This time of year traditionally brings fish in the greatest numbers of the year. Most will be school-sized fish, but you should be prepared to tangle with an occasional slammer. Add to that a wahoo or a few tuna and you can see why anglers are so excited.
If the day has been either very slow or exceedingly good you can change it up by going deep for a snowy grouper, tile fish, rose fish, or barrelfish. While these species are not by any means the only targets to be found deeper than 500 feet, they are the most prevalent. Not to worry if you do not have an electric reel, any large capacity spinning or conventional reel can be put into service. While electric reels definitely make easy work out of deep dropping, you can get away with reeling manually with just a pound or two of weight. You do have to be more careful to maneuver directly over your weight as the lighter amount of weight will come off of the bottom if you allow the boat to drift away from your vertical position.
Inshore anglers usually still have their eyes on the tarpon migration this time of year. Both the flats and channels are still teeming with schools of these overgrown herring. If you value your back, muscles and want to fish away from the crowds, you might prefer to stalk the flats for the bonefish that seem to have made quite a recovery since their die off from several winters ago. The permit have also returned to the flats since venturing out into the Gulf to spawn.
If food is your target, the channels and deeper grass flats have been producing quite a few trout. Leave the live bait home for these fish. A Gulp shrimp in an assortment of colors on a light jighead worked slowly over the bottom will entice the fish and more importantly hold up much longer to the constant picking from the tiny critters. By the way, when I say an “assortment of colors”, on my boat that means either white or more often copper / new penny.
One of my personal favorite activities is to target the mangrove snapper spawn that is happening on the edge of the reef. This last year has been a banner year for the mangroves. They have been plentiful and exceptionally large. We have caught more 2 foot + fish this year than in the last twenty combined! Therefore I am expecting great things from the spawn. Since you are only allowed 10 fish per angler, I like to maximize my take by shooting for the larger fish. I have found that the best way to do this is to use larger than normal live pinfish. Leave the silver dollar snapper candy sized bait at home. I prefer palm-sized fish. If you end up with some whole hand sized baits, simply cut the head and tail off and use the plug. Be careful not to set the hook on the first nibbles. Mangrove snapper are notoriously finicky eaters. They will bite and spit a bait many times before deciding to pick it up and actually eat it.
Finding a school of snapper is another topic. While they can be found in many places on the reef, most will be between 20 and 100 feet on the outer ledge. Looking carefully with your depth finder going back and forth between the depths should eventually show a school of fish suspended over the bottom. Anchor about 100 to 150 feet up current of the school and begin chumming. You do not need to chum as heavily for mangroves as you would for yellowtail. About a block per hour is more than enough.
Most of the time, the day bite is enough to get a limit, however after dark the fishing can get crazy. During the day you should fish at or near the bottom. After dark the school will come right to the back of the boat. A large mangrove snapper will rock you faster than a grouper. I prefer to fish with 30 pound fluoro-carbon and a jigging rod on a SSV 750 Penn reel. I also use a slightly larger hook than some anglers. I prefer a Mustad 9174 bronze short shank hook. It stands up to the larger fish that you are likely to run across and does not deter the more moderately-sized critters. The pull from snapper, pound for pound, is enough to stress lesser tackle. The last thing you want to do is let them get into the reef.
The same techniques used for the mangrove snapper will also catch grouper and mutton snapper. If you choose to use ballyhoo plugs instead of pin fish, you should be able to add a few yellowtail to the bag. If all of this action is not enough to get your fishing ADD into full swing, then I am afraid that you are not truly afflicted.
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