Outdoors

Mahi, blackfin tuna highlight banner Islamorada fishing trip

Tim Lindholm of Chicago holds up one of the larger blackfin tuna caught on the 409 Hump with captain Brian Cone on the Contagious.
Tim Lindholm of Chicago holds up one of the larger blackfin tuna caught on the 409 Hump with captain Brian Cone on the Contagious. Miami Herald Staff

My friend enjoyed a particularly tasty birthday barbecue last weekend –owing to the skill of Islamorada light-tackle charter captain Brian Cone and three generous clients.

The beach barbecue grill was laden with juicy, marinated blackfin tuna steaks that fed 15 guests – and that was only about a tenth of the catch from a day’s fishing at a popular sea mount known as the “409 Hump” about 20 miles off the Middle Keys.

Right now is prime tuna time at the 409 and other deep underwater Keys cliffs where large schools of the fat, football-shaped fighters can be found leaping out of the water to chase bait in the rip currents.

Cone and mate Dan Naumoff began the day cast-netting pilchards in some residential canals near Robbie’s Marina where Cone docks his 33-foot catamaran Contagious. Then our party sped offshore across mercifully flat seas under overcast skies.

Arriving at the 409 where three more boats already were on the tuna prowl, Cone idled along while Naumoff scooped pilchards from the live well and tossed them off the transom. At first nothing happened.

“I’d rather have some light so the tunas can see the chum, but it’s a ‘catch-22’ because they can’t see the leader,” Cone explained. “Look how big their eyes are.”

As a precaution against the tunas’ superior vision, Cone and Naumoff had scaled down to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader on the 12-to-20-pound spinning outfits. The leaders were connected to circle hooks in the 1/0 to 3/0 range, depending on the size of the live baits.

“They’ll hold on to it till you wind tight,” Cone said of the way tunas hit circle hooks. “You can get away with lighter leader because they’ll be lip-hooked and won’t shave through the leader.”

Within just a few minutes, the fish could be seen boiling and leaping in Naumoff’s primrose pilchard path.

“Here they come!” Cone announced.

He handed a baited spinning rod to customer Curt Danekas and instructed, “Pick it up and wind on him.”

Danekas followed directions and was rewarded with a steeply-bent rod. Instead of discouraging the rest of the school, the fight seemed to draw the fish closer to the Contagious. Cone and Naumoff handed rods to Tim Lindholm and Tom Christ, who hooked up immediately.

“Once they find the baits, they’ll stay there,” Cone said, as the anglers sidled and shuffled around the deck to keep tight on their quarry. “There’s days we’ll have to empty the whole well to get them up.”

But not this day. The tuna frenzy probably lasted about an hour, with 13 blackfins to about 20 pounds and one skipjack in the cooler.

Then Cone ascended to the boat’s elevated pilot station to scout for dolphin. After motoring for a few miles, he spotted a large, thick sargassum line about 960 feet deep. But instead of trolling the weeds, the captain held off on deploying the fishing lines until he could see hard targets. When after a few minutes he spotted a heavy lifter nosing around one of the patches, he directed Naumoff to cast a live bait to it. Naumoff hooked up immediately and handed the rod off to Lindholm. As Lindholm reeled the mahi closer to the boat, at least a dozen of similar size followed it up. Christ and Danekas each cast out a live bait and they both were on.

“This is FUN,” Christ said.

The multiple hook-ups continued for quite a while, and with everyone occupied fighting fish, I was “forced” to reel in a couple of the mahis. We ended up with 30 dolphin to about 20 pounds and one five-pound tripletail.

With no more space in the cooler and ice running low, Cone headed back to the marina to clean our abundant catch. The task took about an hour, and everyone took home heavy bags of dolphin fillets and tuna steaks.

My share of dolphin was made into a delicious stew called “drowned fish.” The tuna steaks substituted for beach blanket birthday cake.

IF YOU GO

To book a charter with captain Brian Cone on the Contagious, call 305-481-7689.

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