November is usually when the first real cold fronts make it all the way down to South Florida, and after they arrive, the offshore fishing can be red-hot.
“When you think November, the first thing you think of is patch reefs,” Capt. Abie Raymond said. “It’s a fun time of year.”
Patch reefs are small areas of coral in fairly shallow water that are scattered from Palm Beach to Islamorada. As Raymond explained, those reefs are where ballyhoo and shrimp gather when water temperatures drop.
That sudden abundance of bait attracts a variety of species ranging from snapper to sailfish.
“When the water cools down, the patch reefs get full of ballyhoo and everything follows them in there,” said Raymond, who works out of Miami Beach Marina as a mate on Bouncer’s Dusky 33 with Capt. Bouncer Smith and also guides for peacock bass (@abie_raymond on Instagram). “And the shrimp start running good and push out of Biscayne Bay onto the patch reefs.”
Raymond added that big mutton snapper and gag grouper feast on the ballyhoo, as do kingfish, Spanish mackerel, cero mackerel and jacks. At the same time, yellowtail snapper, smaller muttons and porgies eat the shrimp.
The ballyhoo also attract sailfish to the patch reefs. Raymond said he has seen several sailfish at a time chasing ballyhoo around the shallow reefs. When that happens, he’ll rig live ballyhoo on spinning outfits to cast to the sailfish.
“You can sight-cast them because they’re jet black against the reef and the white sand,” said Raymond, who fishes patch reefs in depths ranging from 12 to 30 feet of water from south of Key Biscayne to Elliott Key. “If you stay in that depth and watch your bottom machine, you’ll see the relief immediately where it goes from sand to spikey bottom. A lot of times you’ll see sea turtles on the surface, which is a great indicator of a patch reef, or you’ll see ballyhoo. If you see a wad of them, they’re probably on top of a patch reef.”
Catching ballyhoo is fairly easy after you see the baitfish showering out of the water or swimming around patch reefs. You can catch them with a cast net or a hoop net or anchor the boat, put a block of chum in the water and then catch ballyhoo on a rod and reel. You can also tie off your boat to the mooring balls along shallow reefs throughout the region and chum up ballyhoo.
When the ballyhoo show up, you can use light spinning outfits to cast small gold hooks baited with a piece of shrimp to catch one baitfish at a time.
A more productive method that Raymond learned from Capt. Ray Rosher is to tie a loop of Monel wire or monofilament to a popping cork or a kite float and clip it to the bottom of a sabiki rig where the weight is attached. That way the sabiki rig, which has six hooks, floats on the surface.
“They’ll eat the sabiki hooks or you can bait the hooks with a small piece of shrimp or even fresh ballyhoo,” said Raymond, who immediately deploys some of the live baits and also puts out a few live shrimp or fresh dead shrimp on the bottom. “Half of a fresh dead shrimp will catch all kinds of good stuff.”
He fishes the shrimp on a 10-pound spinning outfit with 20-pound braided line with three feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon leader tied to the main line with a double-uni knot. A half-ounce egg sinker slides on the leader above a 2/0 or 3/0 circle hook, depending on the size of the shrimp.
Raymond fishes the ballyhoo on 20-pound spinning outfits. He ties a Bimini twist in the 20-pound main line and uses a no-name knot to attach that to 15 feet of 50-pound monofilament leader. He uses an 80-pound Spro swivel to add 12 inches of No. 5 stainless wire to prevent cutoffs from mackerel. The wire is attached to a 6/0 VMC light wire circle hook.
He secures the ballyhoo to the hook with an elastic bridle band, which is available at local tackle shops. He places the band over the bend of the circle hook and ties a half-hitch in it, pulling the knot tight to the hook. Using an open-eye bridle needle, he hooks the loop in the band on the needle and runs it through the ballyhoo’s lower jaw and then loops it over the tip of the ballyhoo’s bill.
“The hook rests on the top of his jaw, so the ballyhoo can still breathe, his mouth is open, the ballyhoo is secure and the hook is exposed completely,” Raymond said. “It sounds complicated, but it’s so easy to do it.
“If you have one ready in the livewell and you see ballyhoo spraying, fire it out. You might catch a Spanish, a kingfish, a jack or a sailfish. Some days it’s just bite after bite.”