In the backcountry, cooler waters pushing fish deeper; 64 sailfish released during annual Cheeca Presidential tourney

Backcountry guides have been reporting a strong bite of black drum this month.
Backcountry guides have been reporting a strong bite of black drum this month.

So this is what winter is like here in the Keys! Finally we receive some cooler weather. I was beginning to feel left out after hearing about the cold temperatures they are experiencing up north. 

The cooler temperatures have helped turn on the sailfish bite as well. The same goes for those fish swimming the dirty in the backcountry. 

Offshore the sailfish bite has been good and getting better. Last week was the Cheeca Lodge Presidential Sailfish Tournament. There were 64 sailfish released between 65 anglers fishing from 19 boats over the course of two days. Congratulations to Capt. Paul Ross aboard the Relentless and his anglers Fenton Langston, Jimmy and Debbie David, and Jim Hendrix for winning top team with 12 releases. 

The kingfish action was hot this week off Lower Matacumbe Key with lots of boats catching their limits of these toothy critters almost daily. 

There have also been some sizable blackfin tuna up to 30 pounds caught while fishing the edge for sailfish with live baits. While there are a few tuna caught near the reef line from 115 to 150 feet, the numbers have been caught around the humps and deeper wrecks offshore. 

Off Key Largo, Capt. Chan Warner and his crew aboard the party boat Gulfstream out of the Key Largo Fisheries has been fishing all day and night with great success. Chan reports a good amount of wahoo and kingfish earlier in the week that slowed just as the snapper bite really turned on. 

Fishing the bottom in 150 feet led to lots of mutton snapper caught, with most fish averaging 3 to 6 pounds. Capt. Chan said that the fish were eating “everything they could throw at them.” He also included that the yellowtail snapper bite was hot during day, and night trips in 130 feet while chumming heavily all along the reef edge. 

The patch reefs in 12-30 feet continue to be hot with lots of hogfish, porgies and snappers both mutton and mangrove. Live shrimp is the key, but you may have to bring 10 dozen or more if you plan on making a day of it. Mixed in with the hogs have been lots of groupers, mackerel, and assorted reef fish, providing lots of action on light tackle. 

In the backcountry, it has been a real mixed bag of species, from redfish to flounder. Cooler water temperatures have pushed fish into deeper water areas like the channels and creeks around Flamingo or Cape Sable. 

Live shrimp has been the bait of choice, fished on the bottom with a knocker rig or tipped on a jig ¼- to 3/8-ounce. Artificial lures like Gulp tipped jigs colors “new penny” or “molting” and gold or silver quarter-ounce Johnson weedless spoons work great in place of bait. 

The mackerel bite has really turned on off Sprigger and Schooner Banks this past week. Look for broken bottom and bird activity to help locate productive areas. Fish averaging 2-4 pounds are the norm, but larger mackerel up to 7 pounds are caught every day. 

Wire leaders work great when the bite is on and the water is cloudy. 

For those days where the fish are being picky, try 40-pound fluorocarbon leaders with Mustad long shank hooks REF# 92611-NI. Along with the mackerel have been jacks, seatrout, mangrove snappers and sharks. On the calmer days, there have been numbers of triptail hanging around the crab trap buoys that boarder the park, looking for a live shrimp to be placed in front of them.  

It is time to celebrate! The 29th annual Keys Chapter CCA Dinner and Live auction will be held Feb. 19 at the Elks Lodge #1872 in Tavernier, mile marker 92.6. There will be exciting raffle and auction items to include; local and exotic trips, fishing charters from some of the best the Upper Keys have to offer, artwork, jewelry, Yamaha engines, fishing gear, Contender, Hells Bay, Pathfinder Boats, and much, much more! 

Dinner will be catered by the Texas Cattle Company; tickets will be $85 per person, $160 per couple, and $1,050 for corporate tables (10 people). For more information, contact Tom Tharp, Dianne Harbaugh (305) 522-4868, or Matthew Behm (305) 853-6198, email at ttharp2@bellsouth.net; mbehm@ccaflorida.org

The CCA is a national, non-profit marine organization working in an advocacy role to protect each states marine resources and interests of saltwater anglers. In these times of uncertainty with anglers being threatened with possible fishery closures, the CCA is fighting for the rights of saltwater anglers everywhere. So come and support the CCA February 19 and help ensure that future generations will be able to fish the same waters as we do every day. See you there!

Those of you who know me, know that to me, fishing is more than just a game, it is a way of life. So fish hard and fish often!

Capt. Mike Makowski is a backcountry fishing guide and owner of Blackfoot Charters in Key Largo. His column appears biweekly. To send him fishing reports or photos, e-mail captmikemakowski5@gmail.com or call (305) 481-0111.