When asked what the best option for fishing in December is, I like to point towards the outer reef line. There is so much going on out there, that it is easy to spend a day and only scratch the surface of the possibilities. Both in open water, and on the reef, the fishing is sure to be hot. For most of the days in December, getting out is not a problem for the mosquito fleet. There are a few times when discretion is called for, and you should opt to stay either inshore, or simply tied to the dock.
What exactly are those possibilities, you might ask? Offshore, but not far offshore, the sailfish, tuna, kingfish, wahoo and dolphin will all be making appearances. The northern winds following a front, will serve to push schools of bait offshore. The game fish will be stationed usually within 250 feet of water to take advantage of the, if you will pardon the expression, “windfall”. Your very best opportunity will be to bring live bait with you. Ballyhoo are my favorite live bait, followed closely by pilchards. If you have trouble obtaining either of these two, do not panic. There have been plenty of fish caught on pinfish and they are almost always available. Even if you find yourself with no live bait at all, you can still drift a dead ballyhoo and have some luck.
Trolling is never out of the question. Even though trolling is not quite as productive as live baiting, there have still been decades of successful excursions trolling the reef line. Rig much like you would for trolling offshore for dolphin in the summer. The main difference is that if you are targeting sailfish and tuna, you should rig with fluorocarbon and, if the kings and wahoo are cutting you off, you should place a trace of wire in front of your bait. Dolphin, on the other hand, are possibly the least fussy fish when they are hungry, and any leader is fine for them.
If you prefer fishing the reef, there are a myriad of possibilities for you too. First and foremost, if you have any desire to eat a grouper it is your last chance for four months--at least for grouper coming from Keys waters. Grouper can be found anywhere from just yards from the shore, to all the way out past the reef edge. They are indiscriminate eaters and you just need to find them to get a bite. Wrestling them away from the safety of the bottom is the hardest part. When I fish the reef, I like to use “busy lines”, as I call them, with around thirty-pound test for mangrove mutton lane and yellowtail snapper. I will win the occasional battle with a grouper on this tackle, however I prefer to keep one meat stick with fifty-pound braid and a long sixty-pound fluorocarbon leader directly under the boat, with the sole job of stopping any grouper which ventures close.
As with any stationary reef fishing, you need to chum. Besides calling game fish from far down current to your position, it also serves to call in bait. When ballyhoo come into your chum line, you are all but guaranteed to have plentiful action. Catch a few ballyhoo, either on hair hooks or with a cast net, and you are in business. Let a healthy ballyhoo out on a trace of steel leader and any cero mackerel in the area will not be able to refuse the offering. Mutton snapper are also often taken this way; either from the top or, more often, when the ballyhoo loses strength and starts to sink deeper in the water column.
Trolling the reef is also popular this time of the year. Lipped plugs pulled slowly over the reefs will produce grouper, as will trolling rigged ballyhoo on a downrigger. On the surface, I troll rigged ballyhoo also. Cero mackerel are a favorite of mine and should be plentiful. Do not be surprised to find grouper and mutton snapper striking surface bait even over slightly deeper water. Even flag yellowtail snapper will strike a trolled bait on occasion.
For those days when weather is not permitting, or you are just one of the smaller mosquitoes in the fleet, there is always the backcountry. Gulf side channels are active this time of year. There will be great catches of mangrove, mutton, lane and even a few yellowtail in the channels. Here, the cero mackerel and a few Spanish mackerel will appear to harass the ballyhoo in your chum. In the back channels, I also like to deploy my meat stick directly under the boat--except that my hopeful prize is a cobia.
Drifting and jigging the deeper flats and basins for trout, ladyfish, jacks, and snapper are also very productive. My friend, Kinsey, at Lower Keys Bait and Tackle, is a true trout addict. He stocks a wide assortment of artificial jigs and scented rubber tails. He is always happy to help you select a variety of tackle to assure you the best opportunity of success.
Trout are found all over the backcountry in mainly six to eight feet of water. They can be spread out over miles of flats. One way to pinpoint their location is if you can find a mullet mud. Mullet muds are the telltale whitish discoloration left behind when a school of mullet are feeding on the bottom. Their activity stirs the bottom, displacing forage like small fish and shrimp. By concentrating your drifts on the edges of these muds, you have the best chance of hooking up. Look for the leading edge of the mud as far as the current is concerned, and there you will find the heaviest concentration of feeding activity.
So, “weather permitting” there is no shortage of activities for someone who suffers from Fishing ADD to have any excuse to spend much time on the shore. Get out there and get yourself some treatment for what ails you!
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