Dry Tortugas Fishing: Chasing the Big One

    By Doug Sease

    So you think you’re serious about fishing? Then try booking a long distance Dry Tortugas fishing charter, which is an area about 70 miles west of Key West. Learn the do’s and don’ts of fishing charter trips, including what (and what not) to bring, the best place to stay on the boat, where to get the most fish and more.

    So you think you’re serious about fishing? So did I. Then I booked a trip on the Yankee Captains out of Key West to fish the fertile snapper and grouper grounds north of the Dry Tortugas. Now I know the sad truth: I’m a fishing wimp.

    I had based my own opinion of myself as a fisherman on the fact that I get out on the water a lot more often than almost anybody else I know. I also catch more fish than most people I know. Of course, I realized in the back of my mind that I had a bit of an advantage. I live on the shores of the Indian River and thus have easy access to some of the best inshore fishing grounds in the world. I can climb in my little Hewes Redfisher flats boat and be fishing for sea trout, snook and redfish in less than 10 minutes. And if the spirit doesn’t move me to ride around in the boat, I can catch plenty of mangrove snapper and the occasional snook right from the dock or seawall.

    During the summer when the days are long, I often go fishing for a couple of hours starting just before dawn and again for a couple of hours just before sunset. So the result is that I log a lot of hours and I know some of the fishiest holes within three or four miles of my dock.

    But what skills and talents I have in inshore fishing in familiar, close-to-home waters, I confess I lack when it comes to fishing offshore, especially for my favorite fish, snapper and grouper.

    I tried hard when I first moved to Vero Beach to catch those prizes. I would spend hours and many gallons of gasoline running around the waters off Fort Pierce Inlet searching with the fish finder for ridges or ledges or reefs that might hold a powerful grouper or a few yummy snapper. Mostly I looked but didn’t find. My quest eventually became frustrating enough that I sold my center console boat and devoted my energies to inshore fishing.

    Still, I love the thought of dining on grouper and snapper filets. That’s what made me susceptible to the image drawn in a chat group on the Florida Sportsman Forums about the legendary Dry Tortugas fishing on the Yankee Captains. The forum participants raved about their success—coolers full of mutton snappers and grouper—and about the boat, a big steel vessel with all the most sophisticated fish-finding and navigation equipment and air-conditioned sleeping cabins. They even loved the food served aboard.

    The only catch was that a trip on the Yankee Captains isn’t your typical “meet you at the dock at 7 a.m. and we’ll be home at 5 p.m.” trip. To make it worthwhile to travel all the way from Key West to the fishing grounds north of the Dry Tortugas, a trip on the Captains lasts a minimum of 40 hours, or nearly two days. You can also book three- or four-day trips.

    My initial aim was to get on one of the Captains’ three-day “mutton marathons” in which the boat carries only half the number of anglers it usually takes so that everyone has lots of fishing room. The trip costs substantially more than a two-day trip, but I figured “in for a dime, in for a dollar.”

    Unfortunately (or so I thought at the time), the marathon trips were already fully booked. What’s more, the single four-day “Iron Man Special” cruise (remember that name; it’s important) had already come and gone.

    So it was a two-day trip or nothing. I recruited my friend Bill and we signed up. What we encountered on our two-day fishing expedition taught me a lot about myself as a fisherman and as an adventurer. Pay attention and you won’t make the mistakes that I made.

    Lesson #1: Pack it Lean and Mean!

    Preparation for the trip wasn’t difficult. I had some offshore fishing gear that I use to troll behind my sailboat on long passages, but it was loaded with braided line and the Captains’ website made it clear you should spool up with monofilament (which makes it easier for the crew to unravel the inevitable tangles that occur when 52 anglers are fishing in strong currents and deep water). Mono is relatively cheap, but braid isn’t, so I had to find some spare spools to save my braid. I also invested in lots of heavy sinkers and bigger hooks than I would ever use in inshore fishing.  

    I packed some foul-weather gear in case of rain, a couple of changes of clothes, including some long-sleeve shirts and long pants for cooler weather, and a complete shaving kit (what was I thinking?). You’re also supposed to bring your own pillow and blanket.

    By the time I had everything together—three rod-and-reel combos, a big cooler, a tackle box, a duffel bag stuffed with a pillow, blanket and changes of clothes and a sack of snacks—it looked more like I was going on an extended African safari than a two-day long distance fishing trip.

    Departure time for our Dry Tortugas fishing expedition was 10 p.m. on Friday night, so Bill and I left Vero Beach just after lunch. The drive to Key West from Vero Beach is a tedious 300 miles including more than 100 miles on the Keys’ two-lane highway that limits speed and passing. It took us five hours, but we arrived in plenty of time to enjoy dinner at the Hogfish Bar and Grill next to the Yankee Captains’ berth on Stock Island, the last island before you get to Key West proper.

    Then Captain Greg Mercurio welcomed us aboard. He told us to stow our fishing tackle and cooler on the upper deck, then showed us the ladder leading down to the sleeping compartments.

    Lesson #2: Pictures Aren’t Always Worth a Thousand Words

    I thought I was being smart when I used the berthing diagram on the Captains’ website to pick the aft most berths on the port side. Motion is less pronounced in the stern of a boat and since there were only two berths shown there, unlike the three-high berths everywhere else, I figured Bill and I would have plenty of room.

    Wrong! When we descended into the sleeping quarters we found our little cubbyhole with two pipe berths was sandwiched into a low overhead and an elevated floor that completely eliminated headroom. When we saw our accommodations, we immediately began making comparisons to the more luxurious quarters we had seen in movies about World War II submarines.

    Oh well; we didn’t plan to sleep that much anyway.

    As we chatted with other anglers coming aboard, it soon became clear that we were among the few “newbies” making the trip. Several guys told us they fished on the Captains two or three times a year and had been doing it for years. They were the ones who were wrapping kids’ foam “pool noodles” around the rail at their assigned fishing stations to prevent getting bruised as the boat rolled at anchor while we fished. Live and learn.

    We left the dock right on time. Almost immediately the deck and cabin emptied as the veterans went straight to their bunks. Our first stop would be well before dawn and they wanted to get what rest they could before the ordeal began.

    Our berths were right ahead of the engine room, which had its pluses and minuses. The minus was that the big 1,500-horsepower Caterpillar diesels were LOUD! The plus was that the big 1,500-horsepower Caterpillar diesels were LOUD! It was like very loud white noise that drowned out all other sounds that might have kept us awake. The fact that we had to shout at one another when we got up was just part of the package.

    At 3 a.m., the engines went to slow speed and the sound of the anchor chain rattling out told us we had arrived. Within five minutes, every bunk was empty and anglers were lining the rails, preparing their gear and picking over the bait buckets to select the choicest morsels for the snapper and grouper 90 feet below.

    As soon as the engines fell silent, the fishing began. It didn’t stop until 8 a.m. Sunday when the freshening breeze threatened to make our return to Key West uncomfortable.

    The waters around the Dry Tortugas have been known as a haven for snapper and grouper for decades. Commercial fishermen spend many days at a time fishing the area, taking shelter when the occasional storms threaten among the several islands that form the Dry Tortugas National Park, dominated by the circa-1800s Fort Jefferson. The Yankee Captains has been bringing amateur anglers to the area since 1977 and over the course of that time Capt. Greg has found and charted nearly 3,000 hot spots for catching snapper and grouper.

    Lesson #3: Unlike Real Estate, Fishing is All About Skill, Not Location

    At our request, Bill and I were assigned fishing stations on the port side of the stern. Myth has it that on any boat the stern is by far the best place to catch fish. And we caught some. A little two-pound yellow-tail snapper, a few grouper too small to keep and an occasional small shark. But we couldn’t help but notice that there was a fairly steady parade of really nice fish—five- to 10-pound snapper and the occasional big grouper—coming aft to the big fish boxes from way up in the bow.  Turns out the myth originated because the stern is the most comfortable place to fish from and that’s often where the best fisherman set up. But if those fishermen set up in the bow, then the bow becomes the best place from which to fish.

    It’s skill, not location, that determines if you catch fish.

    Capt. Greg wouldn’t linger too long at any one spot. As soon as the fishing slowed, the crew hauled up the anchor and we motored to a new location, sometimes only a mile or so from where we had been. During the moves, I took the opportunity to dash below and climb into my bunk for a quick nap. Bill stayed on deck pumping the veterans for information about what they were doing right and what we were doing wrong.

    Consequently at about 10:30 Saturday night, after fishing steadily for nearly 20 hours, Bill was exhausted and headed below to his bunk with the admonition that I was to call him if the action picked up. I lasted until 12:30 a.m. Sunday before I, too, succumbed to the lure of a warm bunk.

    (The only problem was that I had to step on Bill’s bunk to get into mine. And once in mine I found that Bill’s bunk was so close below me that he poked me with his elbows and shoulders every time he rolled over. Bill rolls over a lot.)

    In any case, I was back up just before dawn, aware that we would begin the long journey back to Key West no later than mid morning. Amazingly, the same guys who were fishing off the stern when we went below for sleep were still there when we got up.

    “I’ll sleep on the way back,” one told me. “Right now I’ve gotta catch fish.” Still, the rails were much less crowded than they had been the night before. Only a hard-core group of 10 or so anglers had the fortitude to fish nonstop.

    At 8 a.m., Capt. Greg said the weather forecast called for deteriorating conditions and that we had to start back earlier than planned. As the anchor came up for the last time, the decks and main cabin once again emptied as exhausted anglers headed for their berths and some much-needed sleep.

    When we got back to the dock Sunday afternoon, Bill and I felt embarrassed by our meager haul, especially compared to the overflowing coolers that the veterans were lugging off the boat.

    But Capt. Greg assured us it wasn’t our fault. A weather front had passed through a few days earlier and stirred up the water so that it was much cloudier than usual. That, and a stronger-than-usual current that prevented us from fishing the really deep water where the big ‘uns lurk, had made it one of the Captains worst trips of the season, he said.

    I took inventory as we left the boat. I hadn’t changed clothes, I hadn’t shaved and I hadn’t had a shower. So much for the shaving kit. We ate well—Renata, who runs the Captains’ galley, does wonders in a small space that’s constantly in motion—and slept and fished hard. That was it.

    The Captains is a fishing machine and the anglers who come back again and again are fishing machines, too. I’m no machine. I’m glad I went on the trip, but also glad that the three-day trip had filled up before I could book it. And as for the Ironman, well, that’s for somebody with a much stronger constitution than I possess. Like the brochure says, “Weary souls need not apply!”

    Don’t worry, I won’t. Two hours on the Indian River is more my speed.

    dawn on the Yankee Captains Dry Tortugas fishing trip

    Dawn on the Yankee Captains, a long-distance charter out of the Keys.

    - Douglas R. Sease, VISIT FLORIDA Boating & Fishing Expert

    Dry Tortugas fishing with Yankee Captains

    The Yankee Captains fishing charter took us out off Dry Tortugas, an area about 70 miles west of Key West.

    - Douglas R. Sease, VISIT FLORIDA Boating & Fishing Expert

    Dry Tortugas fishing trip

    The bait prep station on the Yankee Captains

    - Douglas R. Sease, VISIT FLORIDA Boating & Fishing Expert

    Fishermen wait for snapper, grouper and other fish on the Yankee Captains charter boat.

    Fishermen wait for snapper, grouper and other fish on the Yankee Captains charter boat.

    - Douglas R. Sease, VISIT FLORIDA Boating & Fishing Expert