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A new opportunity arises in the Keys

Regulations on grouper are a downer, but the chance to drop a hook in some new places is a good one

My dear departed mom used to say the only thing permanent in our fast world is change. Well, fishermen heading to the Florida Keys this winter will have to deal with change in the form of new conservation measures the fishery powers say are necessary to conserve a dwindling supply of groupers.

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The pros and cons aside, if current proposals withstand legal and political challenges, you will not be able to keep a grouper, red black or gag from the Atlantic side of the Keys from January until the end of April. This effectively seals off grouper for the table for the tourist and snowbird seasons.

If every problem also brings opportunity, then we still might make some hay even while under the grouper cloud. Other fish are available for supper and many make great eating. At this point, we might mention many Keys' advertisements that feature leaping sailfish, marlin or tarpon, but lots of people who spend their tourist dollars in these parts do not want to arise at the crack of dawn but rather enjoy a good breakfast, setting sail around 8 a.m., bound for bottom fishing with an eye to a good meal afterward.

This is a great time to explore for new spots and the first that comes to mind is the shallow patch reefs that dot the south side of the Keys from Key Largo to Key West. Only one to four miles out, these locations hold any amount of structure within easy running, saving gas and getting back in time for supper.

A plotter with the right chip for the area makes spotting the reefs, rocks and other bumps child's play: put the cursor on a high spot, press the right buttons and the machine will give you course and bearing to your "new" grounds. Rather than anchor just up tide of the coral head or rocks, try anchoring off to the side, out on the softer bottom where mutton snappers prowl for food.

Large mutton snapper that also make a wonderful supper can be found on the edge of hard bottom, often around the 120-foot mark on the drop-off from the patch reefs to the open ocean.

Muttons make great eating and will come looking when you toss in some chum - small pieces of last week's frozen bait, maybe mixed in with some sand, wet down to form a ball around the pieces. Toss a few over the side, then wait to see what hits your bottom rigs. These should be baited with small pinfish caught around the grass patches near the channel edges close to many of the bridges that span the Keys. Use a No. 8 Sabiki rig with the bottom one to three hooks baited with small pieces of squid. First, though, you should chum the pinfish within range with a block of frozen chum hung in a cloth bag over the side, the chum going into - not away from - the grass on the right tide.

If you catch some mackerel zooming by, those can be cut up into strips or pieces for bottom bait that muttons will also hit. An 8-pound mutton will put up a strong showing on a 12-pound spin rod, ideal for the patch reefs, so be ready if you are new to the game.

If you spy some scattered rocks or bumps in your travels over the patches, stop and investigate, maybe give it a half hour or so anchored on the upwind side of the general area. Such scattered structure might provide another feeding ground for the tasty muttons that like softer areas than groupers do.

If you hang another block of frozen chum over the side, you'll attract yellowtail snapper into your chum line. The yellowtails can be caught by floating a small piece of bait back into the current by free-lining the bait behind the boat, watching for the surge of line when a 'tail grabs it. An 8-pound spin rod with 20-pound leader is ideal for this type of fishing, but remember to keep only those above the legal limit of 12 inches. They do make great eating after cleaning 20 or 30 of them, depending on the number of people aboard (10 per person per day).

Yellowtail snapper caught by one of the many patch reefs that dot the south side of the Florida Keys.

A little chart study will show an edge to the line of patch reefs one to two miles out, the north end bordering Hawk's Channel on most charts, a highway for vessels coming and going from Miami and points north. This first edge is a great place to anchor on a north wind, keeping the boat a bit away from the harder bottom, looking for muttons, not groupers, that generally stay closer to the rocks. Toss over a bit of chum and give it a half hour on the hook, waiting for fish that move up and down the edge of these reefs like a feeding highway, stopping where they find food or the scent of it in the water.

A further bit of chart study shows another edge of the reefs, ending about three miles out, this second edge dropping off into deeper water of Fisherman's Channel, for instance, near the I marker off Geiger Key. This generality may vary a bit up and down the Keys, but finding the south edge of the patches is a great place to anchor on a south wind, keeping the boat's stern a bit out from the hard stuff, looking for a mutton that might come cruising past.

We can also take our search for new grounds out to the deep water (with the right weather) over the drop-off from the patch reefs to open ocean that parallels the length of the Keys. Generally, the hard bottom ends somewhere around 120 feet, give or take. So, if you're willing to invest a little time, cruise back and forth over that depth, zigzagging in and out, looking for marks of fish on your machine.

And if you have a fishfinder with dual transducer, split the screen between 50 and 200kz and watch the greater definition from one side to the other. What may look like a mere scratch on one side is a nice group of fish, a place to stop and anchor. You'll need heavier gear, conventional or spinning tackle for 20- to 30-pound mono or braid with sinkers generally from 2 to 6 ounces. A light current moving to the east or west is best for mutton fishing.

Drop a pinfish, or strip or chunk of fresh mackerel to bottom along with some sand/chum and give the process time to develop. The muttons on the reef drop will usually be larger, sometimes larger than 12 or 15 pounds. These pull like horses, jolting tourists who don't expect a "bottom fish" to fight like that.

You will not be alone in your quest for new grounds. My friend of 20 years, Capt. Greg Mercurio of the party boat Yankee Capts. Offshore Fishing out of Safe Harbor near Key West, has his eye on the changing regulations. He will be taking his 85-footer out on an exploring trip 80 to 110 miles out into the Gulf, looking for new grounds, heading to spots he has never visited in a long history of fishing around the south side of Tortugas and bottom to the west of fishy Key West. He hopes to find places around freshwater springs to catch muttons or harder spots for large mangrove snappers.

These new regulations shouldn't stop one from enjoying winter on the water, but look at them as an opportunity to seek out other spots, maybe, just maybe finding something you've been running over for years, never bothering to drop a hook on that little bump until 2010. As you stand at the cleaning table, tell your upcoming dinner guests you never realized the potential until you were forced to look anew.

This article originally appeared in the Home Waters Section of the February 2010 issue.