The spawning season for gray snapper is about over along Keys reefs. But there are still plenty of large ones to catch as they make their autumn transition to the back country — as a group of South Florida anglers found out last week.
Boca Raton couple Lisa Ullman and David Hayman, along with Joyce and Henry Kitchens of Deerfield Beach, caught 13 hefty grays, also called mangrove snapper, to about five pounds on a half-day excursion with Marathon captain Chris Johnson and mate Jason Bell of Sea Squared Charters. The party also boated a flag yellowtail and a legal-sized red grouper.
Johnson and Bell prepared for the trip by cast-netting a live well full of large pilchards in a boat basin near 7 Mile Marina. They also brought along several blocks of frozen chum.
Ocean waters were a dull green as the 28-foot open-fisherman headed underneath the Seven Mile Bridge and turned west. Johnson said freshwater run-off produced by this summer’s record rainfall was draining into Florida Bay and being carried out to the reef by the outgoing tide. Fortunately, Johnson said, the grays had gotten used to it.
The captain anchored the boat on a 23-foot-deep patch reef, put out the chum bag, and cut up some of the pilchards. He baited one-half-ounce jig heads with some livies and some chunks. Both were equally effective. The anglers began hooking up right away using light spinning gear.
Hayman got a bite that bent his rod in a steep arc and made the reel’s drag squeal.
“You don’t have to be ginger with these fish or they’ll pull you into the rocks and it’s over,” Johnson told him.
Hayman put some steam on and brought up a gray snapper that looked to be about five pounds. The other three anglers followed up with fish of similar size.
Then the bite began to slow, so Bell pulled up the anchor and Johnson steered the boat to another patch about 33 feet deep. Once the chum began working, that spot produced more sizeable grays, along with the yellowtail and grouper.
Throughout much of the morning, the oily chum slick attracted a horde of yellowtail that milled around the transom just below the surface. Johnson said there was no point in trying to catch them because they were all under the 12-inch minimum size. The lone legal yellowtail caught that day bit a whole live pilchard fished on the bottom.
Intermittent rain squalls and bouncy seas prompted the anglers to cut the trip a bit short. But loaded up with plenty of tasty entrees, their only dilemma was choosing a restaurant to prepare their evening feast.