September 30, 2010
If catching fish bores you, this string of islands dangling at the end of the peninsula is not your piece of Eden. These options will keep your line tight in the Florida Keys this year! (May 2008)
Catching dolphin is relatively easy, once you find the fish in the Lower Keys.
Photo courtesy of Polly Dean.
Good fishing mingled with good eating is an unbeatable combination. Anglers can do both easily throughout the Florida Keys' scenic chain of islands. From snapper in the upper Keys, swordfish in the middle and dolphin in the lower islands, fishing and eating delights many anglers faced with filling those long, sunny days of summer.
SWORDFISH AT ISLAMORADA
An exciting discovery -- or re-discovery -- awaits the determined angler. A daytime swordfish bite lies about 40 miles offshore of Islamorada, nicknamed the Sportfishing Capital of the World.
Longtime Florida anglers know that in the 1970s, it was common to go looking for swordfish aboard a nighttime charter. When long-lining grew popular in the 1980s, the swordfish stocks became depleted.
Due to their scarcity, it became politically incorrect to eat swordfish, and the charter industry in pursuit of them dried up, too.
Like a jack-in-the-box, we couldn't keep a good fish down -- luckily!
Richard Stanczyk, owner of Bud N' Mary's Marina in Islamorada, has pioneered the re-discovery of the swordfish and recently promoted it as a viable daytime pursuit. He's recorded 300 broadbill swordfish to date -- all caught during the day.
Florida native Randy Towe agreed on the swordfish's history.
"Beginning in the late '70s, Fort Lauderdale, where I was living, began to experience a big lull in swordfishing due to long-lining."
In about 2001, a long-lining ban went into effect, and the difference was palpable.
"In the last seven to eight years, there has been a rebound," said Towe, who now is an Islamorada resident.
"Most people haven't put in the time to figure out how to successfully do it. But they're out there."
Putting the time in is exactly how Stanczyk came to believe the fishery was, in fact, viable. His longtime friend and fishing buddy, Vic Gaspeny, directed his attention to a 2001 International Game Fish Association article written by Dr. Ruben Jaen, a Venezuelan doctor.
Gathering insight from that article, Gaspeny had proceeded to read all the scientific literature on broadbill habits that he could find -- and convinced Stanczyk to apply what he'd learned to the Florida Keys.
"We didn't invent daytime swordfishing," Stanczyk said. "We imported it."
In January 2003, Richard Stanczyk, his brother, charter captain Scott Stanczyk and Gaspeny went fishing approximately 35 miles off Islamorada. It took 20 minutes to drop the bait 1,800 feet down. Within an hour, the group had boated their first daytime swordfish.
That fish confirmed that it could be done and lead to successive daytime swordfishing trips.
On up through 2006, and now joined by Randy Towe, the group used baits ranging from squid to belly strips cut from pelagic fish to land the majestic swords.
They also pioneered a break-away sinker apparatus that gets bait down to 2,000 feet, but which then releases after hookup. In 60 trips in a little over a year -- from May 2006 to September 2007 -- the group was shut out only twice. Experience counts. Since their last shutout on September 1, 2006, the group had a 52-trip streak of catches.
"We'll never do it again," laughed Stanczyk.
When hooked up, swordfish frequently jump wildly, showing off their purple hues. Their beauty, assuredly, pulls novice anglers back for more. The recent advent of the super braided lines of 80-pound-test or more, with their capability of almost zero stretch, further enabled the daytime fishery.
The original foursome, along with Richard's sons -- Ricky, 25, and Nick, 22 -- have all become experts at this fishing game. About 28 miles from shore, Nick caught the largest Keys swordfish that they've seen. He fought the 448-pounder for seven hours in March 2007. The best single day the group has seen was Feb. 21, 2007, when Ricky caught seven swordfish.
Richard Stanczyk believes that daytime swordfish can be pursued from Maine to Texas and suggests that anglers catch the broadbill swordfish at the ocean's bottom during the day, in the same places they'd find them at night! They've caught swordfish on all moon phases and currents, but tend to catch larger fish during full moons.
Towe admitted that not everyone is ready for a several-hour battle and getting 1,800 feet and more of line back on the reel. But he's ready to take them out if they're up for the challenge. (Continued)
"I've caught swordfish in every single month," he noted, "but the calm conditions of summer make it prime."
KEY LARGO SNAPPER
Additional challenging and delicious table fare can be easily found off the coast of Key Largo, the first island you'll reach after heading south from the mainland. Patch reefs, which helped Key Largo earn its nickname of Dive Capital of the World, lie just offshore and offer abundant snapper, from muttons to mangrove to yellowtail.
These reefs produce a consistent bite of snapper. Mutton snapper, depending on factors like water temperature, may be found in 100 to 120 feet of water just outside the reef, according to Dauntless Charters.
Reef fishing provides constant action and a possible meal to boot. It's a great experience for the whole family. Kids especially enjoy the snapper action, with the occasional grouper or toothy barracuda offering variety.
"There's always an element of surprise," said Capt. Donald Deputy of Key Largo.
It takes only a few minutes to get to a large tract of reef five miles southeast of Key Largo, and to anchor there. The bulk of your time can be spent fishing.
Creating a chum slick can keep the activity constant. When a swift current is present, typically an abundance of baitfish is running through
channels created by the underwater banks. Ideal conditions occur when wind and tide are moving in the same direction. This makes for easier anchoring.
For bait, there are plenty of options. Pilchards, pinfish, ballyhoo and shrimp all should work. Crabs may work on mutton snappers in shallow water from eight feet deep on up. Mutton snapper are especially plentiful and hungry around the full moon in July, Deputy said.
Water depth is a variable, but mostly, bites from snappers are none too subtle. An aggressive yank on your line lets you know a one has taken the bait.
Depending on the current and ocean bottom, different terminal rigs are suitable. The key is to present your offerings as naturally as possible. In moderate currents, unweighted baits drifted back in the slick work well.
Stronger currents require some weight to get the bait down. Using small jigheads from 1/16- to 3/8-ounce should do the trick. A leader of 20- to 30-pound-test should keep the fish from biting through your line. With this setup, some good eating can not be far off.
For anglers seeking yellowtail snapper, anywhere around Key Largo where there are reefs in 150 feet to 700 feet of water -- and everything in between -- can work, said Capt. Deputy.
For summertime fishing, plenty of water to drink, re-applications of sunscreen, long sleeves and caps are the norm. Deputy also suggested nighttime adventures when the days get too hot. Find the snappers with chum, offer a variety of bait to tempt the fishes' palates and an enthusiastic response should come your way.
DOLPHIN AT MARATHON
Moving down the Keys a bit, you'll find dolphin are plentiful and worthy and enjoyable adversaries. Driving over some of the Keys' 48 bridges to get to Marathon also offers wonderful views as well as opportunities to wet a line from a bridge or shore, if you are so inclined.
Sombrero Reef -- a federally protected section of North America's only living coral barrier reef -- lies just a few miles offshore of Marathon in the Middle Keys. Beyond it are the deep blue waters of the Florida Straits, which teem with dolphin in the summer.
Dolphin like warm water -- they generally prefer 78 to 85 degrees -- which is easy to find in the Keys from about May on through the summer.
Dolphin, also known as mahi-mahi, are commonly found near floating objects or Sargassum weedlines and patches. They feed on sea life such as flying fish, squid and sea horses, all of which seek shelter amid floating structures.
Dolphin are relatively easy to find and catch. Bringing some of these home for dinner is more about being at the right place at the right time than being a skillful angler or having lively baits. Dolphin are not shy around boats, and wolf down most real and artificial baits. They offer an unbeatable light-tackle challenge, and best of all, they're delicious. The hardest task is finding them.
Fishing captains usually suggest that anglers start early. Not only do you beat the heat that way, but you're first in line for finding the debris and birds that usually signal dolphin opportunities.
For some, it's the thrill of the chase.
"You never know where you're going to find them or even what species may be under the debris," said Capt. Craig Eldredge.
"You can never totally plan your day. It's about the hunt."
The hunt starts in about 120 feet of water. Have plenty of bait on hand. Live and fresh dead bait such as ballyhoo, squid, mullet and pilchards are all good.
The dead bait is tossed to schooling fish. When one of their schoolmates is hooked, they queue up like rubberneckers at a traffic accident.
Dolphin are always on the move and won't wait for you to cut more bait. Keeping bait in buckets near at hand for holding their interest is the key.
Generally, dolphin fishing calls for you to rig several rods, with a few set in rod holders for trolling. Rig light spinning outfits with jigs, or ballyhoo may be trolled naked or with a skirt.
Have a couple of other rods ready with a 2/0 to 4/0 long-shank hook on hand for casting out the cut or live bait to fish your spot around the boat.
Make sure there's no frayed line, or your bite and fight may end prematurely.
Sometimes, the fish are within 10 miles of shore. Other times, going out 20 to 30 miles is necessary. It depends on the wind and currents. On the east coast, wind from the east will bring weeds and debris in closer. If the wind is from the west, chances are that weedlines and floating objects will lie further out.
When in water of 200 feet or more, anglers look for signs indicating the presence of fish. Those are weedlines, floating boards or feeding birds, especially frigate birds. Birds diving toward the surface around weeds are a very good sign. When dolphin are feeding on small fish, they leave behind a smattering of fish "crumbs" that become easy meals for their feathered hangers-on.
Trolling around debris or along weedlines is best done at about 6 to 8 knots. Trolling speed is based on how the baits appear in the water. In rocky seas, travel down sea so the baits stay in the water better. Speeding up and slowing down serves to vary the depth of the baits -- and helps to discover if any hungry dolphin lie beneath the surface. If not, move on.
If you hook a fish, you'll probably see it being chased by others. Leave the hooked fish in the water at boatside. If you bring the dolphin into your boat, the rest of the school might leave. Keeping the fish in the water greatly increases the chances of that school staying around your boat.
When sea conditions are not conducive to running, try chumming while drifting near a weedline. This may attract dolphins as well as many other types of fish.
Dolphin are prolific breeders and can grow rapidly to a weight of about 80 pounds, yet they live only about five years. Eating what you catch -- while minding state and federal size restrictions and limits -- is generally acceptable for this species. Also, most Keys restaurants will cook your catch for you. So after a long day of fishing for your supper, you can leave the cooking to someone else.
Dolphin tournaments abound throughout the Florida Keys in the summer months. Monetary prizes, sporting art and trophies often reward the winners for the biggest or most fish caught.
Capt. Eldredge pointed out that proceeds from these contests support many worthwhile causes, so if testing your prowess against others sounds like fun, finding out about tournaments is easy at area tackle shops.
Take your pick of fish species, from swordfish offshore to snapper on the reefs to dolphin in the blue water. It's all happening this summer in the Florida Keys!