July 10, 2012
Springtime on the Bank
Inside or outside, these waters offer a fishy spring getaway.
You could see the desperation in the faces of the anglers as the clock ticked down. With just seconds left, Adam swung a nice yellowtail flag into the cockpit and yelled, "Hurry-pass up another piece of bally!" Too late. As time expired, Sarah had just released her ninth yellowtail in the half hour contest to secure victory over the three boys onboard.
The impromptu yellowtail derby in Grand Cay's Channel came about when fishing offshore in 20-knot east winds was the unacceptable alternative. It was clear the kids preferred the constant rod bending fun of the calm and very alive patch reefs. But it wasn't as easy for me, hearing the chatter on channel 71 talk about big dolphin being caught just offshore.
Our fishing vacation had begun two days before as we nosed into 3- to 4-foot head seas just outside of the St. Lucie Inlet. Whitecaps and steady 15-knot east winds weren't what we had hoped for, or expected. As I watched our crew-my two daughters, one of their friends and my wife-get in position for the ride I couldn't stop wondering where all this wind came from. Just the day before I got an early morning call from a very happy Kent Hughes, who was already 20 miles from land, humming along at 27 knots in near flat seas. Our plan was to catch up with Hughes on the other side.
Even a rough crossing is better than no crossing, I reckoned, but as the third consecutive wave ran down the Isen Glass I couldn't help but read my wife's thoughts screaming at me, "Why couldn't we have left yesterday?"
But that's the way it can go when you're trying to squeeze in a spring fling to The Bahamas. Stuart to Grand Cay is a little over 90 miles and for most boats in good to moderate conditions it's less than a four-hour trip. However, even though we didn't have too rough a go at the crossing it took every bit of seven hours. I kept thinking that the ride would improve once we hit the bank near White Sand Ridge. It never did. The head seas didn't really calm down until we were 15 miles from Grand, when the Lili Bank and Triangle rocks finally gave us some reprieve from the wind.
Fishing Grand Cay waters is like fishing many places in Florida, except some key points. Much like the southern Atlantic coast of Florida you have patch reefs, nearby deep bluewater dropoffs and crystal-clear bonefish flats adjacent to barrier islands separating the bank and the ocean.
The differences, though not that many, are almost all positive. Foremost is the lack of fishing pressure. If you see a fishing boat within 20 miles of Grand Cay odds are they're staying there, and except for a few major tournaments and club outings you rarely have more than 20 boats fishing the area on a typical spring or summer day.
Another difference, and directly related to the first one, is a very healthy fish population-inshore and offshore. The reefs are alive with a wide variety of snapper, mackerel, triggerfish and an occasional keeper grouper. And when it comes to the offshore fishery, which is the No. 1 reason that most anglers make the ocean crossing to fish this northernmost island in the Abaco chain, you couldn't find a better lineup of bluewater sluggers. During May and June the yellowfin tuna bite is almost automatic-if you're willing to do a little running. The dolphin can be large and plentiful and are right out front at this time of year. And, if that's not enough, throw in a smattering of blackfins, a wahoo or two and billfish.
Unfortunately the same wind that turned our four-hour trip into seven was still blowing the following morning. Most of Grand's fishing fleet was still tied to the dock as we joined the Hughes' crew at our boats. In interests of avoiding a family mutiny, we opted to stay inshore and explore the surrounding waters of Grand Cay.
After leaving the marina we followed Kent through a blizzard of 2-foot white-caps, to a long pristine beach on the leeside of neighboring Walker's Cay. We anchored as close to the island as possible and everyone assumed their positions. Hannah and her teenage friend Autumn took to the bow with plans to tan, the moms talked "mom" and the dads talked "dad" while the three 10-year-olds chased each other in, on and off the boats.
No one seemed to notice 7-year-old Drew until he was almost invisible more than a mile down the beach. He was running toward us. As he got closer we could tell he was screaming something, "Bonefish, BIG bonefish, give me a rod."
Twenty minutes later young Drew caught his first bonefish, and a very respectable 8- to 10-pounder at that. There had been two big bones cruising the beach just off the grassflat when Drew spotted them.
There is no doubt that if you spent time just wading the many flats of nearby islands surrounding Walker's, you could catch all the guide(less) bonefish you wanted.
Ironically, the wind that had made our crossing a bit tedious caused us to seek out this postcard picture beach in the Bahamas. We had no complaints. And that's the way our spring vacation at Grand Cay went.
The following morning we employed the local fishing knowledge of Capt. Glenn Russell to come aboard our boat to fish the patch reefs for a half day. As Glenn led us out of the marina we talked about our plan. We were going to fish Walker's Channel for snapper and grouper. Walker's Channel is actually a few miles west of the island and stretches all the way to Matanilla Reef.
Our first plan of attack was trolling mono-rigged ballyhoo over 17- to 20-foot-deep grassy bottom. Glenn explained this was the best way of catching nice size mutton snapper. But without a bite after trolling by four or five coral heads, it was starting to feel too much like marlin fishing.
After an uneventful hour of trolling big lipped plugs and ballyhoo, we switched plans to anchoring and chumming the patch reefs. Glenn likes to put out a bag of chum and drift an area with multiple heads in 30 feet of water. Once he catches a nice snapper or grouper, he'll anchor and chum.
It didn't take long to anchor and start catching. We stopped in 24 feet of water right in front of a house-size patch reef, six miles from Walker's and only four miles from the Matanilla Reef (27-16 .152'N and 78-29.789'W). In just a couple of hours we used cut ballyhoo and squid to catch two nice strawberry grouper, ten plus yellowtail, countless triggerfish, a barracuda and a nice amberjack.
After we returned to Grand Cay and paid Sarah her $5 prize for winning the Y-tail contest we caught wind that Stuart-based Fritz Grell had some real nice dolphin aboard, and was on his way in. As we made way through the growing crowd over to his boat we could already see some fat dolphin on the dock. The last one that Fritz struggled to lift out was indeed a beauty. It was longer than Fritz or his wife Mary Jo and weighed over 50 pounds.
When I asked Fritz for some dolphin details, he clued me in.
"There are two approaches for targeting full-grown dolphin off Grand Cay- 'educated' blind trolling and the run-and-gun. Mary Jo and I primarily go with the educated blind method on our 31-foot Cabo Express Long Story for one simple reason: It's easy to run past the fish here."
Truth be known, the Grells rarely target dolphin per se. They'd much rather hook into a blue marlin. But, the tactics they employ also raise large dolphin, sails, an occasional wahoo and when they're lucky, white marlin. What's more, they seldom venture beyond 3,000 feet unless the target is yellowfin tuna, which they normally catch after dialing birds in on the radar.
"Our typical pattern is to run out to 1,000 feet and put out the trolling spread," Fritz began. "Sometimes we'll troll out to deeper water, but we usually drag baits between the Northeast and Northwest humps, zigzagging back and forth from about 1,400 to 1,600 feet." Fritz claims that if you monitor the bottom machine religiously, you'll notice this stretch has some decent bottom relief; some spots as pronounced as 15 to 20 feet. "We also factor the wind into daily fishing. If it's out of the southeast, we start at the Northeast Hump and troll down sea toward the Northwest Hump. If the breeze is northeast, we take the opposite approach."
Tackle and baits behind Long Story match what trolling Florida billfishers use at home. The normal spread consists of five rods and a combination of lures and bait. "Since we're really hunting for blues, I like to run Moldcraft Wide Range and Chugger lures on a set of 50 wides from the 'riggers. We use 30 wides for the flatlines baited with skirted medium ballyhoo threaded onto 8/0 big-game hooks. After we get the baits situated, we drop in the teasers-a squid spreader bar (natural color) on the left and a Hawaiian Eye/ballyhoo daisy chain on the right." He also keeps a pitch-bait rod, standard 30 with a naked ballyhoo, ready in the cockpit to drop to fish that home in on the teasers.
Once he's satisfied with the trolling spread, Fritz kicks the speed up to 7 1/2 or 8 knots and scans the surface and sky for fishy signs-rips, weedlines, temp breaks and bait pods displayed on the bottom machine and, up above, frigates and tuna birds. "Something worth fishing always seems to pop up in that 10-mile area between the humps," Grell confessed, "particularly over the lumpy bottom terrain."
The Grells know that Long Story could also raise fish inshore of 1,000 feet, but that would take them into toothy-fish land, a severe no-no when running all lures and baits on 250-pound mono. Cutoffs from barracuda and wahoo would take a toll on Long Story's lure cache. He recommends rigging baits on wire to alleviate the problem if you set your sights on wahoo, which can be fairly thick in the 200-foot depths off Grand in spring.
The only time that Long Story abandons fishing over bottom contours in 1,500 or so feet is right about now-when yellowfin tuna strafe Walker's offshore waters. "Yellowfin tuna demand fishing on the run-and-gun," Fritz began. "That's the only way to drag baits in their path. To catch yellowfins, we hunt for the birds on radar, run to the activity and put out the baits." Radar, however, is not necessary when tuna schools swing close to shore. Many times, you can "eyeball" birds dipping and diving over fish without an electronic aid.
Fritz switches different lures when tuna fishing, mainly Braid Speedsters and similar tremblers that run deeper than average. "Lots of times, we hook yellowfins under trash tuna such as skippies. Dragging lures that run deeper allows you to fish under the skippies where the yellowfins often cruise."
For a quick spring or summer trip with your family or a serious all-guys fishing adventure, Grand Cay's convenient location-a short 100-gallon run from St. Lucie Inlet-is a major draw, as are the close fishing grounds and the wide plethora of available gamefish. As the Grells say, "We like the fact that it only takes minutes to reach productive fishing. The rest-dolphin, wahoo and tuna-is just icing on the cake for us. Our goal is to release blue marlin, a feat you can definitely accomplish off this island."