March 02, 2012
A savory list of bluewater characters awaits you in the Pocket's promising depths.
It's not much to look at on a chart. Just a spit of water west-southwest of the Berry Islands in The Bahamas identified as the Pocket. Don't let its small stature fool you. The Pocket abounds with all sorts of fishy game, particularly of the bluewater bent.
Marlin, tuna, dolphin and wahoo add up to four energy-charged customers you'll likely battle beyond the reef edge. In fact, Florida boats routinely take advantage of the Pocket's short striking distance—10 miles (give or take) out of Chub Cay, 35 miles from Nassau, 75 miles from Bimini and 130 or so from South Florida, depending on which inlet you depart.
Several Florida boats struck it big in late 2004 and early 2005. Steady southeast winds blew straight up the Tongue of the Ocean, stacking blue water, bait, dolphin, marlin and wahoo into a compact ménagerie, made to order for big-game lovers.
One sportfisher, Palm Beach boat D.A. Sea, achieved legend status for its billfish exploits. Skipper Ronnie Fields and crew tallied billfish releases on par with almost anywhere in the world while trolling within the confines of the Pocket. D.A. Sea came up one fish short of a triple Bahamas billfish slam—blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish—one balmy January morning. They would have achieved that triple if the last blue marlin of the day hadn't shaken the hook.
North Palm Beach boat KJ with Butch Standeven at the helm also sampled the unreal bite. “I thought the 2003-2004 season was red-hot until this year,” Standeven revealed. “There were lots of whites, blues from 35 to 300 pounds, and plenty of sails.”
Fishing like this is bound to make anyone sit up and take notice. As it did for John Mumford, who runs Hog Wild out of Stuart. “We heard about the unbelievable billfish bite and high release numbers and set a course for Chub Cay,” Mumford explained. He, too, found billfishing that lived up to the heady rumors. “Multiple shots were the norm as were multiple releases,” Mumford said while relaxing on the dock at Chub Cay after a day where they had just gone four for seven on blues.
Yes, fishing in the Pocket lights up from time to time. But, it takes certain conditions to stoke its scorching billfish, wahoo, tuna and dolphin blaze. And the primary fuel for Pocket fire is east-southeast wind. Breezes from this direction stack up baitfish and predators in these bluewater depths that jut into the Bahamas Bank between North Andros and the Berry Islands.
“East-southeast winds are the key to everything fishy in the Pocket,” says Chub vet and Angel captain Doug Hughes of Stuart. A few days of strong, east-southeast flow gathers all sorts of fish at the Pocket—exactly the conditions that sent several Florida boats scurrying for the destination early this year. “Marlin gravitate over the deep ledges, say from 400 out to 1,500 feet,” Hughes continued. “Wahoo patrol the close edge in 200 to 600 feet immediately off the Bahamas Bank. Dolphin stack up anywhere. I've had excellent days catching dolphin in 50 to 80 feet after a couple weeks of southeast. Sometimes the bite just goes crazy.”
Got your interest? Good. Then you'll be pleased to learn something else: Florida fishing tactics work just fine in the Pocket. Most trollers resort to sailfish and white marlin gear—20- and 30-pound-class tackle that most of us already own. Sure, there are days—particularly in late spring and summer—that 50- and 80-wides on bent-butt rods are a better choice when blue marlin upwards of 400 pounds join the melee. But, for everyday fishing, your everyday gear will suffice, providing line, knots and terminal rigs are up to par.
Natural bait gets the nod in these waters, especially for raising smaller billfish early in the season. Veteran skippers rig ballyhoo for “rat” blues, white marlin and sails. Watch mates on the dock and you'd swear they were preparing for a South Florida sailfish or Mid-Atlantic white marlin tournament. Dredges are the teasers of choice and strategies employed mirror those used back in the States for whities and sails. One sound argument for natural bait is that you don't have to cover much ground due to the Pocket's compact nature.
Bills definitely flock to the dredge, as do other species such as dolphin and occasionally tuna. KJ skipper Butch Standeven usually runs a mullet/ballyhoo dredge off one corner and a standard squid daisy-chain teaser on the opposite side. “We've had all sorts of fish come up on the teasers,” the captain began. “Blues, whites and sails just love 'em. One word of advice though: If you plan to pull a dredge, rig plenty of baits. On average, we went through 40 to 50 ballyhoo a day, and more when yellowfin tuna and dolphin repeatedly ransacked the spread.”
Standard trolling routine is to zigzag baits along the dropoffs. Depths plunge vertically here, from the treacherous shallows of the Bahamas Bank to the cobalt blue depths of Northwest Channel. The bulk of the marlin bites occur between the edge and 1,500 feet. But not always. This year, many boats capitalized on an impressive blue marlin blitz out in 3,000 feet, or as Standeven put it—“in the middle of nowhere.” Roam too shallow, though, and another creature—barracuda—will devour your bait. Stay deeper than 200 feet and 'cudas will mostly leave you unmolested.
Wahoo hunters can score big here—if you play the tides. Bahamas Wahoo Championship competitor Billy Thomas on Rebekka Lynn, based in Orlando, proved this to me firsthand. Thomas, like other BWC entrants, focuses his efforts along the edge of the reef in depths from 200 to 600 feet. “Best bites,” Thomas preaches, “come during outgoing tides when water's dropping off the Bank.” He should know. Rebekka Lynn consistently finishes at the top of the heap in the BWC.
Hughes on Angel agrees. “I structure my fishing day around the tides if I'm after wahoo. The top of the outgoing, when water flushes bait off the Bank, always seems best. Marlin aren't as tide-sensitive. They strike no matter which way the water's flowing.”
Time-wise, the Pocket shines any time a steady east-southeast breeze pushes bluewater denizens its way. It's more about the set-up than the month. March through April typically offers excellent shots for smaller marlin. Summer's the season to unload the plastics and 80Ws. Recently, the November, December and January bites turned many heads.
Old-timers attest that giant bluefins once ruled these waters, something to consider if an unseen gamefish spools you. While I don't know of anyone who has actually landed one, Standeven's account of the last day he fished on a recent jaunt sums up the Pocket's call.
“We greeted the morning by releasing bonefish in the shallows south of the channel. Then, we headed for the Pocket, where we raised a tripleheader of blues. Next, a doubleheader slammed our spread. Final release count was four blues out of five. Around the light [in the Pocket] we found dolphin and wahoo, even landed a few dolphin on fly. We put trolling lines back out and raised a doubleheader of sails, released one and had our baits swarmed several times by dolphin. But, the best part was watching two friends on another boat, Salemwolf out of Palm Beach, successfully hook, battle and release four blue marlin at once. It was picture perfect.” Any takers?
If you tire of pulling on billfish, dolphin, wahoo and tuna, grouper—jumbo black grouper—prowl the rocks along the dropoff. Angel cashed in on a fantastic bite after a day of marlin releases. From the tower, Hughes maneuvered the boat from rock to rock in 50 to 60 feet where the Bank drops into the Pocket. Pulling a spread of lipped Rapalas, Yo-Zuri Marauders and horse ballyhoo rigged on blue-and-white Hawaiian Eyes, Hughes' crew boated black grouper up to 60 pounds. A couple of fish, “no telling how big,” beat the odds and rocked up despite bucking locked-down drags on 50-pound tackle.
Florida Sportsman Classics, May, 2005
(The inside on how to fish Chub and Pocket that the late Frank Bolin wrote about in 2005 remains the same today)