During the winter and spring we tend to get plenty of wind, and as the wind blows the seas pick up to heights where people just don’t go off shore to fish. Don’t let the wind and waves get you down, get out there, and just don’t go as far. There is plenty of inshore fishing around the Keys to fish. Up and down the Keys there are numerous areas which are protected from the wind. You can choose to fish the patch’s which are are only 3-4 miles out. During the winter the winds will generally be somewhat a northern direction so fishing on the south side of the island is where you want to be.
The patches are anywhere from 35-15 feet of water so you won’t need the big rigs, but 10-20 pound gear is what I use. The patches are a conglomerate of grass and reef all intertwined together. Since its shallow the grass can grow and the reef flourishes well in this shallow water too. When hurricanes hit, the shallow reefs do take a beating and I have seen in some areas where entire reefs patches have been destroyed by heavy seas. There are many baits I like to use on the patches and to have an assortment will improve your catch. I prefer to have ballyhoo, shrimp, pinfish and pilchards. I like the knocker rig as well for the patches, since there is rarely too much current to use a knocker rig it is very effective on the patches. I will use cut ballyhoo, pinfish, shrimp, and pilchards on this rig. Because we are fishing near or on the patch a leader rig will get hung up too often for my tastes and the knocker rig is designed for keeping your bait close to the bottom, allowing the fish to run with the bait and if you do get hung in the bottom it has a greater chance of freeing itself. If you get hung in the bottom with a knocker rig don’t pull hard, as you will only drive the hook further into the snag, or wedge the weight in the coral crevice. But instead, let the line go slack and jerk up violently. Do this repeatedly until snag comes free. It’s important to let the line go slack as this will change the direction of the pressure of the line when you jerk up. Do this for 2-4 minutes and at your last resort break it off.
When people think of the patches they think of hogfish, as this is where most of them live. The grass beds and coral patches contain their favorite food, crustaceans. Shrimps, little crabs are the diet of the hogfish, but they will eat fish sometimes. So when targeting these tasty critters you should use shrimp on a 1/8-1/4 oz. jig or the same size knocker rig. I will tend to choose patches that are close to the grass beds or even grass beds themselves. I will not put chum out if I am targeting them but I will pop the heads off the shrimp and put them into a chum bag and lower it down to the bottom on some cord with some weight. This will keep the small yellowtails and blue runners from converging on your chum slick as if you were to use frozen chum. If you use frozen chum and you toss out shrimp 50-1 you will catch anything but a hog fish as they will generally eat it before it hit the bottom, whereas hogfish are slow eaters and with all the other fish around they only get the scraps. So try this method without chum just the shrimp heads, if you want you can also just pitch the shrimp heads over the side but I find that keeping them in the bag they will last longer. Move from patch to patch until you find a good gathering of hogfish or jump in and look around and shoot them with a spear gun. But using this shrimp chum method really works.
Patches are loaded with fish but some are barren, so cruise around and look for schooling fish, this will indicate natural food is present and that there may be great fishing ahead. After you have chosen your location I like to spiral out with the cum bag in the water spreading out the chum as I said before, there is generally little current on the patches, so use the boat to spread out the chum before you anchor down. If you find out that there is no current, you may and try another spot. Fishing in front of the seven mile bridge, there is always water movement here, if there is no current there is always an influx of water from the tides here. I love mangrove fishing and my favorite bait for them is pilchards with pinfish coming in as a close second. Using a knocker rig I will hook the pilchards a little different than most. I hook the pilchard through the anus and come out right before throat. Just under the pectoral fin. I use a #3 long shank hook for this method, as it will not work with a short shank hook. This will not kill the bait if done right, and it will allow the bait to swim up off of the bottom in sight of the large mangroves. I generally allow the mangrove snappers to run with the bait for about 3-5 feet, this allows them get the hook in the mouth, as mangroves tend to grab and run with the bait before they take it all the way in their mouth. So, by allowing them to run with the bait for a few feet will help your hookup ratio, especially if you are using cut ballyhoo or live bait.
If the wind is blowing too hard to even get out on the patches, there is another untapped area people overlook. Here in Marathon there are plenty of along shore fishing areas. The bridge may not be for everyone, but Sisters Creek has snook, ladyfish, snappers, groupers, tarpon, and even redfish this time of the year. If you don’t have pilchards then shrimp will be the next best bait to use. You can chum, which I like to do and get a feeding frenzy going. Now since you are in a creek or canal there is always water movement so make sure you have sinkers up to 1 ½ oz. and in this area I like using a short leader rig with a swivel which keeps the bait away from the weight. Like the bridge, in certain areas the tide will spread out your chum. You can use pinfish here as well as long as they are really small or cut them in half if you can’t get those candy sized baits. When I look for places to fish I will look for turns in the creek or heavy over grown mangroves trees. Fish right up against the trees and if you do have pilchards throw some out as chum. I even catch mackerel in the creek so you just never know what there will biting that day but there are always mangroves and grouper. Don’t let your vacation or your day off go to waste, get out and go fishing even when the wind blows.