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Fishing - There’s a method to landing muttons

Sunset is the best time to pursue these hard-fighting, beautifully colored snappers

Sunset is the best time to pursue these hard-fighting, beautifully colored snappers

A visit to the lower Florida Keys offers many experiences from great restaurants, spectacular sunsets, water sports galore and some of the best saltwater fishing in the lower 48. Of the target species, lots of people like the high-flying sailfish or the huge, acrobatic tarpon, often caught a short ride from one’s lodging. But many others like something on the table at the end of the day, something like the hard-fighting, beautiful mutton snapper.

Muttons grow to 20 pounds and come in a pink “paint job,” pleasing to look at after giving a great account of themselves both fighting on the rod and later on your plate. If you lack a boat, fine charter captains line the Keys ready to take your party out for a day of bottom fishing. But, if you’ve got a decent, seaworthy 20-plus footer behind the family SUV, you’ve got a chance for muttons.

Gearing up

Many folks from the Northeast own 7-foot conventional rods for use with 20- to 30-pound mono line along with 3/0 size reels. Those are fine for Florida muttons. You’ll also need one or two light spinning rods, something akin to the trout rods used for the kids on Opening Day. Next stop will be to one of the local tackle shops, both for advice — if the fellow isn’t too busy — and some gear.

Item number one might be a cloth chum bag and a couple blocks of ground chum. You put a block in the bag, hang it over the side and, as it melts, the chum seeps down-current, drawing fish to your hooks. The fish we want first are pinfish, ideal live bait for muttons and available in most grass beds that line the channels above and below many Keys bridges. The tackle shop owner might point out some places for you on a local chart.

To catch the pinfish, get a couple packs of No. 8 Sabiki rigs along with one box of frozen squid. Cut the squid into very small pieces then bait the bottom two or three hooks of the Sabiki rig with the squid then toss the rig into the grass beds with the help of a small bank sinker. It helps the cause greatly if the prevailing current is carrying the chum into, not away from, the grass beds. Pinfish are willing feeders and it usually doesn’t take long to fill a live well with four dozen, plenty for a day’s fishing.

Next step in Mutton 101 will be some terminal tackle. Most bottom fishing in south Florida is done with egg sinkers from 2 to 6 ounces depending on current. You run the main line through the hole in the sinker, tie it to a two-way swivel on the other end of the sinker. This lets a fish pick up your bait without it feeling any resistance.

On the other eye of the swivel, tie a 6- to 8-foot leader of 40- to 50-pound regular mono or leader material or invisible fluorocarbon; the latter is a good choice on days when the water is clear. The clerk at the tackle shop will be able to help with all the rigging.

Completing the setup is a live bait hook. Many are on the market but a good choice between cost and effectiveness is the Mustad 9174 in 5/0 size. These are bronze hooks that attain a good point with little sharpening and are easy on the budget.

The sweet spot

Mutton snapper hang their hats at many spots along the lower Keys’ local reefs. A little chart study will show the reef drops slowly for about four or so miles south of the Keys, then begins a drop to deeper water, heading down into 100 feet, then beyond into the depths of the Florida Straits.

This may seem like a tall order, finding supper in all that water but we can narrow it down. At roughly the 120-foot mark, on the deep edge of the reef, the bottom generally changes from hard coral to softer bottom. Right along that edge is where you find a lot of muttons set up housekeeping or on the prowl for their next munchy.

A slow-moving boat, zig-zagging between 115- to 125-foot depths, moving west to east or vice versa, will uncover any number of mutton “holes,” the spot given away by marks of fish on your fishfinder. You then anchor near the marks, drop the live pinfish to the bottom and await your fish bite.

Mutton fishing usually requires an angler to fish with the reel out of gear, holding the thumb on the spool, keeping tension, ready for a bite. When you feel the first bump, avoid the temptation to strike. Instead, wait until the fish picks up the bait and is moving away with it. Give a little line, allowing the line to run off the reel, through the sinker, not alerting the cautious mutton that something is amiss.

When the fish is moving steadily, put the reel in gear then crank fast, driving home the hook — and be ready for the determined fight. My Northeast friends marvel at the power of a 14-pound mutton snapper, thinking they had a much bigger adversary.

Fringe benefits

Mutton catching with live bait can be hot at times during the heat of the day, but it’s often twice as good at sunset. Being on Keys waters on a calm evening is often a treat in itself, viewing the red and yellows of the last of the day, the experience sharpened quickly when a mutton takes your bait, pulls the rod down in a steep arc, the fun just beginning.

One of the many benefits of using this “system” for muttons is that one encounters other fish on the edge of the harder bottom. Groupers often prowl here but are often away from their coral homes so when they take your live bait, they might not be able to dart back into a thorny hole and cut your line — tradecraft of black groupers that live in the same zip code as a mutton.

Several lower Keys restaurants will cook your catch if you hand your waitress a fresh bag of fillets then order the rest of the meal, along with maybe a great-tasting cold beer, a Keys staple in spots frequented by both local and visiting fishermen. As you settle back in the chair, the inner person filled to capacity, you mull over mental ground gone over by many anglers who will return to these waters, drawn by the weather and the fish — one of them being the beautiful, pink mutton snapper.

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.