Persistence pays

By: Capt. Chris Johnson

We’re coming into my favorite time of year to fish in Marathon. The spring months bring spawning migrations and congregations to make for exciting catch-and-release fishing everywhere from offshore to the bridges to the gulf.

Sailfishing has been very good this past winter, with many boats returning to the dock boasting double-digit releases. The depth where you’ll find the sails ranges anywhere from right on the reef out to 200 feet. The key is to have good, blue water. The ideal is powder blue water pushed up against purple water. Waves of three to four feet create what is called “tailing,” which is just what you’d think. The sailfish tails stick out of the water as they surf down the surface of the wave. Just about any of the usual cast of sailfish baits work, including goggle eyes, pilchards, ballyhoo and cigar minnows. Much as you would with dolphin, pitch your baits in front of the fish. When they see it, typically they light up and attack it. It’s an incredible sight! This is a visual fishery, and it’s not unusual to see 50 sailfish on a day when conditions are perfect.

You may also find dolphin and cobia in the same areas mixed in with the sailfish, so be sure to keep a keen eye out. All the same live baits used for sailfish will attract their interest. The dolphin are making their appearance earlier every year. With the warm waters currently, they should be piling through now like we usually have to wait until May to see. The first waves of fish are typically slammers and gaffers, with the schoolies following later on.

The seas can be a bit challenging, so be mindful and pick your day. Look for birds – primarily frigates, not terns – on the water surface. They will pinpoint the location of larger dolphin. While one strategy is to troll lures near the frigates, we recommend employing a skirted Bionic ballyhoo. An option is to visually spot the fish yourself and toss a live bait directly in front of it. Pilchards, goggle eyes and pinfish work well.

Persistence pays to get the fish to eat. Continue trying as long as you can see the fish on the surface. Should you lose sight of it, try trolling in ever-widening circles from where you first saw it. Sometimes these big fish just won’t eat, so it’s best to move on to the next frigate bird on the surface.

There are also plenty of blackfin tuna offshore at the Marathon humps. Sharks tend to be heavy this time of year, so landing larger blackfins of 20 pounds or greater can be an effort in futility.

On the wrecks, the bite for big amberjacks hits its peak as these fish are in the area to spawn. Fish in the 70- to 90-pound class are common.

The mutton snapper bite is also rapid as they, too, begin to gather to spawn later in May and June. Baits for the AJs and muttons are pinfish, pilchards and live ballyhoo.

On the artificial reefs off Marathon, we have an excellent permit fishery. This is another visual fishery, although best accomplished with cleaner water and calmer conditions than you want for sailfish. The permit are often schooled up off the top or very near the main wreckage and are in massive schools of 300 to 500 fish. The average size is 15 to 25 pounds, with some monsters pushing 40. A small, 2- to 3-inch blue crab fished on a jighead with 20-pound tackle will do the trick for you.

Permit is a catch-and-release fishery, so be sure to release all fish unharmed as they are here to spawn.

Yellowtails are the main event on the reef. The largest specimens can be found in 40 to 60 feet of water. Be sure to use copious amounts of Bionic chum, and any kind of small cut bait or shrimp will work as baits. Just ask your local tackle shop what’s working best in your area.

The tarpon are here in full force around the bridges. Marathon has three players when it comes to bridge fishing for tarpon: Long Key, Seven Mile and Bahia Honda. Baits and techniques vary bridge-to-bridge. Again, check with your local tackle shop. Of course, if you really want to land big tarpon without wasting a lot of time and money, hire a local guide as we’re highly tuned in to this very specialized fishery.

There also plenty of big-fish action on light tackle with sharks round the shallower flats. For those desiring the ultimate shallow-water challenge, fishing for bonefish, permit and tarpon on the flats is hitting its stride right now.

— Capt. Chris Johnson |
305-393-2929 |
Marathon Florida Keys