Gulfside Melting Pots

Catch migratory fish of all shapes and scales on Key West Wrecks.

By David Conway

Lots of anglers in this part of the state begin the day cast-netting pilchards and other baits.
When spring tips toward summer in the Florida Keys, it’s prime time for fishing wrecks in the Gulf of Mexico. Cobia, migrating north, stop at wrecks and towers to rest and feed. Kingfish gather in the same places, waiting for warm water to drive them upcoast. Schools of spawning permit swarm the structures.

Time it right and you’ll get to all these fish—and more—before they’re gone.

That was our plan on an April morning a year ago. Captain Paul D’Antoni, who runs a 23-foot center console out of Key West, reasoned that we needed an early start. Our first stop would be a wreck 20 miles out. Conditions looked good, though a hot blast had water temperatures unusually high, already 76 degrees, high enough in a matter of time to drive the last cobia north. On the plus side, we had the first calm day after a stretch of hard south wind. “Whether the winds push the fish to the wrecks and towers, or whether the fish hover by them longer to feed in high wind, being the first anglers there after windy stretches often brings good results,” D’Antoni said.

At one of his favorite bait spots, D’Antoni cast-netted pinfish to satisfy the cobia, and he caught a few blue runners and pilchards on sabiki rigs for kings. We already had live crabs for permit. Then we began the run north across the Gulf’s pale slate waters, the color of the cloudless sky over us.

North of the Keys, the Gulf floor is mostly hard and flat, without much cover, and it slowly slopes away from the islands. It’s like a desert for migrating fish, and any structure attracts them as an oasis does a traveler. It’s not that hospitable to anglers either, unless they know the terrain. One popular spot is the Sturtevant Wreck, in 65 feet of water, at 17 miles (No. 16 on Florida Sportsman Fishing Chart for Key West). The string of Department of Defense towers that runs from Southwest Florida out to the Dry Tortugas and hold cobia and snapper and grouper, among other species, are also marked on charts. Of them, the closest to Key West is the V Tower, in shallower water just east of the New Grounds, 32 miles west-northwest of Key West. The P Tower is north of Key West at 40 miles, and the S Tower northwest of Key West at 56 miles.

“They’re not too picky when you first get to them.”

A boat’s profile rose up on the horizon directly ahead of us, and we hoped it wasn’t on our wreck. Everyone wants to be first on a spot, but whatever your position, D’Antoni noted, it’s important to observe angling etiquette at towers and wrecks and respect everyone’s right to fish. Go upwind and upcurrent and drift down in your turn, and you might even ask what’s happening before starting to fish. We were lucky; the boat was a shrimper farther away.

Cobia begin leaving the area as water temps reach the mid- to upper 70’s

Before we anchored, D’Antoni pulled up over the wreck to see which way the wind and tide pushed us. That prepared him for setting the anchor and getting the wreck down-current so our chum would pull fish off the wreck. We used block chum and chopped-up fresh mojarra, though any kind of cut fish works to put more substance in the chum. We were in about 40 feet, and the average depth of wrecks out there is about 60 feet, D’Antoni said.

“Let’s get a pitch bait ready in the livewell, a pinfish, for any followers that swim up, and a bucket with a few more live baits,” D’Antoni said. “You need lots of rods ready for what might show—African pompano, muttons, wahoo, amberjack. Almost anything you want is available. It’s an awesome time of year.”

We dropped a live pinfish to the bottom on a sliding sinker rig with just enough egg weight to hit the bottom, but not so much that the fish would feel the weight. D’Antoni puts swivels on cobia rigs and leaves a tag end where the Bimini twist connects to the swivel to keep the egg weight from sliding down the leader to the hook. He uses 15- or 30-pound test on spinning tackle with a 50-pound fluorocarbon leader, and a 4/0 circle hook on 15-pound or a 5/0 circle with 30-pound line. He likes circle hooks to increase the hookup ratio, to ease hook removal and to lessen the damage on release fish

The V Tower, like others in the area, holds plenty of action.

“If the current is fast, hook the pinfish in the nose so he lines up with the current. If it’s slow, you can hook him behind the dorsal,” D’Antoni said. “Cobia like scent, so you can use dead threadfin. You can also toss jigs with white shrimp tails, or jigs tipped with squid to freeswimmers on the surface. They’re not too picky when you first get to them.”

That pinfish hit bottom and turned nervous. Next the rod bent, and so did the other. Instant double hookup. As we raised two cobia, a third swam up. D’Antoni pitched it a pinfish, which it took. We had a triple hookup on our first drop.

D’Antoni fought two, and I prepared for him to gaff one while I held my own. “Have the box open, and clear a path straight to it,” he told me. “We don’t want this fish going nuts in the boat. It can crush rods in the rack and otherwise mess you up. When I stick ’em, they go straight into the box.”

After he landed that fish, I turned my attention to the cobia at the end of my line, just in time to see it slip away, off the hook. That’s alright, I told myself, good release.

Meanwhile D’Antoni put on a swordsman-like demonstration on the port side of the boat with the third fish. He fenced the rod around standing lines, dodging and ducking, and gaffed that cobia. That quick rod work can cut the fight time in half. “Steer the fish,” he agreed. “If it swims left, put pressure to the right. If he dives, bring him up. Constantly control it. That way you greatly reduce the duration of the fight and therefore lessen the chances of a breakoff. If it’s a release fish, you let him go in better condition. Also, keep the cobia’s head in the water by the boat. Don’t raise it, because that’s when they shake their heads and spit the hook. At your first shot, which comes early with a cobia, gaff it. If you miss, your next chance might take a long while.”

As he brought that fish aboard, he showed a neat trick to tame the dreaded “green” cobia. If one does hit the deck, grab the fish under its gills and by its tail and bend it together, forcing its tail to its head, and it will settle down. He easily handled that fish right into the box.

In what turned out to be another in the continuing experiment of baits in various placements in the water column, he dropped a blue runner (after clipping its tail to slow it) for a big cobia or goliath grouper.

“Goliaths infest the wrecks, especially out to the west. I get tired of fighting them, and they take a lot of fish, too,” he said.

That’s a sentiment echoed by many local anglers, who are beginning to talk of a goliath a year permit, or some restraint on the flourishing species.

Some days you can catch cobia all afternoon out in the Lower Gulf, and others, the bite shuts down quickly. The hotter the weather, the more critical it becomes to get out early. That was likely the case for us. It was half-past 10, and broiling. I had a strong taste of summer in the Keys on my upper lip—salty sweat. We lost one more cobia on the bottom, and released one at the boat before the bite quit, barely an hour after we arrived. D’Antoni noticed, however, that one of the super pilchards that he dropped to the bottom came up neatly slashed in half.

“Kingfish,” he said when he looked at it. He tied on a light wire leader, and added a splitshot to the length of 50-pound leader on his double line “to help it sink, since they’re on bottom.” He chunked a few more dead threadfins into the chumslick.

The Gulf felt peaceful for a minute. We barely rocked on the 2-foot chop while a few birds worked in the distance and nothing at all on the surface indicated what life coursed under us. Then the kings struck, and it turned rowdy, quick. A hot run off the stern and a quick fight back to the boat earned us a bright king of 15 pounds, not a smoker, but a respectable fish. “These fish hit so hard and fast, the circle hook slides right into their jaw and hooks them for us,” D’Antoni said.

No-fail permit bait for the wrecks.

Kings from the Gulf of Mexico stock get bigger than those from the Atlantic stock, and both stocks inhabit Keys waters from the winter through May. Competitors in winter kingfish tournaments in the Keys and along the west coast run long distances to reach Gulf grounds around the Marquesas for the biggest fish. For recreational anglers, much closer productive grounds include Edmund Lowe Shoals and Smith Shoals (Nos. 49 and 2 on the FS chart for Key West), the many wrecks, and plenty of small shoals which aren’t even on charts. Blue runners are by far the favored baits when trolling, and when anchored, kings respond well to cut bait, baited jigs and live baits. Live pilchards took two kings for us in quick succession that morning, and two more made their presence known by cutting our lines, at which time we said thanks, and goodbye, to that wreck.

A school of permit looks like a coral head rising to the surface out of nowhere.

We scanned the waters for that sight at the Sturtevant Wreck, our next stop, and D’Antoni stood on the bow on the approach ready with a live crab to cast to them. We didn’t see them, maybe because the water was cloudy, so we anchored upcurrent from the wreck and D’Antoni clipped the anchor buoy to his line. “When you hook a permit at a wreck,” he said, “throw the buoy and get away from the wreck or risk losing the fish in the wreck.” If there’s enough current, it’s better to drift away than to start your motor, which can spook the school when you come back to them. You need to decide beforehand whether your position requires that you throw the buoy and if so, prepare to do it immediately on hooking a permit, because the fish will get to the haven of the wreck quickly.

Permit cruise around the wreck, but sometimes they hang down deep by it, so if you get marks on your fishfinder in the middle of the column, try varying weights, from splitshot to egg sinkers, to get your bait down. Permit have excellent eyes, and swivels put them off, so use as clean a presentation as possible. D’Antoni even likes to use a brown hook to match the brown crab.

He suspected that the permit were right below the surface, and he took the bow again and cast toward the wreck with his live crab weighted with a split-shot and let it freeline toward the wreck. His rod bucked, and he struck and hooked the fish. We dropped the buoy, and drifted for the 10-minute fight. After the permit’s fifth strong run, D’Antoni tailed it.

“Pound for pound, permit are tougher than cobia,” D’Antoni said. “In deep water, they run down and don’t stop. Keep the pressure on him and his head coming up, and if he runs, help him by lowering the rod and letting him go, but stay on him.”

In fact, we landed the three permit that we hooked when we threw the buoy and drifted away, and we lost two in the wreck when we held the anchor.

By then, it was nearly noon, and we headed for home. On our run, we came across a school of bonito feeding in open water but didn’t want to try to corral them, so we let them go. We already felt as if we had all that we wanted from the day, and more.

Though it’s not impossible for out-of-town anglers to try it in their own boats, this Gulf trip is really the province of a handful of Lower Keys skippers, most of whom have been fishing there for many years. The trip takes planning, experience and commitment, and a willingness to cancel at the last minute if temperamental spring weather blows up on your chosen day. For both wrecks and towers, an early start, good numbers, and charts are essential. You, or your captain, need to plan your route in advance because once you’re out on those waters, it’s a long way between the wrecks. You don’t want to waste time, or gas, hunting for spots. It’s easy to cover a hundred miles in a day, and often you’ll go a hundred and fifty.

The relative inaccessibility of the Gulf wrecks makes the trip difficult, productive and worth every bit of effort.