MIAMI -- In torrid South Florida summer days when the ocean is so smooth you could mistake it for a millpond, fishing for kingfish, tuna, dolphin and wahoo can sometimes be a big waste of time.
To save the fishing day, charterboat skippers and experienced anglers in the Florida Keys often opt for catching yellowtail snapper on the reef. The fish are usually hungry and abundant, and state law allows each angler to keep ten fish at least 12 inches long -- plenty for the family dinner.
Knowing a few tricks can make the difference between getting a few tails and getting a limit. Third-generation charter captain Benny Spaulding recently shared some yellowtail insights on an outing to Molasses Reef off Key Largo aboard the 51-foot Huntress. Under his tutelage, our party caught 21 keepers in a couple of hours while the crew of a recreational boat anchored within sinker-throwing distance caught practically nothing and quit in disgust.
Here are some of Spaulding's tips:
CHUM AND CHUM AGAIN
After circling around a patch reef and marking purported yellowtails on his fish-finder, Spaulding circles the area a few more times -- with three blocks of chum hanging off the transom. This, he says, lets the fish know he is there and shortens the amount of time it may take to draw them close. Then he steers the boat into the current, stopping about 50 yards ahead of the intended patch reef and dropping anchor in the sand. Sufficient scope is released on the anchor line to allow the boat to drift back on top of the patch reef. Ideal conditions are a "two-ounce" easterly current (that's the weight necessary to hit the bottom 50-60 feet deep) and slightly cloudy water.
"It's important to go ahead and feed them for awhile," Spaulding said. "You want the fish to be happy before you try to catch them."
While waiting for the fish to reach the desired level of happiness, Spaulding prepares a five-gallon bucket full of chum-ball mixture -- one block of thawed chum, five pounds of oats and one-half bucket of sand. He adds enough hot water to achieve the consistency of a hamburger patty.
Yellowtails have been known to eat a variety of bait -- ballyhoo or bonito strips, fresh or frozen shrimp, or glass minnows. But like every other fish, they sometimes get finicky. Wrapping a chum ball around a hooked bait often overcomes their fussiness and drops the bait quickly in front of them.
In heavy current, Spaulding wraps the fishing line 10 times around the bait-embedded chum ball, then lowers it into the water. When the ball rolls to the end of the line, the bait is pulled out of the ball, which breaks up, and the bait continues to drift with the current.
In this situation, the bait is being free-lined -- no weight and a small No. 1 brown hook. Spaulding, like most yellowtailers, uses light pink monofilament line because it becomes invisible at depth. But if bites are scarce, he says, you can try thin fluorocarbon leaders.
To further enhance success, strip baits should be threaded on the hookonce so that they don't spin in the water. With spinning reel bail open, the angler should feed out line and maintain slack -- but not too much -- as line clears the rod tip.
"As you drop it back, you don't want any resistance," Spaulding said. "It should be free-flowing."
The yellowtail bite is quick, strong and hard to mistake, yanking out yards of line in a nanosecond. But still some anglers miss them. Spaulding says that's because they make the mistake of watching the line come off the bail instead of the rod tip -- where they can see the bite before they feel it. When the line starts streaking off the tip, the angler closes the bail, raises the rod, and hopefully reels in a dinner entree.
FOILING NUISANCE FISH
On the day I fished with Spaulding, the bite was slow -- due to incursions from mackerel and undesirables such as filefish, triggerfish and Bermuda chubs. To solve that problem, the captain switched to small Hank Brown "Hookup" jigs baited with ballyhoo strips. He tossed out a handful of chum and told me to wait a few moments while the undesirables piled on it.
"Now, cast into the cloud behind them," he said. "That enables you to catch a yellowtail because the triggerfish doesn't eat the bait off your hook."
It worked. I caught several nice tails in a row despite the persistent herd of invaders in the chum slick. They made for a very delicious "drowned fish" stew cooked by my neighbor later that night.
IF YOU GO
To book a trip on the Huntress out of the Upper Keys with captain Benny Spaulding (or captains Mike Nicholls, Mark Ellis or Mikey Mason), call 305-509-4045 or visitfishfloridakeys.com/huntress..