May 16, 2011
Kings? Sails? Dolphin? Take your pick at the hub of Miami's offshore winter fishery.
Fins flexed, gold accents glistening, a yellowfin tuna makes a grand entrance into the cockpit.
The flotilla to our south meant one thing: the migratory kingfish had arrived. On the heels of a two-month northeast blow, the razor-toothed crowd-pleasers were on their traditional wintering grounds off Miami. The fleet was out in force, doubtless due to the combination of calm weather and the flurry of encouraging radio and newspaper reports. Most boats were catching early season snakes in the 5-pound range, but some had fish well into the 20s. The size would increase through the New Year, likely culminating in 30- and 40-pound smokers by April.
It looked like loads of fun, but we had other plans.
My wife wanted sailfish, and the modest livewell on our 17-foot boat was temporarily out of service. We hadn't the time nor the bait to cull through the kingfish frenzy on the inshore reef. We were after the big bite.
On the ride south from our home port of Haulover Inlet, we'd stopped at a yellow buoy in 29 feet of water north of Government Cut. The buoy can be a dependable spot for catching blue runners, which I have found to be tops among the bait species that can thrive in a tank fed manually by 5-gallon-bucket circulation. A few drops of a No. 4 Hayabusa sabiki rig had us eight palm-size runners, plus one huge cigar minnow. We made it a jack-family triad by adding a token goggle-eye from a range marker south of the Cut.
It was when we zoomed past the red-and-white sea buoy in 120 feet of water that I began to question our plan. Boats were solid on the Cuban Hole, a kingfish hotspot in 80 feet south of the shipping channel. I flashed back to a day last year when Capt. Dave Kostyo, John Garcia and I limited (two apiece) on 15-pounders in 30 minutes. The action bordered on silliness. Our first fish leaped 10 feet out of the water twice before smashing a bait not 20 feet from our stern. A full-scale riot followed, with anglers scurrying around Kostyo's 28-foot Knot Nancy like square dancers overdosed on caffeine. We released kings one after the other, some into the icebox, some back into the school. Massacred that day was an uncountable number of threadfin herring, silvery baits which had taken us hours to procure on patches of hard bottom off Miami Beach.
Tiffany looked at me with a blank expression as I recalled our feats. She then wrinkled her nose and summarized her opinion of the species' debatable table quality.
Not even kingfish salad? I thought to myself.
We've been through this before was the telepathic message I received. On we went.
A half-mile north of the sea buoy we located the makings of a decent weedline in 185 feet of water. Another boat was poking around upcurrent of us. I hooked a runner sideways through the nose with a 4/0 Owner circle hook and cast it behind our boat. I did the same with our goggle-eye--the most prized of our sailfish baits. Unfortunately for us--not to mention the baitfish--our gog was instantly devoured by a small shark that raced out from beneath a patch of weeds.
I cut loose the interloper at boatside, noting the neat hookup in the corner of its mouth. Our 50-pound monofilament leader was virtually untouched. I have also heard of big kings being caught on circle hooks and straight mono. Supposedly, the theory behind this type of hook is that it slides around in the mouth and catches in the corner of the jaw when the fish turns away. How the leader manages to avoid abrasion from knife-like teeth is beyond me, but it happens pretty often.
I tied on a new hook, rebaited with a blue runner and we continued fishing. For a time, I slow-trolled south toward the sea buoy, keeping our hyperactive baits following in an orderly fashion. Sensing a slight pickup in the northbound current, I cut the engine and allowed us to drift in pleasant silence. We stayed on the green side of the edge. A trip to Islamorada a few days before had revealed more action in the dirty water; I suspected the same would hold here in my home waters off Miami.
Due in part to the tidal flux of inshore water, it's common to find a debris-peppered green-to-blue color change off Miami's sea buoy. On days when the Gulf Stream moves in tight to shore, the change may be especially dramatic. "The area right around the sea buoy can be great for sailfishing, especially when the incoming tide brings in the clear blue water," said Capt. Jimbo Thomas, skipper of the Thomas Flyer. "We've had sails come right up to the boat while we were catching bait at the buoy." Thomas' distinctive yellow charterboat is a familiar sight around the buoy early in the morning, when he and brother Rick are loading the baitwell with speedos or tinker mackerel, using larger-size sabiki rigs.
Sails, kings, dolphin, sometimes even cobia--all seem to converge at the intersection of oceanic and inshore water within a short boat ride of the sea buoy. One sure reason is that the movement of water through the Cut carries with it a great deal of forage, a gigantic chumline, if you will. Shrimp, pilchards, herrings and various other marine creatures flush out of Biscayne Bay, and predators lie in wait. A change in tide can really light up the fishing. On a day last summer, friend Scott Scargle and I drifted pilchards within casting distance of the sea buoy for a solid hour without a hookup. Then, as the current began flowing seaward, we started losing our rigs--egg sinker, swivel, leader and all. Just a thump and that was it; clean cutoff every time. We even tried rigging our sinkers breakaway-style, with a section of leader doubled over and pushed through the sinker, held temporarily in place with a rubber band. No help. The kings would bite the sinker before the bait. The only way to land a fish was to pin a pilchard to a 1/2-ounce jig protected by a foot of No. 4 wire. When we exhausted our supply of bait (which had taken us quite some time to catch on spoil island grassflats in the bay) we started catching schoolie kings on plain white jigs. In the heavy current that day I saw something that you usually only expect to see in a chumline--kings swimming right on top in 140 feet of water, flashing beneath the waves.
Today, I didn't see much of anything when our first sailfish struck. Just a pop of the rodtip. Tiffany was cat-napping in the bow, and so I grabbed the spinner, freespooled line, and then flipped the bail and cranked tight to...dead weight. I figured it was another shark--or a patch of weed.
"Nothing much," I muttered. "You want this fish?"
"No, no, it's yours," said my partner, apparently more interested in catching some sun than tugging on a shark.
Just then a bill poked through the surface, followed in slow motion by a silver-and-blue head that glistened in the morning sunlight. The fish shook a pearlescent necklace of water droplets, then kicked its tail and jumped clear out of the water for us to see.
"A sail!" I shouted.
The fish, evidently, had been catching some rays of its own when it decided to bite the sharp morsel. Enraged at the dupe, the lazy sail soon woke up and launched into classic form, bounding toward Bimini with a hundred yards of 15-pound, hi-vis green mono in tow.
It was a big, determined fish, and it conserved its energy by doing more fighting below the surface than above. After a half-hour of up-and-down and round-and-round, I passed the rod to Tiffany, grabbed the leader and pulled the fish the last few feet to boatside. The little hook--an Eagle Claw L194, not a circle--was embedded just inside the mouth. The fish still had a lot of juice in it, so rather than dig for the hook, I snipped the leader close to the hookeye and freed the fish.
"You ready to start fishing yet?" I asked.
We dumped another bucketful of water on our gasping baits and motored back to the edge of the weedline. A charterboat was trolling where we'd been, probably chasing the dolphin schools that had been running the same edge a few days before. The green-and-gold speedsters can turn up off the sea buoy anytime, but the last few winters have seen more than usual, while for reasons not yet fully understood, the summers have been uncharacteristically lean.
As well as chasing sails, Tiffany and I had high hopes of inviting a dolphin home to dinner, she harboring the aforementioned distaste for the oily kings. In any season, dolphin associate with debris in weedlines. Trolling either lures or rigged dead baits such as ballyhoo is a popular method for locating them, but my personal favorite, at least in shelf water out to around 200 feet, is to sit still and let them come to surface live baits. I'll spend the idle time probing the water column with a deepjig or bottom bait. The boat becomes simply another patch of shade for wandering mahi-mahi schools. Similarly, at times the fish are traveling deep, where traditional tactics may miss them. I recall one nice dolphin last summer that struck a herring behind three ounces of lead, at least 70 feet beneath the boat.
By this time, we were out of sight of the sea buoy and its associated kingfish fleet. Tiffany's turn at the rod was a near repeat of the first fish. She picked up the rod, fed some line, pushed forward the lever drag, and cranked tight. After a sluggish start, another sail popped out of the water and shimmied on its side--right for our boat.
"Reel! Reel! Reel!" I yelled, doing my most faithful impersonation of a charter skipper.
Wide-eyed and incredulous, my wife piled 20-pound line on the reel as fast as her little hand could wind. The fish torpedoed past us to our stern and took up the remaining slack on its own. Tiffany was fast to her first sailfish, an acrobatic demon that gave full account of the species' aerial prowess.
"Did you see that!" Tiffany shrieked. "Did you see how far he tail-walked?"
The fish was still tail-walking.
Twenty minutes later, she had him whipped. I spun the boat a few times as the stubborn fish attempted to circle us. Tiff tugged on the rod and turned him over to where I could grip the leader, and then the bill. The circle hook had done its job--a perfect bite in the bottom jaw, easily removed.
Back to the weedline we went, and out went our last two, half-dead baits. The others had expired and were awaiting bottom-fish duty.
Just for kicks, I dropped a 1 1/2-ounce arrowhead bucktail on an 8-pound spinning rod. The depthfinder read 180 feet. Wahoo on the way down, maybe a mutton on the way up, I thought.
With big sweeps of the rodtip and some fast reeling, I didn't have to wait long. Something grabbed the jig halfway up to the surface and doubled over the light rod.
Turned out to be a lost kingfish. Probably trying to escape the melee at the Cuban Hole, I mused.
Tiffany put on one of those smile and frown expressions as I taped the fish out at 25 inches--legal, by one inch. I dropped it into our icebox and turned and asked:
"Now how about some of that kingfish salad?"
Get a Fix
The Miami sea buoy is a veritable hub of offshore action. Strangely, it's often taken for granted by local anglers, perhaps because it's literally right in the middle of everything. The red-and-white buoy sits in 120 feet of water at the end of Government Cut, the international shipping channel leading into Biscayne Bay. From December through May, look for the fleet of boats to the south, usually in around 80 to 90 feet of water. You've found the kingfish schools. Kings are also caught in similar depths north of the Cut, as well as in deeper water right off the buoy. Productive depths can change. "I'll drift until I determine a pattern, then anchor up, start chumming, and wail on 'em," said local skipper Dave Kostyo.
Sailfish, dolphin and tunas generally hang out around the color change that forms when northbound Gulf Stream current slides in near the buoy, often after a period of easterly wind. When you find a ruler-straight edge of green and darker blue water, with that swirly, bubbly look to it and blobs of sargassum drifting by, be ready for some serious action.
You can catch a variety of baitfish at the pair of range markers--squatty, lighthouse-looking structures on the south side of the Cut. Anchor upcurrent, or power drift, and put out a block of chum in a meshbag. Drop a sabiki rig and you'll catch anything from threadfin herring to goggle-eyes. Other baits can be caught in about 20 to 25 feet of water north of the jetty rocks in Wayne's World, an area named for Capt. Wayne Conn, a local partyboat skipper in the Reward fleet. Watch for terns, or marks on your depthfinder. The biggest baits (speedos, tinker mackerel, full-size runners) often school up around the sea buoy, last in the buoy line.
To the north and south of the sea buoy are county artificial reef sites with loads of fishing possibilities--for pelagics on top as well as groupers and amberjacks down deep. The Key Biscayne artificial reef site is about three miles south, with shallow reefs such as the Lakeland (135 feet, lat. 25-42.073'; long. 80-05.004') and deep drops like the Dry Dock (235 feet, 25-43.172'; 80-04.581') and Billy Goat (185 feet, 25-42.343'; 80-04.788'). North of the sea buoy is the Pflueger site, with the Deep Freeze (135 feet, 25-49.303'; 80-04.951'), the Lotus (218 feet, 25-50.957'; 80-04.647'), the Tortuga (110 feet, 25-49.243'; 80-05.090') and others. For more information, call the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management at 305-372-6881,
or visit the agency's artificial reefs Web site link at www.floridasportsman.com.
If you plan to fish close to the sea buoy, be mindful of the heavy shipping traffic at the mouth of Government Cut. More than a few boats have lost fishing kites to the fast-moving freighters that ply the area.
Miami Sea Buoy Facts
Miami Lighted Buoy 'M'--the sea buoy--is described by the U.S. Coast Guard as a Morse A beacon, meaning it flashes one short, followed by one long, burst of white light--the Morse code sign for the letter A. To mariners, this means safe water or mid-channel, with safe passage to either side.
Exact position of the buoy can change during the day, as it swings about in a circle described by the 270-foot chain which tethers it to the bottom in 123 feet of water. What keeps it there? An 18,000-pound concrete "sinker." But the buoy can move, for instance in a severe hurricane, or collision with a ship. Officially, the sea buoy is considered "on station" as long as it is within 150 yards of its assigned position: latitude 25-46' 06.186" N, and longitude 80-05' 00.067". The 155 mm beacon is powered by two 100-amp-hour batteries that are kept charged by a 12-volt solar panel system.
Routine service and monitoring of this international waypoint is handled by Chief Dennis Dever and the U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team based in Miami Beach. The team takes care of a total of 650 beacons in South Florida, including Port Everglades and Port of Palm Beach. "We go up as far as Jupiter, halfway to Key Largo, through Florida Bay, the Everglades and on up to the Ten Thousand Islands," said Chief Dever. "We'll hit the road with a 21-foot trailered boat, and launch near the aid that has a problem."
Every five years, a 175-foot Coast Guard cutter from Mayport, Florida, makes the trip to Miami to haul up the 26-foot steel buoy, and replace the hull, chain, swivel and sinker--a mighty job indeed.
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