As we are ending up our “dog days” here in the Upper Keys, you can see the huge crowds starting to get a little smaller. Which, is quite welcomed after a long, busy spring/summer charter season. Fewer people in town means fewer boats out there and this means a lot less pressure—the kind of pressure that can hinder some outstanding fishing. The variety of options and abundance of species swimming around out there also makes fall fishing special.
This time of year, there is usually a good autumn run of blackfin tunas out on offshore sea mounts, or humps. The best tuna fishing is when the sun isn’t blaring high in the sky; early in the morning or late afternoon, and overcast days, are when the tuna fishing can be especially good. The football tunas can be caught trolling feathers or artificial worms a good distance behind the boat. Bigger tunas, when around, are a blast to catch with live pilchards. Chumming a few freebie baits to get the tunas in a frenzy, then casting a hooked pilchard on light spin tackle amongst the frenzy, will surely get the rod bent with a decent tuna. Follow it up with more casts, trying to hook as many as possible. Drifting across the hump is a blast when you have six spinners all doubled over with 20+ lb. blackfins hooked. Unfortunately, the sharks can be a huge nuisance and sometimes take most of your catch. Sending a live bait down 100’ or 150/200’ with a super long leader 60’ (at the least) and a snap-on dropper loop, is a good way to target larger blackfins. This technique, using live pinfish, is how the world record blackfin was caught on Marathon Hump.
September and October are two of the most active swordfish months, producing a lot of bites for boats who put in the time. Capt. Nick Stanczyk, who puts more swords on the dock, hands down, says that these are his two favorite months to daytime sword drop. Not because of huge monsters you catch like in the spring, but for the number of hook-ups you get in the fall. We get a lot of small to medium-sized fish here in the fall. But any day hooking into a swordfish of any size is one to remember.
Mahi fishing should remain good throughout the fall as well. This summer was a decent summer for dolphin fishing and, compared to last year, it was rockstar. I would expect the mahi-mahi fishing to be good until the water cools down significantly, which could be late December/January.
The wahoo fishing is also usually decent in the fall. With fewer boats offshore finding flotsam, there is a better chance you are the first boat to come upon it. In these cases, it’s not uncommon for there to be a whole gang of wahoos laying 20’ or so below a pallet, log, coiled rope, etc. Trolling a weighted feather on wire, a butterfly jig on wire, or a cigar minnow on wire rig, are all productive ways of adding some zebras to the box. A decent sized piece of debris can be loaded down with 15-25 lb. wahoos. Lots of times they are wee-hoos (3-8 pounders) but, you never know until you try.
Last year, Labor Day weekend, we had unbelievably crazy good sailfish conditions where they tailed down a hard-current edge for three days. There were hundreds of fish seen over the long weekend by our local charter fleet and several boats had outstanding days, catching double digits. Seeing a tower boat idling down the channel with a rigger full of sailfish flags is just a downright sexy site.
So, when I think of Islamorada fall fishing, I think offshore opportunities. There is no shortage of fish to target out there. A typical day could look just like this:
You plan a day offshore with your buddies on your new boat to make a few swordfish drops and blast offshore after loading the live wells with pilchards. On your 25-mile trek to the sword ledge, you stop by one of our several humps and get the tunas going on some chummed pilchards. You spend an hour there catching 10 fattie blackfins. Then, heading offshore, you spot some working terns, so you pull it back and see there’s a nice sized tree limb. Here you bang out a dozen decent gaffer mahis, all milling around the limb. Next, you troll the feather deep around the branch and pick off a half dozen 20 lb. wahoos. Your fish box is looking real nice at this point. You make it to the sword grounds by noon and send a bait to the bottom. After two drops, you get a bite and the rod doubles over. An hour later, you gaff a decent 100 lb. swordfish. Finally, you make your way home seeing and catching a few more mahi on the run in.
Now, this may sound like a day for the books, which it for sure is one to remember, but, it is definitely not too far-fetched for a fall offshore long day here in Islamorada. This could easily be you; just keep swinging for the fence.
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