Now that the weather has finally warmed up and stabilized a bit the fishing has gotten back on track for us. As expected in the winter time, the patch reefs are very productive for yellowtails, mutton snappers, mangrove snappers and porgies. You will also find cero mackerels, groupers, ballyhoos and other popularly targeted species in the patches this time of year.
The term patch reef seems to confuse people from time to time. It’s basically a local term that defines the small areas of reef that are inshore from the main body of the coral reef. They are cut off from the reef by sand, making each one similar to an oasis in a dessert. Every patch out there has it’s own micro-ecosystem with resident fish, corals, eels, etc. and they are constantly having migratory fish move in and spend time on them as well. This makes for a very diverse gathering of species. Certain times of the year the patches are typically more productive than the main reef. Winter is a prime example of this. The ballyhoo and other baitfish move into the patches and everything else follows.
I have caught mutton snappers up to 21 pounds on the patches, groupers up to 30, yellowtails over 6, kingfish over 50 and sailfish up to 80 pounds in these patch reefs ranging from 10 to 30 feet of water. People seem to have this notion that if the water is shallow the fish must be small. Well, take a look at the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina. They are in 4 feet of water and they reach 180 pounds. In my opinion that blows the whole shallow water theory out of the water. Fish don’t care about depth, they care about temperature, salinity, clarity, cover, food and mates.
Getting out off the edge of the reef, the kingfish are still pretty consistent. Every day is a bit different, but most days you can count on catching a few if you hit the right areas. Live baits such as ballyhoo, cigar minnows, speedos and shrimp are the top baits, but jigs, spoons, crank baits and flies will work as well. The main thing to remember is you must use a wire leader to protect against their razor sharp teeth.
A key element to winter fishing is the shrimp run. The shrimp run from the bay to the ocean at night on an outgoing tide. Some nights the run is light and some nights millions of them migrate. When you catch one of these busy nights and fish with live shrimp either that night or the next day the fishing is bound to be hot.
The Islamorada Lady with Capt. Jeff Norton has been consistently catching sailfish and kings. I don’t think a day has gone by in the last month that they haven’t had a sailfish release flag flying after a charter. 9 out of 10 of these fish are coming on live ballyhoo that Capt. Jeff and his mate Joe Saba are netting on the way out to the fishing grounds in the morning. Bi-catches have been mutton snappers, groupers, yellowtails and jacks.
I prefer the weather in the summer, but the fishing in the winter. Come on down, jump on a boat and let us show you a fantastic day of rod bending action out of Robbie’s!
Now that the Holidays have past and the chaos has ended I would like to take some time to update everyone on the fishing in Islamorada! It’s gotten very cold (relatively speaking) which has all but shut down the yellowtails and mangrove snappers. They are still out there on the reef, but they are very lethargic and passive. The water temp is down into the 60’s now which is frigged for a snapper. I am not saying you can’t catch them, but your time would be better spent targeting something a bit more active, such as king fish, cero mackerels, porgies, or groupers.
The word grouper brings tears to my eyes right now. For those of you who haven’t heard… The “State” has closed the season on groupers from January 1st through the month of April. This was a very controversial topic in South Florida for the last year or so, and now it has finally taken place. Many, many fisherman are in an uproar! It’s not my place to voice my opinion on the matter here in my report, but lets just say I am not very pleased about the situation. It’s not that we catch all that many groupers on the party or charter boats, but it is always the big trophy that everyone hopes to catch, and now that hope has been taken away. In the midst of a bunch of smaller reef fish you always have that chance of pulling up a big grouper, and now if you do you have to throw it back. Sure, some people are happy catching and releasing, but most reef fisherman are looking to eat what they catch. The folks who are more into catch and release tend to be bigger fans of back country, flats, and billfishing. Not to mention, most of the time when you pull a grouper off a deep wreck it dies no matter what from the pressure change on the way up, so now the fish is going to die anyways, but we don’t get to take it home.
Enough about groupers, the kingfish bite hasn’t quite turned on yet, but I am confident that it is right around the corner. I keep a detailed record of what we catch on the party boat every day and highlight the big changes and events. The last three years in a row the king bite really turned on just after the new year. In fact, according to my records last year we caught our limit of kings on January 1st in 120 feet of water with 24 people on the boat. That’s 48 kings!
One less talked about fish that I love to catch is the porgy. They aren’t very big, but they are great on the dinner table and put up a good fight for there size. These fish are more abundant in the winter time and prefer to eat squid and shrimp. We catch a lot of them on our “chicken rigs”, which are the basic bottom rig we use on the party boat. When I can I see to it that everyone on the boat has a few of these guys for dinner. We catch a few different types of porgies, including the jolthead, whitebone, saucer-eye and sheepshead porgy. The sheepshead porgy is not a sheepshead, even though they look similar. They are commonly confused. The saucer-eye is the largest of these nifty fish we catch, I have had customers catch them over ten pounds! We call these big guys “hub-caps”.
If you get a chance to break away from work come on down and thaw out with me and the rest of the guys on the Capt. Michael and Islamorada Lady II!!!