May 12, 2022
By Doug Kelly
Three buddies and I recently fished off Islamorada in the Florida Keys for yellowtail snapper. After dropping anchor and setting up a chum slick, a half hour passed and we’d only managed to toss two keepers into the cooler.
Another boat soon shut down nearby. We watched dumbfounded as a woman anchored, lowered chum bags and began catching one chunky yellowtail after another—all by herself.
Amazed, I called out to her. “Hey, you’re doing a lot better than us. How did you get to be so good at it?”
“My husband and I learned all the best ways,” she replied.
“That’s cool,” says I. “But wouldn’t you have more fun fishing with him and some friends?”
“I can’t,” she answered, “they’re all at his funeral.”
Okay, that’s a joke, but over the years I did manage to acquire the most successful techniques and gear to consistently return home with a heavy cooler of YTs. I attribute much of that to seven years of residency in Tavernier—a town sandwiched between Key Largo and Islamorada—that allowed my 20-foot Mako to access to the Atlantic reef chain just 20 minutes from my davit.
LOOK, LISTEN & LEARN
The first rule one must follow is to stay away from others’ chum slicks. On my first venture to a reef off Tavernier, I blithely steered toward a nearby anchored boat. The occupants began frantically waving at me.
“Geez, the people here are really nice,” I thought. But when I got closer, their response was anything but hospitable. In fact, they wanted to put me in a hospital. I quickly hit the throttle and departed until I could no longer hear them comparing me to a certain bodily opening.
Besides frequent forays in my boat, I occasionally hopped aboard charter vessels and absorbed how skippers and mates adroitly handled yellowtail fishing. I also timed late-afternoon visits to marinas when the fleets arrived to view the catches and to hear details about that day’s bite.
A few basics of yellowtail snapper fishing:
- Their nickel-size eyeballs equate to keen vision, so the less obtrusive the presentation, the better.
- Be armed with frozen chum blocks with chum bags or chum floats. Put one or two of the blocks into a bucket of water to thaw on the run to the reef and save the others for later.
- Know how to make and use sand balls.
- Watch your sonar along the reef line in 70- to 120-foot depths for bottom structure or swarms of fish.
- Anchor far enough upcurrent from where you’ve marked structure or fish so chum will flow over it.
- A current fast enough to flow chum over the targeted area is a must.
- Wait at least 15 to 20 minutes before lines in so the current drifts chum into the water column and YTs start swarming.
- Point your rod tip toward the water and free-spool line so the bait flows naturally in the current at the same speed as the chum.
- When you see or feel with your fingers the line tightening, close the bail and set the hook. YTs tend to hit quickly and make a fast run.
- While most yellowtail can be lifted into the boat, bring a landing net to ensure “flag” yellowtails in the 3- to 5-poundplus category don’t break off.
- After cleaning your fish at the end of the day, place fillets into sealable plastic bags and keep ’em cold in a cooler.
Now let’s get more specific. Herewith are tidbits of knowledge from three veteran Upper Keys charter captains and expert anglers on how they go about scoring good catches of yellowtail snapper and other reef gamesters.
Captain Alex Adler runs the Kalex out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada. After 45 years of chartering, here’s why his anglers consistently score great catches of yellowtail.
“I look on my sonar for havens up and down the reef edge that jut out,” he says. “These areas tend to hold a variety of reef fish and I mark them for future reference.”
“Go with 6 ½- or 7-foot spin rods spooled with 12- to 15-pound-test line and 15- or 20-pound fluorocarbon leader,” Adler says. “Hook size and baits depend on the current, but typically a No. 1 or No. 2 hook can handle even a heavy fish in fast current. Chunks of ballyhoo, bonito or shrimp do well.
“Jigs worked in the chum slick also catch lots of yellowtail,” says Adler. “Depending on the current, I like 1⁄16 - to ¼-ounce chartreuse or pink jig-heads tipped with a piece of ballyhoo, bonito or shrimp.”
Adler’s two biggest flags so far weighed 7 1⁄4 pounds and 7 ¾ pounds. Yellowtail seldom exceed 5 pounds although the state record is an 8-pound, 9-ounce behemoth caught off Ft. Myers, in southwest Florida.
For the past 30 years, Capt. Scotty Mark has run evening trips on the 65-foot partyboat Captain Michael from Robbie’s Marina. Here are some of his yellowtail tips:
- Put 25-pound blocks of frozen chum into chum bags with the largest mesh available.
- Rather than hanging the blocks over the side, put them into a ring float you can buy at most tackle shops.
- Keep a bucket of oatmeal or horse oats mixed with the chum rather than sand. “Clouding the water with sand is detrimental to live corals,” says Mark.
- When fish are finicky, use no leader.
- The bigger yellowtail usually hover behind or below smaller fish; drop your bait far back to reach them.
- Filleting a ballyhoo lengthwise in ¾-inch strips makes for great yellowtail bait; the top shoulder meat is darker and works best.
- A short rod will result in more pulled hooks, so go with 7-foot spin rods.
- Moon phases don’t seem to make any difference.
Our next expert, Skip Bradeen, left his home in Long Island, New York, in 1964 and when he reached Islamorada, never went back. In his baggage was a spirit for adventure and an abiding admiration for the subtropical sweep of the Florida Keys. Now retired, he ran the charterboat Blue Chip and later the Blue Chip Too out of Whale Harbor Marina. Bradeen’s favorite piscatorial challenge? Yellowtail fishing.
While he agrees that the best conditions involve the presence of current behind the boat and cloudy water or a light chop, it’s important to know how to put your chum bag in the water.
“When you find a spot that you think YTs are located, put the bag over the side and do at least two circles in the area,” advises Bradeen. “When completed, secure your boat in the proper place. Sometimes with a strong breeze you need to put out more anchor line.
“I prefer to drift baits naturally in the chum,” he says. “If clear water, hide a baited hook in a sand ball. Horse oats mixed with a bit of sea water will keep the sand ball together long enough for it to sink before dissolving.”
Bradeen prefers 7 ½-foot rods with 15-pound braided line and 10 feet of fluorocarbon leader. “I like 9174 live-bait hooks with a piece of shelled shrimp, bonito, ballyhoo strips or glass minnows.”
“Always bring a full cooler of cold saltwater brine to keep your catch in quality condition,” he recommends. “Don’t put the fish directly on ice because it will make them soggy and tasteless.”
And speaking of brine, many Keys yellowtail anglers always make a point to bring back to the dock a bucketful of clean salt water from the ocean. Rinsing fillets in that ocean water, rather than fresh water from a hose, results in a superior product.
A CHUMMING PERSONALITY
A typical frozen block of chum is composed of ground-up fish parts. You can buy them at most marinas and tackle shops. Depending on how long you intend to fish, bring at least four blocks. Any unused blocks can be refrozen.
Once you’ve chosen a suitable place to anchor and put the mesh bag of frozen chum by the boat, allow several minutes for the chum to begin drawing in the yellowtail. Allow your hooked bait to drift freely on the current, and the fish will treat it like the other morsels. But if your bait “hangs up” in the current, they’ll likely refuse it.
(NO) SAND BALL
Traditionally, sand was added to this chummy treat (hence “sand ball”) but sand has fallen out of favor due to its potential to blanket already-stressed corals below. Here's how to make a No Sand Ball:
SLICE & SAVOR
Filleting is the art of rendering a fish devoid of bones and skin. Keep a sharpening stone on the cleaning table and resharpen after three or four fish. Place those tasty fillets in a sealable bag and keep them chilled until cooking or freezing for another time.
An added delight when targeting yellowtail is the frequent encountering of other reef gamesters. I speak here of mangrove snapper, mutton snapper, black grouper and the like. Fillet them babies, too (in season, where grouper are concerned).
On the downer side, it’s frustrating to be locked in combat with a burly snapper or grouper only to reel back half a fish. Rick Berry, my co-host of a fishing radio show in the Keys in the early 1990s, owns Key Largo Rods. He told me that a big challenge nowadays is getting your reef catches to the boat before they’re chomped by sharks or goliath grouper. If you face that dilemma, it would be wise to go with heavier tackle to land fish faster.
How to prepare yellowtail for the table? Just about any way you like.
If merely boiling an egg challenges your culinary skills, plenty of restaurants in the Keys will adroitly prepare your fillets. And, if you know a friend amenable to exchanging his or her gourmet talents for sharing your cooler of yellow gold, you may Pass Go and collect $200.
On a recent trip to the Upper Keys, wife Kelly and I enjoyed a couple of local yellowtail specialties here worth mention.
Lazy Days, at mile marker 79.8, serves a dinner appropriately titled Yellowtail Lazy Days Style. It’s a beautiful entree featuring sauteed yellowtail fillets encrusted with Japanese bread crumbs, topped with tomatoes, scallions, parmesan cheese and a yummy topping of homemade key lime butter.
Kaiyo Grill & Sushi (MM 81.7) offers a unique and fabulous dish called Yellowtail Tiradito. It consists of three large spoons each filled with a piece of yellowtail served sashimi style with jalapeno, goat cheese, seasonal apples, cilantro and sriracha, finished with black sea salt and truffle ponzu.
Aside from all that fanciness, just frying a whole yellowtail in garlic butter with herbs and spices won’t get anyone mad.
YELLOWTAIL SNAPPER REGULATIONS
MINIMUM SIZE: 12 inches total length
BAG LIMIT: 10 per person per day (as part of 10-snapper aggregate, or mix, of all snapper species)
LICENSES: In addition to a saltwater fishing license (unless exempt), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) requires anglers who pursue reef fish to register for the State Reef Fish Survey. The State Reef Fish Survey is nothing more than a free line-item added to your fishing license. It helps fisheries managers understand how many anglers are targeting snappers, groupers and the like. Sign up at GoOutdoorsFlorida.com or wherever you buy your fishing license. HOOKS: If you’re fishing for yellowtail and other reef fish with natural baits, you must use non-stainless, non-offset circle hooks. However, there is an exception for Atlantic waters south of 28 degrees latitude—which includes the Florida Keys. Conventional “J” hooks may be used in these southern waters, but they must be non-stainless types.
DESCENDING DEVICE: In federal waters (any farther than 3 miles offshore on the Atlantic coast, or outside 9 miles in the Gulf), there must be a descending device on the boat, rigged and ready to deploy. (Gulfside, a venting tool may be carried, as an alternative.)
FLORIDA KEYS REEFS: If you’re fishing the Florida Keys on your own, familiarize yourself with the Marine Sanctuary zoning rules— there are parts of the reef tract off-limits to fishing. If you are anchoring, use extreme caution around coral and other live bottom areas. Observe the water carefully and deploy the anchor only in sandy (light-colored) areas. See floridakeys.noaa.gov.
UPPER KEYS PLANNER
CHARTERS: Capt. Alex Adler, Kalex, (305) 522-1984 or via Instagram @Kalex_sportfishing
PARTYBOAT: Capt. Michael, Robbie’s Marina, (305) 664-8070, robbies.com (the captain also runs charters on a 35-foot Stamas for day and night trips)
BOAT RENTALS: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (MM 102.5) offers great deals on rental boats— $400 per day for a 21-foot Release center console and you’re minutes from exceptional fishing and diving. Book online at pennekamppark.com. The park also offers snorkeling and dive tours. Phone (305) 676-3777
LODGING: Kelly and I enjoyed three nights at the Hadley House Resort, Islamorada, (305) 664-3681, hadleyhouseresort.com. For more, see fla-keys.com.
UPPER KEYS BOAT RAMPS
ISLAMORADA: Founders Park (bayside) at MM 87. Harry Harris Park (oceanside) at MM 92.5
KEY LARGO: John Pennekamp Park (MM 102.5)
MORE: See Florida Boat Ramp Finder at www.MyFWC.com. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine April 2022