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Fishing for mutton better than nothin'

If you're in the Florida Keys for the winter, remember the grouper closures and adjust accordingly

With first snow of a new winter already behind us, the snowbirds have already or will soon start leaving the ever-colder Northeast for winter berths in the Florida Keys. Many of them have their boats in tow. Recession or not, they are going fishing.

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Unfortunately we are faced with another grouper closure on the Atlantic side of the fishy islands south of Miami. From January to April, it's illegal to keep black, red and gag groupers, the most commonly caught and highly prized groupers caught by winter visitors not only for their fight, but their table fare as well.

Lacking groupers, we might fall back on mutton snappers. Current law allows 10 fish per person at a minimum of 16 inches, more than enough for a good day on the water and plenty for supper. The next question then becomes how and where do you catch these fine pink fish that can grow to 20 pounds?

Conventional tackle with 20- to 40-pound mono or the same size braid works fine, as can heavy spin rods with the same line. Muttons are a ball on a light tackle, particularly 12- to 15-pound spinning, and easy to handle for any kids, wives or girlfriends visiting from the North. And, unlike groupers, which often get away by running into the bottom, muttons generally live in softer areas and run over the bottom. As such, people don't have to stop them from attaining their holes.

You can let them run, the newcomer's eyes widening as a powerful 14-pound mutton makes a longer and harder-than-expected run. Muttons pull about 10 times more than those calicos back home.

Baiting the bait

Muttons will take all manner of dead bait, but for my money live bait is superior, requiring a circulating live well in a boat. To get bait, you can use a No. 8 Sabiki rig on an 8-pound spin rod to catch thread herring around many of the steel channel markers, often anchoring on the up-current side of the marker then tossing the rig close to it after clipping a small sinker on the bottom of the rig.

Muttons can be caught on all manner of tackle, but are a ball on light rods. These fish live on softer bottom than grouper and run over the bottom, not into it like groupers.

You can also catch pinfish on a Sabiki rig by baiting the two bottom hooks with small pieces of squid or shrimp and fishing those around grass beds along the edges of the many channels connecting the north and south sides of the Keys.

Anchor uptide of a suspected spot, drop a box of block chum into a chum cloth bag over the side and wait. It shouldn't take long for you to see the dollar-to-palm-sized pinfish behind the boat. Flip the baited Sabiki with light sinker back into the chum line and you should have plenty of live bait.

You might also see ballyhoo in the chum slick, near the surface with the pinfish underneath them. You can catch those if you know how to toss a cast net or, lacking that skill, tie a long-shanked hook used for ballyhoo catching (available at all Keys shops) on the end of a light spinning rod after adding a float up ahead about 18 inches and then a small split shot between the float and hook.

Bait with a small piece of squid, toss into the area where ballyhoo are milling around and then watch for the float to move. You've just had a bite.

You can also catch pinfish in a pinfish trap, sold at most local tackle shops. You set the trap around the same grass beds, baiting it with a block of chum or whatever bait scraps you had left over from the day's fishing. Drop it off, tied to a float or jug to mark the location. After it sits for a day or so, you should have bait for your next trip.

Mutton for Christmas

Rigging for muttons is relatively easy. On the working end of your line, tie in a 6- to 8-foot shocker of heavy mono, say 50-pound test, to absorb the abrasion of line on the bottom. On the end of that, tie a two-swivel after adding an egg sinker of 2 to 6 ounces. On the other end of the swivel, add a 6- to 10-foot leader of 40- to 50-pound leader material or fluorocarbon, the latter producing more bites in clear water.

Hook sizes from 4/0 to 6/0 should be fine for pinfish hooked under the jaw and out the top of the mouth. Ballyhoo can be hooked through the nostril opening on the top of the head, ditto for live herring. All manner of hooks are offered for sale, one of which is the Mustad 9174 - inexpensive in either bronzed or plated and recommended by my friend Capt. Greg Mercurio. He's a fellow with 25 years catching muttons on the Dry Tortugas on his party boat the Yankee Captains out of Safe Harbor on Stock Island.

Muttons are great for inexperienced anglers to catch - a wise choice if you have kids or friends out fishing when visiting from the north.

The next step after the bait well is full is to find the critters. Here I pass along an invaluable tip given me by the late Key West guide, Capt. Wally Albrecht. On the edge of the reef, you'll generally find the edge of the harder bottom somewhere plus or minus 120 feet. That hard-soft edge is where muttons prowl for forage.

The 120-foot depth runs parallel to the Keys, so you can scope it out by running your boat, pinging with a fishfinder, checking the bottom in a zigzag line from say 115 out to 135 feet deep. It's not as hard as it first seems.

On a calm day you can cover lots of bottom in a morning, checking for that all-important edge where muttons cruise looking for food. Even a moderately priced bottom machine will show the growth on the bottom that marks harder material. Once you see it, head south until you see where it stops and the softer bottom starts. The hard bottom often shows up as scratchy or wispy lines, sometimes requiring a little inspection.

Once you've marked the edge between hard and soft either with a GPS number or mark on your plotter anchor, you boat close to the spot, always uptide from where you suspect the fish are feeding. Often this edge will be given away by the fish marks themselves, but on some mutton spots you should mark little on the softer bottom until you bring some chum into use.

Trial and error

After your boat is anchored down, use one of the many bottom chummers on the market. Companies like Chum King make a plastic, yellow cylinder exclusively for chumming up bottom fish. It employs a screw bottom in which you place enough sinkers to get down close to the bottom.

With enough cheap line, you lower the rig baited with any manner of small pieces of cut-up fish. When the rig is down around 40 feet off the bottom, one gives a hank on the line. In this particular product, the bottom slips down, letting the chum float down to the fish. Remember, muttons may be right in the area under your boat or they may be moving along the hard-soft edge, but your chum will call them in.

The chumming helps anglers that may not yet be able to anchor their boat on a dime. If you missed the anchor mark you were aiming for, you might let out more line or drop the chummer over and see if you can bring the muttons to you.

None of this is without some trial and error. In the process you will find places where the hard bottom extends out to 135 feet or in others you'll find soft bottom a little less than 120. Whenever the magic number hits, make notes in your mind, on paper, computer or plotter. I have one favorite mutton hole off Pelican Shoal, where anchoring in 128 feet brings bites from black and red grouper. Anchoring out a short distance away in 134 feet brings many more mutton bites. The idea is very similar to that of a short move over blackfish bottom in New England can often make the difference from fair to good results.

After the bait is on the bottom, put the rod in the holder if your guests are inexperienced. If they have some knowledge of fishing, have them fish with the reel out of gear, or in spinning, the bail open, their index finger on the line. When a mutton bites, let a little line run past your finger and then put the reel in gear or close the bail and (with both types of tackle) have them wind down on the fish. Don't jerk the line. That often results in just pulling the bait out of the fish's mouth. That mistake is often called "Yankee Yanking" down here, an error that usually results in only mashed and scraped-up baits.

Some last reminders on catching muttons on the edge of the reef drop-off from Key Largo past Key West: Be sure to buy a license and watch the weather for calm conditions needed for smaller boats. And one last thing on muttons - the critters usually bite best in a light-to-moderate current.

If you're successful, you're in for a great seafood dinner or you can fillet your prizes and take them to any of the great local restaurants along Route 1 that offer the option of cooking any fish you catch.

Broiled mutton with lemon, potatoes and a vegetable, paired with a cold beer and followed by coffee and key lime pie puts one in a great mood to think about the lousy weather back home - something you don't have to deal with.

Tim Coleman was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine's New England edition.

This article originally appeared in the Connecticut and New York and the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters sections of the January 2011 issue.