As much as there can be a guarantee in the world of fishing, November guarantees to be a great time to hit the patch reefs of the Florida Keys. By now the first few cold fronts of the year have had an opportunity to drive bait fish out to, and over, the reefs of the Lower Keys.
For most of the state, the fall bait fish run features the annual mullet run, bringing vast shoals of mullet along the beach and with them every type of predator that the rest of Florida has to offer. The star bait fish in the annual migration in the Keys however is the ballyhoo. To say that the ballyhoo is the end all be all of the bait fish world would hardly be an exaggeration. I can think of only two targeted fish in the Keys that do not at least occasionally snack on ballyhoo. The hogfish and the permit. Both have a strong preference for tasty crustaceans over any fin fish. That being said, I assume that readers might come up with another example or two but then again maybe not.
For fishing the patches of the Lower Keys this time of year ballyhoo have no equal. While I usually start my trip to the reef with a bait well full of pinfish as an insurance policy against not finding ballyhoo on the reef, I do not expect to catch a fraction of the number and variety of fish that I will on the live and fresh ballyhoo.
The key to getting the ballyhoo to come within range of your hair hook or cast net is to use a moderate amount of chum. Too heavy of a chum line will either bring schools of snapper to the boat scaring the baitfish back a few precious yards or the ballyhoo will be able to feed on the tasty morsels without having to swim within net range. On the other hand, the chum coming out in broken dribbles will not entice the bait any better than too heavy of a line. To control the amount of chum being disbursed into the water I prefer to use boxed chum in a chum cage. The paper lid of the chum box is torn only enough to insure a steady unbroken chum line. I find that about one third of the box lid will suffice. Variables such as water temperature and sea state can have a considerable effect on the rate of chum flow.
If I can get a few ballyhoo into the bait well, I will put out a mix of both live and fresh cut bait on the bottom along with at least one surface rig on a trace of steel leader for the toothy critters such as cero mackerel or a marauding barracuda. If there are cero in the area, they will usually announce their presence by crashing the party and scattering the ballyhoo, if only temporarily. The surface rig will have two hooks in order to thwart the efforts of the often short-striking mackerel. For some reason, fish that are notoriously fussy about steel leaders when they are fished on the bottom will not hesitate to come all of the way out of hiding between the coral ledges to strike the surface bait. It is not uncommon to find flag yellowtail, mutton snapper, yellow jack and grouper all coming to the surface for a live ballyhoo. And while we are just starting to get into the season that offers the most action on the reef, we are also at the tail end of the season for the shallow water groupers. Wasting an opportunity to take advantage of the last part of the year is a bit more than a shame for the grouper lover.
When putting bait on the bottom, I like the saying go big or go home. Small to medium ballyhoo are relieved of only their heads and tails and are hooked through the vertebrae at the tail end and offered with only a minimum amount of weight to hold bottom on a knocker rig. For large ballyhoo, I will still remove the heads and tail but will then divide the rest of the bait at the midsection. The tail half hooked the same as a whole ballyhoo but the head hooked at the shoulder over the pectoral fin. Live ballyhoo can definitely be offered whole and kicking on the bottom. The drawback to this offering is that I tend to get bitten off by barracuda as I don’t like to use steel on the bottom, as I believe that the targeted fish usually spend more time inspecting their next meal when it is on their own level. If you are sure that there are fish around but you are not getting much action, try to shorten up on your trace of wire on the surface rig. Also, go down a few sizes and switch to fluorocarbon on the bottom.
With my case of fishing ADD I am only good in one spot for a short period of time without getting any action. If I have been on a spot for half of an hour and there is not activity, I will move a few miles down the reef and set up again. Sometimes the bite is the same everywhere, but I do not like to take a chance that it is not greener on the other side of the fence.
These same ballyhoo that create such great action on the reef are just as apt to get attention when slow trolled outside of the reef. Everything from dolphin to sailfish, including wahoo and tuna are targeting ballyhoo now. I like a twelve foot, fifty to sixty pound fluorocarbon leader with a 4/0 live bait hook or a wire circle hook if targeting sailfish. I tie this leader directly to my spider wire with a uni to uni connection and alleviate the added hardware of a swivel.
Until I find the depth that the majority of fish are holding, I will slow troll back and forth from just outside of the reef line to about 250 feet of water then back again until I find the fish or they find me.
Leave a comment
Comments will be approved before showing up.