By Nick Carter
“Winter is the best time to fish,” said Capt. Chris Cameron, “the only problem is the weather.”
Capt. Cameron is owner/operator of Fired Up Fishing Charters out of Cocoa Beach, Fla. He said it can be tough to find good weather windows this time of year, but when conditions stabilize offshore fishing fires off like a Space Coast rocket.
Winter on Florida’s Atlantic Coast can be spectacular because of all the migratory species that push down to overwinter in milder temperatures. Kingfish, cobia, blackfin tuna, sailfish and others are all hunting the reefs about 18 miles off Port Canaveral. The key to the fishery is menhaden.
“This time of year, you get these huge baitballs,” said Capt. Cameron, “and there are all these fish following the bait around. You find fish where you find ‘bunka’ congregating on the reefs.”
Cameron is a transplant from Long Island, New York, and even after more than two decades living and fishing Florida’s east coast, he still refers to menhaden as “bunka,” which is Yankee dialect for bunker. That’s what they call pogies up where boats are winterized this time of year.
“On good days, when you can get offshore and the water is clean, we might catch a limit of kings, a couple cobia, a couple blackfins and hopefully a sailfish,” Cameron said. That’s a fun and delicious mixed bag to fill the freezer.
At places like Pelican Reef and 8A Reef, where depths range from 75 to 85 feet, Cameron finds the bait and then goes to work slow trolling live baits on double-hook stinger rigs and 20-pound line and tackle. He said he pulls baits at about 1 knot, which allows them to swim along naturally.
“The thing with slow trolling is you never know what you’re going to get,” said Cameron. “It could be a big king, a sailfish, a cobia or a shark.”
Pitch rods are kept ready in case a cobia shows up on the surface. Cameron said he’s learned from experience not to over-stimulate cruising cobia by throwing multiple lines at once. Usually, clients can convince cobia to bite with a one-two punch. They keep a squid-tipped bucktail ready for a quick cast. If that doesn’t draw a strike, it allows time to slap a live bait on the second rig, which is a simple 5/0 circle hook.
Shrimp boats are another option Cameron seeks out this time of year. Although chasing them can be a bit of a time gamble, since they are usually 25 miles offshore over 200 feet of water, they can be extremely productive.
“If you see a shrimp boat off in the distance or spot one on the radar, it’s almost always worth a shot,” Cameron said. “When they dump their bycatch in the morning, it pulls everything up.”
Fishing shrimp boats can be short-lived, but it can also provide fast action for the same species that come off the reef. For this bite, Cameron beefs up to 6500 spinning gear and 50-pound braid and 50-pound mono leaders. He keeps four pitch rods ready, two with bucktails and two with live baits, because the bite can turn into sight fishing in a hurry. Meanwhile, he’ll search with freelined pogies on a knocker rig.
Contact Capt. Chris Cameron and Fired Up Fishing Charters through their website at firedupcharters.com.