Middle Keys Fishing

The Walsh clan, visiting Marathon from South Africa, caught mangrove and lane snappers with Capt. Jason Bell and SeaSquared Charters.

By Capt. Chris Johnson

If you’re a hard-core, no-holds-barred kind of angler, then May is the month for you in Marathon! All our fishing venues in the Atlantic and the Gulf come in to play this month.

Let’s start on the reef, where May 1 heralds the opening of grouper season. Black, gag and red grouper will hit the docks in great numbers this month. If the catches we’ve seen the last few weeks are any indication, it won’t be surprising to get grouper over 40 pounds.

Black grouper is typically the primary target for anglers on the reef. They’re found in the same areas we fish for yellowtail snapper, which are beginning their spawn. Of the three primary grouper varieties, blacks are probably the toughest, so heavy tackle is necessary to land them. The average black grouper weighs 10 to 20 pounds, but don’t be surprised to see some truly massive fish many times that.

The SeaSquared captains use Penn Torque Lever Drag reels in the 30-pound class, matched with a 30- to 50-pound Star conventional rod. On the reef, our leaders are typically 60-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon, matched to an 8/0 Owner AKI hook.

Jenny Stallings, the manager at Glunz Ocean Beach Hotel & Resort, and her husband took in a day of offshore fishing with Capt. Jason Bell on the SeaSquared. They caught 11 dolphin.

The grouper are big so, naturally, the baits are big. Grunts, bluerunners with their tails trimmed and legal-size snappers, preferably 12- to 14-inch yellowtails. These baits usually don’t last long when dropped to the bottom in 50 to 70 feet of water.

The Atlantic wrecks also hold large black grouper plus gags at 20-plus pounds and good size reds going 10 to 15 pounds. Use the same setup and baits here as you would on the reef.
You can also catch plenty of legal-size blacks, gags and reds in Hawk Channel.

Here we use a Penn Slammer III 7500 reel matched to a seven-foot Star Stellar Boat rod in the medium-heavy or heavy action. Switch your leaders to 40-pound Seaguar fluoro with a half-ounce to one-ounce Owner Mambo jighead. Pinfish and small grunts are the best baits in Hawk Channel.

As for the snapper action on the reef, the primary players are yellowtail and mangrove.

This is the best time of year to get your biggest flag yellowtail, with fish upward of six pounds and more hitting the decks on a regular basis. Again, the deeper areas in 60 to 100 feet are most consistent for the flags.

You may also find mangrove snapper mixed in. These are also forming their annual congregation on the reef, and most are large, mature fish in the four- to seven-pound category.

The action on the wrecks also heats up in May, with lots of mutton snapper, amberjack, African pompano and, as mentioned above, grouper. Pinfish, pilchards or live ballyhoo are the preferred baits for all but the grouper.

Big cero mackerel landed by this junior angler from the Atlanta area during a spring break family fishing.

Offshore, the dolphin (mahi mahi) bite kicks into gear steadily at this point. You can expect larger fish this month, with the smaller schoolies arriving in June. Now is the time for the gaffers and slammers.

Look for birds, especially frigates, working the water surface or weed lines to indicate the presence of the dolphin. The usual assortment of lures and rigged ballyhoo do the trick.

If you don’t find any bird action or weed lines, head to the humps to fish for blackfin tuna. Most will be in the five- to ten-pound class. Techniques that will serve you well include speed jigging, live baits such as pilchards or trolling small jet head-type lures, preferably in dark colors like black and purple or black and red.

The true reason for the season is found nearshore around the bridges. This is where we fish for tarpon, the Silver King, and they’re at the peak of their run during May. On an average four-hour outing, you’ll see a couple hundred tarpon rolling, and the chances of landing the fish of a lifetime are very good.

In the Marathon area, we have the Long Key Bridge, the Seven Mile Bridge and Bahia Honda Bridge. The preferred baits vary bridge-to-bridge, with mullet and pinfish the choice at Long Key and Seven Mile, while Bahia Honda is all about crabs. Talk to your local tackle shop to see what the tarpon are biting best and what rigs to use.

Capt. Chris Johnson specializes in offshore, reef/wreck, gulf/bay, sailfish, shark and tarpon fishing with SeaSquared Charters, docked at Faro Blanco Resort and Yacht Club in Marathon.

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