For anglers fishing the Lower Keys there is no better time of the year than the spring for variety and abundance. While it may sound like a cliché, the phrase “You name it, we have got it.” is never more accurate. Winter fish like Kings and Sails, are still in good numbers and summer fish like Tarpon and Dolphin are quickly filling the waters. If it roams Keys waters any time of the year it can be found in the spring. One fishery however, that is truly active year long are the patch reefs.
For variety activity and accessibility not to mention edibility, there is no comparison to fishing the patches.
The patches are loosely defined, as their name suggests a roughly circular reef structure, found from the shore line to the outer edge of the reef line. They are found anywhere from in eight feet of water and reaching almost to the surface to just over forty feet in Hawks Channel, reaching to about fifteen feet of the surface. The most productive however, are often those with very little relief from the bottom. Patches that are found on top of the reef line in water about twenty feet deep and with only a few feet of relief can be active year round. The variety of fish found on the patches, tend to over lap during the course of the year. Some subtle differences though, are that the number of Grouper caught on the patches, is greater in the winter months, and more Snapper are caught in the summer half of the year.
Finding a patch reef with more than a few feet of relief is as simple as covering ground and watching your bottom finder. You have found one when there is a sharp rise on the screen. Often when the visibility is good on the reef, you can easily see the patches for your self. A glass bottom viewing bucket is handy for verifying that the bottom you have located is a coral outcropping and not a grass ledge. For those times when you cannot see the bottom, you will need to learn what the bottom differences look like on your recorder. Bottom that has a good covering of both hard and soft corals will tend to appear fuzzy or shaded on your screen.
After locating a prospective reef you should motor up current from the edge of the reef. Anchor so that you drop back to where you are hanging within casting distance, and your chum will travel out over the center line of the reef.
The use of chum while fishing the patches will make the difference between fishing and catching. On most days there is enough current flowing over the reef to carry the sent of your chum a long way. Fish that are feeding down current and cross your chum line will follow it back to its origin. The activity created by bait fish attracted to the chum, can often coerce fish that are not biting into changing their tune.
Chum is most effectively deployed by use of a chum cage, as opposed to that of a chum bag. Frozen commercial chum should be left in its box and only the corner or very end of the box be torn away to regulate the flow of chum. For calm days place the chum in the cage with the open end down to help the flow of chum. On rough days place the box open end up to slow the flow. By the way if your brand of chum comes in a plastic bag it must be removed prior to placing the chum into the cage. One last word about chum….The boxes are not disposable at sea, they are most definitely trash, they do not readily bio degrade, and should be brought back and disposed of properly.
Bait should be presented toward the reef, along the outer fringe in the sandy edge, in order to draw the fish away from the cover of the reef. Bait, that end up on the reef top, have a high probability of never making it out. Once a fish takes the bait you should set hook before he can reach cover. In other words there is no finessing a fish away from reef cover with light lines and loose drags. If you choose much less than twenty pound test line, you will probably loose more fish than you catch.
When rigging your terminal tackle it is usually best to follow the K.I.S.S. method of rigging. The knocker rig which employs an egg sinker threaded on to the line and allowed to slide all of the way to the hook probably accounts for the majority of fish taken on the patches. The hook is usually a short shank live bait hook. When a fish takes the bait the line slides freely through the egg sinker and is largely unnoticed by the fish until you come tight on the line when setting the hook. By that time it is hopefully too late. Another benefit of the knocker rig is that it keeps live bait closer to the sinker and helps avoid tangles on the reef structure.
When selecting bait for the patch reefs there are many options. If you were to use only pinfish for a live bait choice, and fresh ballyhoo for a dead bait choice, you would find few who could argue with the logic. Both pinfish and fresh ballyhoo are tough enough to stand up to the onslaught of bait stealers, who usually make it to the bait before the game fish. Bait like live shrimp will get a lot of attention but will usually succumb to the first nibblers to find it. Pilchards are usually a little more difficult to acquire and are not as hardy in the bait well as are pinfish.
The list of fish that can be caught on the list is longer than that in any one other fishery to be found in the keys waters. The list includes Black, Gag, Red, Yellow Fin and several smaller groupers, along with the protected groupers such as Jew Fish and Nassau Grouper. Snapper found on the patches include Mangrove, Mutton, Yellow Tail, Lane and Dog. Other edibles found on the reef include but are not limited to Cobia, Yellow Jack, (not to be confused with the strong tasting Jack Cravelle) Cero Mackerel, along with other surprise less often encountered fish.
Now when you are heading out for a day on the reef you can answer the question of what did you catch, with, “You name it we caught it.”
Captain John Sahagian