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February 13, 2012

Marquesas Bottomfishing Magic

Head west of Key West to find fantastic bottomfishing for snapper, grouper and more

The live pinfish hadn’t been on the bottom for more than a minute or two before Andrea Pallavicini hooked into yet another fish. Rather than leaning into the coaming bolster and cranking her adversary to the surface, like she had been doing, she scrambled to the opposite side of the cockpit, trying to keep tight to a fish that was peeling off a respectable amount of 20-pound braided line.

I guessed mutton snapper, since it was fighting like the one she’d landed earlier. Sure enough, and none too soon for Pallavicini, a beautiful pink snapper came into view, then into the boat. Lightning struck twice for her, and she was showing up the guys aboard the MARC VI. Maybe it was simply a matter of beginner’s luck, as this was her first fishing trip to Key West, Florida. But she was racking up impressive catches of both mutton and mangrove snapper, and even gag and red grouper. The girl was on a roll, and making my fish box look good.

Deep History
What do I know about bottomfishing off the Marquesas Keys, an atoll some 28 miles west of Key West? Well, if I had a crisp hundred-dollar bill for every time I fished down here, I’d be the owner of Salt Water Sportsman magazine today, not just its editor at large. Actually, I was introduced to the Marquesas when I was around 9 or 10 years old, by my dad and his friend Bob Colvin. Both gentlemen recently passed on, but catching grouper and snapper off the Marquesas was a passion of my dad’s for decades, and he’d trailer his boat down at every opportunity. We’d fish here countless times each year, sometimes even camping on the boat after a long day so we could catch grouper and snapper at night. Then there were those three-day weekends during which we didn’t come back to Key West. We’d fished here so many times that, when I was in my 20s, I used to cringe when I heard him mention the word Marquesas.

The reason this area is so appealing is the outstanding bottomfishing. For someone who likes fishing but is a bit impatient, this is the ideal remedy for angling boredom. There’s no waiting for maybe a few strikes all day. Quite the contrary. The rods are almost always bending here, whether it’s from a good bite of mangroves or muttons, gags or red groupers, or a mix of species. Of course, pesky grunts, small yellowtail and even sharks get in on the act. What’s more, you can bank on tangling with a goliath grouper or big barracuda. I recall when, a couple of years back, a 40-plus-pound barracuda ate, in one bite, nearly half of a 20-pound grouper I had reeled up to the boat from a rock pile in 20 feet of water.

Fishing off the Marquesas is easy too; there’s no frozen chum to haul down (chumming here is actually a deterrent, as it attracts sharks), and live bait isn’t a necessity. The best baits are cut ballyhoo, Spanish sardines and squid. And if you’re into live-bait fishing, pinfish are easy to catch around the Key West grass flats with a pinfish trap set overnight. And while pinfish are often candy to groupers and snappers, sometimes fish prefer the cut baits.

Also appealing is the light fishing pressure. Credit that to the variety of fishing around Key West, plus it’s a bit of a hike to reach the Marquesas. But even when the wind is blowing out here, you can generally fish the downwind side of the islands over rock piles between 20 and 40 feet deep.

Rock-Bottom Drop
Most of the bottomfishing around the Marquesas is in the Gulf of Mexico. The bottom is mostly sand and mud, so it’s essential to locate the scattered rock piles that hold bait and game fish. These rock piles range from widely scattered small clusters to large, sprawling areas. The larger, more productive piles are from eight to 15 miles west of the Marquesas. But there’s excellent fishing within a few miles of the islands too, to their west and northwest.

Capt. Mark Schmidt, a Key West guide who knows these rock piles well, advises newcomers to consult a fishing chart to identify rocky areas. In addition, he recommends paying close attention to the fish finder, which often uncovers new spots. “Rock piles and hard, broken bottom run from 20 to 40 feet out here,” says Schmidt. “I prefer fishing over the shallower spots and then working deeper if need be. During the summer, when water temperatures are at their warmest, I’ll work deeper. From Key West, it’s about 20 miles to productive fishing.”

’Tis the Season
Fishing is always good over the Marquesas rock piles, with some months simply better than others. During the winter, gag grouper are more abundant and bigger. Red grouper are also in the mix, with some mutton snapper. Schmidt says that winter is when big jack crevalle, mackerel and even kingfish join the mix, giving bottom anglers some pelagic variety. During the spring, mutton snapper are more abundant and highly reliable targets, and plenty of quality gag groupers are still around. In the summer, there are some muttons, more mangrove snapper and more red grouper. And in the fall, when I was there last, it’s mostly red grouper and mangrove snapper, plus a few muttons and some gags. As I mentioned earlier, goliath grouper and big barracuda are always here.