The cool weather is upon us now, which gives us a new perspective on fishing down in the Florida Keys. This cooler weather triggers pelagic migrations. First the bait makes its move and the predators are soon to follow. Our fishing will change from heading way offshore to hanging closer to reef’s edge.
Sailfish, kingfish and wahoo are some of the predators that we will be targeting. These predators will be hanging close to the reef’s edge where batfish congregate. The optimal winds will be a north-easterly direction bucking the east bound current and at times this will push the bait off the edge of the reef where the predators are waiting. It is a small area between the reef and 200 feet of water where the majority of these fish will be roaming for food.
Looking for birds and color changes will be your first tactic in finding these fish. Finding clean water is the key, with the increasing winds from the cold fronts the water can get stirred up near shore which gets pushed offshore by the wind, so this is where your color changes are going to be found. Where the dirty inshore water meets the gulfstream or a splinter of it, there will be color change and a current edge. Most of the time the fish will be in the cleaner water, but not always, so crossing over may be an option too.
Fishing for sailfish, you will want to have nice fresh caught bait, slow-trolled or flown in the kite. Troll down these edges or set up the kites so that your baits are in the clear or blue side of the edge will generate most of your bites. When looking down these edges look at your chart, you will notice outcroppings of the reef will push out the color change or current edge; these slight changes in direction of the current will congregate bait and in turn concentrate the sailfish. Since most of the sailfish are on the move as they head down sea looking for food, they will hold up in these areas where the bait is thick and you will notice that they may even school up as they feed in these places along the reef.
Now, if trolling or flying the kite isn’t your cup of tea you can also chase bait showers, which can be very productive if the fish are actively feeding in the shallows. Having a tower is a great advantage when doing this but not necessary. Run up and down the inside of the reef from 20-40 feet of water while looking for diving birds and showering bait. It’s pretty cut and dry: find the bait showers and cast your bait into the shower or where the shower was. Free spool your line till something grabs it and get to reeling. This is really a fast-paced style of fishing and being able to cast is a must. You may have to cast many times before you get a taker, but once you get one hooked up it can be possible to get a few more hooked up, because generally when the bait showers happen, it’s because of many fish chasing them.
The way you can tell if it’s more than one fish chasing baits is if the showers go into different directions, as a few fish will split the main school into a few bait showers going in different directions. No matter what you like to do, having fresh caught bait is the key. Nice, lively baits trigger the bite, so when catching your bait, handle them with care and don’t over crowd your live well as that’s not good either.
Yeah baby, wahoo is one of the best fighting fish, and tasty too; a very sought after game fish for its blistering speed and its table quality. Wahoo like large baits for their size, so fishing with live bait from one to two pounds isn’t out of the question. Speedos and tinker mackerel are the very best bait for them, but blue runners, goggle eyes, and ballyhoo work well too for a secondary bait if you can’t get the choice bait.
Basically, fishing over deep wrecks and along weedlines and current edges is your best bet to find these elusive critters. Most people use live bait if they want to be sporty with them, but if you just want to catch some your best bet is high speed trolling at 15 knots. Yep, 15 knots…it’s fast, but not too fast for these game fish. Wahoo have been clocked at 65 mph, so 15 kts is like a fast walk for them. Wahoo, like most of the mackerel family, are sight feeders and react to action. So fast-moving baits catch their attention and trigger their need to feed.
Since these fish are toothy, you need wire to catch them, but I have caught plenty on mono dolphin rigs and even light 30# mono sailfish rigs too. It can be done, but to improve your chances, #5 wire is minimal for them on live bait and I like 200# seven strand cable for the high speed lures. When using the high speed lures, color can make a difference so put out many different colors and find out what they are feeding on and then you can switch to have most lures of the color that caught the first few fish. Generally, dark colors like red and black, black and purple are always good, but pink and chartreuse can also be deadly. For your tackle, I suggest at least 50# gear to stand up to the drag of the lure and weight at 15 kts.
Just a trash fish for some, but for most of us, it’s a great game fish and fun fish with their big runs and explosive bites and up to 15 foot leaps in the air. Kingfish have been under-rated as a great game fish here because they are nucence when we are trying to target other species. But when you get into an area where you are getting cut off, put some wire on…they are blast to catch, even if they aren’t so great to eat.
There are many ways to catch kings: trolling with lures, live and dead bait, jigging and chumming them up. All work great, but my favorite way is chumming or chunking them up. I will usually find them near small shallow wrecks in 150-100 feet of water, as larger wreck usually have barracudas on them and the kings don’t like being stalked by ‘cudas, so they will stay clear of those large wrecks which hold large amounts of barracudas. Early in the morning, I like to net up 500 pilchards for the live well and then another 500 which I kill and put in my cooler for chunking. I will anchor up in a good spot for kings and start chunking…but don’t cut too many up as you don’t want to feed them but just spark their interest. I like to cut two pilchards into 2 or 3 pieces and throw them over every few minutes.
I will belly-hook two baits on the surface and put one down on a short leader rig with a 2 oz. weight to get it down 60 feet or so. Eventually I will start throwing five live baits at a time with the chunks and it won’t take long for the kings to start busting the live bait up on the surface. It is a show, little explosions blowing up all around the boat as the poor pilchards run for their life. Once they start hitting the freebees you should start getting hit on your top and bottom baits. Once we get them all fired up, I will start casting to the boils and explosions and its only seconds before you get a bite, and it is unmistakeble as they scream line off the reel. It’s a blast to use 12-15 pound test, but if you do use such light tackle make sure you got some line capacity because some of these bigger kings will strip 100 yards of line off on their first run. These fish will test your gear and terminal tackle. I you are getting 20-40 pounders you will need to bump up the wire to #6 from #5 because the bigger kings eat through smaller wire leaders with ease.
With the water cooling off and the weather, be sure to dress appropriately and bring some extra clothes so that you can enjoy this great time of the year to fish. Lots of layers is the key so as the day goes on you can shed layers as it gets warmer or add more as the sun goes down. Be comfortable while you fish and enjoy the Keys even if the locals won’t step outside because of the cold.