By Doug Kelly
If fighting big fish floats your boat, Florida’s offshore waters are all you need for deep sea fishing.
I lathered mayonnaise on a slice of bread as we trolled lures in the Gulf Stream behind our charter boat in the Florida Keys. But my anticipation for a juicy turkey sandwich switched to chaos when a shriek exploded in my ears.
"Blue marlin!" yelled the captain from the bridge. I charged to the stern decidedly faster than your average overweight, middle-aged man, grabbed the pulsating fishing rod and slid it into my fighting belt. The marlin split the surface with a series of porpoising jumps, its head thrashing as ocean water foamed and spewed like a geyser.
Alas, the fight lasted only 12 minutes before the hook pulled and we saw its tail waving bye-bye. But I wasn't all that disappointed because no damage had been done on either end of the line.
Such is the thrill and action often encountered when going for the big boys while deep sea fishing in Florida's offshore. This summary of where to find 'em and how to hook 'em will put you right in the action:
It gets wild off Fort Lauderdale to Miami when dolphin, wahoo and tuna run down trolled lures and rigged baits. Watch for weed lines, boards and floating debris. Target blackfin tuna by trolling black-and-red feathers atop the three seamounts located off Islamorada to Marathon. Sailfishing turns on when there's a nip in the air atop the reefs from Miami to the Keys - be ready with live ballyhoo or blue runners. Yellowfin tuna show up in early spring if you chunk baits into the Gulf Stream off Key West, and be ready for appearances by blue marlin, dolphin and wahoo.
Multiple hookups often occur when sailfishing off Stuart and West Palm Beach during cooler months. Go with 12-pound spin tackle and - once a leaping sail is on the line - cast a baited rig into the fray to entice another strike. Big yellowfin tuna await those willing to make a run to the far side of the Gulf Stream from Melbourne or Cocoa; if your skipper can spot feeding birds on the radar and gun to those areas, you'll cash in.
Daytona, St. Augustine and Jacksonville anglers will enjoy the onslaught of "smoker" kingfish in the 40-pound-and-up class. Troll ribbonfish in a zigzag pattern or drift with live baits. Keep an eye out for big florida tarpon fish that follow schools of mullet during their migrations in fall and spring. Rods in the 20- and 30-pound categories will be plenty enough of a challenge.
It requires a run of an hour or so, but you'll soon encounter wrecks and promising bottom contours in the 60- to 80-foot depths if you coordinate GPS readings with your depth sounder. The time and trouble usually pays off with a variety of grouper engagements. You also might find yourself losing rigs to toothy barracudas or giant goliath groupers and other salt water Florida fish that can grow to 300 pounds or more (toss them back as they're a protected species).
From Sarasota to Tampa and points north, you can catch kingfish just a few miles offshore. For the really adventurous, head west 100 miles or so to fish-rich areas deep into the Gulf. You need to plan an overnight stay so safety is paramount. Just about everyone will catch their limit of snapper and grouper, and the pleasant thought of a savory fish sandwich back home makes the long ride back a little easier to handle.
Anglers living in the Big Bend region to Destin and beyond experience spectacular big-game fishing. Head to known fish-producing sites or watch for changes in water color or temperature - a hint you've found a current gyre where marlin lurk. Deep-dropping chunks of cut bait almost assures the notice of huge gag groupers known in this region as "copperbellies." A reliable depth sounder will help locate wrecks that produce cobia, snapper and the like.
The allure of saltwater fishing in Florida is that it's like a big picnic - have a tug with your favorite big-game fish, have a slug from your favorite beverage, and enjoy Florida's glorious offshore experiences.