Nothing puts a smile on a Keys angler’s face, like when they first see the flash of pink, from the tail of a mutton snapper, as it is being hauled up from the bottom. Spring time in the Keys is the most likely time of the year to wear that particular smile.
Mutton snapper gather in the spring over deep structure to spawn. If you find structure such as hard bottom, wrecks’ or an artificial reef, out past the reef line to about three hundred feet of water, you will most likely find muttons congregating.
There are many publications that list artificial reefs found in the keys. Two good examples of published spots in the Keys are the swing span of the old Seven Mile Bridge which was dumped in about 115 feet of water, south of the bridge and the Wilksbar which lies in about 240 feet of water south, south west of American Shoals Light.
One way to find your own spots like these, is to keep your depth finder zoomed in on the bottom any time you are trolling around out past the reef. If you pass over hard bottom holding fish, they will appear as shading or individual marks holding a few feet off of the bottom. When there is little or no current, the fish may be holding much farther from the bottom. The other way to find spots like these is to lubricate your fishing buddies with plenty of alcohol until you can extract their favorite numbers.
Muttons usually have a good appetite when they gather to spawn. So the hard part for the angler is deciding what kind of bait to present. If you prefer artificial lures there are several types of conventional jigs to present. Conventional lead head jigs are most often sweetened with ballyhoo. The jig is usually altered by adding few extra hooks. Each is passed through the eye of the proceeding hook and imbedded into the ballyhoo. Start by placing the main jig hook into the chin and out the lip of the ballyhoo, with the bill removed, and then lining up the following hooks and placing them into the body cavity. Recently there has been a popular trend toward the Japanese style speed jig. These jigs are rigged with a free swinging hook attached to the head of the jig. These jigs are worked quickly up off of the bottom in long fast upward sweeps. Speed jigs do not need to be sweetened with anything and it would probably impede the action of the jig if you did. To use these jigs properly you should dedicate a rod to their use. The reel should have a high retrieval rate and be filled with fifty pound spectra fiber line such as power pro. The rod should have a fast action and be easy to handle. A six and a half to seven foot rod is ideal. Use about fifteen feet of sixty pound fluorocarbon leader spliced directly to the spectra to connect to the jig. The best way is with a uni knot to uni knot connection. The only difference is that you need about eight turns on the knot on the spectra side of the knot as opposed to the three or four turns on the fluorocarbon side. For anglers that prefer natural bait, live Pinfish, ballyhoo and pilchards all tend to work well. Because of its stretch, the deeper you fish, the harder it is to feel your bait if you use monofilament line. If you do choose mono it is recommended that you use circle hooks. These hooks do not need to be set by the angler in order to be effective.
As the fish swims away, the hook is pulled to the corner of the fish’s mouth and simply rolls into the soft tissue at the corner of its mouth. It is recommended that you also use a fifteen foot leader of sixty pound fluorocarbon. The leader should be connected to the main line with a barrel swivel in order to keep an egg sinker suspended and sliding free on the main line above the leader. Choose about a 4 oz egg sinker for getting down deep fast. If there is a lot of current or wind on your drift you might need to add a few oz.
Pinfish can be placed on the hook by inserting the hook from under the lower jaw and out the upper lip. While it appears that this would keep the fish from breathing they actually do quite well. For the ballyhoo you should hook the bait up through the lower jaw only and then secure the bait by using a short piece of rigging wire wrapping down the hook shank along the bill. To secure a pilchard you need to hook it through the clear area just forward of the nostrils. Always hook your bait so that it will swim naturally when pulled along on your drift. If you hook the bait anywhere else on the body, the bait will spin through the water greatly decreasing your chances of drawing a strike.
Getting the bait to fish holding several hundred feet down can be a little tricky at times. The procedure is as follows; first locate the spot with the depth finder. The next step is to stop the boat over the target and allow you’re self to drift off of the spot. Once you have drifted a few hundredths of a mile off of the spot, plot your course back to the spot and past it enough for you to get your bait down. If you don’t get the bait to the bottom before you pass the spot, go a little farther past on your next drop.
You may notice that the Muttons taken from deep water are not colored the same way as their shallow water neighbors. The deep water fish lack the greenish back found on the fish taken on shallow reefs and the flats. This makes them look very much like the genuine red snapper that are only occasionally taken this far south. The easiest way to tell the difference is the Muttons always have a black spot on their side just above the lateral line in the middle of the back. The Red snapper has no distinguishing markings. It would be rare to catch a spawning Mutton that is undersized (Less than 16 inches). The chance however of catching a short Red snapper is more likely (Less than 20 inches). The same technique is used to vent and return the red snapper to the water safely.
Bringing fish from these depths will cause barotraumas to the fish, as the air expands. In order to successfully release any unwanted fish you should keep a venting needle on the boat so that you can relieve the gas from the fish’s air bladder, without harming the fish. The hollow needle should be inserted just behind the anus and forward at an angle toward the forehead. When you hit the air bladder you will notice the air escaping. It might be good to practice first on a few fish that you are going to keep anyway.
The regulatory powers that be are considering several restrictions on mutton snapper fishing for the future. These spawning aggregations can allow the muttons to be over fished. To help keep the recreational fishery open in future years, catch and keep only what you need for a meal. This will insure that you will be able to have that special smile for years to come.
Captain John Sahagian