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Fishing - Florida Keys

When in the Keys, head for patch reefs

When in the Keys, head for patch reefs

Only a short run out, this string of coral bumps offers a chance to bring home a catch to brag about

OK, you’re far away from the cold and ice up north, safely ensconced in the Florida Keys with the family boat in tow, ready to take in the 70-degree weather, sightseeing and, hopefully, some fishing. The question then dawns: Where might the average dad take his kids where they have a chance for some serious fun and could possibly catch something for dinner? The answer is the patch reefs, the living reef that dots the south side of the Keys all the way to Key West.

The patch reefs are only a short ride (one to four miles out), and can be easily fished in reasonable weather in a smaller boat. There are so many humps and coral bumps along this stretch that one need only head south from a Keys port or many fine launch ramps, watch your fishfinder and more than likely you’ll run over some type of structure in anywhere from 15 to 40 feet of water. Note, as you get farther south, the reef will drop down, plummeting away to more than 300 feet in short order, a section we might save for another article — and perhaps a bigger boat or a charter with one of the hundreds of fine skippers who live along the Keys.

Picking your spot

A local chart will help in the endeavor, marking spots where the reef is close to the surface, locations to be avoided. Note the GPS numbers, take a land range or have a plastic jug with heavy weight with some mono line tied on it at the ready. When you find a likely location, toss the jug on the down tide side of the hump, giving you a marker to anchor the boat.

To be in the best possible position to catch the maximum amount of fish, you’ll want the boat to be up-current of the hump. Once settled you’ll deposit a cloth chum bag with a block of frozen chum in it over the side, the chum thawing, floating down in the current, drawing the fish out of the structure, up to your baited hooks. It also helps to get a box of frozen thread herring. Cut some of those into smaller pieces and toss some over, along with the ground-up chum.

You fish with light spin rods, perfect for the kids. There are many types of rigs on the market, but for my two cents buy some lead head, beany jigs sold in many tackle stores along the Keys. These weigh from about 1/4-ounce to an ounce, and might be painted along with hair dressing or with just plain lead. Both will catch fish, but the plain lead ones, sometimes sold under the name “blanks,” are cheaper and work as well.

You bait these with some live or frozen shrimp, drop to the bottom after tying a short piece of 30- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader between the 12-pound mono line and the jig. If you don’t know how to do this, the clerk in the tackle shop can show you — if he or she isn’t swamped with the morning rush of customers, and, of course, after you buy your bait or rigging there. You might also ask about catching live pinfish, gotten on most any grassy spot near the marina or ramps. Anchor up-tide of the grass, drop a chum bag over the side then bait a No. 8 Sabiki rig with small strips of squid, and lower to the bottom. Pinfish will come running on most days. A live well will be needed to keep three to five dozen alive, or they make good baits if freshly dead and kept in a small cooler out of the sun. Whole, frozen small squid also make good baits and a box or two is very inexpensive.

The right touch

Drop the baited jig to the bottom, letting out just a bit of slack, keeping the bail of the spinner open, your index finger on the line to detect a bite, and then let the fish get the bait in its mouth. Don’t try yanking on the rod as you see in many TV shows up north. Rather let the fish have some slack, close the bail and reel quickly. This one simple bit of advice will save countless missed fish. Bottom dwellers like mangrove snappers are very adept at getting bait off the hook without getting the point.

You have a chance to catch any number of smaller snapper on the reefs that provide lots of action for the kids, and keep the day moving so they don’t get bored. There are lots of sub-legal grouper, too, along with legal-sized gags, black and red groupers on a lot of inshore humps that make great eating. Many restaurants in the Keys will cook your catch for you, providing some of the freshest meals available.

When (not if) you hook a legal grouper on light rod, be ready for a fierce pull. Freshwater anglers are often caught off guard with the power of saltwater fish. Keeping a 6- to 10-pounder out of the rocks is more than most newcomers bargained for, especially when they see how close to shore you made the first drop of the day.

Besides grouper and snapper your chum will also attract cero and Spanish mackerel. These can be caught with live bait on short race of light wire (watch the teeth) or small, white jig tossed behind the boat then retrieved speedily back to you. No matter how fast you’ll crank the handle, mackerel will grab the lure if it looks good to them. Like the pull of the grouper, be ready for how fast these fish swim; a good drag on the 12-pound spin reels in a must.

Also in the catch along the reefs will be mutton snappers, a chance for cobia and always the possibility of kingfish (king mackerel) moving up into the shallow water looking for a meal. Last February we left a spot because kingfish to 30 pounds wouldn’t leave our baits alone long enough to reach bottom in 32 feet of water off Geiger Key. On another hot day in January (while the folks back home were shoveling snow), a 46-pound cobia took a small piece of cut pinfish lying on the bottom, trying for a mangrove snapper. The fish wouldn’t fit into the 54-quart cooler we bring on our reef trips, but nobody aboard seemed to mind.

The patch reefs are an ideal way for visiting anglers to wet a line in their own boats. Local tackle shops can fill in the missing details, point out local hot spots or variations on the general themes you’ve just read.

The only thing missing is purchasing a license; maybe right at the shop, good for three days, a week or possibly a full year like many snowbirds. If the shop doesn’t have them, call (888) 347-4356. Have your plastic ready for the person on the phone and you’ll be fishing the next nice day, glad to be alive and in your T-shirt in the winter.

Tim Coleman has been fishing the waters of the Florida Keys and New England for more than 30 years. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine’s New England edition until 2001, and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island and Key West.