Crank Em Up!
The predictability factor goes out the window in September. I often get a little flustered when asked what is biting well in September. There are so many variables, most having to do with weather and water temperature. Of all of the fish species available in the Keys and the list is considerable, none can be considered unavailable. The flip side of this statement is that none are a guarantee this time of year.
The water down past a hundred feet will be considerably cooler and therefore more comfortable for the temperature sensitive fish. To hedge your bets against overly warm water I like to go deep to find comfortable fish willing to eat. The wrecks and deep reefs will hold grouper, mutton snapper, amberjack and other game fish. Drifting with live pinfish can produce a variety of table fare.
For the angler with a little fortitude there are target rich environments even deeper. A lot of anglers are accustomed to plying the surface of the offshore waters for the ever popular mahi mahi. September can bring about a kind of doldrums making finding dolphin in the calm, warm water a tedious, and with the cost of fuel, an expensive affair. The alternative is to stop looking at the water near the surface and drop to the bottom to come up with the critters who feed where the “sun don’t shine”.
Deep dropping has become a much easier game even without the benefit of motorized reels. Braided lines have given us several distinct advantages when it comes to getting down deep. The first is that the line is extremely thin for the breaking strength. For example fifty pound test braided line has the same diameter as twelve pound test monofilament line. The advantage of this is twofold; first you can get a lot of line onto a relatively small spool. The next advantage of thinner line is that there is greatly reduced resistance to the drag of the line through the water. The other big advantage of using the spectra fiber line is that there is virtually no stretch and even the slightest nibble can be detected even at great depth. I have found that on moderately calm days you will only need about two pounds of weight to reach and fish the bottom as you drift along. If it gets a little choppy or the wind has you moving at a good clip you will have to bump it up to three pounds or so. You may also need to maneuver your boat to keep it over your line if the wind is working against you.
The tackle needed for this varies according to angler preference, however I have found that a large capacity spinning reel like a SPINFISHER V 1050 completely loaded with fifty pound braid is plenty to bring up everything that I have come across. The more unused line on the spool after the bait is on the bottom the faster your retrieval rate will be. Diameter X revolutions = speed. I have been using Berkley Spider Wire and it proves to be stronger than even the stated breaking strength. I also prefer the heavier jigging rods from Penn. The Carnage jigging rods in 200 or 130 lb class have both performed admirably for me.
You can find pre-made deep drop leaders at your favorite tackle dealer however they are also pretty simple to make on your own. I start with about eight feet of sixty pound fluorocarbon leader. You can get away with monofilament because the fish aren’t really going to see it in the low light but I like the stiffness of the fluorocarbon. While you can easily use snap swivels and loop connections, I have had great success using a uni to uni splice directly to the line to leader connection. I can then reel my leader a little farther up for better control at boat side. From there I put a two to three inch surgeons end loop about every two feet and loop my circle hook to that. I use an 11o/t Mustad heavy duty circle hook for most of my leaders. I tie my weight to the leader with a piece of thirty pound monofilament in case the weight gets snagged on the bottom it can be broken off a little easier.
While I prefer to use squid for my deep drop bait just about any cut bait can be deployed. Strips of bonito or mackerel tend to hold well when hooked through the skin. Of course, we have mentioned that there is precious little light down on the bottom in over six hundred feet of water so if you add some light to your leader you will assist the fish in noticing your offering. I suggest that you use either glow in the dark tubing to adorn your hooks or actually add a submersible light to the top of your leader. The sealed lights that activate when in contact with water are both economical to buy, and effective. The batteries are not replaceable in these lights so to preserve the life of the battery you should carefully dry and store the light when not in use.
When the snowy grouper season in Federal waters reopens in January, I will be using larger baits and hooks, however now that my primary target is tilefish and black bellied rose fish, along with the occasional barrel fish hake and green eyed shark. I tend to try to reduce the bycatch of the grouper by using smaller bait and hooks.
Inevitably when you catch a snowy grouper out of season you have to release it. I have been using a technique utilizing my down rigger to return the fish to a depth that gives it a better chance of survival. Moderate-sized fish can be attached to the downrigger ball with a small hook in the lip and tied to the down rigger ball with a piece of light monofilament. I keep over three hundred feet of 250 pound line on my down rigger and run the fish all of the way down. I can then put the boat into gear and apply a little throttle to break the line at depth giving the fish a chance to return to the bottom without having to fight against an inflated bladder. If the fish is larger, you may have to deflate the bladder with a venting needle to overcome the positive buoyancy and allow a downrigger ball to do its job.
There are literally thousands of square miles of water off the shores of the Keys that are suitable for deep dropping. Starting in the area of the ups and downs of the Lower Keys in water around five hundred and fifty feet and going all of the way to the edge of the wall. Finding suitable bottom just means scanning the bottom with your depth finder until you find any relief. It only takes markings showing six to twelve feet of relief to hold all kinds of fish.
I might be an anomaly however, I have found that the deeper I fish the larger the fish tend to be, and yes the longer it takes to “Crank em up!”. Some might ask if it is worth the work. Well in the opinion of this fussy fish connoisseur, the answer is an emphatic YES. I find that the taste rivals that of any fish in the world.
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