By: Capt. Chris Johnson
To quote National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, “Clark, that’s the gift that keeps on giving.” There’s an abundance of fine fishing to choose from, which is why December is my Number Two favorite time of year to fish in the Florida Keys. Number One is the month of May. Come back and read our May article to find out why.
As the waters to the north chill, wintertime fish visitors crowd the reefs, wrecks and bayside. And there’s something for everyone.
Sailfish probably tops most people’s list as the fish to target. The key to catching sailfish is live bait, and the primary live bait to use is ballyhoo.
Start your day of sailfish fishing by catching your ballyhoo first thing in the morning on the patch reefs and shallow grassy areas. To get the ‘hoo to the boat, chum the waters with Bionic double-ground. Catch them by using hair hooks, small bits of shrimp and squid or by throwing a cast net on them.
Take great care when boating the ballyhoo. Try not to touch them too much between catching them and placing them in the live well. The most effective baits are those that have suffered the least amount of damage.
Once you’re loaded up with ballyhoo, head out to the deep edge of the reef in 100 to 130 feet of water or wherever you find a good, clean water break. Stagger the baits out behind the boat and drift parallel to the reef, waiting for the sailfish to find the ballyhoo. If your ballyhoo jumps out of the water, get ready for the sailfish bite.
When sailfish fishing, the SeaSquared crews use 20lb spinning gear with 40lb fluorocarbon leaders and 20lb main test line with a 6/0 Owner SSW Inline Circle Hook.
While waiting for the sailfish, quite often you’ll get bites from other wintertime visitors, such as blackfin tuna and dolphin, plus toothy critters that include king mackerel and wahoo. For the toothy ones, include a short trace of #6 wire to prevent breakoffs.
The main reef line is where you’ll find the best yellowtail and mutton snapper action. The 40- to 60-foot depths are typically a good starting point. This area should be alive with yellowtail snappers along with the reemergence of nice black groupers, mutton snappers and even some cobias.
Establish a quality chum slick and let the fish come to you. The yellowtails are best caught using small pieces of ballyhoo or shrimp. For the muttons and groupers, use heavier conventional tackle with live baits, such as pilchards, ballyhoo or pinfish.
The patch reefs come into their own this time of year, with lots of action on mangrove snappers, keeper size yellowtails and red groupers. The same tactics employed for yellowtails on the reef work here, but you’re fishing in much shallower water at 20 to 25 feet.
Hawk Channel also gets active during December. You’ll find everything from snappers and groupers to cero, king and Spanish mackerel, porgies and, again, the occasional cobia. Live shrimp fished on a jighead on or near the bottom coral humps and bumps should produce instant action. This is great fishing for kids or anyone looking for lots of action with excellent table fare as a bonus.
Not to be overlooked are the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico areas. As these waters cool, king and Spanish mackerel, African and Florida pompano and cobia join the snappers that are prevalent in these venues.
Live bait is key for the king mackerel and cobia. These bayside kings are typically less fussy than the ones on the Atlantic and will happily eat pinfish as will the cobia. Just remember to use a trace of #6 wire to prevent bite-offs from the kingfish.
The pompano, snappers and Spanish mackerel will all readily eat live shrimp. While fishing for these, you’ll also find plenty of bluefish and jack crevalle.
For those interested in bigger fish on light tackle, sharks await you en masse. Blacktips, spinners, bulls, black noses and the occasional lemon all respond well to chunks of jack crevalles, bluefish, bluerunners. Sharks are great fun on light spin or conventional tackle. We like to use 9/0 Owner SSW Inline Circle Hooks to prevent harming the sharks so they can be released for someone else to enjoy. The gift that keeps on giving.
The SeaSquared crew wishes you and yours a joyous holiday season filled with family, friends and some great fishing!
— Capt. Chris Johnson | SeaSquaredCharters.com
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