A flaming sphere had just peaked over the horizon when the first mangrove snapper hit the ice. A keeper gag grouper would follow shortly and Capt. Sam Maisano knew that we’d be in for a memorable day in the Gulf of Mexico.
Twenty miles west of Central Florida’s John’s pass, our daybreak catches would foretell a highly productive mission that produced several of the Gulf's prized food fish, along with a diverse assortment of peripheral species – many of which also offer fine table fare. These “backups,” if you will, illustrated how the big pond's diversity offers many options beyond the sexy, big-namers.
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Given the expense, effort and planning required for an offshore run – along with tightly restrictive Gulf regulations on grouper and red snapper – Maisano said it’s important to maximize your investment with an open-minded approach.
“We’ll try this, try that and when something works, we’ll go with it,” he said. “There are many options out there so we try to get creative and see what produces.”
During our mission, we would fish over a half dozen artificial reefs and wrecks from 110 to 130 feet deep. The final tally of 20 species included: red grouper, gag grouper, scamp, strawberry grouper, mangrove snapper, yellowtail snapper, American red snapper, lane snapper, amberjack, almaco jack, kingfish, barracuda, pink porgy, knobbed porgy, triggerfish, white grunt, lizardfish, toadfish, tomtate (spottail), and blue runner.
Similar assortments await open-minded anglers throughout offshore waters beyond Florida’s Gulf Coast. Indeed, the region’s many natural and manmade bottom structures hold boundless potential with not only the highly-publicized fish, but also a talented roster of B-teamers that’ll fill in the gaps when the top-shelf targets are either tough to catch or out of season.
The standard offshore assortment includes frozen sardines (or Boston mackerel), frozen squid and a load of live baits such as pinfish, pilchards, cigar minnows and grunts. Experienced anglers typically start with dead baits because they release lots of scent that forms a chum line at the bottom (twisting off the tails maximizes the dispersion). Also, the small bottom rats are usually the first to attack dead baits and getting a cloud of juvenile snapper, porgies, grunts and spottails swarming is a good way to arouse the interest of bigger fish.
Whole sardines or squid are fine for larger targets, but for many of the smaller offshore alternates, cut pieces are a better idea. Thaw the baits gradually by placing the opened box in a 5-gallon bucket on the ride out. The benefit here is that cutting a firm, slightly frozen bait is much easier than trying to cut a soft, mushy bait that has fully thawed.
Once the fish start raging on dead baits, fire down something with a pulse and hang on. Big grouper and snapper are most likely to gobble the livies, but if you can cast net smaller sardines or pilchards in the 2- to 3-inch range, you may temp scamp, yellowtails, lanes, almacos and even some of the larger grunts.
Try these rigs on your next offshore trip.
Fish Finder: Run your main line through a slip sinker and tie it to a heavy duty swivel. Tie your leader to the swivel’s opposite side. This basic bottom rig will keep your bait pegged where it falls and holds your line straight when fishing your bait a few cranks off the bottom.
Live bait leaders can run four feet or more to allow the bait room to struggle and attract attention. For dead bait, limit leaders to three feet so the line tightens quickly enough for effective strike response.
Knocker: Skipping the swivel and leader step, just run your main line through the slip sinker and tie directly to your hook. With unrestricted movement, your weight slides right down to and “knocks” against your hook. (Some add a bead below the weight to protect their knot.)
By keeping the bait and weight in line, the knocker rig helps prevent line twist. Also, because the line slips freely through the weight, fish feel virtually no resistance and are less likely to spit a bait. This stealth trait is particularly beneficial with spooky snappers.
Chicken Rig: A consistent producer of yellowtail, scamp, porgies, triggers and other reef fish, this rig comprises two hooks on droppers with a sinker hung below. Make your own or modify a large sabiki rig by clipping all but the top two hooks and leaving about a foot and a half leader for the weight.
Bait the hooks with squid strips and jiggle the chicken rig like you’re working a sabiki for baitfish. This rig leverages reef competition, so when you feel a hookup, leave it in place for a few moments and you’ll usually get that second bite.
Free-lining: A block of frozen chum hung from a cleat, along with an occasional dribble of frozen glass minnows often brings mangrove and/or yellowtail snapper right the surface. Drift an unweighted chunk of cut bait into the chum slick for immediate connections.
To help prevent release mortality, the National Marine Fisheries Service requires anglers targeting any species of reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico to use non-stainless steel circle hooks, which are easy to remove, and they dissolve in saltwater if left in a fish’s mouth. Also, reef anglers must possess a dehooking tool for removing hooks as quickly as possible – preferably with the fish in the water.
Lastly, reef anglers must possess venting tools – sharpened, hollow instruments that enable fishermen to deflate fish that surface with expanded air bladders. When a fish’s air bladder expands during a rapid rise to the surface, the expansion pushes the stomach out through the mouth, bulges the eyes and keeps the fish from returning to the bottom.
The Gulf’s abundance offers plenty of dinner options. Make sure the rest return safely to fight again tomorrow.
For offshore fishing trips with Capt. Sam Maisano visit www.gofastfishing.com.