, I became acquainted with the jewfish.
In a world of fussy, finicky, quirky, elusive fish, the jewfish is alluringly unique in that it is absolutely fussless. A jewfish eats more than a teenage boy and is hungry under any conditions. It feeds in dirty water, clean water, probably sewer water. It eats on strong, weak and slack tides, and any bait, dead or alive, seems a gourmet delight. It does not seem to care if the water is cold or warm, or even if a boat is sitting over its head. The jewfish is, in fact, what every adolescent boy dreams of-an easy catch.
Unlike the high schooler's dream, however, the jewfish is also easy to find. They hang under washed-out banks or near downed trees, and, most importantly, always stay in the same spot. In an ongoing tagging program in the Everglades, jewfish that had been tagged and recaptured a year later were all within 100 feet of where they had been caught the year before.
The fact is that jewfish are homebodies. You cannot move them out of their holes with anything less than dynamite, which means that once you catch a few in a certain location, you can come back and catch them there all year. Any angler who tries will quickly accumulate enough jewfish lairs to allow him to tussle with a giant grouper anytime fishing is other-wise slow.
I caught one jewfish so many times that I eventually named him Lips. Lips lived in a deep hole full of limestone caves where the current was very strong. I could only fish for him on the slack tide and with heavy tackle. Anything less and he would break off in the bottom. Often, at a party's request, I would use lighter tackle, invariably lose, and then have to come back the next week, catch the fish and remove the hook from the week before. I probably caught that fish 20 times over the period of a year. We kind of grew up together, both getting a little fatter each time we saw each other. I stopped fishing that area and haven't been back in years. If Lips is still there, he probably weighs a thousand pounds and has more lip rings than a punk rock singer with a security complex.
At first, I viewed the jewfish like everyone else, an emergency target, but I could not help but notice the enthusiasm of my clients as they brought up one of these exotically marked bank dwellers. Soon, I began offering the fish as a choice, and found it often selected. As I learned more about this backcountry grouper, I began to appreciate him more and became a little more fanatical in my approach. Why not light-tackle jewfishing? Maybe even artificials.
Fishing jewfish on 10-pound-test line and jigs is quite a challenge. Catching jewfish on light tackle in the backcountry would be an impossibility if it were not for a flaw in the jewfish's tactics. Jewfish are a grouper, and anyone who has fished for grouper offshore knows that 10-pound-test line does not stop a 30-pound black grouper from getting to its hole. Offshore fishermen often use 50- or even 80-pound test to stop these brutes, so how does a backwater fisherman with his cute little spinning rod defeat one of these bulls?
The answer is a little finesse and lots of patience.
The key to catching a jewfish is the knowledge that this fish seldom moves down along the bank when it takes out line. Jewfish run straight for their hole, and then stay there. If you keep tension on the line and do not break the fish off, it
will eventually come back out the same way that it went in. I have had fish pull me back in five or six times, and I could still muscle them out and eventually land them and get them to the boat.
There are two other hints that help greatly when fighting a jewfish. One is to stick your rod deep into the water when the fish runs under the bank. This keeps the line away from the sharp barnacles and oysters that grow on the mangrove roots hanging down in the water. This same technique is necessary to land big snook, especially on the higher tide. Another old trick used by both offshore and backwater anglers to move that jewfish out of its hole when it is settled in, is to play a tune on the line.
This sounds silly, but it works.
Pull the line tight and pluck the string. I sing "Suwannee River" with mine, but even rap works. Jewfish and grouper seem to hate the vibration and move out into the open where they can be fought and tired. I have had a few friends who hint that maybe it is my singing and the grouper is coming out to kill me to shut me up, but whatever the reason, this technique actually works.
Of course, you cannot catch fish if you cannot find them. The best places for jewfish are on the sharp bends of rivers and creeks. The sharper the turn, the deeper the banks will be undercut. Jewfish love these caves.
Old Everglades fishermen used to make their living fishing these holes with hand lines and cutbait. Of course, when you are keeping your catch, you can't go back to the same hole each day, but there are plenty of such areas. To the south, the Huston, Chatham and Lostmans river systems certainly have their share of jewfish. I often fish for them in the Little Wood and Wood River, but an actual river is not necessary; any cut between the islands or hole along a deep pass can hold fish.
There are also areas of deep water where the bottom is full of limestone caves. Usually these are areas of heavy current that enter or exit bays. The water may be 20 or more feet deep, and the bottom will read like the ledges and holes in the Keys. Jewfish, grouper and snapper all congregate in these areas, and the fishing often seems more like offshore fishing than backwater. Unfortunately, this is not an area where light tackle is very successful. The sharp edges of the caves make 30-pound gear a necessity, but the action is still fun and the accompanying gag grouper make great eating.
On the high tide, the jewfish will move out of their cuts and holes and cruise along the banks near the bays. Sometimes, they even move out into the shallows, and anyone who routinely sightfishes has seen jewfish in the shallows. Some anglers have even caught them on flies. When these fish are in the open they are much more vulnerable to a light-tackle attack.
I fished with Kerry Brinson from Pensacola last year. We were working a shallow bank near Pumpkin Bay when he hooked into a monster "snook" on 10-pound-test line. The fish moved up and down the bank, but there were no caves or snags, so the giant grouper did what all grouper do, he moved out away from the shore into the deepest water available and dove to the bottom. With no structure to end the fight, it was simply a matter of patience. Brinson is a good fisherman, and even though I mistakenly told him he certainly was battling a useless nurse shark, he maintained his discipline and eventually brought the beast to the boat-a fat jewfish well over 50 pounds, quite a catch on 10-pound-test spinning gear. Jigs tipped with shrimp are quite effective for jewfish, but if the snapper are around, they are too fast to the bait. If you are specifically targeting jewfish, a chunk of ladyfish or other fresh cutbait works best. Fishermen who want larger jewfish often prefer whole catfish, but this is difficult on light tackle. A 1-inch cube is ideal because it casts well and sinks quickly without a weight. If the current is strong, you need enough weight to hold it down. Adding a 3-foot, 30-pound-test leader certainly helps since even a small jewfish will bull you to the bank at least once.
If you have no favorite spots, work undercut banks or downed trees. Cast the bait right up to the bank, let it sink and wait for two or three minutes. If you do not catch a fish, move on. You can cover quite a bit of water this way. Jewfish will take the bait quickly if they're nearby, and by the end of the day, you will have several dependable holes.
If you catch one fish, stay for a while. A spot typically holds several fish. Often six or more will be pulled out of one cave, but interestingly, the size of the fish will decrease with each cast. It seems the biggest fish is the most aggressive and gets the first bait. Often you lose the big mama and papa fish but then catch the children. Thirty to 50-pound jewfish are common, but so are 5-pound babies, so if you remain in a good spot, sooner or later, any angler can land a jewfish, even if it is the size of an oscar.
One negative about jewfishing is the bycatch. If you toss chunks of ladyfish under banks and downed trees, you are bound to be interrupted by big snook and tarpon. You can easily identify these and other trash fish. Unlike the jewfish, the snook will jump out of the water and then inconsiderately run down the bank, snagging your line on the overhanging oyster-laden mangrove roots. The tarpon is the big silver fish that jumps over your boat and spits the lure in your face. If your line comes back without a hook, blame it on a shark with his nuisance teeth.
The much more gentlemanly jewfish would certainly never stoop to such tactics and chicanery. He fights you one-on-one, muscle to muscle. The strongest man or fish wins. It is only fitting then, that this fish be protected. At the end of such a chivalrous, honorable battle, you both shake, hand to fin, and part a better man or fish from the experience.
Jewfish on the Rebound
Has the jewfish population recovered to a healthy level? Some fishermen think so, even going so far as to say the big groupers have become a nuisance on wrecks in Florida Bay. But at least one scientist isn't ready to call it a success just yet.
"Based on what we're seeing, there are a lot of juveniles around in the Ten Thousand Islands, where there is good nursery habitat," said Felicia Coleman, a Florida State University research associate currently working on a jewfish tagging study. "But whether the fish have recovered throughout their range is debatable."
Coleman cited two other concerns-the age and size structures of the population. Jewfish are a late-maturing, long-lived species, which makes them particularly susceptible to overfishing (as does their boldness and indiscriminate appetite).
"They can live 35 years or more, and we'd like to see more of the older fish. Right now there are more in the 8- to 12-year range," said Coleman, adding that the largest fish recorded in the study so far weighed around 400 pounds. Jewfish can grow much larger, reportedly up to an incredible 1,000 pounds.
Fishermen are urged to participate in the ongoing study by reporting jewfish catches, tagged or not. Simply call the Florida Marine Research Institute at 1-800-367-4461. Informatio
n like length of the fish and where you caught it is especially useful to researchers. Remember that jewfish are still under total protection; they are very hardy, but nonetheless should be handled with care and released quickly after capture.