Florida Keys - May 2010 - Marathon and Key West

  • I’ve just returned from what was an interesting and enjoyable trip to the Middle and Lower Keys with my objective, to catch a Goliath Grouper, achieved. A ‘tick in the box’ on that account but I have to say not an experience I’d necessarily want to repeat without adequate harness!

    So to the detail. But, if you want to switch straight to the pictures, there’re some on this link - http://www.flickr.com/photos/d…72157621782843340/?page=4 . (The first few on that page though are shots of a decent Tarpon that had been attacked by a Bull Shark. Um ... I don’t think I would have got in the water like Dave Irving and his guide Paul with the ‘chum trail’ and the shark still cruising around for the rest of its meal!)

    Travel Details and Accommodation
    We flew Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow - Virgin unlike BA still allow you the free sporting goods allowance, our rod tubes – and stayed overnight close to the airport on Le Jeune Blvd having arranged to pick up our hire car the following morning. That I find gives you an opportunity to unwind after the flight and not immediately have to face Miami’s rush hour. And there’re a couple of restaurants in Miami I particularly like and tend to alternate between – one’s, Joe’s Stone Crab, on the ‘Beach’ - http://www.joesstonecrab.com/ - great food - and the Catch of the Day - http://www.catchofthedayrestaurant.com/ - on Le Jeune itself. And this trip it was the latter we used. Whilst I’d score the food as reasonable the atmosphere’s great. The waitresses are all Hispanic – seriously all seem to speak a modicum of English to varying degrees - and there’s live music, usually with a Cuban bent, every night and ‘Happy Hour’ extends through to 7:00pm – beer being served by the Pitcher, or bottles in a bucket.

    Given our time clocks were out of kilter we picked the car up just before six and it was that easy drive down onto the ‘Keys – breakfast en route – using the Dolphin Expressway (SR 836) Westwards and the Turnpike South. First stop, apart from breakfast, was of course World Wide Sportsman (part of BassPro - http://www.basspro.com/homepage.html) in Islamorada. If you’ve never been there it’s worth a visit just to see the marine fish tank and the replica of Ernest Hemmingway’s famous game boat - Pilar. And out back you’ve got the Islamorada Fish Factory, we were too early for lunch that day, and a chance to view the ‘resident’ Tarpon idly cruising around waiting for ‘freebies’.

    Then just down the road to Robbies - http://www.robbies.com/ - to feed the Tarpon and for the first beer of the day. (A word of warning here, we found the chemical toilet facilities disgusting. Definitely find somewhere else, especially if accompanied by your girlfriend, wife and children.) Finally we ‘drifted’ down, everything’s relaxed on the ‘Keys, to Grassy Key where the three of us were staying at the Gulf View Resort - http://www.gulfviewwaterfrontresort.com/. (Grassy Key’s just North of Marathon.) Prices were very reasonable and the resort offered complimentary kayaks, canoes and paddle boats. So opportunities if you wanted to go out fishing by yourself – remember you’d need a Florida State licence – for species like juvenile Tarpon that frequent areas of the bay.

    The room we had, a two bedroom efficiency, had full cooking facilities but there’re also complementary gas fired barbeques in the grounds and, if you don’t fancy cooking and don’t wish to drive, the Wreck – a bar and grill – is just a few yards North of the resort on US1. That had a great atmosphere with as many locals as tourists using it.

    The Fishing
    Our first day out, the four of us – Dave (a Brit currently resident in Miami), Steve, Stewart and myself – had elected for a day’s wreck fishing way out in the Gulf of Mexico with Jeff Rella. Jeff operates out of Captain Hook’s marina in Marathon, alternating based on weather and charter between a 27’ Whitewater and his 34’ Sea Vee, Superfish. Both are (very) fast offshore centre console vessels – loads of room for stand-up fishing. (Jeff’s web site is http://www.marathonoffshorefishing.com and the marina’s http://www.captainhooks.com/. You can get hire boats from the marina.)

    The wreck, the wreck of a Shrimp trawler laying in just 33’ of water, was some 40 miles offshore and, given the nature of the surrounding sea bed, was a ‘magnet’ for fish. Even though the Whitewater topped out at 50 mph we elected to leave the marina at 6:15 with the first job to stock up the bait well with Pinfish. Jeff maintains three traps close to the marina baiting them with the ubiquitous block of frozen chum. It’s amazing just how many voracious Pinfish manage to fit into each trap!

    Down went the anchor and we baited smallish jigs with Pinfish on powerful Ugly Sticks matched to 18000 and 20000 Stellas loaded with braid. I can distinctly remember Stewart saying ‘How do I know when I’ve got a bite?’ when, within literally seconds, his rod just bent over as the Grouper powered back into the wreck; not fast just unstoppable. That was one of loads of bites that morning albut three ended up with the fish ‘winning’! We managed to ‘extract’ two Goliaths around 25 & 50lbs and an undersized Gag Grouper. The rest were just too powerful for the end tackle we were using. Locking up the reel – it was the only way - I was straightening hooks and pulling links off the jigs.

    The other species though that we were catching on these rigs, as well as on free-lined Pinfish were Cobia. They similarly were hard fighters and we ended up with 11, up to around 30lbs. (The technique differed slightly in that as soon as you saw the line angling up, denoting a Cobia, you’d back the drag off a tad.

    What else was there? A large pod of almost uncatchable Barracuda kept cruising around the boat – more of that later – and there were also Permit who’d aggregated offshore on the structure as a prelude to spawning. And of course Sharks and, I understand, massive Rays on the bottom.

    Any rate it was the Permit that Dave and I in particular wanted to target. That involved, tackled up with a pelagic crab on a small jig – to provide casting weight – on spin gear, standing on the bow waiting for them to appear within casting range. The fish we caught were in the 20 to 25lb range and, when casting, you needed to lead them by say 4’ or so. It was then just a case of feathering the spool and, if successful, you’d feel them ‘crunching’ the crab. That day we released three out of our six hook-ups; the others were ‘taken’ by Sharks or ..... ‘ums’.

    The ‘Ums’? Dave was playing one of the Permit, one we successfully released, when part way through the fight two Goliaths eased into view. One was enormous, easily the size of a small car! Just a snack for one of those I imagine! And it’s no wonder most of those earlier Grouper bites had proved unstoppable.

    Now Stewart had never caught a Shark and was keen to try. And, as the tide slackened, we saw a small Tiger Shark around 250lbs or so. Bait was at a premium so we used the head of one of the Cobia we’d retained – they’re superb eating – attempting to use its guts for chum.

    We couldn’t attract it and I rummaged around in Jeff’s gear looking for a lure to target the Barracuda. Sharks really do go crazy for the obnoxious ‘scent’ trail of Barracuda. The only thing I could find that was vaguely suitable was a popper, but I didn’t have the heart to break off its plastic vanes. And as is often the case despite casting 20’ ahead of them and cranking fast I couldn’t provoke any interest. Our skipper though had another idea. He started thrashing the water close to the gunwale to a foam with a long handled gaff and one of the curious ‘Cuda ventured just a tad too close. Jeff free gaffed it. There was our bait and the butterfly-ed carcass was the attractant.

    Almost immediately the demeanour of the Sharks, there were now two 200lb plus Lemons close to the surface, changed. They came rushing aggressively in but a Black Tip around 100lbs beat them to it and, after several attempts at leadering without gloves, Stewart released his first Shark.

    So, apart from several more Cobia and another Permit, that ended that first day. In case you didn’t view the images earlier, here’s the link - http://www.flickr.com/photos/d…72157621782843340/?page=4.

    Costs? Jeff's normal rate trolling or fishing the 'Hump' Atlantic side is 850$US but because of the extra fuel he was using we gave him another 150$ plus a 200$ tip. That worked out to 300$US a head.

    I’ll try and finish the report tomorrow. What’s left? Two days fishing at Key West, a half day’s Party Boat fishing – a first for me – another more successful day out on that wreck and a day targeting Tarpon.

    Honorary Life President
    Sportfishing Club of the British Isles

  • Dave ........... Tell me .
    What do you need to rent these Boats without a Cap .....Any kinda licence or none at all ?Weekly rates are pretty awesome !

    Tl Thanks Torsten

  • Um ... I don’t think I would have got in the water like Dave Irving and his guide Paul with the ‘chum trail’ and the shark still cruising around for the rest of its meal!

    Hi Dave,

    welcome back. Good to read from you and what I read is great! First, No I also wouldn´t go in the water in the presence of t a bullshark :!: :S

    Brave guys :sehrgut: , but what do you think, how big was that tarpoon? A very nice fish! Congratulation.

    Dave, I had to smile a little bit when I read


    "He started thrashing the water close to the gunwale to a foam with a long handled gaff and one of the curious ‘Cuda ventured just a tad too close. Jeff free gaffed it."

    because I found a very interesting video where the guys do that too with an unbelieveable success. Here is it.



    Then, I´m very interested in fishing for Goliath Grouper. What is the best method, bait and so on? Oh, by the way..... I think the guy on this video wished a good harness too ;)



    Dave, I´m looking forward to the next part of your report.

    Best wishes to UK,


  • Key West
    The three of us then drove down to Key West for two days fishing with Greg Sherertz, a great guide who has established any number of world records for his clients; a guide whom I’ve fished with on any number of occasions over the years. In the past I’ve always fished with Greg aboard his 25’ offshore centre console craft, Calcutta, but this year due to maintenance we were to fish aboard a friend of his 34’ Yellowfin – a much more comfortable ride given that the breeze was now starting to pick up. The rate was the same though at 750$US.

    Apart from the strengthening breeze though the season was running close to a month late – and offshore the Sargasso weed was slow in aggregating and hence the Dorado were somewhat ‘thin on the ground’. On that first day we started trolling a pattern of three skirted ballyhoo out from the reef, Atlantic side, in 300’ of water or so. As I said the Dorado were relatively scarce but by scouring the ocean for exploding pods of flying fish, not disturbed by us, and seeking out ‘our eyes in the sky’ the Frigate Birds and Terns we were able to get on a few; nothing big just fish in the high teens.

    Coming slightly in, we then had a couple of drifts in 180’ of water over the wreck of an airplane. Um ... not too many of the expected Amberjack though were showing on the sounder. Deploying heavy jigs baited with Ballyhoo I just had the one savage bite but failed to connect and, after two drifts, we elected to run to an area of reef, the Western Dry Rocks.

    It’s an area of scrubby bottom in 40 to 60’ of water and a place I’ve had great success in the past, in May, with Permit shoaling as a prelude to spawning. And on all of those previous occasions bar one the water’s been flat calm and the fish easy to spot – fining on the surface or telegraphing their presence with sub surface silver flashes. This though was like that previous occasion, conditions were overcast and distinctly breezy. But Greg’s a consummate fish spotter and even I started to pick up some of those, this time, greenish flashes from the fish cruising a bit deeper. They were hungry though and sight casting with small crabs we released 13, fish in the 12 to 15lb range. Nine of them came from ‘triple headers’. Great fun constantly moving around the boat – under and over – but it definitely made the day.

    Day two was slightly different with Greg wanting to, with the water starting to ‘cloud’, focus on drifting with livebaits out from the reef’s edge for Sailfish and Blackfin and Little Tunny in about 130’ of water. But first catch your livebaits, Threadfin Herring. It all started so well when, first drop, I came up with a ‘full house’ on the Sabiki rig but, on both that and the subsequent mark we tried, we were pestered by predators – Tarpon, Barracuda and a Dolphin - a ‘Flipper’ - splitting up the shoals and snatching baits off the hooks. Frustratingly we ended up with just the 15 baits.

    So a re-think – more trolling, more Dorado and a slightly earlier visit to the ‘Dry Rocks. Sighting conditions were as bad but we finally spotted a group of Permit and got a hook-up just as Greg saw a Sailfish cruise past; interestingly this in only 60’ of water. He powered backwards – unfortunately the hook straighten on the Permit with this manoeuvre - and tried casting a livebait at the Sail. It was a long cast and landed just shy of the fish.

    We then ran out to the reef edge and deployed the livebaits whilst drifting and, first fish up, another Sail. Inexplicably we didn’t get a hook up. Perhaps Steve had been a tad too quick in attempting to set the hook? That would have been his first ever Sailfish. Then before we exhausted our supply of livebaits we had more Dorado, sight casting to some, and the ‘speedsters’ – Little Tunny – which are almost universally referred to by crews in Florida as Bonita. (Confusingly those from the North East of the ‘States call them False Albacore.)

    As always Greg worked really hard and I could thoroughly recommend him as a guide – he’ll always find you something. But the weather and that earlier severe cold snap with its major inshore fish kill had worked against us. However Greg – um ... he hasn’t I’m afraid entered the ‘connected world’ – no web site and not even an e-mail address – you can however contact him on his mobile – 001 - 305 - 797-5601; the best sort of time would be after 5pm EST.

    Mulling it over I think my next trip with Greg will be during the winter months. Apart from a different range of species, plus more Sails, I’d certainly like to try some day time fishing for Broadbill (Swordfish) with him. Apart from some very respectable sized Swordfish back in late March Greg had a 600lb plus Mako Shark fishing deep.

    Marathon – Head Boat
    Something I’d never attempted before was to fish from a Head or Party Boat, but with a day to spare this seemed an option worth trying. It was cheap – 45$US for a four hour trip plus 5$ to hire a set of basic fishing equipment with bait provided – and you didn’t need to buy a State fishing licence.

    We opted to fish on the Marathon Lady - http://fishfloridakeys.com/marathonlady/ - a 73’ charter boat that operates from the canal besides the Captain Hook’s marina. I guess with a full complement of 50 anglers aboard things would have been a tad crowded but there were only 20 of us, and things were quiet they were only running the morning trip.

    The first thing that was obvious was that ‘regulars’ appear to have been allocated spaces across the transom. That obviously helped with the boat swinging but these were, unlike the ‘bottom bouncing’ gear provided for the rest, fishing off the bottom in the chum trail with small fish as bait on tiny jigs. In the main they were targeting Yellowtails, most of which were undersized, for the pot but a lady did catch a creditable 12/13lb Mutton Snapper and a husband a Grouper, close to being a ‘keeper’.

    So how about the rest of us? Well Stewart determined that the three of us would fish for a kitty – 5$ for the biggest fish and 5 for the most – and doesn’t money make people competitive. The reef, and we were only fishing in about 30’ of water, was literally alive with fish and bites came straight away. But, with the boat swinging, it was essential to keep control of your end tackle. There were a few snags with the odd lost hook but the two crewmen were always on hand to help and re-tackle. Very quickly, when my biggest fish was beaten by one Stewart caught, I decided that that was a mug’s game and elected to go after numbers. The Squid provided stayed on the hook much better than the chunks of Ballyhoo and I found, by hooking a chunk on the bend of the hook with little hanging off and leaving the hook point clear, that I connected with the majority of bites. I didn’t bother striking just winding quickly to get a hook-up. Ah, yes I didn’t better Stewart’s biggest but more than doubled his count of fish.

    What did we catch? A complete mixture some of which I was somewhat reticent to handle, but the crewmen were rushing around unhooking and determining if fish were keepers. But there were a variety of small Grouper, some Snapper (including Schoolmaster), Yellowtail, loads of Grunts and I caught what looked like a deepwater Snapper, although they assured me it wasn’t. It was dull red with large eyes and identified as a Toro. Um ... haven’t been able to identify it yet.

    Looking back we re-anchored four times during the trip. Whilst not something I’d necessarily want to repeat it was a bit of fun and reasonable value. The crew worked really hard and were worth their tip and would even fillet your fish for you – three fish for a Dollar.

    Well the best as always is left ‘til last, but that’s going to have to wait until Wednesday – I’m fishing tomorrow. I’ve got our second trip to that 40 mile wreck to report on – and this time we released 12 of the Goliaths including four estimated at over 100lbs – and then there's the Tarpon we caught on the Flats. That's a picture of mine jumping. (Didn't get a 600 Uwe still without harness my largest was estimated at 250lbs. Real 'toe to toe' stuff WITHOUT harness, not even a butt pad!)

    Honorary Life President
    Sportfishing Club of the British Isles

    Edited once, last by PanamaJack ().

  • Dave ........... Tell me .
    What do you need to rent these Boats without a Cap .....Any kinda licence or none at all ?Weekly rates are pretty awesome !

    Tl Thanks Torsten

    Hi Torsten
    Let me check. There's a Dutch angler on another forum I moderate who's fished Marathon using a hire boat with this operation - http://www.captainpips.com. An added advantage was that you could, if you wished, additionally hire a skipper for just the day - an ideal opportunity to have some of the marks pointed out to you.

    Honorary Life President
    Sportfishing Club of the British Isles

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