Photos by Kevin Dodge
When I think of May in the Upper Keys, I think of one word--opportunity. With the water warming, the end of certain closures, and several species spawning, there are so many different fish to target. Whether you plan to spend your day on the reef’s edge, venturing out offshore, or both, May is a fisherman’s dream here in the Upper Keys.
Staying within a few miles from the dock, the yellowtail snapper fishing should be going gangbusters. They are spawning; meaning they need to feed to get energy. Yellowtail can be caught drifting with cut bait, while heavy chumming on a 12 lb. spinning outfit with 20 lb. or less fluorocarbon leader with a #2 live bait hook, or a Hank Brown style jig head. My favorite way to target the larger “flag tails” is with live wells, loaded with small to medium sized pilchards. Take a half net full of “livies” and throw them as far as you can, cast a hooked one in the middle of the freebies, and you should be bit within a few seconds if they’re feeding well. Also, while chumming the yellowtails, the mutton snappers love a live or de-boned ballyhoo on a deep rod with a fish finder rig, with 10’ or more of 30 to 40 lb. leader.
May also means the opening of groupers. After being closed since the New Year, a live bait of most anything that wiggles should entice a nice red in the shallow or patch reef, or a delicious black or gag on the deep reef or wrecks. Although we are seeing an increase in groupers since closures a few years ago, groupers can be caught while you are anchored up, chumming the yellowtails on the deep reef. Using this method, you need to have a heavy outfit with the drag beefed up to “beat” the grouper--and anyone who’s been grouper fishing knows what I mean by getting beat by a big ole grouper. I like to use a 50 or 80 offshore reel with braced line to prevent stretch for my main line, with the appropriate lead to keep the bait down swivel, and 10 or so feet of 80 lb. leader with a 6/0 circle hook. Put the drag on almost lock, and as soon as the rod tip starts to bounce pretty good, start reeling. Don’t give him a chance to get you in the rocks. Groupers love most any live bait; my favorites are pinfish, grunts, or speedos. Groupers can also be targeted drifting over structure, rocks, or wrecks. The same method is used here, but you can lighten up the drag a little because, when you get tight, the person driving can motor off the structure that could break you off.
On the reef’s edge, the pelagic fishing can be great. May is usually the end of the spring migration of sailfish. May is typical for calm, sunny mornings with breezier afternoons. I like to do my anchor fishing early, when it’s calmer and not so hot, and, if the breeze shows up, we like to put out the kites anywhere from 90’ to 200’ looking for sailfish, blackfin tuna, mahi mahi, and king mackerel. Live pilchards, goggle eyes, sardines, and blue runners are irresistible to a pelagic swimming in the upper water column looking up at a nice vibrating “livie”. I like to look for current edges or tide lines to set up a kite drift.
And then, of course, there’s the offshore fishing--and everyone is thinking mahi mahi. By far, the most popular gamefish because of their abundance, beautiful changing color, and delicious table fare. Mahi can be caught year round here in the Keys, but they usually show up in numbers May - October. Mahi can be found anywhere from 120’ to the Bahamas. We typically look from 200’, to as far as we have to go, to find them. Finding feeding birds, weed lines, or weed patches can be good indicators there are dolphin around. Also, days when there’s a good bit of Northeast Gulf Stream current, tends to make the fish feed better.
May usually offers some decent blackfin tuna fishing on the offshore humps. Going with the live wells loaded down with pilchards can be a lot of fun if the larger tunas are there and the sharks aren’t bad, which seems very rare anymore. Setting up to drift over the top of the hump, throw back a net full of “livies” and, if they’re there, you should see them start to explode on the freebie baits. Then, cast back a small live bait or circle hook, with 30 lb. leader, hooked with a pilchard free lining it back, and wait for a bite. Have several spinners ready and keep throwing freebies, and you can get the tunas to stay with your drift, hooking several at a time. However, if the sharks are there, it can be disappointing feeding your 15 lb. plus tunas to the tax man--and this scenario seems a lot more the norm the past few years. While at the humps, some deep dropping for yellow eye snappers can produce on chicken rigs with squid, or any type cut bait. Amberjacks also live there, so sending down a blue runner, grunt, goggle eye or speedo on a 25’, 100 lb. leader with a 10/0 or 12/0 circle hook, can set up a situation for some back-breaking, rod-doubling action.
May presents a huge variety of fish to target, and with school coming to an end, there will be no shortage of boats out there. Please, everyone, remember to respect our beautiful resource by not polluting and following rules and regulations. Please show respect and courtesy out there. If a boat is working some birds or catching fish, if you don’t know the person, or have not asked permission, don’t go motoring in trying to catch the same fish--it’s just not the right thing to do. It’s a big ocean and we are all out there to try and catch a few fish and have a good time. I hope everyone has a great May and catches a lot of big ones. We will see you out there!
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