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Big Bend Florida Sportsman Guide

Fishing Tips

Basic Bottom Fishing  (offshore)

 By Capt Ken Roy

When I think of bottom fishing I usually think of Gag Grouper because these are the fish my parties prefer to target.  I rig to target these fish and eliminate or certainly minimize the number of other bottom species we catch.  By using large LIVE BAIT  we seldom catch Grunts, Seabass, Triggerfish and a host of other small fish.

 Almost any small fish works just fine for Gag Grouper.  I prefer Blue Runners and Pinfish because they are flashy, strong, stay alive in my bait well and are eaten on sight by Gags.   Threadfin Herring, Pilchards, Cigar Minnows, Spanish Sardines, Tomtates, Pigfish, and White Grunts work well too.  Here is a tip you won’t find just anywhere:  When picking out bait from your well, try to catch the Threadfin Herring and Spanish Sardines first because they don’t live very long in your well.

 I usually fish live bait on a simple sliding sinker rig or a couple of variations of this rig.    This is the rig #1 on the  RIGGING PAGE.   When the tide is very slow, I do not use a sinker on at least one of the rods my clients are using.  This rig  #2 on the RIGGING PAGE.   On days with very fast moving tides, I use a rig with no sinker stop, the sinker slides all the way down against the hook. This is rig #3 on the  RIGGING PAGE. I use only CIRCLE HOOKS  on my bottom fishing rigs.  CIRCLE HOOKS have lots of advantages.  First and foremost, CIRCLE HOOKS  kill fewer fish beca! use they hook fish out in the lip rather than deep inside.  Second, they are easier to remove.  Third, CIRCLE HOOKS are safer to use.  In over 40 years fishing with CIRCLE HOOKS  I have  been hooked only once.  Forth, CIRCLE HOOKS  don’t get hung as often as “J” hooks.  Fifth, CIRCLE HOOKS are easy to bait.  This rig also catches Cobia, Sharks, Jewfish and an occasional Kingfish.  Single large rocks, ledges, and wrecks hold Gag Grouper better than just hard rocky bottom.

 I seldom target Red Grouper.   Reds are the easiest of the Grouper to catch because they always seem to be hungry and aren’t very bright either.  Again, I use basic rig #1.  Bait doesn’t seem to matter much but a large fillet of  Remora works great.  Small fish picking at it must get the Red Grouper’s attention and he comes running over and takes it away from ! them in one gulp.  Drift fishing over hard rocky bottom is a great way to catch them.  Large live baits work well too.  I prefer not to drift because inexperienced fishermen get hung way too often.  I generally catch about one legal Red Grouper for every 500 legal Gags.  Gags are far more numerous than Reds in the shallow water I fish.

 Next I’ll mention my favorite Grouper, the Jewfish.  I made the name Jewfish a lot bigger here because the Jewfish is a lot bigger.  Not many folks target Jewfish because they are a protected species.  All harvest is prohibited and rightly so.  They were decimated by commercial spearfishermen in the 60’s and early 70’s but with a total ban on their harvest, they have really come back.  Catch and release is a! llowed and I often target them when somebody wants to hook a really big fish.  Most folks are quickly defeated and  humiliated by a hundred horsepower fish.  Even on 200# test line with 3 people on the rod, most of them simply over power you and go in a hole.

 Here is how I rig.  I use a 6/0 Penn Senator(black) with a 2:1 gear ratio, fitted with a long power handle mounted on a broomstick rod.  I only fill the reel half full of 200# mono so that we will have the best possible mechanical advantage.  I use a 4# dive weight for a sinker and  16/0-20/0 CIRCLE HOOK.  This rig is the same as basic rig #3.  My favorite bait is live  3-6# Jack Crevalle.  You must cut the top lobe of the tail off the Jack or he will pull the 4# sinker all over the place.  With Part of the tail removed, he is a sitting duck for a Jewfish. 

 In July and August I guarantee a Jewfish, no hook-up, no pay.  Lots of big Jewfish are inshore at that time.  They move offshore in late August or early September but often move back in after spawning.

 When I have small kids aboard, I usually rig up for Grunts, Sea Bass, and Lane Snapper   because most little kids are not strong enough to handle the tackle I use for Grouper.   I use a 2 or 3  hook rig on a light rod.  This is rig #4 on the RIGGING PAGE.  Again, the hooks are CIRCLE HOOKS but smaller sizes.  I always use cut bait for these fish although small live baits are fine.  My favorite cut bait is a small chunk of  Remora.   Remoras are tough and oily and most bottom fish love ‘em.  Shrimp works OK too but it is easy for the bait stealers to remove.  Most folks use Squid on this rig  and it works just fine too.  Just wait until you see a 7 year old reel up 3 fish at a time!  This rig catches an occasional nice Grouper and lots of species of small bottom fish. 

One of my favorite eating fish is the   Triggerfish.   I use the same basic 2 or 3 hook rig (rig # 4) but here I use  regular “J” hooks.  The “J” hook catches  Triggerfish better than t! he circle hook because Triggerfish are nippers and not easily caught on circle hooks.  Almost any cut bait works but fresh is best with Remora again being my favorite.  I keep one rod ready to fish for Triggers and when I start noticing the tell tale bites on live bait where  big chunks are bitten out, I bait up and catch a few.

 Another great eating fish is the Hogfish or Hog Snapper.    Probably 90% of the fishermen on this coast have never caught a Hogfish.  I use rig #1 for them but generally scale it down and use a smaller hook and lighter line and sinker.  Best baits for HOGFISH are small Crabs, Mantis  ! Shrimp, and 2-5” Shovelnosed Lobsters.  Live or fresh Shrimp will work but they are cleaned off the hook mighty quick.  Fish for Hogfish very early or very late in the day for best results.  Live rock bottom with cracks and crevices is Hogfish country.  On high profile rocks and ledges, Hogfish are wiped out by spearfishermen.   These high rocks and ledges can be productive for Hogfish at night.

 MANGROVE  SNAPPER,   big ones, not the 4-12” fish you catch in the river or inshore but 3-12# Mangroves are one of my very favorite fish of all to catch.  They are sneaky biters and great fighters.  A well full of small Pilchards (White Bait) is a good start for catching them.  Live Shrimp work great too.  I use basic rig  #1 on lighter tackle than for Grouper.  I usually use 20# test or so and a small Circle Hook.  Night time is the right time for Mangrove Snapper.  Wrecks, high profile rocks, tall ledges, and artificial reefs all attract Mangrove Snapper.   They are wary and generally avoid spearfishermen.

 RED SNAPPER  have made a remarkable come back on this coast.  Five years ago, it was uncommon to catch one within 60 miles of Crystal River.  In the past 2 years, I have caught several inside Seahorse Reef in 30 feet or less.  Again,  rig #1 is my choice for Snapper.  Dead Cigar Minnows and Spanish Sardines work great for Red Snapper.  Almost any live bait is eaten on sight too.  Most of the Red Snapper I have caught recently were accidental catches, caught while I was targeting Gag Grouper.  Red Snapper are often caught right along with Mangrove Snapper at night.

 SHEEPSHEAD aren’t often thought of as an offshore species but in the months of December through early March, they gather in huge spawning aggregations around offshore buoys, wrecks, artificial reefs, and high rocks.  Fishing these spots for Grouper, you’d never know that the Sheepshead are there because they almost never bite cut bait or live fish.  Drop a small piece of fresh shrimp, a small crab, or tube worm and you’d better get ready.  Again, rig #1 for me.  I use a short shank “Sheepshead hook,” usually a size 2.  I often slide a 1/2” orange craft pop-pom on to the hook.  It seems to get their attention plus I think that the ball absorbs a little of the bait scent and the Sheepshead will hang on a little longer.  Sheepshead are notorious for bait stealing and the little orange ball seems to help.

 Sheepshead are mighty fine table fish too.  Firm white meat.  Remember:  When you are fishing spawning aggregations, you are taking adult fish out of the spawning cycle.  Consider catch and release of these jumbo spawners.  At this time, the legal limit is 15 Sheepshead per person.  I’d like to see it dropped to 3 or 5  per person.  Lots of these fish are over 8 pounds and one caught on Whopper Stopper last year ! weighed 14-10. 

 Spadefish are seldom targeted by fishermen in this area.  They are very common all summer around wrecks and high profile rocks and ledges.  Spadefish are easily caught on a  rig consisting of a #2-4 “J” hook with a small split shot about a foot above.  I use fresh shrimp cut into small pieces.  I usually cast the bait to individual fish I see or into a group of fish.  One unusual thing! about Spadefish is that they bite best on slack tide.  They are a lot of fun on light tackle and fight like a really big Bluegill.  Most Spadefish we catch are from about 1/2 pound to 3 pounds with an occasional 5 or 6 pounder.  Good eating  with firm flesh. These fish must definitely be skinned.


Basic Fishing For Near Shore Pelagic Fish

 Pelagic fish are the wandering species that come by each year, stay a while and move on as the season or baitfish supply dictates.  Spanish Mackerel, Kingfish, Bonita,(False Albacore-Little Tunny) Trippletails, Cobia, Barracuda, and some species of Sharks are generally considered near shore pelagic species.  The Mackerels and Bonita are fast movers.  Sometimes they will stay in an area for a while when the food supply is staying still.  If the food supply moves the fish follow.  Cobia and Trippletails often stop and stay a while but the fish! you see by a buoy one day are often replaced on the next tide.  Barracudas take up residency near a wreck, artificial reef or large rock and stay there until cold weather sends them south.  I recognize some of the Cudas that I see often.  Sharks, with the exception of Nurse Sharks, always seem to be on the move.  Lots of  distress signals from fish being caught and a little blood in the water and Sharks come running.

 Spanish Mackerel, Bluefish, Bonitas(Little Tunny or False Albacore) and 1-5# Jack Crevalle are often found feeding together so I am going to address them as a group.  Casting small jigs, spoons, and flies into feeding schools! is one of the most exciting forms of fishing on this coast.  If you are casting into the schools and not catching them you are either using a bait far too large or not moving it fast enough.   Stop for a moment and take a look at what they are feeding on.  Most often the minnows are less than 3 “ in length.  Reel your jig so fast that it bounces along on the surface and you will get bites.  Trolling small jigs, spoons and flies around these schools will catch a lot of fish.  The best spoon of all for Spanish Mackerel is the Clark Spoon.  Try to choose a size th at matches the size of the bait the Mackerel are feeding on and you can hardly miss.  Circle the schools, don’t charge through.  You can circle and pull your lures right through the breaking fish without spooking the entire school and catch lots of fish in the process.  Troll fast.

 Large Spanish Mackerel  the 4-8# fish are often loners or in small schools.  These bigger fish feed on larger baitfish like their bigger cousin the Kingfish.  I catch them with live Sardines, Pilchards, Threadfins, and Cigar Minnows.  With these larger Mackerel,  wire leader is absolutely essential.  Without wire, you often get cut of f and never realize you have had a bite until you r! ealize you have no bait and then notice that there is no hook either.  I also catch them trolling 4-6” spoons,  plugs, and rigged baits.  Rig #5 is a basic live bait rig for Kingfish and Spanish Mackerel.  Fish near wrecks and big ledges or other places that holds bait schools.

 King Mackerel-Kingfish  are the fastest fish we catch around here.  They generally take more line than any other fish also.  A  reel that will hold three hundred yards or so of 20-30# mono is about right for these fish.  Live Threadfins, Cigar Minnows, Pilchards, and Sardines catch lots of small to medium  Kings but if you want a real “Smoker! ” you’d be better off fishing  a lively 1-2# Blue Runner, Ladyfish, or Spanish Mackerel.   Fish these larger live baits on a multiple hook live bait rig. Rig #6  Anchored near bait schools or drifting in areas with lots of bait schools is very effective. 

 Trolling can be mighty effective too.  When there is no grass, trolling a dead Cigar Minnow with a blue and white duster is probably the fastest way to limit out on Kingfish.  There are plugs and spoon that catch Kings just fine but I will pick a Cigar Minnow and duster every time.   I generally troll 3 lines with the Stbd line back 30’ with a 6 oz sinker, center line 100’ no sinker and Port line around 60’ or so with 4 oz.  I can turn darn near as fast as I want  and still not tangle.  I use a 3’ leader of #7 coffee colored single strand wire.

 If  I am trolling lures, I fish a Russellure(Kinggetter) on the Stbd line,   Mann’s Stretch 12 center and Mann’s Stretch 25 port.  Captain Action, Tony  Pet, and Huntington Drone Spoons  work great too but some experimentation with line length and weight will be in order.  Same length of line as for bait.  No sinker is used when trolling plugs.  Again a 3’ wire leader is essential and I usually use 7-Strand rather than solid with lures.

 From late February until mid September Cobia are one of the most sought after fish on this coast.  They will bite almost anything when they are in a biting mood and when they are not in a feeding mood, darn near nothing will catch them.  When I clean large Cobia, I find small sea turtles, sting rays, catfish, crabs, and all sorts of small fish including Cowfish, Blowfish, small Sharks, and an occasional Grouper.

 Lots of Cobia are caught sight fishing by running by crab traps and buoys and simply looking for fish on the surface.  Sight fishing is effective but this year, I caught far more by anchoring and chumming.  Basic rigs #1 & #2 are the rigs I use most often.   Any bait used for Gag Grouper is effective for Cobia.  When  I am bottom fishing for Grouper, I usually have one rig in a holder with a live bait down about half way to the bottom.  This rig catches a Cobia or two nearly every trip.  I catch an occasional Cobia while trolling.

 The Trippletail is  another fish that perhaps 90% of the fishermen on this coast have never caught.   They are very common and easy to catch but most folks have never even seen one, much less caught one.  They will bite almost anything you cast to them but the easiest way to catch them is with a small jig with a strip of fresh bait.  When you see one, simply cast past them and reel slowly by.  If one starts to follow, stop reeling and let your lure sink on a tight line.  When you feel him bite, set the hook. Prepare to be amazed!  These lethargic looking fish explode when they feel the hook.  They will definitely scream some line off against the drag.  Some of them jump several times then turn on their side and circle like a Jack Crevalle.  They never come to the boat easily. 

 Trippletails are had to clean because of heavy scales, tough skin, and sharp fins.  When you get one on your plate, you will definitely decide that they are worth the effort you spent cleaning them.  Trippletails are one of our very finest table fish.

  Lots of folks don’t know that Barracuda are common around here.  They are fairly plentiful here but seldom caught because most fishermen avoid them or just plain don’t know how to catch them.  A large lively Blue Runner, 2-3# Ladyfish or Spanish Mackerel  rigged on  multiple hook rig ( rig #6)  trolled or freelined around! schools of Mackerel, Jacks, Ladyfish, and Blue Runners will be taken often by  big ‘Cudas.  A long “tube lure” made out of 18” or so of surgical tubing trolled fast  works too.

 I didn’t know where to put Sharks.  I will group them as “near shore pelagics” because most Sharks wander rather than staking claim to a particular area.  I catch Sharks from time to time while fishing for every other species that I have listed here but I am going to describe  three of my favorite methods of catching them. 

 Basic bottom fishing works fine for most Sharks.  I always add at least 3’ of  wire to avoid bite offs.  Again, I use CIRCLE HOOKS because I release most sharks.  If  I am running a strictly a “Shark fishing trip” I fish for big Sharks and use 50# test on 6/0 reels, and 80# test on the 9/0.  I use 8’ of 200# mono plus 4’ of #12 wire on the 6/0 and 10’ of 200# mono # 6’ of #18 wire on the 9/0.  I use enough sinker to hold the bait on the bottom on on! e rig, another has a small sinker to hold the bait at mid depth, and the third has a balloon  float and small sinker and is baited with a live bait.  I seldom use huge baits for Sharks.  I  try to use a bait that is too big for Catfish  but it doesn’t have to be huge.  Fillets of Bonita and Jack Crevalle are my favorite Shark baits.  A 2-3# Jack Crevalle or large Blue Runner are top live baits.

 Most of the large Sharks we catch are Bull Sharks, Tiger Sharks, Great Hammerheads, and Black Tips.  My favorite of the small Shark are the Atlantic Sharpnose Shark and small Black Tips.  On light tackle, they are a hoot. and will take plugs, jigs, and flies.

If you decide to boat a Shark, you are on your own.  I  never boat a live Shark.  I  remove the head before bringing a Shark aboard.