May 16, 2011
There's always something looking to pick a fight on these shallow east coast reefs.
The butt of the rod pointed to the sky, yet the tip led into the Atlantic, and Paul Curtis knew he'd hung a big snapper. Palming the light spinning reel with his winding hand, he carefully played it, testing the limits of the light line.
"He's a good one, but I'm not sure I'll stop him," he said. "If I can keep his head out of the rocks for a few seconds, I might be able to gain some." As he spoke, he was losing a foot every two seconds.
As he predicted, the snapper reached the reef and wrapped the leader around the structure. Curtis held tight, hoping the reef was smooth where the line touched, and the fish would come out.
"If you keep the rod bent and twang the line like a guitar string, that'll sometimes help."
At that point, I figured that snapper had the 10-foot leader wrapped around several rocks, and Curtis could strum a concerto without so much as a prayer of that fish coming out. Several minutes went by, and I suggested a respectable retreat in the form of a break-off, when for some odd reason, the rod bent over again, and the fight began anew.
This time, Curtis had the upper hand almost immediately, and pumped line onto the reel in short bursts that had the fish halfway to the boat before it could gain a second wind. In less than a minute, the pink hue of a mutton snapper grew from a faint blur to a 10-pound outline.
"Just like I told you Mike, there's some nice snapper on these rocks," snipped Curtis, with a slight snarl of sarcasm. "You don't have to go out to 100 feet of water to catch these fish. You just have to know where the reef is, and when the fish come in to feed."
It was the middle of September when Curtis and I made that fateful trip to the patchy reef line in 25 feet of water south of Fort Pierce Inlet. A strong swell the previous week had pushed the snapper in close to shore, where they were feeding on the first schools of fall-run mullet pushing along the beach. Since that outing, I've made several memorable excursions to the shallow patch reefs, and every trip has left some remarkable memory etched in the back of my fishing log.
Bottom fishing is a lot like shooting craps--you try to pick a hot table and roll the dice hoping for a positive outcome, never sure what will turn up. In the game of bottom fishing, any reef is a potential winner, but a lot of sure bets turn out to be losing rolls.
Capt. David King is the bottom fishing guru of the Fort Pierce area, spending more than 200 days on the water every year. King runs his charterboat Little Adam out of the inlet whenever the seas are calm enough to sink an anchor in the sand, and many of his best trips are to the shallow reefs in less than 65 feet of water.
"We've got more reefs from Stuart to Vero Beach than anywhere else in the country," said King, who pointed out reeflines that run parallel to shore in 8, 12, 35, 45, 55, 65, 75 and 85 feet of water.
"Some are lines of reef, some is broken rock or small reefs, and some are just patches. Whichever depth you fish, you hit one rock, and you'll usually find more by running north or south in the same depth."
One of the most popular reefs out of Fort Pierce Inlet runs straight north from the tip of the inlet's north jetty, roughly a quarter mile off the beach. The reef starts in 12 feet of water, and gradually drops off to about 20 feet, where everything from margate and large sheepshead, to lane, mutton and mangrove snapper roam.
Most anglers fishing the reefline north of Fort Pierce prefer to fish live shrimp, which will draw the attention of all the snapper species, along with snook and doormat-sized flounder. Medium-sized shrimp are the key to a solid hookup. That's because a snapper will bite a large shrimp in half and miss the hook, and the profile of a small shrimp may go unseen by the reef dwellers.
A good starting point is the line of reef directly off the North Beach condo in roughly 22 feet of water. During the summer the dark reeflines can easily be spotted in the clear, green water.
"On the slow days or when the tides are running too hard, I like to go to the 55-foot reef because there's a lot of bait that congregates in that depth," notes King, who prefers to fish the reefs in 75 to 150 feet of water.
"The nice thing is that you know you're going to catch a variety of fish, usually some snappers and maybe a grouper or two. At times, there's even sailfish and dolphin there feeding on the bait."
King likes the Five Mile Reef which starts on the 43270.0 loran line, and runs down to the 43235.0 line. Traveling along the 61997.0 bottom line will place you over the rocky ledges and peaks that form the reef in 55 feet of water.
Gearing down your tackle is important for fishing in shallow water. King is quick to drop down from the normal 50- or 60-pound deepwater reef tackle to 20- or 30-pound rods and a leader 10 to 20 pounds heavier than the terminal gear. The water is clear on the shallow reef, and light penetrates almost to the bottom, so big grouper can spot the heavier monofilament leaders. King uses only pink Ande, which he feels becomes invisible once it's 20 feet down.
For hooks, King uses a 3/0 to 7/0 livebait hook, the size dependent on the bait. A barrel sinker weighing anywhere from two to six ounces is rigged slip-style above a swivel attached to the leader.
The top three baits are live threadfin herring, sardines and cigar minnows, which you can catch around the buoys on gold hooks or Sabiki rigs on the way out. Hooked through the nose or eye socket, these live baits are dropped down until the weight hits the bottom, then are lifted just above the structure with two or three cranks of the reel handle.
The best time to fish the shallow water is during low light, when the fish can't see the leader and are more active. First light and dusk are always good, but the best time is at night.
King starts his night trips before dusk, allowing himself the advantage of a little light to aid anchoring. As the sun sets, he turns on the overhead lights, which send a beam into the water and illuminate the cockpit for the anglers. Light dispersing across the water attracts baitfish and squid, which can be dipnetted for use throughout the night. The surrounding bait school also acts as a natural chumline, drawing fish off the bottom and closer to the boat.
Snapper are the mainstay on the shallow reefs, but grouper, snapper, dolphin, kingfish and sharks can all be taken without ever lifting the anchor.
Whichever reefline you decide to fish, you can increase your chances of success by knowing the habits of your quarry and specifically targeting that spe
cies with the right baits and tackle.
Lane snapper enthusiasts will find the fish plentiful when the water cools in the fall, and action lasts well into the winter months. September through April are the top months, and it's not uncommon to catch eight or nine fish over two pounds in 45 to 65 feet of water. Unlike red snapper that gang up on top of the reef creating the image of a Christmas tree on your bottom machine, lane snapper sit on top of the reef or on the sides in roughly the same depth, and will mark as patchy clouds of fish.
Live shrimp are probably the top lane snapper bait, but pilchards and small sardines also produce a good number of fish. They average two pounds and can be fished on tackle as light as 8-pound test. Small hooks and a light 20-pound leader will allow a more natural action to the baits, thus increasing your number of strikes. When the lanes are thick, it's possible to catch 50 or more fish in an outing.
Yellowtail and mutton snapper like warm water, and start to show up in the shallows in early April. Surprisingly few anglers spend much time yellowtail fishing in the Fort Pierce area, but the reefs hold a strong body of fish. Most miss out on the opportunity to catch yellowtail by using too large a bait. The average yellowtail snapper is in the 1- to 2-pound class, so small baits and light line are needed to trick these wary fish.
Occasionally, you'll run into a school of flag yellowtail up to 5 pounds, but even so, the same tackle used for lane snapper is applicable. Lane and yellowtail snapper can also be fished with a chicken rig deploying two or three 2/0 gold hooks suspended on dropped loops above a 4-ounce sash weight on 20-pound tackle.
During the winter months, yellowtail migrate south to warmer climates, and it's possible to catch 30 or more fish on the deeper reefs in 55 or 65 feet of water, when they school up just before the trip. Live shrimp, glass minnows, pilchards and squid all work well on yellowtail, and the fish get less finicky when there's more competition.
April signals the first of the mutton snapper run on the 45- and 55-foot reefs. By June, these fish push into the shallows, where they come in to feed on the turtle hatchlings and pilchard schools just off the beach. Muttons can be targeted in less then 15 feet of water, and they tend to lie to the side of rockpiles, swimming out into the sand to feed. The average mutton runs 5 to 12 pounds, and they're known for their keen sense of vision, so it pays to drop down to 18-pound line and a long 25-pound leader.
Like the other species, mutton snapper are most active during low light periods. King fishes the muttons in 12 to 20 feet of water at night, and catches over 40 fish on some outings. For the muttons, King likes a nice live bait, and live threadfins, sardines or cigar minnows are the baits of choice, but shrimp, ballyhoo, and even a grunt plug also work in a pinch.
Another good bait to use when chumming is a 4- to 6-inch bonito strip, which combines the oily scent of the dark meat with the flashy silver outer skin to attract fish from a distance. Since bonito or little tunny are prevalent on the reefs during the summer, there's usually a steady supply of bonito sides to strip and make into baits. Some days on the shallow reefs are greeted with flurries of schooling little tunny every 20 minutes or so.
Muttons are known for hitting a bait then immediately spitting it out once or twice before deciding on the meal. Setting the hook on the first bump usually results in a missed strike and a spooked mutton. Knowledgeable mutton snapper anglers wait until the fish picks the bait up and runs ten yards or more before setting the hook. Unlike the initial taps of a picky snapper, once it decides on the meal, a solid thump will follow.
Mangrove snapper are available year-round, and like yellowtail and lane snapper, are a chum-oriented species that will settle in behind the boat after several fish abscond with a few baits. All three snapper species can be chummed into one location by dropping a chumbag or pot to the bottom. Some anglers like to drop their chum with the aid of a downrigger, but I once had an African pompano spin 30 or so wraps of line around the cable before making a quick exit, so I'm more a fan of chumballs or wadding up a handful of cut fish pieces and drifting them off the bow.
Other species that seek refuge on the shallow reefs include cobia, African pompano, kingfish, Spanish mackerel and permit. All of the above head for the shallows during the calm summer months, when baitfish school near the beaches in less than 30 feet of water.
Some of the best African pompano fishing is found on the shallow reefs in 12 to 15 feet of water along the Martin/St. Lucie County lines.
The thrill of fishing the shallow reefs is in putting a bait down on the bottom and not knowing what might show up to feed. Be it a shy mutton snapper or permit, or a hefty grouper, the nearshore reeflines offer plenty of action throughout the year. Enough action to provide a meal from almost every trip.