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September 21, 2007

Mutton Moon Madness

As the April moon waxes full, mutton mania grips South Florida.
As they arrive on spawning grounds, Mutton snapper sport two color variations. Pink fish (shown) arrive from deep water while green-tinted fish come from the flats.

Key West is a chamber-of-commerce poster child. Besides its nightly sunset revelry in Mallory Square, the self-proclaimed capital of the Conch Republic offers a full calendar of tourist events like powerboat races, motorcycle rallies, Hemingway Days and Fantasy Fest. But for local reef aficionados, Moonlight Madness is the annual can't-miss highlight every spring. Starting with April's full moon and continuing for the next two months, mutton snapper hold something of a rally of their own - to spawn - and anglers drop everything for a chance to get in on the fun.

As luck would have it, I was in Key West myself last May for "research" purposes when the invitation came to experience the mutton extravaganza first-hand. Dave Pfeiffer, the vice president of Shimano Tackle, and I joined Key West native Captain Steve Roger aboard his custom 27-foot center console. Roger picked us up at a downtown dock in the middle of the afternoon, and we quickly took off for the nearby reef. Roger told me about the mutton fishery along the way.

"A few years ago, the feds closed Riley's Hump to commercial harvesters to protect the muttons during the spawning season," Roger explained, "and since they did the number of fish has really increased. Now we can catch our limit - ten fish per person - fairly easily if they are out there, but you won't know until you look. Sometimes the fish are there right on the full moon, sometimes a couple days after. Once you catch them the first night, though, the action continues for the next few nights before it dwindles down again. I've just heard some good reports from some buddies, so we should be in prime time."

SPYING ON SPAWNERS

Double hookup: while Steve Roger, right, keeps his fish on the surface, Dave Pfeiffer has his hands full on spinning gear.

Our first stop was the Eyeglass Bar, about eight miles south of Key West. The Western Dry Rocks, another six miles beyond Eyeglass, is another favorite. Roger tries his closest spots first and usually starts working in deep water, moving to shallower water as he goes. He has found that the fish tend to congregate on either the high points or gullies just outside the edge of a reef. After arriving in the general vicinity, Roger uses his sonar to scan the bottom carefully and often retraces his search pattern until the fish are located.

"It's really amazing," he says. "There won't be any fish there at all and then bam, in the blink of an eye, they've arrived. I think a lot of these fish come from inshore, off the patch reefs and from Hawk's Channel. You can tell the difference. Flats fish have a greenish tint, but the pink, darker fish come from the deep reefs and wrecks offshore in 200 feet of water. Either way, when they come in here to spawn you gain the advantage since they congregate along the reef in big numbers."

Freshly netted pilchards are cut up and tossed overboard, adding to the frozen chum.

After a careful search produced no sign of fish, we motored farther along until a colorful blob appeared on the bottom machine. That prompted Roger to set the anchor quickly and begin his preparations. His first order of business? Get the frozen chum block over the side. Roger insists on using the freshest ground sardines he can find.

"The redder, the better, that's my theory." he told me. "When I'm fishing live bait that's extremely fresh, I want my chum to be extremely fresh, too. So I always open the box and look at the chum before I buy it. I don't want something that's old and gray and unrecognizable. I want my baits and chum to work together."

Before each mutton trip, Roger castnets for a variety of live baits, tipped off to the locations of bait schools by pelicans and other birds. Pilchards are his top choice, followed by herring, ballyhoo or pigfish. He loads the live well to have enough for both bait and fresh chum, but the snapper themselves aid in the process. After one is hooked, it disgorges pieces of bait and chum, which adds to the feeding frenzy.

THE BITE IS ON

When the muttons turn on, most are cookie-cutter size - big cookies.

With the frozen chum slowly dissolving in the lapping waves, Roger cut up pilchards and tossed them overboard by the handful, adding to the fishy potpourri. Instead of a knife, he uses a pair of heavy shears to snip the soft baits into smaller morsels. As the slick grew wider and elongated behind the boat, small jacks began darting just below the surface. Within minutes they were joined by larger shapes just below.

"OK guys, we're getting there," Roger said. "Let's see who's home."

For the initial prospecting, Roger likes to start on the bottom and work his way up. I was using one of his standard rigs, which consists of a standup rod and mid-size conventional reel spooled with 30-pound line. A Bimini twist forms a short section of double line, followed by a six-ounce egg sinker and a barrel swivel. He adds a 12-foot section of 60-pound monofilament for leader and a J-hook to match the bait size, but if the bite is slow, he'll drop down to 50-pound on the leader. Roger also likes to hook his baitfish through the nostrils and get them in the water immediately for the most natural-looking presentation. But once they turn on, muttons aren't shy about taking jigs either, as Pfeiffer quickly discovered.

Working his metal minnow up through the water column with a herky-jerky motion, Pfeiffer was halted halfway after a solid strike. He then smoothly pumped the fish to the surface. After getting a few photos, we christened the ice in the fish box with a glistening 15-pounder.

Muttons with a lighter, greenish tint are likely residents of the flats.

Minutes later I was engaged in my own mutton tug of war. Like all snapper, muttons hit hard and fast like a prizefighter and then run to the nearest corner they can find to hide. But since we were slightly off the reef and over sand bottom, and were using substantial tackle, very few fish made it back to the sharp-edged sanctuary.

The bite on the bottom remained steady for a while before dying. When it did, Roger had us switch to medium-action spinning outfits spooled with 20-pound braided line. As he continued to toss fistfuls of pilchard pieces overboard, Pfeiffer and I free-lined whole dead baits into the ever-widening chum slick. Before too long, the action was just yards off the boat as the chum drew the fish closer to the surface. In addition to gradually adding to our mutton tally, we boated yellowtail snapper and a single cero mackerel. I fought a reef shark for several minutes before cutting my line.

THE MUTTON MEN
Looking to get in on the spring bite? The skippers below can help out.
Capt. Steve Roger
Tel: (305) 294-9311
www.spearonecharters.com

Capt. Tony Murphy
Tel: (305) 293-1814
www.keylimey.com

Capt. Ralph Maltz
Tel: (305) 797-5060
www.odysseafishing.com

Besides the yellowtail that nipped at the chum like a pack of hungry dogs, Roger says there are plenty of other gamefish present during the mutton spawn. Grouper are frequent incidental bycatch, while blackfin tuna and sailfish often show up, especially at dusk. None of these species made an appearance during our trip, but the muttons continued to provide great sport, particularly on the spinning gear. The ice in the fish box quickly disappeared, only to be replaced by chunky snapper all weighing between 12 and 15 pounds.

"Anglers in the Keys are addicted to catching mutton snapper," Roger explained. "They're such a colorful and powerful fish, plus they're good to eat. Yeah, they're a challenge normally, but during the spawn, they're just plain fun. And there's nothing wrong with that."

With more than a dozen muttons to our credit, we decided to leave them biting and head back in with the full moon lighting the way.