photo by Kent Krebeck
We are in full swing here in 2017! Football is long over and the Keys are starting to get our annual population increase of “snowbirds.” The northern folks aren’t the only ones looking to head south for the cooler months. The Florida Straits are in the main migration pattern for many pelagic fish. With water temperatures falling with each cold front in Florida Bay, loads of bait fish, crabs and shrimp head for deeper, warmer water.
In areas where there are lots of bridges, bait, crabs and shrimp are being pushed from the bay with each out-going tide. Getting in the tower and spotting rays that gracefully swim along the sandy bottom is a super effective way to locate schools of cobia. The rays flap their wings, pushing up sand exposing little crabs and shrimp that the cobia take full advantage of. Finding a decent ray can really make your day. One ray can have as many as 30-40 cobia curiously following. They are a curious fish and will eat most any offering -- some favorites are live grunts, eels, or a bucktail jig. The hardest part is not losing the ray in all the excitement.
My buddy, Captain Raymond Baiz on the Reel McCoy hooked a 100 lb cobia last year and broke the line just out of the gaff’s reach, only to find the same ray the next day -- and he hooked and caught the same fish weighing exactly 100 lbs. on the scales.
Knowing when and where to look for rays is an art all in itself. A clear day when the sun is high is a must. There are a select group of old school captains like Alex Adler, Roy Lindback, Kenny Spalding, Dr. Stanczyk and Paul Ross, who are no doubt some of the best cobia fishermen in the world. I would love to learn half of what they’ve forgotten.
The patch reefs will be loaded with ballyhoo making for good yellowtail, mangrove and mutton snapper fishing when the water is dusty. When the water is clear, look for showering sprays of ballyhoo, hound fish or flyers. If houndfish or ballyhoo spray for more than a brief moment, that means there are sailfish working together to corral baits. This is an awesome thing to watch, especially when you pull up to a bait shower and there are sailfish everywhere, sails out of the water, hunting together like choreographed wolves of the water, all lit up purple and striped up with polka dotted sails flared up to intimidate the bait fish.
Casting a hooked ballyhoo in front of the aroused sail will surely get a bite if you’re using 30 lb or less leader and, most importantly, if you can get him to eat your hooked bait before he gobbles up one of the hundreds of ballyhoo or houndfish running for their lives! Countless times, I’ve had a mate make a perfect cast, thinking surely we’re gonna hook it -- only to watch him strike out as a hound fish disappears; shaking his head like an old dog that’s bitten off more than he can chew. Yep that one’s not gonna eat for a minute, he’s got a mouthful!
In a different scenario, the mate makes a perfect cast, the sail eats, hacks another bait, casts up to a double... and another. We’ve now got a triple header of sailfish hooked up in 35’ of water and there’s three or more fish swimming around back there. It gets pretty exciting quickly. There’s nothing in my opinion that compares to sight fishing for sails inside the reef on a sandy bottom where you can clearly see them.
Yes, with dropping temperatures up north and in the waters of Florida Bay it’s a special time of year in the shallows right out front of Islamorada as migratory pelagics and baitfish seek warmer homes. Get up in that tower and go slow when moving from spot to spot, because sails and cobias are both very curious fish that will sometimes swim right up to the boat to check it out. You don’t want to be going too fast and run them over or too slow where you don’t see them at all. Pay attention for large schools of bait, you never know what’s below or behind them. Stay safe and we’ll see you out there!
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