Catching fish for fun and dinner is always more rewarding when you have to think for yourself and discover your own hot spots. You don’t feel much like an angling pioneer when you just hop from one spot to another that’s already been highlighted on your helpful buddy’s navigational chart. And fishing from purloined GPS numbers is outright dishonorable.
One place where you are likely to enjoy a Columbus-like experience is the Gulf of Mexico, north of the Marquesas Keys about 30 miles from Key West. Captain Mark Schmidt, a 30-year veteran light-tackle guide in the Lower Keys, fishes the area year-round with customers who desire constant rod-bending with the promise of a good dinner at the end. And he has some tips and advice for anglers who want to check it out on their own.
Decades ago, Schmidt discovered an area of broken bottom — rock piles, ledges and holes — stretching from just northeast of the Marquesas to New Ground another 10 miles west. The region has yielded bountiful catches of grouper and snapper in depths from 25 to 45 feet.
“In summer, it’s predominantly red grouper,” Schmidt said. “Generally, there’s more variety — yellowtail, lane and mutton snapper — and bigger fish in the late fall to early spring.”
On an outing last Tuesday, Schmidt and a customer caught and released more than 30 red grouper in the area using both live and dead pinfish for bait. They figured they lost about the same number because of broken lines and spat hooks. Several grouper were a tad larger than the minimum size of 20 inches, but they were released in favor of keeping a large gray snapper that ate one of the live pins.
Fortunately, all the released fish swam straight to the bottom without requiring venting. That’s because none was caught deeper than 40 feet.
To find spots likely to hold fish, Schmidt advises using a depth finder with a split screen — one half showing a close-up of the bottom, the other displaying the full water column. Fish will show up on lower-profile structures as well as steep peaks and valleys.
“Look at a chart and see where the rocky bottom is, and never go running around without your depth recorder on,” he said.
Compensating for wind and tide, Schmidt motors his Conch 27 past the structure and sets the anchor so that the stern will be just ahead of the target area.
Prevailing winds in the region are from the southeast, and in the open Gulf, the tide runs either east-west or west-east. Schmidt says the best conditions are a moderate southeast breeze with the tide flowing west.
The captain doesn’t use chum to attract his quarry; instead he carries a variety of bait, both dead and live: pinfish, bally hoo, pilchards, and threadfin herring. Squid is less desirable because it attracts non-target species.
“I’ve caught just as many or more quality fish on dead bait, like chunked bally hoo, as I have on live baits,” he said. “I want to make sure I’ve got all the bases covered with my baits. If the live bally hoo starts getting the most bites, switch over.”
Schmidt favors seven-foot Biscayne rods with fast-taper blanks coupled with either a conventional or spinning reel — whatever an angler prefers. Reels are loaded with 30- to 50-pound braid tied to 50-pound-test monofilament leader or, if the water is clear, fluorocarbon leader. The leader is tied to either a 3/0 or 4/0 wide-gap circle hook with a one-to-two-ounce egg sinker above the hook in a ‘knocker rig.’
For customers who prefer to jig, Schmidt believes almost any color combination will work, but jigs should be 1/2 to 1 1/2 ounces — just heavy enough to hold bottom.
When dropping the bait to the bottom, be alert. A strike could happen mid-water, but if not, it won’t take long for the fish to find it. When you feel that thump, crank quickly to keep your quarry off the bottom.
Pretty soon, you’ll get to know the area so well that you’ll make up catchy names for your spots, like “Mutton Rock” or “Rock Lane.”
But if you don’t have your own boat, and you just want to get in on the action, visit www.captmarkschmidt.com.