Starting January first, we will be subject to new rules on one popular Keys fishery. There are a few important changes as in regards to the size and bag limit on mutton snapper. First and foremost, is that the size limit is slated to change from sixteen inches to eighteen inches. The second, is that the bag limit is supposed to go from ten fish to five fish. With these changes in mind, targeting snapper of legal size will require a bit of a strategy change for some Keys anglers.
The number reduction will not affect most mutton anglers, except around the mutton spawn in the spring, where it was possible to reach your ten-fish bag limit working spawning aggregations in the deeper water. By the time muttons are mature enough to spawn, most, if not all, will have reached the eighteen-inch size limit. It is the anglers who regularly encounter mutton snapper in shallower water on both sides of the Keys who will be most affected by the size limit change.
During the scoping meetings regarding the mutton snapper workshop, the consensus within the recreational fishing community seemed to be leaning strongly toward reducing the bag limit even further, say two or three fish, to protect the fish during the spawn when overharvest is easiest. Regarding the size limit, most agreed that keeping the size limit at sixteen inches would protect the interest of inshore fishermen, who only occasionally see snapper over the sixteen-inch size range, and, with a reduction in bag limit, would do no harm to the fishery. It is doubtful that, with time, the inshore fish will become larger where inshore. As the fish mature, they naturally tend to move away from in and around nearshore haunts and find their place offshore. However, the bureaucrats in the fishery disregarded the input and this is what we must live with.
Targeting larger fish should be the primary objective if you want to stay in the mutton game. Fortunately, it is not hard to find larger muttons when fishing outside of the reef line. Drifting in water over one hundred feet deep can be productive if you are anywhere near either natural bottom structure or wrecks. The primary challenge to overcome when drifting in deep water is keeping your bait at or near the bottom. If there is any wind at all, you may have to slow your drift. Deploying a sea anchor or drift sock is one way to accomplish this. Another, is to constantly back into the sea. For many boats with low transoms, this can be quite a risky maneuver. Remember to err on the side of caution, as swamping your vessel will assuredly ruin your day. If you do back into the sea to keep your bait down, your primary chore will be to keep your lines out of the propellers. Good luck and be prepared to stop regularly to clear lines.
Watching your depth sounder as you drift can indicate a congregation of fish. By marking the position of these congregations, it is possible to go back and anchor to target these fish. Doing so in deep water requires, at a minimum, three times the length of anchor line as the depth of the water. Significantly more line is required if it is blowing hard or the current is particularly strong. If you choose to chum, it is probably much more effective to do so by staging your chum near the bottom.
Choosing your bait selection wisely will also lead to a larger-sized catch. It is very difficult to find a pinfish that is too large for a mutton snapper to eat. While their mouths are seemingly not that large, they are able to consume a bait fish that you might reason is way too big. The same can be said of fishing over the reef and in inshore waters as well. A favorite bait for inshore and reef is fresh cut ballyhoo. Here we use plugs cut from a bait. Normally, I suggest no more than two baits be cut from a fish. Cut the head and tail off. Then, divide the bait into two. Fishing for larger fish simply dictates only cutting one bait from a ballyhoo. If, by any chance, you are starting with a live ballyhoo over the reef, I like to put one out with a trace of single strand wire and let them swim on the surface. This rig is usually deployed to target cero mackerel, however, you may be surprised just how often a mutton snapper rises to the surface to accept the offering.
While muttons tend to be found near structure, they are seldom found over the said structure. Muttons tend to wander out into the grass beds and sand flats near the reefs. If you are working a patch reef for grouper and other snapper, it pays to deploy at least one bait out and away from the structure to tempt any mutton cruising the proverbial prairie.
Keeping the Fishing ADD afflicted angler quite busy is easy to do; not just by fishing all of the wonderful environments that the Keys waters have to offer, but by trying to keep up with the changing regulations we encounter here too.
Comments will be approved before showing up.