Special Techniques Pay Off Big on South Florida's Artificial Reefs and Wrecks

Rappin' on the wrecks — filled with marauding predators.

“It was the perfect lesson for a mate I had in training,” said Capt. Bouncer Smith. “We put a GPS mark on the center of a wreck, another at its southern end, and then anchored on that south mark. My mate questioned why we weren’t fishing directly over the wreck. When we began catching big predator fish, and managed to keep them out of the wreck, he understood why.”

The artificial reef/wreck network off Miami-Dade and Broward counties is immense, with more than 100 sites established by their respective artificial-reef ­departments. Add in the “unofficial” ones — hard-luck vessels and other large-scale debris scattered about the ocean floor –– and there are plenty of condensed ­ecosystems between 20 and 250 feet of water that abound with both bottomfish and pelagics. In fact, ­everything from grunts to broadbill swordfish have come off these reefs.

Intimidation Factor

For the pros,**** fishing wrecks is not ­unlike going to the fish market. Yet, ­less-­experienced anglers are often ­befuddled over what techniques to use. Capts. ­Bouncer Smith and Skip Dana, two top-tier reef- and wreck-fishing pros in ­Miami-Dade and Broward counties, recently revealed their potent tactics for catching more and bigger fish on these wrecks.

“The first thing is to understand the relationship of fish on a wreck,” Smith says. “Porgies, muttons and other snapper, along with kingfish, blackfin tuna and sailfish, mostly hang on the down-current side of a wreck. On the up-current side — where more energy is required to buck the current — you’ll find large alpha predator fish, which get the first pickings of food sweeping to the wreck. These are large, aggressive grouper — blacks and gags — amberjack, Almaco jack, African pompano, yellow jacks and such. On top of the wreck, it’s yellowtail and ­mangrove ­snappers.”

Dana favors low-profile wrecks for ­snapper, grouper, and porgies, and high-relief wrecks for amberjack, Almaco jacks, African pompano, permit, runners, and pelagics like sailfish, kingfish, blackfin tuna, and wahoo. “I also believe the type of material of a wreck attracts certain fish,” Dana says. “Wooden wrecks seem to hold more porgies and snapper — perhaps because of worms and other sea life, which bore into the wood and provide food — while metal wrecks hold more jacks.”

Prime Conditions

The best time to investigate**** a wreck site is when wind and current are light. Given the variety of bottomfish and pelagics, your strategy and tackle selection should be systematic.

“If we feel grouper are on a wreck, we’ll anchor and drop large baits on heavy tackle, as opposed to using our lighter bottom outfits, and risk hooking and losing a big grouper and shutting down the bite,” Smith says.

Smith’s large grouper rig consists of a three-way swivel joining the 80- or ­100-pound braid main line to 40 feet of 100-pound mono leader. The weight, just heavy enough to hold bottom –– often 1 pound or better in deep water with current — attaches to the third swivel eye on 3 feet of 60-pound mono, so if the weight snags, the lighter mono breaks first, sacrificing the sinker but saving the terminal rig.

He’ll send down a blue runner, goggle-eye, large pinfish, and especially a small live bonito or speedo (frigate mackerel) with a VMC circle hook through either both jaws or the upper jaw. After 15 or 20 minutes, whether a big grouper or two has been boated or not, he’ll deploy the other bottom outfits.

Those other bottom outfits include conventional reels filled with 30- and 80-pound braid, and terminal rigs comprising a three-way swivel, 40 feet of 60-pound mono leader, a 6/0 VMC circle hook and enough weight to hold bottom; baits include live pilchards, cigar minnows or herring (hooked through both lips). This nabs the muttons, smaller grouper, mangroves, big yellowtails, Almaco jacks, amberjack, African pompano and cobia.

Smith says if bites are tough to come by, he’ll add a small swivel and extend the already-long leader by another 10 feet, using 50-pound fluoro, or 80-pound for big grouper. “It can make a big difference,” he says.

On the flat lines — 20-pound-class spin and conventional gear — it’s 15 feet of 50- or 60-pound mono leader, capped

with a 10-inch trace of No. 4 wire and a 6/0 VMC circle hook. Pilchard and herring baits are hooked behind the head (light current) or through their lips or nostrils (strong current). These outfits — along with the two others fished off the kite — will cover all the pelagics.

“There’s no better way to fish an artificial reef than with a livewell full of pilchards, anchored just upstream, and ­deploying bottom, middepth, and surface baits — and ­live-­chumming,” Smith says. “Do that all day during winter and spring, and you’ll pretty much catch the whole lineup — and go home with sore arms!”

Easy Fishing

For muttons and grouper, Dana keeps things simple, and drifts. “I’m using 10 to 12 feet of 30-pound leader, the lightest sinker I can reach bottom with, a 5/0 or 6/0 circle hook, and primarily Spanish sardines, hooked under the lower jaw and out through the upper jaw. We’ll also use live ballyhoo, hooked down through the lower jaw, with the shank wrapped to the beak, and live pinfish hooked like the Spanish sardine,” he says. Once the bait hits bottom, he reels tight to straighten the leader, then goes into free-spool, paying out just enough line to keep the sinker and bait in place while drifting the perimeter of the wreck. “We call this spooling out. Those muttons and porgies are sitting away from the wreck. When we get a bite, we’ll engage the drag and set the hook. These fish move around based on the current, so once we score, we’ll repeat that drift pattern,” he says.

Even at anchor, it’s often necessary to fish around the wreck. “A prime example of this is when we anchored up some 20 feet off one corner of a wreck, and caught three big black grouper. The current and bite slowed, so we moved to an offshore corner, and caught four or five muttons. On top of the wreck, we caught big ­yellowtails.”

Yellow Gold on Those Wrecks

Dana says the large yellowtails on the deep wrecks, from 140 feet on out to 270 feet, are one of the best-kept secrets. “There are big ’tails out there, consistently between 3 and 5 pounds,” he says. “Very few people know that, or how to catch them. When there’s a light wind and current, we drift over the top of a wreck and often mark the ’tails around 100 feet down, over the shallow wrecks.”

Dana uses 20-pound mono line, a ½-ounce egg sinker, barrel swivel, and 6 to 8 feet of 20-pound mono leader with a 2/0 to 3/0 circle hook. He’ll bait with a sardine plug. The trick, he says, is to get up-current of the wreck, free-spool the bait down 100 feet, or where the ’tails are marked, and then drift over the wreck, making sure the bait drifts through that zone. Once a ’tail is hooked, the others get excited and ignite the bite. You’ll likely get one or two yellowtails per drift, so repetition is essential. Don’t chum: Chubs, file fish, runners and such will find your baits first.

Live Shrimp Kicks Tail

Smith and Dana both suggest taking along several dozen live shrimp. Dana he says a ¼-ounce jig tipped with a live shrimp is "deadly on those big-wreck yellowtails." Smith added that live shrimp are especially effective during the winter, when fished with the lightest sinker that will still hold bottom. Use 6 feet of 30-pound-test leader and a 6/0 circle hook (thread the shrimp onto the hook), and — according to Smith — "brace yourself for battles with yellowtails and mangrove snapper, and giant hog snapper."

Dana summed up the fishing on the scene around the artificial reefs and wrecks in Broward and Miami-Dade counties: “Wrecks have a life pattern,” he says. “Once they’re sunk and accumulate growth, they’re good for a while, and then they slack off. Then, over time, they come back as steady fish producers. A lot of our systems are healthy and hold fish. There’s plenty of action around them, based on what you want to catch; just don’t forget to bump up your tackle and make sure you’re ­hanging on when you drop that first bait to the bottom.

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Fit for a king: Artificial reefs and wrecks draw a variety of species, including ­marauding predators like this ­kingfish.
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Target the Quarry: Porgies hang on the perimeter of wrecks.
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This mutton snapper fell for a knocker rig.
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A nice catch of red grouper on a flutter jig.
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Pelagic wanderers: Blackfin tuna often take up residence over wrecks and reefs during spring and ­summer months.
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For the table: Fresh fillets are on the way when the wrecks hold ­red grouper.
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For the table: Fresh fillets are on the way when the wrecks hold ­mutton snapper.