Tools of the Trade
On my most recent trip this past September, we ventured to the Marquesas rock piles and used light but strong conventional outfits loaded with 15-pound and 20-pound braid to whip everything from mangrove snappers to goliaths. The beauty out here is that the same tackle and baits are used for all species of bottomfish.
I tied a short Bimini twist in the braid and used a Bristol knot to secure 6 feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon leader to the double line. I slipped a small egg sinker onto the leader and, with an overhand loop knot, tied on a 7/0 VMC Tournament Circle in-line hook. This is called a knocker rig, and we used it with both live and dead baits. Our rods were rated for 30- to 80-pound-test lines. In all, our outfits felt more like 12-pound-class bait-casting tackle, but they had the backbone and power to stop just about anything on these rock piles.
On that last trip, Andrea Pallavicini, Ryan Gilligan, Kevin Blinkoff and I were on a particular rock pile, with the boat anchored and three of the four of us fishing. I looked over and saw all of them hook up simultaneously. Blinkoff landed a mangrove snapper, Pallavicini a red grouper, and Gilligan a gag grouper. This Marquesas trifecta perfectly illustrates the great fishing while including three of the four key species that thrive on these rock piles. The other is mutton snapper, which Pallavicini had dispatched earlier.
Just how active this fishing can be was clearly evident my past two trips. On one day last September, we caught upwards of 60 fish, of which several were legal size. The next day was nearly a carbon copy of the first, with the exception of a 50-pound goliath grouper that put up a brilliant fight after unsuccessfully trying to hole up in the rock pile beneath us; it then opted to run as far as it could in search of a new sanctuary, which it never found. Thank goodness for the tiny diameter of braided line, which gave that small reel plenty of line capacity to survive a long run from an anchored boat. My trip 10 months prior with Schmidt yielded plenty of mangrove snapper and red grouper and yet another chunky goliath grouper. But this is the way it is down here on most occasions.
Other than a few fish we decided to keep, we released our bounty. The law states that only in-line circle hooks may be used for bottomfish in the Gulf of Mexico and that every boat must carry a dehooker and a venting tool. Even when we were dropping live-pinfish- and bait-tipped jigs, Schmidt and I used circle-hook jig heads. Fortunately, the waters here are shallow enough that rapid decompression isn’t a factor, so releasing fish isn’t a challenge.
If you’re looking for some exciting fishing down in the Florida Keys, take a serious look at the rock piles off the Marquesas. I guarantee that once you get a taste of this fishing, you’ll be hooked for good. It’s fun, simple, fast and ultra-productive. In short, it will keep everyone happy except for the fish.
Six Tips for Success
1. After identifying a rock pile on the fish finder, consider the current and wind direction, and then anchor so the transom sits about five to 10 feet in front of the rock pile.
2. Ground chum out here is a no-no. That will only attract sharks and junk fish. Should you wish to sweeten up the bottom, toss over five to 10 pieces of cut-up ballyhoo or Spanish sardines. Make sure the bait filters down through the rock pile by using a Chum-King or lightly impaling those tidbits on a deep jig, lowering it to the bottom and jigging fiercely to dislodge the chunks.
3. Give each rock pile about 20 minutes to turn on. If there’s a good current but the bite is slow, move to another rock pile.
4. Use light fluorocarbon leaders. While 40- and 50-pound leaders might be tempting for grouper, you’ll get way more bites with 30-pound, and even 20-pound-test when conditions are tough. A perfectly lodged circle hook will keep the eye of the hook and the leader on the outside of the fish’s jaw, away from its teeth.
5. Use the lightest sinker or jig that you can still hold bottom with. This is definitely a light-tackle fishery.
6. Let the sinker hit bottom, and then engage the drag. You’ll feel the tap, tap of smaller fish. Hold the rod parallel to the water and wait for a fish to pull the tip down. Then reel rapidly to set the circle hook. Don’t haul back on the rod. Once solidly hooked up, muscle it off the rock pile.
Marquesas Keys Trip Planner
Rods: Penn Bluewater Carnage or similar rods with light-appearing blanks rated for 30- to 80-pound-test lines.
Reels: Penn Fathom star-drag models 12, 15 or 25N, or equivalent.
Lines: 15- and 20-pound braid with 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.
Baits: Live pinfish and cut ballyhoo, Spanish sardines and squid, all fished on a knocker rig.
Other: If you’re into live-bait fishing, pinfish are easy to catch around the Key West grass flats with a pinfish trap set out overnight.
When I’m in Key West, Florida, I keep my boat docked at Murray Marine (murraymarine.com), on Stock Island. It has a launching ramp, lift service, slip rentals, fuel, ice, bait and ample trailer storage.
The Westin Key West Resort and Marina (305-294-4000; westinkeywestresort.com) is an ideal place to stay. It is located in the heart of Key West and within walking distance of major attractions, restaurants and bars.
What: Bottomfishing for a mixed bag of groupers and snappers.
Where: Marquesas Keys, 28 miles west of Key West.
Who: With proper planning and experience, boaters can fish the Marquesas on their own with relative ease. Remember that it’s a long way from civilization and plan accordingly. The following Key West guides are Marquesas rock-pile veterans and come highly recommended.
Capt. Mark Schmidt
Capt. Jeff Searcy
Capt. Steve Impallomeni