May 16, 2011
Flagler County's natural and artificial reefs rarely leave you fishless.
Tammy Baldwin bows up on a snapper over the conquina rock "table top" on Flagler Reef.
Take that you...,” we heard Tammy mutter from the bow.
Fishing frequently gets personal at Flagler Reef, and for Tammy Baldwin this was one of those moments. She was tied into a fish, a jumbo gag grouper most likely, that she had “unrocked” twice already only to have it run into a craggy hidey-hole for the third time.
Her grouper tug o' war was only a fraction of the hard-reeling bottom bites we had this day. Red snapper swarmed our baits—Tammy's, Ralph Olivett's and mine—from the moment we dropped anchor at this natural reef located about 10 miles off Flagler Beach in 80 feet of water. Only one person in our crew, Karl Wickstrom, came up fishless. A difficult thing to explain, since we were using the same pogies and the same rigs and dropping on the same structure, a small limestone outcrop resembling a table top. There are others like this in the area, composed of shell fragments from tiny coquina clams.
After about an hour, we started to rib Karl as he unhooked another grunt. “You haven't caught squat,” we chided as Tammy filled him in on the latest snapper count. He just shook his head and retorted, “Wrong! That's exactly what I'm catching, squat.”
Due to their nearshore positions, Flagler's natural and artificial reef denizens change with the season, as dictated by water temperature. Fishing's good here almost every month of the year, if you change strategies to match what's running. Here's a brief rundown by seasons:
Spring: cobia, kingfish, red snapper, grouper, triggerfish and black seabass
Summer: kingfish, cobia, red snapper, grouper, Spanish mackerel, occasional dolphin, triggerfish, sailfish
Fall: red snapper, grouper, kingfish, black seabass, vermilion snapper, flounder
Winter: grouper, snapper, seabass, sheepshead
We continued our verbal jibes, sensationalizing every fish that came over the gunnel in minute detail, hoping to evoke a reaction, in the form of a solid hookup, from this man who has dropped baits to bottom at practically every nearshore number around Florida's coast. Before I spill the beans on just how Karl put us in our place, let me back up a little and fill you in on some details.
Our late spring trip started in the canals of Palm Coast some seven miles below Matanzas Inlet in lower St. Augustine. After running Ralph's 23-footer up the ditch, we braved the inlet—the last natural pass on Florida's East Coast. Charts label Matanzas as unnavigable due to its ever-changing sandbars and breaking waves (there are no jetties here). On ebb tides, water barely covers the coquina heads protruding from bottom. To say local knowledge is required for traversing Matanzas Inlet is an understatement. Yet, legions of dedicated outboarders run this pass daily in spring and summer to access hot nearshore fishing.
Once we cleared the surf, Ralph headed south and instructed us to look for diving pelicans and baits flipping near the beach. A mile or two south of the inlet, only a stone's throw from Marineland, Florida's original saltwater marine park, we spotted pelicans and pogies, actually yards of pogies flipping in a slough immediately inside the outer bar. With a contemplative eye on the ocean, I eased Olivett within castnet range and we proceeded to fill the livewell with the frisky, oily baitfish.
By day's end we caught and released nine species.
Phase one of our bottom trip complete, Olivett punched in the coordinates for Flagler Reef (29-31.65'N/80-57.00'W), a star in a series of coquina outcroppings some 17 miles southeast of the inlet. Strangely, Flagler County, the only county on the east coast of Florida that doesn't have an inlet within its borders, recognizes the value of its nearshore reef system and improves it by aggressively adding artificial reef habitats at every opportunity (see accompanying story).
Upon reaching our destination, I heaved out a marker jug for reference, which Ralph circled while intensely watching the bottom machine. “Okay, drop 'em now,” he commanded from the helm as Tammy, Karl and I stood by, baited bottom rods in hand. Glancing at the fishfinder's screen, I could see clouds of bait below surrounded by several long blips that I incorrectly presumed were barracuda. That mistake became evident immediately, about halfway to bottom when a kingfish almost ripped the rod out of my hands on a speedy strike. Not much line peeled off the reel with the drag hammered down.
Fort Matanzas (Spanish for massacre) guards the southern entrance to St. Augustine.
Before I could bring my fish in, Tammy bowed up on another hungry customer. Only this one fought differently. It scorched no line off the reel nor ran toward the surface. Instead, the fish bounced her rodtip up and down like a massive underwater yo-yo. Tammy gained line a few cranks at a time and before too long we saw a glimmer of red some 20 feet down in the green-blue water.
Olivett's Luck 7 crew ended a fish-filled day by boating a stout cobia.
“Snapper,” Ralph yelled as he reached for the landing net. “And a fine one at that,” Karl replied eyeing the 10-pounder.
Bites came hot and heavy for the next two hours as red snapper, referred to as “genuines” in these parts, continued to attack our live pogies with gusto. We hauled in snapper after snapper in the barely-legal, 20-inch range and untold numbers of short
ies that should grow into next year's keepers. Every so often in this catch-and-release snapper bonanza, a real stud would hit to keep us on our toes. And that's not all. Flagler Reef was alive with all kinds of fish stopping in to dine. Turtles, too, along with thick pods of threadfins, popped up intermittently.
By day's end, we caught and released nine species—red snapper, gag grouper, black seabass, grunts, cobia, kingfish, shark, Spanish mackerel and triggerfish—all at the same spot. We'd also used the same baits—live pogies on a single-hook bottom rig with a 4-ounce lead barrel sinker. As the old story goes: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Precisely the strategy we employed while bottom bumping Flagler Grounds. Our reasoning? If every fish that swims by chomps it, why change?
I'm not going to suggest that you head out of Matanzas Inlet to access Flagler's reefs; too much liability involved. You can also run to these Flagler reefs from St. Augustine Inlet, 11 miles to the north or from Ponce Inlet in Daytona, 20 miles south.
But, if you do own an outboard boat, it's possible to run Matanzas Inlet—provided you do your homework. I recommend first, that you follow someone else out who is intimately familiar with this inlet. Follow them in, too, if possible.
When I used to run this inlet almost daily and folks asked me for advice, this was my response: Walk up on the bridge at low tide in the afternoon (with the sun at your back in the west) and take a long, hard look at the layout of Matanzas Inlet. Pay attention to where the sandbars are and make a mental note of their location. Beware: these bars do migrate according to the season.
While on the bridge, you'll notice that the pilings are numbered and the state
prohibits fishing between two that are designated for boat passage. Using a hand compass, note the heading from the no-fishing pilings to and through the channel (you can also program the route into your GPS).
On our trip, clearing the channel required us to run on a 30-degree heading out, through the sandbars. When we returned, we simply lined up the no-fishing bridge channel on the opposite compass heading, 210 degrees. —F.B.
We really weren't out to reinvent the bottom-fishing wheel on our offshore foray, so we stuck with standard gear and terminal rigs for probing Flagler Reef's depths. Rods were 30-pound, fast-action bottom sticks sporting high-speed conventional reels spooled with 40-pound braid. The fast-action sticks combined with the no-stretch braid enabled us to detect even the faintest of nibbles, not that hungry, fired-up genuines bite all that soft anyway. This combo also allowed us to use a lighter lead to sink baits into the strike zone—an added benefit of using braid to bottom fish.
Hooks were standard 5/0 livebait J-hooks attached to short, 6-foot shock leaders testing 80 pounds. Olivett rigs most of his bottom tackle in this manner, rarely changing it unless the bites stop. “Sometimes snapper get smart,” Olivett mused while Tammy and I bailed genuines one after the other over the gunnel. “When that happens and I'm still marking the fish on the bottom screen, I downsize to 40- or 60-pound fluorocarbon leaders.”
“No need for that today,” Tammy and I quipped back as we fought another cookie-cutter pair of 21-inch genuines to the surface. This pair, however, had another fish in tow—a cobia that at first look appeared massive. That is until Tammy quickly fed it a live bait and set the hook.
“Must have been two cobes down there,” Tammy said after reeling the shortie to the boat for release. I had to agree, because the fish that caught my eye had some weight, length and girth. It was definitely not the 24-inch pipsqueak that nailed her bait.
Karl sat quietly all through this commotion, biding time soaking a livie on bottom while we reiterated his awesome grunt catch rate. That is, until we decided to pull anchor and check a nearby reef.
“Got one,” he called from the port transom. From the bend in his rod, we couldn't decide who had who. A few seconds into the battle it became apparent that Karl either had the biggest red snapper of the trip (Flagler reefs regularly give up 20-pounders) or something else, maybe a fat nurse shark or a hard-pullin' amberjack. Both species visit these reefs regularly.
Red snapper attacked bottom baits nonstop for the better part of two hours.
Our guess turned out to be way off mark. Twenty feet below, a wide, dark-brown shape came into focus. “Cobia!” Tammy yelled from her perch in the T-top tower, “and it's a big one.” Fifteen minutes later Ralph sank the gaff into the 40-pounder and Karl reminded us that, “I prefer to haul in big cobia, not measly 8- to 10-pound snapper.” All in all, a great comeback to end a fantastic day at Flagler Reef. Yep, sly KW got in the last word.
We shouldn't have been too surprised. On most fishing trips to Flagler's nearshore reefs, rarely does anyone return with just “squat.” - FS