Hunting Offshore Florida Sport Fish
In search of giants
By the time that most people awake in the morning and have their first cup of coffee, there are usually already thousands of others throughout the state of Florida, who are up, out, and on the water. Many are headed to new places to explore, taking advantage of the more than 260 boating days the state averages per year. However, there are a limited few who are out with a definitive purpose. This group, has their GPS numbers plugged in, and are heading to a place where they know giants live.
Giant fish are a staple around Florida's coast, both inland and offshore. From huge sea trout, and tarpon, to monster bill fish, the fishing in these waters is legendary. Since the early 1900s the state has been a magnate for people looking to trade in their winter weather, for sunshine, turquoise waters, and the fish residing within them.
Today, for those who desire to catch big fish, there are some definite principles to follow. At the top of the must do list is the one thing that seems to be the most difficult for many, waking up early! Although it may seem like a drudgery, it is the only real way to increase your odds of having a successful trip. As in most places the early morning hours are generally the most calm on the water. As the sun rises, so do the solar induced winds. Getting out on the water when it is calm is key to finding bait fish at the surface, and where there is bait, there are large fish nearby feeding on them.
Many guides prefer to use cast nets to catch their bait. Using a net can make quick work out of loading a live bait well. However it can also spook larger fish which may be feeding near the surface of the school. Another method is a device known as a "Pilchard rig", which is basically a long line of connected small stainless steel rings, with a red ribbon woven through the center. This line of rings is tied to the line of a fishing pole and lowered into schools of bait fish. The small bait fish try to go towards the red material, as it appears to be blood to them, and they get their bodies caught in the rings. Although this rig works well, it can often be a more time consuming approach to catching bait, and time as we know is everything when you are on the water.
Always make sure that you have some back up bait along, such as frozen greenbacks, mullet, or even shrimp, just in case you have trouble finding the live ones. Even if you are able to catch bait, the extra you bring along can serve as chum later, which will help keep fish in closer to the hook zone.
To find schools of bait fish, one must keep a trained eye on the surface of the water, as well as the air. The presence of birds hovering, or diving is the first thing usually you will see. Underneath them the water usually looks like it is boiling, or that rain is falling from an unseen cloud. If you start to see this sort of activity reduce your speed to a crawl so the bait don't dive for the bottom and disappear out of sight. It's always a good idea to have a can of either jack mackerel, tuna, or sardines on hand, to provide a little chum for the bait to feed on. Mixing any of these with crackers or bread crumbs will help keep it all together as it is thrown into the water. This will also help to ensure that when you either toss a net or "pilchard rig" into the water that you catch some.
Bait fish are always moving and often their direction is unpredictable due to the fish and birds which, usually are also pursuing them. Often a simple clutch in and out of the throttles will help bring you close enough to the frenzy to capture and fill a bait well using this technique.
The wise angler will always try his luck out immediately upon arrival to a school of bait, as there is a good chance that there are hungry fish feeding below. Many times, people who are ready to go tackle the big monsters that they envision being somewhere miles offshore, miss the ones that are actually close by, simply by overlooking this simple fact. As someone who has been fishing since childhood I can attest that some of the biggest fish I have ever caught were near schools of bait fish. Cobia, Tuna, Kingfish, Red Drum, Amber Jack, and Mahi Mahi are all great examples of fish that follow schools of other fish for feeding.
A good artificial lure, such as a white or neon buck tail jig, or even a silver spoon, tossed into a school of boiling bait fish is a very productive way to catch fish feeding on them. The idea is to cast the lure at the edge of the school, let it sink for about five seconds, and then begin a slow but steady, jerking retrieval. Consistent casting and retrieval will help ensure numerous strikes at the lure. When a strike happens, lower the rod briefly until you feel tension and then pull it back towards you quickly. Usually when a fish strikes they are going to move away very fast from their target area, due to competition from other fish. This happens so fast that it goes unnoticed until they are swimming away trying to swallow the bait, resulting in a slow and steady pull on the line.
When this happens snap the rod quickly straight over your head as if you were pointing the tip behind you. When a fish is hooked it will usually run away because it feels something very different than what it is use to feeling when it eats. Once hooked, erratic, unpredictability is the only normal behavior of a fish. You never know which way they are going to go. Keeping the rod up, and continuing to reel up slack are the 2 things you must do. Don't rush trying to get it to the boat or you will lose the fish. In this game it's consistency that wins over speed. Take your time and make sure that the fish is landed with care, especially if it is a fish that is a restricted or regulated species. You want to use extra care with these so that they are released uninjured, safely back into the water.
Locating Fish Offshore
Once you have your bait well full, you are ready to fill the ice box with the big boys. Many people set out for GPS coordinates that they already have plugged in. While having good "numbers" to head towards is a good plan, don't forget that there is always the possibility of driving right over potentially large fish on the way to your "hotspot".
I usually like to look at the bottom structure on a chart before I start to head to a specific area, and mark a few places to check on the way. What I look for are areas where there is a drastic change in water depth, such as an underwater depression or hole. There are also many underwater springs that come out of the ocean floor. These sources of fresh water can sometimes provide a heat source depending on their point of origin. This heat source can be a fish haven during cooler times of the year. Obviously looking for charted structure along the bottom is a good idea, however there is a whole lot that isn't on a chart. Having a good depth finder is essential to finding areas which may hold fish, and learning how to use it properly is just as important.
Tuna are a migratory predator fish, so it is important to pay attention to all the various aspects of what may affect their location. Water temperature, water clarity, current direction and speed, wind direction, available bait, and moon phases all have an effect on the success of finding these sought after fish. To locate them, once again look for activity at the surface of the water. Tuna generally feed early in the morning around first light, then go deeper to cooler water during the heat of the day.
They will also typically feed again late in the afternoon as the sun sets. At certain times, typical offshore large fish trolling techniques using rigged ballyhoos, small lures, and daisy chains work well, as do slow trolling live baits. At night, or early morning, slipping an underwater light off of the stern, and tossing out chunks of cut bait is like ringing the dinner bell. This technique is best done while at anchor. Just remember if you hook up, have some one get the anchor up immediately or you run the risk of the fish wrapping your line around it. These are fish you don't want to lose no matter what, so employing every technique possible to ensure it is landed safely is required. Once they are on deck you can relax, but while the fight is on, turn up your concentration level or they will leave you cussing like a sailor.
Greater Amber Jack or A.J.'s as they are commonly called, are another beast of a fish that are known for there aggressive fighting. These fish are plentiful from the northern gulf of Mexico, around to the Atlantic ocean. Although they are typically found well offshore in deep water, they are often caught near shore in South Florida due to its close proximity to the reef line. They gather on reefs, wrecks, oil rigs, and other structural habitat, feeding on all sorts of different fish. Using the same techniques as Tuna should produce bites from these fish. Artificial lures such as Jigs or white rubber tubes are great alternatives to live bait as well.
While these fish can be plentiful near shore, they are also found in huge numbers out in the blue water. Cobia tend to travel in schools and are known to follow large rays. They shadow the sting rays like a fighter pilot, swimming just above them, waiting to ambush small fish that are kicked up as the ray moves through the water. Looking around channel markers, or range markers is a good way to find them. Once you locate the fish, shut the engine off and drift, throwing small pieces of bait out to chum them up. This will keep the fish nearby and stimulate them into a strike.
Cobia are known to get into feeding frenzy's where schools of bait are. For this reason they are often among the first fish caught when finding bait. It is common to have everyone on the boat hooked up at the same time when the bite is on. They are powerful fighters that have the same profile in the water as a shark, and can be easily mistaken for one at first glance. The incredible succulent white meat that they are known for, keep them ranked very high on the table fare scale!
Off the gulf coast of south Florida near Naples are a few radio beacon towers. These towers play host to a large variety of fish from, Cobia, and King fish, to bottom dwelling species such as snapper and grouper. Make sure if you are in that region that you don't overlook them.
When anchoring near any structure that you may find, always remember you want to be up current from it, and not on top of it. A simple toss into the water will allow the bait to drift right up to the location, providing you are using the right weight for the current speed. Many people overdo it with unnecessary weight on their line. Test your rig out before you go throwing it up towards your target zone. By slowly lowering it into the water straight down you can judge the current speed and then cast accordingly. Too much weight can cause you to undershoot your target, while not enough weight will put your bait beyond it.
There are many type of snapper to be found off of Florida's coast, especially in areas with a lot of structure. Common snapper that live in this region include red, mutton, lane, and vermilion. All are colorful tasty fish that will give you a powerful fight. These fish can grow to over 30 lbs, which is a whole lot of weight to pull against something that doesn't want to come out of its home.
Although structure is a great place for fish to live, it is loathed by the angler who gets caught in it with a fish on the line. Whenever a fish strikes in this type of environment you need to keep your rod pointing straight up in the air and leave it there while you reel. You don't "bow" to fish that are holding up in thick cover, especially when they are big. The goal is to keep it from taking you into an area that will break your line or foul you up. If you get hung, there is still hope.
A trick that I learned as a kid is what I call a 'snap release'. On an regular spinning reel with the rod bending under tension, open the bail, and hold on to the line with your finger so it stays tight. (On a standard bait casting reel you would push the button in, but hold the spool in place, so as to keep it under tension.) Next let the line snap out of your finger, then begin to reel again. If you do this right you are causing the line to slingshot underwater towards where it is stuck. This little trick has saved me many fish and lots of expensive tackle through the years.
The secret to bringing home a giant fish of a lifetime is to do a little homework, and then get out on the water and start looking for them.
Which offshore fish would you rather catch?
Do your homework
Before heading out on the water in search of that monster fish, it always pays to do a little research first. What type of fish are you going after? What habitat do they prefer, and what do they eat? Knowing a little about the types of fish that you are hunting will help turn your "fishing trip", into a "catching experience."
Another great day!
I'm sure that the many serious anglers out there would agree that there isn't much that compares to landing the type of fish that you set out to catch. Like hunting on land, it involves studying the prey, following their patterns, and being ready for anything!
Do you have a giant fish story, or any tips for finding them? Leave a comment, I always enjoy reading about others fish hunting experiences. Be safe out there, and don't catch 'em all!