Florida Keys Reef and Wreck Fishing
If you want lots of action, a variety of fish, in a variety of sizes and meat for the table, then reef and wreck fishing is for you. Personally, it is my favorite type of fishing, I love bottom fishing and depending on the depth of water you often have a shot at many different pelagic species also. Anchor up on a deep reef or wreck and you never know what type of fish you could catch, everything from grunts to sailfish and wahoo.
Really the key to this fishing is the spots, finding the spots and anchoring up and lining the boat up right. Some extra time dropping and re-dropping the anchor, is worth the effort since you have to make sure you are either up current or right over the structure holding fish. As someone visiting the Keys and maybe fishing from a rental boat you may have to rely on published GPS coordinates to find spots because it can take quite a bit time drifting around to run into the good spots but those are best ones, the ones not everyone knows about. Anyways get a copy of a top spot chart. They sell them at most bait and tackle stores in the Florida Keys. They will have enough stuff to get started on, and enough to last you through your vacation.
Depending on what you’re fishing for, you are going to want to fish in depths from 20-200 feet. Quite a range isn’t it. Really personally I try to target structures that are in 50 to 150 feet of water. If you fish shallower water you are going to tend to get a lot of small fish, which is great if you are new to fishing here, or if you are fishing with kids, or other people who just want a lot of action. Fishing the shallower water you are going to get a lot of grunts and short snapper and grouper, but you will often get some barracuda and in the winter cero and Spanish mackerel. A 20-pound barracuda will blow your mind on light spinning tackle if you are used to fishing fresh water. For the first year I fished here I primarily fished the shallower rocks and patch reefs. It took me over a year to get sick of it, get a bigger boat and move out deeper. As you move out past the 50-foot mark, you will start to catch larger fish but not as many as you would on the patch reef. As you move out into water 80 feet and up you will tend to start getting larger pelagic fish along with bottom dwelling fish. In deeper waters depending on the time of year and location, it’s common to hook King Mackerel, Sailfish, Wahoo, Cobia, and Bonito while wreck fishing.
And that’s what I really like about wreck and reef fishing. You can fish a variety of baits in a variety of ways and target a variety of fish. Lots of chances for action. Usually, what I do depending on what type of baits I have, I try to keep a bait on the surface, and a large bait right on the bottom, and then usually a smaller bait usually free lined in the current. I use primarily ballyhoo, blue runners and if I can get them, pilchards. I try to keep them alive but dead ballyhoo or a blue runner works very well, cut open so it spreads a scent.
What fishing tackle to use would really kind of depend on which type of fishing you are doing and the depth. Mostly in the shallow water, you can get away with using 30# test on the bottom and 12# for freelining snapper baits, 12# spinning gear is also great for catching barracudas and cero and Spanish mackerel and smaller jacks, all of which are common on the shallower reefs. When using mono for a bottom fishing rig, you can slide the line thru the sinker and to a swivel and the have your leader after that but don’t use this rig on braided line. Once you move into deep water you will want to use heavier tackle for the bottom. 50 pound test line is really the minimum test I would use once you get into waters over 75 feet, personally I use Shimano 6500 spooled with 50 pound test Stren super braid or Penn senator spooled with 80 -100 pound test ande mono, I also use 80-120 pound test leader but don’t use a thru sinker rig to attach it. I have found that the thru sinker rig will cause break offs on braid especially when using heavier weights. For a bottom rig with braid or heavier weights use one of these
Its called a 3way barrel swivel, you can order them by clicking the picture, you attach your main link to the top of the one swivel, then you take a small length of lighter line and attach your sinker beneath it, then run your leader and bait of the perpendicular swivel. This rig works great for big fish on braided line, and if you get your sinker caught on something you can break it off and not lose your rig.
Some of this tackle may seem over the top for the average grouper or snapper, but if you fish big baits or heck any baits around the deeper rocks and wreck, there is very good chance you will run into a monster and it will take gear like this to bring them up.
For hooks I have started using mostly circles, I use gamakatsu circle 4x 8/0 circles hooks and Rapala 8/0 circles (mostly because I got a deal on ebay) , gamakatsu octopus hooks are great too but when fishing the heavy gear they don’t seem to have a heavy enough shank, the regular mustad live bait hooks have a good shank but come dull out of the package, but they do make a more expensive sharper hook.
For fishing mid column and the surface I would use spinning rods with 12-20# pound test, you can use 12 pound for freelining baits back and its fun to catch trigger fish and snapper on light tackle but you will lose a fair number of fish, by either them breaking you off, or predator fish snatching your hooked fish. Also with the 20-pound test, if a fat tuna or bar jack grab the bait you will have a chance of landing them.
Florida Keys Patch Reef Fishing Guide for Tourists
Well if you have made the leap to renting a boat for your vacation in the Florida Keys, or even if you are just renting it for a day and you want to catch a bunch of fish, the first stop should be the patch reefs. Along the Florida Keys barrier reef there are tons of spots to fish, usually with a few minutes drive from shore. Between the Main reef and shore, there are smaller “patch” reefs, they are usually in water less the twenty feet and are easily spottable, as long as there is even a little sunlight.
The small reefs are essentially coral forests, often surrounded by grassy soft bottom. They are a magnet for fish. Actually snorkeling them quick before you start fishing can be a blast and actually is pretty useful to see what’s hanging around them. I recommend the patch reefs to visiting vacationers because they are easy to find, visible to the eye, which is good because a lot rental boats don’t have gps. They tend to be protected by the barrier reef so the water around them tends not to be so rough when the wind is blowing, and they hold a ton of fish, mostly smaller fish but a ton nevertheless. They are perfect for taking kids fishing, or for first-timers. The patches are full of snapper, grunts, grouper (but mostly undersized) and depending on the time of year ciro and spanish mackerel (fall/winter).
For fishing tackle, I would say bring a couple of rods and reels spooled with line ranging from 12 – 20-pound test. Really 20-pound line is the best for this fishing all around. It’s fun to catch the smaller fish on smaller gear but you will end up losing a lot around the coral. Also, the occasional grouper will bite, and you have very little chance of pulling even a small grouper up on light line.
For bait, use jigs tipped with cut fish or shrimp. When you go to the patch reefs bring some hair hooks, tiny hooks. Usually, you can catch small bait fish like Ballyhoo on the patch reefs. Ballyhoo are small beaked bait fish, ranging from about 7 – 14 inches long. They are very common on the patch reefs and make great bait live or dead. Ballyhoo can be netted but if you don’t know how to throw a net, a very small hook with a little piece of meat on it will catch them.
Now to really get the bite going on the shallow reefs it pays to chum them up, so bring a couple of boxes of commercial menhaden chump, or glass minnows. Honestly, with a bunch of chum on the shallow reef you are almost guaranteed to catch something, if you chum enough, maybe not the fish of a lifetime but something.