Captain’s Blog – May 1, 2010 – We have turned the page to a new chapter of fishing in the Florida Keys.
Among the fish species the Keys are best known for and sought after by anglers from near and far are dolphin, grouper and tarpon. May heralds the onslaught of dolphin and tarpon. This year, it also welcomes the reopening of grouper season.
Just to be clear, we’re not talking about Flipper. Known as mahi-mahi or Dorado in other parts of the world, we call them dolphin in the Florida Keys. And, typically our big dolphin runs kicks into high speed in May with many large fish for the taking.
The most popular tactic for fishing for dolphin is the run-and-gun method. This strategy employs locating an indication of the presence of dolphin and then beginning the search. Weed lines, floating debris and birds, such as frigates and terns, working the water surface are all signs of dolphin in the area.
The largest fish – dolphin over 65 pounds – are caught in the Gulf Stream. On a typical day, we head south beyond the reef and begin our hunt in the 200-foot depths and beyond.
Once you spot one of the telltale signals, you have two methods of approach. One requires you find the fish. The second counts on the fish finding you.
The first technique is to pitch baits directly at the dolphin if you can see them. A boat with a tower or upper station increases your range of sight and improves your odds. The second system is to troll in front of or around your target area with rigged ballyhoo or lures and trust the fish find you.
If you come across a weed line, you have two choices. If you have the capability of seeing the fish, troll down the line at a moderate speed with your eyes peeled. If not, troll slow and hope for a chance encounter with the dolphin.
Without question, the bait of choice for dolphin fishing is rigged ballyhoo. Keep plenty of chunk baits at the ready for the schoolies. When you hook one of these smaller dolphin, bring it to the boat but leave it in the water. Throw freebies at its school pals to keep their attention as you put fish after fish in the boat!
Another key ingredient is live baits. We always carry a live well full of pinfish. It’s handy to have a couple of Sabiki rigs on board in case you stumble upon small jacks or other small baitfish under a floater. Quickly catch a dozen or so and put them in your live well. The dolphin find these treats simply irresistible.
While you’re on your dolphin quest at the humps, make a stop on one of the under water seamounts. Quite often there are abundant blackfin tuna in these areas. They can be had by trolling, live baiting or jigging. There’s nothing like fresh tuna sashimi appetizer to go with your dolphin main course!
It’s been a long four months with no shallow water grouper fishing. Grouper season reopens on May 1, and anglers will be rewarded for their self-control in returning countless keeper-size fish back to the watery depths during the first four months of the year.
Most every inshore wreck, rock pile and reef holds masses of red, black and gag grouper. Ample quantities to satiate the appetites of anglers who’ve been Jonesing for this Florida Keys staple all winter.
You will have greatest success by live baiting with large baits, such as grunts, blue runners, large pinfish and so on. If you’re yellowtailing on the reef, your chum will arouse the interest of the grouper as well as the snapper. On the deeper wrecks and artificial reefs, try drifting for best results.
Heavy tackle is a must. I use 30- to 40-pound tackle with leaders from 60 to 80 pounds with 6/0 or larger hooks.
The first ten seconds of the battle are critical to victory in grouper fishing. You must get the fish’s head up and keep it coming toward the boat at a steady pace. If you don’t, more often than not it will retreat to its lair and break you off.
While you’re working the wrecks and reef, take advantage of the snapper fishing.
There are plentiful mutton snapper on the wrecks. The majority of the muttons can be had live baiting while you’re grouper fishing. I recommend slightly lighter tackle as the muttons tend to be line shy.
The not so secret to yellowtail and mangrove snapper fishing on the reef is copious amounts of chum, a variety of baits and light tackle.
Variety of species in the Gulf
The gulf side of the islands has begun to thaw from our record-breaking winter chill. Gag grouper, mangrove snapper, cobia and permit abound at the wrecks and rock piles in the Gulf.
Fishing for permit is greatly anticipated each spring. They are getting ready to spawn and tend to congregate in large numbers around the bigger wrecks.
When fishing the Gulf this time of year I always have at least a dozen blue crabs with me to give my anglers a shot at a permit or two. I use 20-pound spin tackle and a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader with a ¼ to 3/8 ounce HookUp Lures jig head attached as my terminal tackle.
If you want to give this a try on your own, simply hook the crab by the point of its shell as close to the edge as possible so as not to kill it. Cast in front of the permit and allow the crab to sink. The bite is obvious, but you must be quick to set the hook, as permit are notorious for crushing the crab and spitting the hook if you don’t act fast enough.
As I said, permit are spawning this time of year, so have your sport with them and then release them to heed Mother Nature’s calling.
Quite often there are large sharks hovering around the outskirts of a school of permit. Should this be the case on your outing, I suggest moving on, as you are no match for the sharks.
Anglers from around the world flood the Florida Keys for tarpon season every year.
Tarpon fishing is one endeavor where I highly recommend hiring a professional charter captain, at least for your first time out. The fishing takes place primarily around bridge pilings among a great deal of boat congestion in a relatively tight space. Hence, it requires an amazing amount of boat-handling skill and etiquette. Not to mention the experience to find the fish and get a bait to it in an efficient manner. There is also the possibility of having to pick up the anchor and chase the fish while the angler is hooked and fighting it.
All that being said, there’s nothing more exhilarating than the sight of the silver king running and jumping at the end of your line with a fabulous Florida Keys sunset as the backdrop.
There are more fishing tournaments in the Keys during May than there is room to list them here. For a complete directory, please visit FloridaKeysVacationMagazine.com. And, since May is a new chapter in fishing, it’s a good idea to brush up on the regulations at myfwc.com.