“In spring, the ballyhoo come into these shallow coves to lay their eggs in the seaweed, and the cabrilla follow,” he said. “By May and early June, the sargassum breaks free and releases the eggs. That attracts the flyingfish, followed by dorado and striped marlin. It doesn’t last long, but it’s fun while it does.”
As if to put an exclamation point on that statement, the starboard rod bent over with a savage strike. Merino was ready. After a brief stand-off, he skillfully coaxed the fish up from the 20-plus-foot depths. A few minutes later, a mottled-brown cabrilla, or leopard grouper, was hoisted aboard.
“When I’m slow-trolling or drifting with this tackle, I put the reel clicker on and keep my thumb on the spool,” Lieras explained. “When the fish hits, give it a two-count and engage the gear, or the cabrilla will go under a clump of seaweed and pull loose.”
We were using an assortment of medium conventional outfits spooled with corresponding monofilament line. A two-foot length of 60-pound fluorocarbon leader was added with a blood knot. Lieras prefers a size 3 or 4 live-bait hook for the sardines. A ring-eye hook or a loop knot allows the bait to swim more naturally.
To force the sardines to swim down into the strike zone near the rocky bottom, Lieras pops out one of the bait’s eyes with his thumb. He also live-chums by bouncing the sardines off the transom and engine cowling to stun them so they circle erratically on the surface. Every few minutes, he’d dip a small bucket into the live well, and then sling the water overboard with a side-to-side motion to mimic showering bait. These enticements helped us box a few more cabrilla, although some managed to get free in thick underwater vegetation. Our stash of sardines slowly dwindled.
By midmorning, the cabrilla lost interest in the sardines, yet the cove remained active. Pods of ballyhoo erupted on the surface, and the subsequent feeding frenzy of predators drew pelicans and gulls into the melee. When Lieras spotted more showering ballyhoo closer to the boat, he ordered us to reel in the lines as he readied the cast net. Merino steered the boat into range, and a couple throws of the net filled the well to capacity with half-beaks. Quickly switching to heavier tackle and 3/0 to 4/0 bait hooks, we put live ballyhoo back out. Within minutes, Julie was straining to battle with another hefty cabrilla.