Fishing the flats this winter so far has been so much fun. The flats, both east and west of Key West, have been loaded with barracuda most days. It’s been warm, so there have been some permit and bonefish rooting around the flats as well.
Lately I’ve been encouraging my anglers to blind cast while I am poling along looking for permit and bonefish. This is something I rarely do. It has been quite successful so far with some areas producing follows and strikes from big barracuda every few casts occasionally interrupted by the sighting of a permit or school of bonefish.
Along with the barracuda have been the jacks on the backs of sting rays. We missed them last year, thankfully they are back this year. Jacks are always a good time and catching them while sightfishing is a blast.
Starting each year around late October to early November we see the first jacks following stingrays. As we get into winter (hopefully a few cold fronts have passed through) it will get really good, to the point where just about every stingray encountered on the flat will be accompanied by a large jack. This is where we are right now.
The backcountry channels and basins are often chock full of jacks. On those days, when sight fishing is difficult, I will often fish a couple channels or drift through the basins in hopes of getting a bunch of jacks and whatever else is around just to get some action going and show my anglers some fun fishing.
There is a lot of bait moving around this time of year, so I keep on the lookout for birds working the water. If I see a bunch of birds diving toward the water I will head in that direction to check out what is happening. Many times this will turn into a jack attack feeding frenzy and craziness for my anglers.
During my last couple trips I was lucky enough to run into a couple really large schools of big jacks busting bait. I stopped in one of the gulfside channels briefly for my anglers to cast around and get a couple fish to start the day next to the flat I wanted to get on. I noticed four frigate birds dipping toward the water which peaked my curiosity. As I was watching the frigate birds waiting for something to happen, a bunch of pelicans flew in and hit the water. Now they had my full attention and I told my anglers to get ready to run. As we watched, idling toward the oncoming slaughter, I saw the first blow up. I told my anglers to hang on and hammered down the throttle.
As we approached, two more squadrons of pelicans were flying into the mayhem. I got us into position to intercept the massive school of jacks blowing up baits. Once the skiff settled, both my anglers cast and were instantly hooked up. We could see numerous jacks all trying to eat the jigs my anglers threw in to the fray as soon they hit the water.
My anglers were doubled up, fish going every which way and under the skiff. They quickly got their fish to the boat, somehow never getting tangled up or lost when going around the skiff. I always smash the barbs on my jigs so I can quickly grab the fish, pop out the jig and the angler is ready to cast straight away.
Two quick hookups, releases and instantly we were doubled up again. Birds were all over trying to catch a meal and the water was churning from the feeding frenzy below. The three of us were jacked up and having a great time. Then, as suddenly as it all started, it was done. The water calmed, the birds settled down and we were ready for more.
This scenario played out one more time that day. We caught a few more nice jacks, then it was all over. The birds flew back to the mangroves and we headed off to fish the flats. It was an awesome thirty minute distraction and an easy way to put a few quality fish in the boat.
Since jacks are really aggressive, they are always eager to attack just about anything near them. Finding those large groups of jacks tearing through the schools of bait is some of the most exciting and easiet fishing ever. Jacks will try to eat just about anything moving, so I always have one rod set up with a surface lure. We don’t always hook one up, but when we do, it’s exciting to watch thirty jacks chasing a popper, blasting it out of the water trying to get it.
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