Now we are talking! This time of year is heaven for an ADD afflicted angler. Just about everything you could ask for is going off with a bang. All the usual suspects, both inshore and off—dolphin, tuna, wahoo and deep dropping—are all going on now. Inshore, there are the big three—tarpon, bonefish and permit. And, both on the reef and outside on the deep spots, there are mutton snapper. It is the smaller cousin of the mutton snapper, the mangrove, that has been the star of the entire year so far.
Never in my over forty years of fishing the Florida Keys waters have I seen a year like this. Mangrove snapper, and I do mean BIG mangroves, have been just about everywhere. On the nice days that I have been able to make it to the patch reefs, there has almost always been at least a few outsized snapper coming over the side. Most trips have produced a limit of larger fish, but, even when the limit is not reached, it only takes a few of these fish in the five to six-pound range to make up for any shortcomings. The days that the wind has limited our ability and will to venture outside of the harbor (there have been many of them this year), the Gulfside edge of the flats have provided similar catches. If it has been this great during the traditionally off season for mangroves, I can only imagine what it will be like when the mangroves return to the outside of the reef to spawn this summer.
The bait and rig of choice has been the tried and true pinfish. Both cut and live fish have been performing admirably. When you can get the classic silver dollar, “snapper candy”, sized live pin, that is always a great start. If you are getting pinfish that are just too large to put down whole, simply cut them into large steaks. Divide the pin into two and then remove the head and tail. This two-bait cut works well for most fish. If you have a huge pinfish, just divide it into three pieces. I am in the habit of not using the heads, although I admit that I have seen them work on plenty of occasions.
I have a battery of dedicated patch reef rods that are completely spooled with thirty-pound fluorocarbon line. The disadvantages are the cost of the fluorocarbon and that it is much stiffer than most monofilament line. Fluorocarbon’s invisibility property more than makes up for the inconvenience of twisted line that wants to jump off the spool when new. The real reason that I use a spool filled entirely with leader is that I am both too lazy and busy to want to splice on a piece of leader every time that I lose a rig to the reef.
With my preferred knocker rig, consisting of simply an egg sinker allowed to slide all the way to a hook, I only have to tie one knot for each rig that I need to replace. Boom! Both fast and effective. A 3/4 oz. sinker and a 4/0 bronze 9174 Mustad hook are my go-to tackle.
When looking for the perfect mangrove spot, you should not be afraid to look to the shallow water to find a great spot. On the Gulfside, I am usually fishing in less than six feet of water, and, on the patch reefs, you can usually find me in less than twenty feet. Once I have chosen a place to set up shop, I start by deploying a limited stream of chum. Unlike the outer reef, when fishing for yellowtail snapper, you do not want to chum heavily; just a trickle of scent to keep their attention is necessary.
Here is the kicker. If you are chumming for over twenty minutes and you do not have at least a few smaller mangroves in the chum line, it is time to change spots. These “indicator mangroves”, as I call them, are not the fish that you should be interested in. The big boys almost always hang far back in the chum line and as far as you can cast is where you should place your bait.
Big mangrove snapper are notorious for being picky eaters. They will tap, nibble and study a bait for a long time before committing to eat. If you attempt to set the hook before the nibbles have stopped, you will only succeed in taking the bait away from your fish. Wait until the tapping has stopped and the fish is swimming steadily away before you attempt to set the hook. Mangroves are homebodies. They like to stay near the cover that they live in, so make sure that you set the hook hard and keep them coming up as soon as you commit to set the hook, or they will rock you up without fail.
On a full-day trip, it is a hard decision whether to fish for the snapper before, or after, heading offshore. The advantage of fishing the patches before heading out is that you may get ballyhoo in your chum line. A cast net full of ballyhoo will greatly increase your chances for success when heading offshore. Fishing the patches in the afternoon is a way to wind down from the day and catch both your breath, and some dinner, if the day offshore was a bust. Either way, an ADD afflicted angler will have no trouble filling a day this season.
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