Lower Keys-Little Torch
Arrangements have been made to spend a week in the lower keys with my cousin and her husband who is spending the month of February on Little Torch. They are dragging their Carolina Skiff down from PA to learn a little about light tackle fishing in the keys. We fish the sounds in North Carolina a few times a year and I fish light tackle on the Chesapeake for rockfish most weekends year round.
Anything anyone can share with us to shorten the learning curve is appreciated. I hope to use some of my light tackle gear I already own but would like to know what else I will need before I get there. Open for all thoughts and suggestions.
What size carolina skiff? If it doesn't have a bait well you should try to figure out something before you get there because live bait is pretty important down there. A bubbler is OK but you really need to circulate water if you want to keep fish alive. Two bait wells or maybe a divider would be nice - live shrimp, pinfish, and small blue crabs will be your primary baits but they don't get along in the well. If you break off the claws of the crabs they won't bother anything but the pinfish will eat all your shrimp if you don't keep them separate somehow.
I've stayed on the next Key west which is Ramrod and on the eastern side of Big Pine a bunch of times so I'm very familiar with the area. If the weather is good you should have no trouble running out to the reef for bottom fishing (which you should try) and if it's windy there are a million places to fish in the back country no matter how bad it's blowing (which in Feb it will), oh yea, Carolina skiff... bring foul weather gear....
Use LOTS of chum when fishing the reef. I use 2 bags with a 5lb frozen block in each bag. Make sure to shake them once in awhile to keep the chum flowing. I also thaw a block the night before in a 5 gallon pail. I mix some oats and water with it to make a nice slop and ladle a bunch of this overboard when I first anchor and then periodically while fishing. I have the best luck drifting a shrimp on a bare hook back into the chum slick. Remember that you need to use circle hooks when fishing for reef fish. Best depth seems to be 45-60 feet but like always, you never know where they will be for sure. Drop a pinfish or ballyhoo on a heavier rod for whatever big toothy critter is drawn in by your chum slick.
You want to spend a lot of time studying the rules before you get there but unless you're fishing in the gulf of mexico or north of 28 degrees (north of palm beach) I don't think you need to use circle hooks, yet.... In the keys I'm not exactly sure where atlantic ends and the gulf begins, I'm pretty sure all the bridges are considered Atlantic but as soon as you head a mile or so north I'm pretty sure that's considered Gulf. I saw a map somewhere, if I can find it I'll see if I can post a link.
Originally Posted by Perchguy
http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/r...sh-gear-rules/ State and federal regulations require all commercial fishers and recreational anglers fishing for any reef fish species in the Gulf of Mexico to use circle hooks, dehooking devices and venting tools. These rules became effective on June 1, 2008 in all waters of the Gulf of Mexico and affect all reef fish species including groupers, snappers, amberjacks, triggerfish, porgies, sea bass, hogfish, and tilefish. As of July 29, 2009, regulations require recreational and commercial fishers to use dehooking devices when fishing for reef fish in federal waters of the Atlantic off Florida. Consistent regulations have been in effect in state waters of the Atlantic since January 19, 2010. Effective March 3, 2011, non-stainless steel circle hooks must be used when fishing for reef fish with hook and line gear and natural baits north of latitude 28°N in Atlantic federal waters.
The learning curve is steep but there are many, many species and some kind of fish just about everywhere, compared to up here. Something is ALWAYS biting somewhere. In a week you won't even scratch the surface of that fishery, and you will be catching new species at the end of a week (or even a month). You'll definitely want a reference book to sort out what species you catch. (For groupers it doesn't matter, as you can't keep those at this time of year).
The wind may or may not allow you to get out beyond the reef, but still plenty of action inshore if you want. Most fish eat shrimp inshore, or can use sabikis to catch pinfish and other small fish, which can be used for jacks, groupers, larger snappers, and tarpon (there could be a few around, as this winter hasn't been very cold). Gulp shrimps work great, but lots of fish will chew them up. Other shrimp-like lures, or fish-like lures will work too, if fished properly. You may see a cuda or shark anywhere from inshore channels to out past the reef. Bridges can be good for snappers, groupers, tarpon, jacks...
If you are able to get out past the reef, Feb. is good season for sailfish (they do run within 1 - 2 miles of the reef, and closer than that sometimes), blackfin tuna will be out in that same area (bite best early morning or towards sunset), mackerels (king / cero / spanish) are out there past the reef, snappers and groupers near the bottom... and there are many more reef species out there. But it takes time to find the good bottom structure, so don't expect to go slay the bottom species your first time. Some of the wrecks with public numbers can be good. You can also catch snappers, groupers, cudas, and cero / spanish mackerel in the patch reefs (inshore of the main reef) if it's too rough to get out past the reef.
Catching live bait (apart from pinfish, which are easy) is one of the harder parts of fishing the Keys, even though there is a lot of it around. Of course, without a good livewell you won't be keeping bait for long, but you could catch it and use it quickly perhaps. You can catch ballyhoos with a small hook while chumming, and they can be caught anywhere from the reef shallows or inshore channels... They are very good bait for most predator fish..either live, dead, or chunked. If you're out yellowtailing on the reef or patch reefs, you may attract ballyhoos and predators that eat them. You can also catch blue runners around inshore structure, or around the patch reefs which can be good for sails and king mackerel.
Due to the water clarity out there, live bait does well, or chunks, but you can also fool some species with jigs (vertical type jigs, bucktails, etc).
In general you'll want a fluoro leader...inshore maybe 3 ft / 20 lb, but outside the reef the water is usually mcuh clearer than inshore so you want a longer one like 10 ft. Keep it on the light side too... too heavy a leader will get you ignored. For yellowtail most guys use 15 or even 12 lb fluoro. Sailfish - 40-50 lb. Blackfins...20-25 lb. For bottom species you'll want a heavier leader... 30-40 lb, or more if you're targeting groupers. For tarpon, a leader of 50-60 lb and 7-8 ft for abrasion resistance.
Thanks for all the information everyone! Can't ever get enough from people who know.
I have been researching the regs. and will continue.
Skiff is 20' and does have a good live well. I didn't think much about live or real bait. I like fishing artificial, but like catching fish even more so live bait and rigs will be my next research project. I want to get as much catching in as I can in one week!
Hope I'm posting some successes here in the near future.
If you prefer artificials, you can catch plenty of fish.
For inshore, we use Gulp shrimp on a 1/8 oz jighead for grass flats up to 4 ft or so, and 1/4 oz jighead up to maybe 8-10 ft. Yellow pompano jigs 1/2 - 5/8, tipped w/ Gulp shrimp, for the deeper channels. Similar results but the pompano jigs are more visible if the water's a bit stirred up. But if the water is really stirred up by the wind (like milky blue) inshore it's not good...find somewhere clearer. You want at least 2-3 ft visibility.
We also use 5" jerk shads on a 1/4 oz jighead in the inshore channels. They're good for jacks, snappers, groupers, cudas... probably most colors would work but we use a lot of chartreuse and/or white.
Another lure that's good is the flat Sting Silver...like 1 - 2 oz... for deeper channels, and out at the patch reefs, etc.. Yellowtails and mackerel will hit them over the patch reefs. If you fish them slower, mangrove snappers and groupers will hit them, and my wife has even had several tarpon up to 80 lb hit those things (of course, they broke off). Jacks, blue runners, ladyfish, and mackerel will hit them in the channels, if fished fast.
Out beyond the reef the current can run pretty strong so you need a heavier lure to get down. A vertical jig of 3-4 oz or so will get down there, but I don't like fishing directly over the reef with those due to losing tackle. I like hammered diamond jigs...they're relatively cheap (for vertical jigs) and effective. 4-8 oz will catch lots of stuff out there, from mutton snappers to blackfin tuna, mackerel, groupers, etc. I've heard white "pilchard jigs" are good out there...which are bucktails with a flat head that slice through the water. Supposed to be good tipped with some bait like ballyhoo chunks. Haven't tried them yet but I will this year.
There are a lot of fish out there beyond the reef, but fish are not everywhere. You could luck into fish drifting outside the reef in the open water, especially if you see current lines, color change, birds, fish jumping, etc., but if not it can be slow fishing. If you find good structure on the reef or go to a wreck, odds are a lot better. Not sure how far up the Keys this goes, but around Key West there is a secondary hump or reef called "The Bar" maybe 1/4 mile out past the main reef that runs parallel, which also holds fish. Some fish get between that and the main reef, yellowtails and others can be on that, and some (like blackfins) are more on the deeper side of it. If you stay out there a few hours don't be surprised to see a couple of sailfish feeding. I got lucky and caught a sail on one of my first trips out past the reef, drift fishing with a live blue runner as bait. Hoping to repeat that this year...
BTW - if driving down, it's fun stopping at Robbie's (mile marker 77.5) in Islamorada to hand feed the tarpon. Also World Wide Sportsman (mile marker 81.5) has a viewing area where you can see tarpon and sharks.
I second the recommendation to stop at Robbie's!
You can catch with lures but you'll do much better if you can figure out where to catch and how to fish fresh bait. If you get a good day make sure you try bottom fishing along the edge of the reef, anywhere from the big pine reef to american shoal is well within reach. Try to anchor so your boat is positioned right on the bottom edge of the drop off, where the live reef ends at about 90' and starts to flatten out. Fresh ballyhoo, pinfish, and kingfish chunks are all good bottom baits. Flat line a ballyhoo with wire for kings as soon as you anchor up. Bottom rig should be a 3/0 - 5/0 hook, 4' or so of 40# leader, 40# main line, 3 - 8 oz of lead. Floro is great but not worth the money imo. Longer leaders may get more bites but you'll get hung up in more snags if the bottom is craggy. 2 years ago I spent 2 weeks in the area and only got out to the reef 2 days but the fishing was good out there. Caught some decent muttons, groupers and misc others just off the big pine reef 2 years ago in my 17' Whaler in Feb, no problem giving you the exact numbers if you want but the best bet is to motor down the reef line and watch your finder before you throw the hook and re-position until you get it just right. Minimum of 5 boxes of chum per day and 10 is not too bad. Fancy seafoods on Summerland sells good chum for a decent price.
Water_boy thanks for the info. I don't have tackle capable of fishing that heavy but that could change! Everyone's info is helpful. It's giving me the opportunity to research a bunch of stuff before I leave. Can't Wait, four more days!
Yesterday I went to a saltwater flea market in Deale Maryland and met several vendors who gave me some great information and insight. Gave me some contacts once I get down there too. I'll be posting while I'm down there.