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What to Keep in Mind When Fishing in the Florida Keys

Yellowtail

Let's go catch some yellowtail!

The yellowtail snapper is one of the most sought after fish in the Florida Keys. They are smart; they can bite off your hook (but if you rig with wire they won't touch the bait) and barracuda love to eat them as soon as the yellowtail on your line is over 18".

The first thing we need to do is get set up with the proper stuff to get rigged right for yellowtail catching. You need a 12 to 20-pound class rod with a strong backbone and a light sensitive tip for casting ability and for feeling a very light bite.

Star Rods Stellar Lite rod, Model SG1220ISM is a good "go to" rod if you have yellowtail catching in mind. Teaming it up with a PENN Slammer III 4500 or 5500 you will have an unbeatable combination.

Fill your reel with 12 to 20 pound test monofilament line. P-Line is best because it is nearly invisible in the water, has very low stretch and is highly abrasion resistant. Fluorocarbon leader in 8 to 20 pound test is the best for yellowtail.

All you need for terminal tackle, is an assortment removable split shot, a box of Mustad 9174 #4 hooks, the new Owner #2 Mutu Light circle hook, and some Yellowtail Candy weighted jigs. The leader should be tied direct to your line with a double uniknot or an Albright special. However, a small #10 swivel can also be used for joining line to leader.

Now that we are properly rigged it's time to go find the fish. Start in 30 to 100 feet on the outside edge of the reef. While cruising back and forth between these depths, look for pinnacles and drop-offs that fish can hide in or around. Watch also, for schools of fish marking on your fish finder. Mark the spot with your GPS. A marker buoy is a good tool to have for marking significant bottom features, be sure you have enough line on the buoy to reach the bottom.

Once you have located and marked your spot, check the direction of the current flow on the marker buoy or a nearby trap float. The final anchored position should be approximately 200 feet from the GPS spot or marker buoy, so that the chum runs directly to the spot. Move the boat until you are on the spot! Always use a reef or rock anchor with the chain rigged to the bottom of the anchor. Run the chain up the anchor shank and tie it to the top of the anchor with cable tie wraps or monofilament line, so that when you pull the anchor the ties break and the anchor comes out backwards.

Use a float and ring for easy anchor retrieval.

Proper chumming is the key to catching yellow tail snapper. There are all sorts of exotic recipes for chumming yellowtail, but most of us don't have time for all that. The best chum on the market is made with pure Atlantic menhaden. Menhaden is an extremely oily baitfish found in abundance from Northern Florida to Long Island Sound. In fact almost all of the fish oil sold is derived from menhaden. You can buy a frozen chum at The Tackle Box that is single or double ground from 100% pure Atlantic menhaden. This chum is dynamite for pulling up big yellowtail. We also carry Yellowtail Up. Yellowtail Up is a dry chum that comes with everything you need to mix it in it's packaging.

The second best ingredient for chum is Thread Herring or Spanish sardines. Chum should always be made from fresh baitfish not thawed out frozen baitfish or carcasses. Don't forget to have a spare chum bag on board.

Glass minnows are a good supplement to your chum. You can throw a handful in the water along with your bait to distract the yellowtail from your leader and hook. Oats are another helpful tool for yellowtail fishing. We also carry Mojo Fishing Oats that work great along with your chum. Mojo Fishing Oats are menhaden oil and shrimp encrusted and really attract the fish you are wanting to catch.

Start out with two chum bags, put a block of chum in the first bag then about 20 minutes later put out the second block of chum on the other side of the boat. Every few minutes throw out a handful of glass minnows. Alternate the glass minnows with oats. When the yellowtail show up in a ball behind the boat, take one chum bag out of the water and slow down throwing out the glass minnows and oats. Now you are ready to start catching fish!

Yellowtail snapper will eat a wide variety of baits. The problem is you never know from one day to the next what they will eat. Live shrimp is probably the best all around yellowtail bait, with silverside minnows a close second. Two or three glass minnows on a hook work well at times, as do small pieces of ballyhoo or squid. Place a shrimp on your hook up through the head or the tail. Place your hook in the glass minnow through the eye sockets.

Open the bail on your reel and start letting out line until you get a bite or you get tired of letting out line. This is called flat lining. Do not close the bail on the reel and leave the bait in the water. This will cause an unbelievable twist in your line.

When landing a flag yellowtail snapper, use a good quality landing net or a small gaff. Remember that fish gets heavier when you pull him out of the water, so you don't want to break a leader and loose the fish.

Make sure your hooks are sharp!

Good yellowtailing!

Tarpon 101

The scream of the reel, that first drag burning run, and a 100 lb. plus "silver king" explodes from the water in a crash of foam and spray. The hair on your neck will tingle, your adrenaline will pump as never before, because, in all of fishing, there is no experience comparable to that first hook-up with a giant tarpon

Your first thought may be that you would need some very sophisticated equipment to handle such a fish. If you have already done some fishing in the Keys or elsewhere, you probably already have some equipment that will work. Twenty-pound test line should be the minimum choice with either spinning tackle or conventional reels of adequate size to hold at least 250 to 300 yards of line. A Penn 7500SS or a Shimano 6500 Baitrunner reel are the most common spinning reels in use for Tarpon, with a seven to eight foot medium heavy action rod. Conventional reels should be of the lever drag design such as Shimano TLD 20 or 25, Penn International 12LT or 16S, or the Penn 25 GLS. . Again a seven-foot medium to heavy action rod will do the job. The terminal tackle is made up of a 6/0 to 10/0 circle hook, by Eagle Claw, Owner or Gamagatsu sharpened to the keenness of a razor, six to seven feet of 80 to 130 pound test fluorocarbon leader material and a number one Sampo swivel. the leader should be properly crimped, not tied to the hook and swivel. Next rig six to eight feet of double line with a Bimini twist or spider hitch. Tie your rig to the double line with a uniknot. Now you are ready to fish.

Within a fifteen mile radius of Marathon, there are some of the finest Tarpon fishing spots any where in the world. Tom's Harbor Bridge, Vaca Cut Bridge, the Seven Mile Bridge, and Bahia Honda Bridge are among the best with the most catches at the Seven Mile and Bahia Honda. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to fish. Most anglers prefer moving water (although not too fast). Be sure to float your bait with a popping cork or a piece of Styrofoam when the tide does slacken, to keep your bait off the bottom and away from "Jaws". When the tide is running a float will probably not be necessary.

A very important consideration is bait. The top contender in this category is live mullet, although expensive it is gourmet to the silver king. Pinfish, crabs and jumbo live shrimp top the list as alternative less expensive baits. Keep in mind that usually only six to eight mullet will be needed for one trip. Most local mullet catchers will deliver bait to your boat.

We now have tackle, bait and a place to go fishing for tarpon, but what do you do when you get there? The first thing to do is look over the area you intend to fish for signs of fish rolling or baitfish activity. Next watch your fishfinder as you cruise around. Big globs hanging off the bottom near bridges mean Tarpon! Try to anchor near a place where you marked fish or where you saw them roll. When anchoring, it is important to rig your anchor with a float and a quick release, so that it can be thrown off quickly and you can return to your spot.

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Now that you have found some fish and anchored the boat, its time to drown some baits. Handle your mullet carefully as they are fairly delicate. Hook them through the top jaw and split the lower lip with a knife or scissors. This allows the bait to pass water over it's gills, thus staying alive long enough to be eaten. Let the bait out fifty or sixty feet behind the boat staggered so they don't cross your lines, a nervous mullet will do a lot of swimming, usually right toward the other mullet. The first indication of tarpon activity will be what we call in tarpon lingo, a nervous bait. The bait will start a very erratic movement signaling the close proximity of a tarpon. Next if he is feeding, the tarpon will move off with the bait in his mouth, when this happens the reel should be in open bail, free spool or Baitrunner depending on your equipment. Count three to four seconds and bring up the rod tip with firm but steady pressure. Now we are back at the first paragraph!

Tight lines and good fishing,

Sailfish 101

Mr. Elusive is what we call him. Why because he does not want to be caught and will do anything to achieve that end. The Atlantic sailfish can be, at the same time, the most aggravating and rewarding fish you can pursue in the Florida Keys.

You can find sailfish in the winter along the edge of the reef in 30 to 200 feet depths. The prime areas are Alligator Reef, Tennessee Reef, and Sombrero Reef. Look for a color change from the turquoise powder blue to the deep electric blue of the Florida current. Summer sailfish can be found along temperature eddies in the same areas where dolphin feed. Temperature eddies can be found using ROFFS Ocean Fishing Forecast System., available daily at The Tackle Box.

The equipment required for sail fishing starts off with the rods and reels. Twenty to thirty pound tackle is generally acceptable for sailfish. Spinning rods should be stout with lots of backbone, but yet be sensitive and cast a long distance. The Capt. Dave Brown Signature series 20 pound 7' conventional spinning rod, the 20 pound stand up spin troll rod or the STAR deluxe 20 pound spin rod are all good choices. Twenty pound stand up trolling rods with Shimano TLD 20 or Penn International Model 12LT reels are ideal for sail fishing. Terminal tackle for for casting or trolling live bait consists of a 4/0 to 6/0 very sharp strong hook such as an owner 5170 or 5111. The best leader for live bait sailfish rigs is 4 to 6 feet of 60 to 80 pound test fluorocarbon line. Single hook monofilament rigs are best for trolling dead bait or artificials.

The most common baits for live baiting sailfish are blue runners, pinfish and ballyhoo. Live bait except pinfish can be caught on the reef by chumming and throwing a cast net or by using light line and small hooks to catch blue runners and ballyhoo, pinfish are available at The Tackle Box. The best dead bait for trolling is fresh ballyhoo. Artificials to use for sailfish are Triple D's or Calcutta Bait "Bullyhoo".

The trick to trolling or casting a live bait to a sailfish is to first locate the fish. You can find sailfish usually near the reef in 60 to 150 feet depths. A good area to troll is along a color change. This is where the water goes from a powder blue-turquoise color to the deep ocean electric blue, birds are also a good sign. Slow trolling is the best method with live baits. Set your speed so that the baits swim naturally through the water, even if you have to run on one motor or with a single engine, just bumping it in and out of gear will do the job. Two lines with a maximum of three are plenty for live bait trolling. When trolling fresh dead ballyhoo or artificials, the more lines you can handle the better. Some boats troll as many as 6 lines, with at least two of the baits weighted so they go deep in a turn around a bait pod or tailing fish. Artificial "Bully Hoos" or natural ballyhoo should be trolled plain with no skirt.

Dolphin and the Birds

One of the best places to find these drag burning green screamers is on the edge of the worlds mightiest river, the Gulf Stream, which flows from southwest to northeast off the Florida Keys. The northern edge can vary from a couple of miles south of the reef to as much as forty miles, depending on season and wind. The Stream carries floating debris, weeds and all sorts of habitat for pelagic species such as dolphin. Birds, namely the frigate or man-o-war bird cruise the Stream edge looking for a meal. The frigate bird is your ticket to big dolphin. These large birds have wingspans of up to six feet and can hover or circle on the thermals for long periods of time. It is said that a frigate bird can see down in the water up to 100 feet. This bird is our spy in the sky for finding dolphin. When a frigate spots fish, it will start flying in lazy circles over the spot, very high up. The frigate will continue circling until the fish come up to feed or they go deep and the frigate loses sight. When you see the frigate bird start circling close to the water or maybe come right down on the water, this is when you want to get to that spot fast and get some baits out. This means the fish have come up to feed and the frigate is there to pick up the scraps or chase down a tasty flying fish. The frigate will sometimes stop circling and fly off in a straight line. This is a good time to pick up lines and follow the frigate bird. Watch the surface under the frigate bird and you may see some weeds or other floating objects with smaller birds called terns working the surface.

The terns, tuna birds or bonito birds, as they are sometimes called, can be seen singly, in large flocks or just three or four birds. A large flock of birds diving into the water or actually sitting on the water and looking down into the water usually means tuna. They could be little tunys, skipjack tuna or black fin tuna. These large flocks can be very frustrating, as they move very quickly from spot to spot chasing the feeding tuna. The only way to work these tuna is by trolling very fast with very small weighted bait such as a Tackle Box Tuna Killer. Place the baits at least 100 yards behind the boat, get you speed up to at least 10 knots and try to circle around the feeding birds dragging your Tuna Killers right through the feeding tuna. When you see these birds singly or in-groups of 2 to 10 birds and they are sort of diving and swooping over patches of weed or a weed line, they are following feeding dolphin. The terns will not dive into the water when dolphin are feeding because the dolphin will sometimes eat a diving bird! The dolphin feed on the small fish that hide under the Sargasso weed and the birds swoop in to pick up the scraps or perhaps grab a flying fish that is being chased by a dolphin. The trick is to get around to the west of where you see these terns working and troll your baits in a circle around where the birds are working. Triple D lures are the best because they can be trolled fast without washing out the bait. You must be very mobile to work the birds. Now that you have hooked up a dolphin it's time to work the school. Some simple rules for keeping and working a school of dolphin are:

  1. If the fish is over 20 pounds, get him in the boat!
  2. Keep the freshest dolphin in the water, two are even better.
  3. Have at least 2 doz. fresh ballyhoo cut up and ready to go, nobody wants to cut bait when the dolphin are feeding around the boat.
  4. Rig your schoolie rods with snap swivels, so that rigs can be changed quickly and have plenty of schoolie rigs ready (3 feet of 50 pound leader a 6/0 3407 Mustad hook, very sharp, tied with a surgeon's knot loop on the other end).
  5. Have a live bait ready to cast when the big dolphin shows up.
  6. Don't panic!

Always keep a watchful eye beyond where the school action is happening as you may see a 40-pound plus dolphin circling looking for a schoolie or other live bait to eat. Schools of dolphin in a feeding frenzy attract all kinds of attention from other large fish including blue marlin, wahoo and sharks. One crewmember should also keep track of where the birds are. That way if you loose the school, you can move right back to where the dolphin are feeding and continue your quest. You can also ues the Man Overboard feature on your GPS to get back to you last strike.

Remember, for good dolphin fishing it's preparation, preparation and more preparation. No body likes to cut bait or rig hooks when the school is at the boat!

Night Reef Fishing

The summer doldrums with flat calm water and no breeze can make daytime reef fishing very uncomfortable to say the least. Why not go out at night? The air is generally 10 degrees cooler, the stars are beautiful and the fishing is excellent.

Check your running and anchor lights before you leave the dock, also check your flare kit. A minimum of 200 feet of anchor line is required for reef fishing. Use a reef grapple anchor with the chain rigged to the bottom of the anchor. Then using cable tie wraps or fishing line tie the chain to the top of the anchor shank. Now when you pull the anchor, the tie will break and the anchor will come out backwards.

Fishing equipment needs to be in the medium to heavy range. Stout boat rods and reels with 250 to 300 yards of 40 or 50 pound test line are the best choice. Most of the night fish out there will try to pull you and your rig in the hole with them! A couple of spinners with 20 pound test for flat lining will complete the arsenal. On the terminal end I like to use an Eagle Claw #84 6/0 hook with 3 feet of 60 to 80 pound test leader and a good quality Sampo or Rosco barrel swivel. Stay away from the cheap imports. Hook sizes from 3/0 to 8/0 and egg sinkers from 2 through 6 ounce will round out your tackle box. A wire chum basket with 4 pounds of weight and 100 feet of 1/8 inch nylon braided rope for chumming on the bottom will get some of those larger reef dwellers closer to your boat.

The night fishing off Marathon is best 3 or 4 miles west of Sombrero light. Take a 210 degree heading from Knight's Key and you will be in the right spot. The first thing to do upon arrival to the target area is to find the fish! When you get to 50 feet of water slow down and start watching your fish finder. Globs of stuff marking above the bottom are fish. Stop where you mark fish, and go over the area several times to get an exact location of the school. The GPS or Loran can help with this. Once you have the spot nailed down you need to check current flow and be able to anchor up current of the fish you just found. Go back to the spot that you marked the fish and stop. Watch your GPS (if you have loran set it on LAT/LONG), if LONGITUDE IS increasing you have a westerly current and you will need to anchor east.of the spot. With decreasing LONGITUDE the opposite will be true.

The first job to take care of once you are anchored is the chum. Slip a block of chum inside a chum bag and put the whole thing inside your wire chum basket. Lower the basket over the side until you feel the bottom and bring it up about 5 feet or so. Then get another chum block in the water on the surface using a chum bag only. Cut fresh ballyhoo or frozen thread herring are the two best baits. Ballyhoo should be cut in large chunks (2" to 3"). The thread herring can be cut in half. Let the bait down right behind the boat near the wire chum basket. When you get a hit, crank the slack out of the line and work the rod tip down to the water, come up with a hard sweep of the rod and crank as fast as you can to get the fish coming to the boat.