By Captain Chris Johnson, SeaSquared Charters, Marathon Florida Keys
Celebrated as outstanding table fare, the Florida Keys hogfish is distinguishable for its curious appearance as well as its elusiveness to rod and reel anglers.
Once armed with an understanding of the hogfish’s habitat and feeding practices, reef and Gulf fishermen in the Florida Keys can target this prized species with successful results.
Description of the Florida Keys hogfish
Often called a hog snapper, the hogfish is not a snapper at all, but a member of the wrasse family.
Its long snout, large mouth with protruding front teeth and dorsal fin with elongated streamers distinguish it from any other fish in Florida Keys waters. The tail is rather broad and not deeply forked and sports more modest streamers.
Colors vary depending on where the fish is situated. In sandy areas, it tends to be a light pink color. It has a deeper salmon pink or brown/gray hue when in grassy locales.
The average hogfish catch weighs one to four pounds. The legal size is 12 inches from the tip of the snout to the fork of the tail. Fish must be measured to the center of the tail, not the tip of the streamers.
Habitat of the Florida Keys hogfish
Hogfish live in both the Atlantic and Gulf waters surrounding the Florida Keys. They like to root around in the sandy bottom surrounding coral patches, wrecks and exposed rock areas.
The largest specimens are typically found on the deep edge of the main Atlantic reef line either at the base of the reef in 90 to 100 feet of water or on the sandy ledges from 50 to 80 feet.
Eating habits of the Florida Keys hogfish
Just like earthbound hogs and pigs, hogfish root around with their nose in search of food. Their distinctive snout is effective at plowing through the sandy bottom and exposing small invertebrates. Above all, hogfish prefer small crabs, shrimp and worms.
Fishing techniques for Florida Keys hogfish
While hogfish are caught accidentally more often than not, it is possible to target them with great success using the right tactics.
Similar to fishing for snapper on the reef in the Florida Keys, light tackle is the way to go for hogfish. The most productive strategy employs 12-pound gear with 12-pound test as the main line. Depending on the size of the target and the fishing depth, fluorocarbon leaders testing anywhere from 15 to 30 pounds are most effective.
When fishing for hogfish around the shallower grass beds, patch reefs and wrecks, jig heads weighing ¼ to 5/8 ounce get the job done nicely. Trade up to knocker rigs when fishing the deeper edge of the reef or around the deeper wrecks and rock piles where upwards of four ounces of lead is required to get the bait to the bottom. Hook sizes on the knocker rigs can be anything from a #2 to a 2/0 live bait hook, or a circle hook, if preferred.
Chumming to attract Florida Keys hogfish
By far, the best chum to attract hogfish is any form of discarded crustacean parts, and it’s fairly easy to make.
Wholesale fish houses offer a product called fish trash. Pick out the fish and use only the crustacean pieces, such as crabs, shrimp heads, lobster legs and small shellfish. Grind the crustaceans and pour the mixture into a container to freeze. If a grinder is not available, use a five-gallon bucket and a dowel, ala mortar and pestle, to crush and grind the crustaceans.
Unlike chumming the surface for snapper, hogfish chum must be positioned on the bottom near the target structure. Anchor in the sand around the edge of the structure and use a weighted basket to deploy the chum. A standard mesh chum bag with a four-pound dive weight will also send the chum directly to the bottom.
Regardless of basket or bag, have sufficient line attached to allow shaking of the container to disperse the scent of the crustacean mixture across the bottom to attract the hogfish.
Place the container at the bow of the boat so that baits fished off the back will be directly in line with the chum slick. The up-and-down motion of the boat will disperse the chum continuously.
Borrow a trick from spear divers
Here’s a trick borrowed from Florida Keys spearfishermen targeting hogfish.
If there’s no access to fish trash or sufficient quantities of crustacean parts to make chum, tie a flat, heavy object, such as a dive weight or a small barbell weight, to a line attached to the bow. Again, the rocking of the boat will bounce the weight off the bottom, which will create sand puffs that attract the curiosity of the hogfish.
Kicking up sand is a diver’s trick to attract hogfish for a shot. This simple procedure with a weight will create the same effect.
The best bait to catch Florida Keys hogfish
Unsurpassed as bait and the most readily available at nearly all Florida Keys tackle shops is live or fresh dead shrimp. Frozen shrimp will work in a pinch, but they’re typically too malleable to stay on the hook very long. Cut pieces of blue crab will also work nicely and a simple pair of scissors makes quick work of them.
Since hogfish are accustomed to searching in the sand for their food, it is of paramount importance to keep the bait as close to the bottom as possible. The hogfish bite is very subtle. Just the slightest extra bit of weight on the end of the rod is the cue to set the hook or, in the case of a circle hook, begin reeling.
The fight is typically over quickly, although the larger hogfish can pull rather aggressively before succumbing to steady rod pressure.
This method will also produce a fair share of snapper and the occasional grouper. Additionally, anglers have caught Florida pompano, sheepshead, porgies and permit using this same technique.
Florida Keys hogfish are a real treat at the dinner table
Hands down, hogfish is one of the most delicious of all Florida Keys fish. The very delicate flavor of the whitest filet meat you’ve ever seen make the effort to catch hogfish well worthwhile.
Restaurants throughout the Florida Keys offer hogfish on the menu, often for as much as $32.95 per plate. These same restaurants will gladly cook your hogfish catch. Nothing beats a dinner of fresh Florida Keys hogfish you caught yourself!