Snapper frenzy in shallow reefs off Key West

Watching flag yellowtail and chunky mangrove snapper boil near the surface in midday summer heat is a welcome event for South Florida anglers, and it’s going on right now along shallow reefs off Key West.

From late June through early August, two of South Florida’s most highly desired dinner entrees swarm together along coral ledges 35 to 60 feet deep off the Island City to spawn. Last week, Diego Toiran, host of cable TV’s Spanish language fishing show Pescando en los Cayos, Jules Fabre and I limited on mangroves — also known as grays — and yellowtails in only four hours of daytime fishing in waters 54 feet deep off Maryland Shoal. Toiran believes the bountiful reef fishing will be available a little longer this summer.

“That area is pretty much solid yellowtail all year-round,” Toiran said. “The grays and yellowtails pretty much spawn together. The grays are in there to spawn, then they head to the backcountry in the winter.

“I think those [grays] are going to be there till the third week of August. Now is the time to fish for them.”

Gray snapper, normally line-shy in daytime, were surprisingly easy to catch using relatively hefty 15- to 20-pound braided line tied directly onto about three feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader, which was fastened to a brown-sized 1 hook. With light current, we added a small split shot just above the hook and free-lined our baits into the slick emanating from the chum bag. Toiran said the key to our success was using fresh glass minnows, or majua, which he had cast-netted that morning inshore.

“We caught these fish at the worst time of day,” he said, admiring the bounty in the ice chest of his 20-foot SeaCraft. “Majua, if you can get them, they’re the best.

“You can both chum and fish with them. If you don’t have majua, you can use silver sides.”

Some snapper catchers prefer to use very light spinning gear in daylight, but that wasn’t an option for us because of about a half-dozen bull sharks that refused to leave the fish (and us) alone.

If we spent more than a few seconds reeling in a snapper, the sharks chased and ate it, sometimes yanking out hundreds of feet of line before finally breaking it. Toiran had some success using jerky, erratic movements to reel in his snapper, confusing the sharks. But the predators still got the best of him more than a few times.

For nighttime fishing, Toiran says, you can use heavier tackle and bigger baits, such as cut threadfin herring on a No. 3 long-shank hook tied to three feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon with an egg sinker just heavy enough to touch bottom. Mojarras and pinfish also are effective baits. If the current is strong, he suggests using a swivel connection between your fishing line and leader to avoid line twist.

And Toiran has a tip for bridge anglers: Intercept the grays in September when they are making their way to the Lower Keys backcountry and Gulf following the spawn.

“You can catch them coming through,” he advised.

Snapper are managed with an aggregate daily bag limit of 10 per person; however, only five can be gray snapper. The minimum size for grays is 10 inches; for yellowtail, 12 inches. (Visit

Now, break out your favorite Food Network fish recipe, or better yet, create one of your own.

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