There are few places quicker or more convenient than Jupiter for inshore-offshore summertime variety fishing.
Veteran light tackle captain Cliff Budd routinely guides clients to the catch and release of multiple species in a single day without long-distance running and gunning: snook, sailfish, kingfish, barracuda, bonito, shark — and sometimes dolphin, tuna and wahoo.
“The Gulf Stream comes so close, which brings in the plankton, which brings in pelagics,” Budd said. “The mixture of the estuary with the Loxahatchee River is the perfect place for snook to breed.”
But a key factor in multispecies entertainment is to first catch a variety of live bait. Budd rises at 4 a.m. to launch his 24-foot Cabo in the search for croakers (snook); goggle eyes (sailfish); sardines (kingfish, wahoo, assorted bottom fish); and pilchards (just about everything). The guide has a collection of nets with various mesh sizes matched to the various bait species. For goggle eyes, he uses Sabiki rigs.
For a recent outing, Budd had filled all available live well space by the time I arrived in Jupiter. The tide was rushing into Jupiter Inlet, which is Budd’s favorite time for snook. The hard-fighting inshore game fish are spawning right now, so they have to be released alive.
Using a variety of spinning gear ranging from 8-pound to 20-pound filled with TrikFish line and 60-pound fluorocarbon leaders tied to 6/0 Daichi red “bleeding bait” circle hooks with croakers, I caught and released eight snook to 20 pounds (and probably lost twice that number) in the inlet. The fish must have been so ravenous from the act of reproduction that packs of a half-dozen attacked each croaker we deployed. If I missed a hit from one snook, another would rush in to devour the half-dead bait, and I’d usually catch it.
From the inlet, Budd headed offshore to a wreck in about 75 feet of water and anchored up-current of it. The tide was still rushing in at about three knots, so he needed a 12-ounce weight for his long-leader bottom rig baited with a live goggle eye targeting mutton snapper. The goggle eye got chewed, but nothing stayed attached to it. However, a flat line with 80-pound fluorocarbon leader (no wire) tied to a triple-hooked sardine yielded a kingfish estimated at 15 pounds.
With no more bites, Budd picked up the anchor and we headed out to a popular fishing and diving spot in about 135 feet of water known as “Hole-in-the-Wall.” The rocky cavern bottom attracts a variety of species, and on this day, a group of bonito were splashing on the surface.
Budd produced a10-weight fly rod with a “green moss” baitfish pattern and scattered a few handfuls of live pilchards behind the transom. The hyperactive football fish swarmed around the boat, and one of them ate the fly as soon as I dropped it into the water. I didn’t even have to make a roll cast. About 10 minutes later, I brought it close enough for Budd to release it.
Leaving the crazed bonitos behind, we headed further offshore and drifted with the current, trailing flat lines baited with goggle eyes and sardines. Two large sharks — a sandbar and a hammerhead — appeared a few minutes apart, but we reeled our baits back in to avoid them. After the sharks left, we put the baits back out but after about an hour with no hits, we motored back inshore.
Budd stopped the boat at an artificial reef about 30 feet deep where, he said, scuba divers had told him they had seen some gag grouper.
Hopeful of a fresh seafood dinner, I was excited when something large and strong tried to pull my live sardine into the wreck. Using a 30-pound conventional outfit, I needed all my strength to keep the mystery fish from cutting my line on the submerged structure. But after a sweaty, 20-minute tug-of-war, what rose to the surface was a 100-pound Goliath grouper. Talk about mixed emotions: I was happy to have bested a huge fish on relatively light tackle, but disappointed that it was a protected species that we had to release instead of a main course.
Still targeting legal grouper, Budd put out a couple of more baits, but they were devoured by bonitos, which suddenly appeared out of nowhere. In late afternoon, we decided to head back to the marina.
Four large species in a single day — not a bad smorgasbord.