I've a long history when it comes to fishing off The Marquesas Keys, an atoll situated approximately 28 miles west of Key West. My father, a dentist in Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., rates the Marquesas as his favorite fishing spot and has spent many a weekend in his younger years down this way. I began accompanying him when I was around 9 years old!
Given the flats, shallows, wrecks and rockpiles surrounding these keys, which are in the middle grounds that divide the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico, a variety of fishing opportunities exist. Shallow water anglers seek tarpon, permit, sharks and bonefish, whereas grouper, snapper, permit and cobia frequent the deeper bottom and wrecks. The biggest problem one might have down this way is deciding what to fish for!
My father likes bottom fishing, and I doubt we've left a rockpile untouched after all those years of fishing around The Marquesas. And bottom fishing was exactly what I had in mind when I joined up with long-time friend and Key West guide Capt. Mark Schmidt (305-797-4032. www.captmarkschmidt.com) this past summer. Mark and I originally planned on taking my Mako 284 center console MARC VI on the Atlantic reefs to fish for mangrove snapper. However, a 20-knot east wind killed that plan.
It didn't take long to alter course and head west to The Marquesas. Out here, the relatively shallow waters (15- to 40-feet deep) don't get quite as rough as in the deep, open Atlantic. What's more, we'd be fishing to the west of the Marquesas, and in the lee of the wind. We made it down there within an hour, located some attractive rockpiles and dropped anchor. Despite the persistent wind, seas were averaging just around 3 feet. I was very excited. This trip was sort of like a reunion, as it had been years since I fished off The Marquesas; great memories kept flashing through my mind.
The beauty of bottom fishing on these rockpiles is that tons of chum, live bait, or fancy terminal rigs are not necessary. This is simple fishing at its finest. In fact, not once did we deploy a block of chum, fearing it might rally more sharks than bottom fish.
Our tackle consisted of Penn Torque 200 series reels, spooled with 30-pound test braided line. The reels were matched with the new Penn Torque Jigging Rods, more specifically model TJ3080C66, which is a 6'6" rod rated for 30- to 80-pound test lines. These new generation graphite-composite rods are ultra light, yet have plenty of backbone to muscle large fish off the ocean floor.
We tied a short Bimini Twist (double line) in the braided line. We then used a Bristol knot to join 5 feet of 50-pound test fluorocarbon leader to the Bimini. At the business end of the leader, we added a 3-ounce egg sinker and an in-line, 6/0 circle hook (making this a "knocker rig").
New regulations for those seeking bottom fish in the Gulf of Mexico now require in-line circle hooks when fishing with dead or live baits. In addition, each vessel must have a de-hooker and venting tool. Aimed at reducing the mortality of undersize or unwanted fish, an in-line circle hook tends to "latch" in the jaws of fish, and not in their throats or stomachs, whereas a de-hooker simplifies removing a hook with less harm to the fish. The venting tool is used to purge a fish's swim bladder, which expands with gasses as it's rapidly reeled up through the depths; the procedure enables it to swim effortlessly back to bottom. If a fish isn't vented, it will float about at the surface, where it eventually dies or becomes food for a predator.
Mark Schmidt baited with a chunk of squid, whereas I impaled a live pinfish onto my hook. It didn't take long before the fish discovered our baits! Mark scored first with a chunky mangrove snapper, which he promptly released, and I followed up with a fish in the 2-pound class. Thinking I had Mark beat on size, he immediately set the hook on something big. We were all smiles when he lifted a hefty mangrove snapper from the water. We battled several more mangrove snapper and small yellowtail, before the grouper arrived.
Mark and I were soon enjoying a blitz with gag grouper, most just under the legal size limit. However, we did ice down one legal size gag of about 8 pounds. One interesting item is that the most action came on chunks of squid, Spanish sardines and ballyhoo. The live pinfish, although attractive to bigger fish, didn't quite rally the most attention. This proves that fresh, frozen baits do very well out here, and that it's not necessary to locate live baits. Mark hammered home that point again, when he caught a big mutton snapper on a piece of squid!
Unexpected dinner guest
A big surprise occurred right after I caught a large red grouper. Our underwater videographer, Kevin Tierney, donned his wetsuit and dove into the water, all to shoot underwater footage of this fish. With the grouper swimming several feet in front of Kevin's underwater camera, we were suddenly startled by the sight of a large silvery-object materializing from the depths and taking the grouper in its jaws! It was a monster barracuda, every bit of 50-pounds!
It took a few bites, circled back, and again took the grouper between its jaws. I struggled to pull my fish away from the 'cuda, since I was hoping to bring home a grouper for the grill. The 'cuda finally let go, but not until it devoured 3/4 of my fish! My grouper dinner for four was now diminished to a fish sandwich for one!
If keeping busy catching and releasing fish throughout the day wasn't enough fun, Mark and I each caught and released a Goliath grouper in the 60- to 70-pound class. A species once brought to the brink of collapse due to commercial divers and fishermen, these behemoths have been protected against harvest since 1990. They now thrive over this bottom, yet it's still against the law to possess and keep one. Goliaths represent the largest members of the grouper family, and — with a life expectancy of over 35-years — they are the longest-living.
As Mark Schmidt and I showcased on our trip, The Marquesas Keys are an angler's paradise. This is the perfect place to take kids, or those who get bored waiting for fish to bite; out here, everyone keeps busy reeling in fish. You'll catch a variety of species, which could include yellowtail, mangrove and mutton snapper, big barracuda, gag, red and Goliath grouper. The best time to fish here is between November and April, when cooler water temperatures bring bait and fish closer inshore. However, there are still fish around in the summer; you just might have to try a few more spots to pull up a few quality size fish.
I kept my boat at Murray Marine on Stock Island, and stayed at the Westin Key West Resort and Marina (305-294-4000). The Westin is conveniently situated in the heart of "old town" Key West, right on Sunset Pier and within walking distance of famous Duval Street.
For more information on the Florida Keys, visit: http://fla-keys.com.