MIAMI (MCT) - Many saltwater anglers have a favorite species they target above all others. But probably many more just want to hook into anything that pulls really hard. For mystery, suspense and the potential to tangle with the marine equivalent of Oscar De La Hoya, it is hard to beat South Florida wreck fishing.
"You're always gonna get a bite and you never know what it's gonna be," said captain Ralph Hawkins, who operates the Hollywood party boat Sea Legs with dad Kenny and also runs the charter/tournament 32-foot sportfisher Outta Control II.
With numerous ships, concrete pipes, rubble piles, oil rig towers, radio antennae and Army tanks deployed in the waters from South Dade to North Broward, there is no shortage of fish havens holding everything from scamp grouper to swordfish.
"There's well over 100 wrecks I can think of in 65 to 380 feet of water between Haulover and Hillsboro (inlets)," Hawkins said.
Most are readily available to anglers, but veteran charter skippers have discovered plenty of others that are not on navigational charts or the Internet just by putting their time in and carefully observing their boats' fathometers.
Whatever kind of submerged structure you want to fish, Hawkins said there are certain tactics you want to follow to enhance your chances of success.
"Fish will always be on the upcurrent side of anything that's stationary," Hawkins said. "You want to be upcurrent of the fish and the wreck and let the current pull you toward it."
In South Florida's near- and offshore waters, the prevailing current flows to the north, so most times the boat should be positioned south of the wreck. Current velocity can change from hour to hour, increasing from a half-knot trickle to a three-knot gush in the time it takes an angler to locate the underwater structure. In a strong current, Hawkins often uses his engines to hold position above the fish or to pull a hooked fish away from the structure before it can tangle or cut the line. He said he almost never anchors on the wreck.
Unless the angler is a purist or masochist, heavy tackle is the way to go. Hawkins uses stout rods with lightweight, anodized aluminum reels that are easy on the angler, but brook no nonsense from big fish. His Avet reels hold braided line of 80- to 150-pound test.
"You don't get as much of a bow in the line and you can see the bite much better because of the sensitivity," he said.
His leaders are 100- to 250-pound test, crimped onto the line. To the leaders, he ties 10/0 to 14/0 circle hooks, depending on the size of the live bait, which are bridled so that the entire hook point is exposed. Weights - half pound per half knot of current - are fastened on a separate ball-bearing snap swivel attached to the swivel that connects the main line with the leader "so that the weight doesn't wrap around your leader when you're letting it down to the bottom," he said.
Hawkins is fond of big, live baits - "bullet" bonitos; speedos, goggle-eyes, threadfin herring.
"If you have live baits, you'll get bites immediately," he said. "It never hurts to put a big bait down on a wreck because large sea creatures live on all of them."
In late spring/early summer, Hawkins said, the primary targets are amberjack, with the occasional grouper or cobia to enliven things. In late summer and fall, he said, numerous snapper appear, including mutton, mangrove, yellowtail, and vermilion. Wintertime is prime time for grouper fishing.
Hawkins, who has more experience than most interpreting the markings on a fathometer, said he doesn't believe you can tell what kind of fish lurks on a wreck by the type of blob or neon squiggle that appears on your screen.
"Anybody can guess,'' he said. "But fathometers mark density. You can't tell by the color whether it's an amberjack or a cobia."
The biggest mistake anglers make, he said, is to put the bait on the bottom, when the fish are showing a considerable distance above the structure or to bring it up to the middle of the water column when the marks are on the bottom. Anglers should know their reel's retrieve ratio, in other words, how much line is reeled in per turn of the handle, and then act accordingly.
On a recent drop on the two-piece hull of the sunken container ship Cruz, 235 feet deep off Golden Beach, angler DeeDee Pegg of Fort Lauderdale and I each caught and released an amberjack in the 20-pound class using live speedos for bait. Pretty typical for late May. But Hawkins said he has made some unusual catches in the vicinity over the years.
"I've caught swordfish in the daytime, probably four or five over the years, dropping on the wrecks," he said.
That's a lot easier than trying to reel them up from 1,800 feet.
To book a trip with Captain Ralph Hawkins, call 954-547-9608.
© 2008, The Miami Herald.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.