An Exercise in Futility
Planning for a fishing trip way in advance for December can be an exercise in futility. Weather has a lot to do with how productive the fishing can be. The weather can run the gamut from Africa hot to downright burrrr! When the weather is hot and calm you can revert to summer tactics both on the reef and in the backcountry. The same can be said for when the cold fronts cool things off - instant winter tactics.
I like to take advantage of the last month of the year to get in on the shallow water grouper while they are apt to bite and before the beginning of the winter closure of grouper season. While live bait fishing for grouper can be very productive, when the conditions allow, trolling can be especially productive. Trolling allows you to cover a lot of ground. I troll both natural rigged ballyhoo on a down rigger and hard plastic diving plugs. Grouper naturally feed on a variety of reef fish, one of their favorite prey fish is the yellowtail snapper. To emulate the color of a yellowtail I like to use a yellow skirt on my rigged natural bait. Likewise, I prefer a diving plug that has a bit of yellow in the color pattern.
When I troll, I like to troll from patch reef to patch reef at around five knots give or take, depending on visibility. If the water is dirty I will slow down to keep the bait in the fish’s sight longer. If the water is clear you can speed up a little to cover more ground. Trolling over the top of the reef has several challenges. Trap buoys and ropes are a constant challenge to avoid.
Remember to troll on the downwind side of a buoy. The trap ropes can extend a considerable distance from the buoy and trolling deep means that you have to account for a lot of trap line.
The depth of patch reefs that are convenient to troll vary from about 15 to 30 feet on most lower Keys reefs. You need to be constantly vigilant on order to keep your bait from snagging the coral reef. Most plugs that you buy for trolling advertise a specific depth range for a given trolling speed. If you move from one depth to another you’ll need to change lures. You can get a small amount of depth adjustment by varying the amount of line out. As for natural bait on a down rigger, it is a simple matter of either taking a few cranks on the down rigger or letting out a bit of cable. It pays to keep your bait between five and ten feet from the bottom. Grouper are great at ambushing prey from below.
On the subject of down rigger cable, there is a great alternative to the constantly corroding and splintering supposedly stainless steel cable. The many makers of spectra fiber lines offer a heavy version that works wonderfully on a down rigger. Any super line between 150 and 250 pounds makes a great down rigger cable substitute.
When trolling the reef you should not neglect to have a few baits on the surface. A surprising variety of reef fish will not hesitate to leave the security of the bottom to come all of the way to the surface to crash a bait. Grouper, mutton snapper, and flag yellowtail snapper all hit a surface trolled ballyhoo. For surface baits I also like a yellow-skirted ballyhoo and even better, a naked ballyhoo. As an added bonus, there are usually a lot of cero mackerel, king mackerel and barracuda to add to the variety.
You’ll find a lot of feeding activity along the outer reef edge, especially in the morning hours. You will often see schools of ballyhoo being scattered by cero mackerel and occasionally by sailfish marauding the reef edge. When the ballyhoo “shower” like this it is an invitation to get there and get in on the action. Having a live pilchard or ballyhoo ready to pitch into the frenzy will all but guarantee a hookup.
Whenever you get a hit on your deeper trolled ballyhoo or plug, be sure to record your position for later exploration with chum and some live or cut bait. Trolling is a great way to add to your collection of patch reef numbers when not trolling. For a guy with Fishing ADD, I still find plenty to do and to get distracted by just with a simple activity like trolling.
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