Yellow Jack

Yellow Jack is a common fish on the Atlantic side of the Florida Keys and Key West.  They often run in schools and can grow over 20#. They can be caught all over the reef in all different sizes.

Finicky Eaters

They put up a great fight on light tackle and can be a blast to catch. However, they are strangely finicky and often will look at baits without eating them. Sometimes when chumming for yellow tail they will swim around in the chum slick but will not bite.

When they are in the mood to eat though, they can be very aggressive and smash large live baits and artificials like poppers. Sometimes they eat baits drifted back for yellow tails but can be difficult to land on too light tackle.

They are often found on wrecks on the Atlantic side and large reef structures.

Certain times of the year they will run around in large schools on the inshore patch reefs terrorizing the small fish that live there.

Great to Eat!

Unlike Jack Crevelles and amber jack, Yellow Jacks are great to eat with little preparation. They can be fried, blackened and cooked any way you would cook any other white fish.

They are delicious smoked as well, and make great sashmi and ceviche.

Barracuda Fishing

Barracuda are very common in the Florida Keys and Key West. They are a long thin kind of fish, similar to pike or pickerel.

Aggressive

They have rows of huge teeth can be very aggressive, attacking fish almost the same size as them. They make a habit out of stealing fish from anglers on popular fishing spots and can be a full blown nuisance when targeting other fish.

Their razor sharp teeth can actually cut most smaller fish in half in the blink of the eye. Some places you will have to horse your fish to the boat and get them out of the water as quick as you can to keep them from being cut in half.

Good to Eat

They are actually very good to eat and are very popular with local Cubans as a food fish. They have a bad reputation for having ciguatera and very few non-Cubans eat them. There is actually are not much more of a ciguatera risk than with any large reef fish, but the stigma remains.

key-west-barracuda-fishing

They are Everywhere!

Barracuda live pretty much everywhere based on the water temperature. They will live inshore under docks and in canals, in the back country around mangrove islands, on the flats, and almost any large reef structure will hold at least a few of them. They also absolutely love any large wreck or artificial reef.  It is common to see people trolling over wrecks like the Vandenburg in Key West, trying to catch cudas.

They can be Targeted Many Ways

Popular ways to fish for barracuda on purpose is trolling and sight fishing them on the flats. They tend to be a favorite of fisherman that aren’t catching anything else. They can be a day-saver when nothing else is biting.

If you are using live bait sometimes you will be catching a lot of cudas you don’t want to be catching.

They also make impressive mounts and it is common to have them mounted.

Live Bait Fishing in Key West

There are many different ways to fish in Key West but perhaps one of the most popular and effective techniques is live baiting.

Just like fishing, catching bait requires skill and practice and a successful haul of bait can make or break the day.

Types of Live Bait

While any fish will sometimes eat anything it can fit in its mouth, certain baits are considered better for different fish. Actually, certain baits are just basically better.

key-west-live-bait-fishing-pinfish

Pinfish

Pin fish are like the peanut butter sandwich of baits. Everyone will eat them but they are not really their favorite. Pinfish are small oval fish that kind of look like a bream or a sunfish.

They are a kind of yellow/brown color and have rows of spines across their back.

The pros of pinfish are there are tough and they are easy to catch.

  • You can catch them with small hooks on almost any grass bed in the Keys.
  • They can survive with little oxygen so they live very well in a live well.
  • They also will stay alive a long time on a hook.

They can be caught reliably in traps as well.

Like I said earlier, everything will eat them, but in general they are better baits for Gulf and inshore.

They are commonly used to fish for tarpon, cobia, mangrove snapper, and grouper.

key-west-live-bait-fishing-ballyhoo

Ballyhoo

Ballyhoo are slim silverfish with beaks that can be 1/3 the length of their body.  They run in schools and are more common in the colder months.

They can be caught using small hooks or in a cast net. Catching them on small hooks tends to damage them less and they will survive longer in the livewell as well as on the hook.

Cast netting them can be a fast way to catch a lot of them.

Ballyhoo are shiny and have no spines. This makes them a lot more appetizing to fish then pinfish. However, they need a lot of water circulation and will die easily without it. You cannot keep them alive in a pen, so they need to be caught fresh right before the fishing trip.

Ballyhoo can be fished a variety of ways. One of the most common is to hook them through the nose and let them swim around on the surface for sailfish.  They can be rigged with a wire leader and stinger hook in the tail for King Mackerel.  They are often sent to the bottom when targeting grouper and mutton snapper.

Pichards

Pichards are small silvery fish that congregate in huge schools around Key West. The move in and out of the shallows in the early hours of the day. You can often see boats targeting them in the early hours during the winter months.

Captains drive their boats up in the shallows and throw cast nets on the schools. This can be very easy or difficult depending on the day. You have to watch for birds diving, in order to see where the schools are located.

Pichards are like the Pringles of the ocean: many fish cannot resist them and once they start eating them they can’t stop.  A 3 or 4 inch long pilchard is like the universal bait, so everything from a flag yellow-tail to a sailfish will readily eat them.

Speedos

Speedos are bigger baits, found offshore on the reef or on wrecks. They are fat, vaguely bullet-shaped fish that come in schools.

They have to be caught with small hooks and are hard to keep alive.

Speedos are big fish baits: they will usually be 6-10 inches long.

They are put down on bottom rigs when targeting big grouper, they are also slow trolled with wire leader for big kingfish and wahoo. They are considered the best wahoo bait.

Mangrove snapper

Mangrove snappers are the “every man’s fish”- from your roadside fishing spot to the big commercial boats, you can find mangroves being hauled in for good eating all over Florida. 

Mangrove snapper are also known as grey snapper and they are very common in the Florida Keys.

They don’t grow as large as the cubera or Mutton snapper and are not considered as good eating as the Mutton or yellowtail.  They are popular to eat and the smaller ones are considered better to eat than the large fish.

They are strong fighting fish for their size and can be a blast to catch on light tackle.

They like to bite, so be careful taking the hook out of their mouth – they will try to get you!

They are everywhere!

Mangroves can be found pretty much everywhere, from inshore around mangroves to out near the edge of the reef. They are very common on inshore patch reefs and also are very common on any structure on the gulf side.

They can be casted to around the nooks and crannies of mangrove islands and channels or you can get them balled up behind the boat in a chum slick.

It’s common to use cut bait on a small lead head jig to target them.

Huge schools in the Spring

In the Spring and early Summer they will travel to the reef from theGgulf and form large spawning aggregations. They can be very easy to catch this time of year and they can sometimes be caught as fast as you can put the bait in the water.

The small ones tend to eat first though, so if you are trying to get bigger fish this can be a problem.

Pro Tip: Sometimes using bigger pinfish for bait will keep the small ones away and let you catch the bigger ones.

They will eat a variety of baits

Mangroves will eat just about anything when in the mood. Live and dead fish, shrimp etc. The larger ones can be pretty line-shy though, and in areas where there is a lot of fishing pressure, they can be hard to get to take a bait.

Hope you’ve enjoyed these Mangrove snapper fishing tips- happy fishing!