By Pat Ford
No one thinks about fishing offshore Key West in the summer months except maybe for mahi. There might be a sailfish around every once in a while, no tuna or kingfish or mackerel to speak of, no cobia, the mutton and permit spawns in May are long gone. It’s pretty slow by winter standards but it’s one of the best times to bottom fish for snapper.
Mutton snapper are still around the reefs and can be found around most all of the Atlantic wrecks. Some spots are better than others naturally and guides like RT and Chris Trosset know them all.
The most common rig is a live ballyhoo, pinfish or pilchard attached to a 40lb fluorocarbon leader on a circle hook. If you’re drifting, a long leader (20-30 feet) is essential; but if you’re anchored up on a wreck a short one works just fine. Select a sinker appropriate for the water depth and put a 6 inch loop in about 3 feet above the weight, then simply attach the hook to the loop….couldn’t be simpler. If you’re using the loop rig, a 50 or 60 lb fluorocarbon is safer and easier to handle than the long drift leader which will undoubtedly tangle if being dropped straight down. The trick is actually finding the live baits. Fresh ballyhoo is the next best bet, but it’s worth spending an hour or so catching ballyhoo on the reef or threadfins if you can find them.
We’ve caught a ton of muttons over the years and they are a lot of fun, but the real prize in the summer is the red snapper in the Gulf. Red snapper season begins in Gulf waters on June 1st and is open only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday until the beginning of September with a limit of 2 per day per angler. It sounds simple except for the fact that reds are deep water fish and the deep water in the Gulf is far, far away. The Trossets and a very few other of the elite Key West guides have numbers of wrecks off the Dry Tortugas that can produce some amazing snapper catches when the seas are calm enough to make the 170+ mile round trip that is necessary to hit several of these wrecks in a day. It’s not something just anyone can do…you have to have the numbers and a boat like RT’s 34 Yellowfin that can make the run quickly and safely and you have to pick your day very carefully.
I’ve been luck enough to make two of these trips over the last few years. The day starts at Hurricane Hole marina around 6 am – you want to be underway at first light. It’s a straight run out northwest to New Ground where you start looking for shrimpers. If you’re out there early enough and are lucky enough, you’ll find a shrimper that’s hasn’t dumper his trash and will be willing to trade a few bags of it for a dozen cold beers. In the trash will be all kinds of critters that will entice snapper. It may take a while to find the right shrimper but the effort is mandatory. You can also nail a few trophy bonito while you’re loading up on trash which is particularly fun on a fly rod.
The shrimpers are usually about 50 miles out and the snapper wrecks are another 30-35 mile further yet. As expected, not every wreck will produce every day. A few commercial boats also have these numbers and they can hammer the snapper pretty well. If a commercial guy has been on you’re wreck, the fishing’s going to be tough. An empty wreck after a 3 hour run is really disappointing.
On my first trip with Rhona Chabot and my daughter and grandson, we were lucky. The first wreck we hit was known for “big” reds – up to 20 lbs. Unfortunately the wreck was also full of huge amberjack, which consumed most every bait we put down. Fighting 50 lb + amberjack ceases to be fun very quickly so after a while and a few sore backs, we moved on to RT’s favorite. He says that at times the red snapper are so thick you can chum them up to the surface and catch them on poppers. That didn’t happen on either on my trips but it didn’t take long to catch out limits. On the way back we stopped at a ‘rockpile’ where we first caught some blue runners (mixed in with yellow tail) and then put them out for some smoker kingfish. There are not a lot of kingfish around but the ones that do show up are huge. By 3 pm we’d caught all that we could handle and headed home.
The next season our timing was never right to make it back to the Tortugas. Wind is a big factor and conditions nixed the few days we had scheduled with RT. However this year was different.
I was fishing with Danny Crossley, Rufus Wakeman and his son, Marlin, and daughter,Jaycee…. and the weather was perfect. Same plan was followed….leave early, run to the shrimpers and then to the wrecks. Our first stop was just dead…the few fish we did hook were immediately consumed by a goliath grouper that easily swam back into the wreck and cut us off. We didn’t last too long there before we headed to the ‘super wreck’. Unfortunately, and much to my amazement, when we got to the wreck there were two boats already on it. One was a guide from Key West who we knew had the numbers and the second boat was from Sarasota. That’s over a hundred mile run one way! He didn’t stick around too long and our fishing was pretty good actually. We easily caught our limit and they were big. The largest was over 20 lbs. Jaycee caught a beautiful little hammerhead which Patrick line convinced to pose for some photos. We stopped but the Rockpile on the way back and caught some yellowtail and a 30 lb amberjack before heading home.
All in all it was a fun day but a long run. RT’s twin 300hp Suzuki’s burnt up over 200 gallons of gas so the end of the day was and expensive trip to the fuel dock. I hate to think how much those snapper filets cost us per pound….but it was an adventure to say the least. Gotta do it again next year, for sure!