December in the Florida Keys is another problematic month for those of us with Fishing ADD. There are just too many choices to make. From offshore to the backcountry, there is something for just about every taste. For the big game fisher in the group, the sailfish start to make their appearance just off of the outer reef line. On the opposite side of the islands, the trout are getting active on the deeper flats and channels of the gulf side. In between the two extremes, are the shallow reefs of Hawk’s Channel and the patch reefs, where the grouper and snapper are just coming into full swing.
These fisheries are all bait driven. What drives the bait is the wind. For the fisheries on the south side of the Islands, the primary bait fish is the ballyhoo. As the north winds of the passing cold fronts come through the Islands, they push schools of ballyhoo through the Keys and out over the reefs where waiting grouper, snapper and mackerel get first crack at the moveable feast. Those ballyhoo who happen to make it past the first line of assault, find themselves just outside of the reef, in between the deep reef and about two hundred feet of water, where they find the pelagic predators waiting. Offshore, sailfish, dolphin, wahoo and king mackerel make short work out of the unlucky ballyhoo.
I like to start my morning on the patch reef with a chum line and some live pinfish. The pinfish are a great second choice bait until the ballyhoo show up in the chum line. Getting a net full of live ballyhoo is as much the goal of the morning stop, as is getting a crack at the variety of grouper and snapper there. Putting a few ballyhoo plugs on the bottom with a knocker rig, and swimming a ballyhoo on the surface with a trace of wire leader, will usually get the action going strong. Once we have enough fish for dinner, it is time to up anchor and head offshore. Drifting or slow trolling live ballyhoo make an irresistible treat for any passing sailfish. Do not be surprised to also find dolphin, tuna, king mackerel or wahoo helping themselves to your offering.
I like to use a long fluorocarbon leader, up to twelve feet, tied to a circle hook, for my slow trolled ballyhoo. I place the hook up through the lower jaw and use a trace of copper wire to connect the hook shaft to the ballyhoo’s lower bill. If cutoffs from the toothy critters become a problem, simply put a trace of thin single strand wire leader, up to six inches long, and Albright it to your fluorocarbon leader.
While many successful Keys anglers deploy kites to maximize their presentation when drifting offshore, I find that I can stay quite busy with a couple of flat lines on the surface and one more fished from the down rigger.
On days that the wind makes the offshore fishing uncomfortable, or for those fishing from smaller vessels, the backcountry offers plenty of bait driven action. While there are usually plenty of ballyhoo in the backcountry, it is the mullet that drives a lot of the fishing on the gulf side. Trout, ladyfish, jacks, and both Spanish and cero mackerel, can be found feeding in and around the mullet muds. A lot of the feeding activity is not directly related to the mullet themselves, which, in their own right, are great bait, but more an effect of the mullet themselves feeding on the bottom. As the mullet feed on algae and small invertebrates, they disturb crustaceans and small bait fish which are then easy prey for the game fish that we are interested in.
These mullet muds are usually several acres in size and can be found throughout the Lower Keys. You should easily recognize the muddy, whitish water as compared to the cleaner, clear surrounding water. As a loose rule, the trout are usually found on the periphery inside of the mud line, while the ladyfish tend to stay in the heart of the muddy water.
Artificial lures, my favorite being Berkley Gulp Lures, out-fish natural bait in these conditions by a mile. Artificial lures hold up much better to the onslaught of bait stealers that are always found over the grass bottom. The best variety of artificial jigs and jig heads that I have found anywhere, is at Lower Keys Tackle on Big Pine Key. Bill Kinsey, the owner of Lower Keys Tackle, who is best known for his offshore skill at sword fishing, is, in fact, a closet Trout Junkie. He and his staff can help you choose the right jig from the dizzying array to peruse. I choose a jig head weight that is just enough to keep my soft body lure from getting into the bottom at the depth of the water and the speed that we are drifting.
As with many lure selections, you will do best with what you fish most. Everyone has a favorite size, shape, and color of jig tail. My habit is to use lure tails that are both shrimp shaped and root beer colored. Admittedly, many other color combinations and shapes work well; but, as I say, old habits are hard to break and there is little incentive for change when the habit works well.
As a loose rule, I tend to get the best action during the tide changes and on the outgoing tide. If the wind is moving your boat fast enough, there is not much need to cast and retrieve your jig. Simply get your jig out a hundred feet or so, and twitch it every few seconds as you drift. If the boat is not moving well through the water, you will have to retrieve your jig just fast enough to keep it off of the bottom. I find that a trace of ten to twelve pound fluorocarbon leader will greatly increase your bites, even though the water is often quite muddy. I also prefer to use braided line so that I can feel even the slightest nibble.
There are plenty of other fish mixed in with the trout and ladyfish. Mangrove snapper and cero mackerel being among the best eating of the also ran category. It is also not unheard of to pick up a cobia while drifting the back channels and, now and then, full sized king mackerel have been known to make a surprise visit as well.
In any case, there is plenty for the Fishing ADD afflicted angler to stay busy with while waiting for Santa to visit.
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