“WHICH ROD IS NEXT?”
I PONDERED AFTER ANDREW TIPLER AND I DOUBLED UP ON COBIA, RELEASING ONE AND BOXING THE OTHER.
Five gunwale-based outfits were soaking a mix of live crabs and pinfish staggered from top to bottom, with three armed spinners standing by. As had been the pace with cobia, shark, mangrove snapper and goliath grouper encounters, I knew the answer wouldn’t be long in coming.
Soon enough, the spinning outfit with the bottom crab came to life. The speed and intensity of the line racing off the spool could only mean one thing: permit! Earlier that morning, Tipler said we’d have shots at permit, and we turned those shots into releases after he slipped the landing net under the fish. UNSUNG Mention Cudjoe as a Keys destination and it just may stump folks. That’s just fine for those who frequent this quiet locale between Big Pine and Key West. Flats, channels, bridges, reefs, wrecks and offshore waters offer exceptional opportunities, with crowds usually nonexistent. Cudjoe’s angling draw comprises both Atlantic-side reefs and Gulf wrecks. With the right current and water clarity, the local reefs hold yellowtails and muttons. And then there’s the fabled mangrove snapper spawn.
Often overshadowed by Atlantic opportunities, the Gulf wrecks off Cudjoe hold cobia, permit, snapper, grouper, kingfish, Spanish mackerel, jacks, barracuda and sharks. It frequently comes down to a flip of the coin as to which side of Cudjoe to fish. GULF SIDE Capt. Andrew Tipler knows these waters well, from the flats to the Gulf Stream. We spent this particular outing in the Gulf, with hopes of scoring cobia and permit. Typically, cobia are prominent on the wrecks between spring and summer. They go hand in hand with the sharks; our July trip had proven that if the sharks are there, so are the cobia. Being here a bit past their prime, our outing also showcased that they can pop up at any time during the year; we battled 10 cobia over a day and a half. As for permit, the wreck co-headliner, look to spring through early summer for the best odds, though some large resident fish remain year-round.
“Precision anchoring is essential to
‘tier’ fishing a wreck,” says Tipler. “A claw-style anchor bites best in the soft silt and rock bottom. Out here, consider tidal flow as well as wind when figuring out where to drop anchor. It sometimes takes several attempts to anchor perfectly, so keep at it,” he says.
We had MARC VI holding 50 feet uptide of the superstructure of the Gunvor wreck, resting in 60 feet of water — close enough to draw fish within casting range, but far enough to prevent them from returning to the wreck.
Other wrecks within striking range of Cudjoe anglers are the Bosilika, Luckenbach and Sturtevent. According to Tipler, there are also assorted debris fields, dumpsters and even springs nearby that hold fish.
Tipler uses a tier approach at the wrecks, so as not to miss an opportunity. For cobia, we baited with live pinfish on 6/0 in-line circle hooks (through the lower and upper jaws). The bottom outfits, Penn Fathom 15 lever-drag reels with 50-pound braid, were rigged with an egg sinker resting on the barrel swivel of 6-foot, 50-pound fluorocarbon leaders. Another pinfish was free-lined on a 20-pound-class spinner. Reserved
Cudjoe occupies an advantageous location for accessing the Gulf. From the Atlantic side, and based on boat size, you can traverse Kemp Channel, lowering outriggers and removing the rods from the T-top to clear the bridge. Pine and Bow channels are the shallower, more challenging passages. Niles Channel is a bit deeper and another solid option. However, if you’re not intimately familiar with these passages, consult a navigational chart before attempting such a run. for goliath grouper was a Torque 25NLD with 80-pound braid, 130-pound-test fluoro leader and a 12/0, 3X strong in-line circle hook.
For permit, he impaled a live crab on a bucktail, fished on bottom from a spinner with 30-pound braid and 30-pound fluoro leader, and free-lined another crab back on a 4/0 in-line circle hook. Spare spinners were rigged for live-baiting and pitching a surface chugger, ready for any surprise appearances by permit or cobia.
When the tide slowed, we deployed frozen menhaden chum to attract mangrove snapper, and within minutes big mangroves rose into the slick. We caught them on live baits and knocker rigs on the bottom, as well as free-lining small pieces of bonito, ballyhoo and Spanish sardine with the chum flow on 12-pound fluoro leaders and 1/0 in-line circle hooks.
“Remember, sharks usually mean cobia,” says Tipler. “I’ve intentionally chummed sharks to get shots at cobia by hanging over a sliced-up bonito or jack. Another thing about cobia: If you put light pressure on them after setting the hook, they don’t fight nearly as hard;
you can usually lead them right to the net or gaff. If you put the heat to them, they put up a hard and determined fight.”
HOLD OR FOLD
“If you’re getting shots at the fish you want, stick it out,” advises Tipler. “There will be lulls, especially with permit and cobia. Give permit ample time to circle back toward the wreck — which they should, if they’re around — and for another pod of cobia to push through. Stay for at least a full tide change. When it changes, the fishing may improve.”
Atlantic reefs off Cudjoe host solid yellowtail and mutton fishing. However, hit the July mangrove snapper spawn just right and it’s unbelievable.
A couple of seasons back, Capt. Beau Woods and I dropped anchor on a reef where these fish congregated. We positioned ourselves with enough courtesy fishing space between the other boats. Many anglers seek these snapper at night, which offers the wildest action when the bite is on. Yet day fishing frequently challenges the night bite. Case in point: The mangroves were so thick under our boat that, in 60 feet of water, my Simrad showed a false bottom reading on the snapper at 30 feet.
Our frozen menhaden chum just exacerbated the wild scenario. The water behind the boat turned copper with mangroves eating chum right out of the mesh bag.
“This is how it can be when it goes off,” says Woods. “But until then, it could be a slow pick. I’ve had shoals of snapper under my boat that wouldn’t eat a thing. Then a day or three later, on their own clock, they simply go crazy and eat anything.”
Snapper, usually wary, didn’t care about our 30-pound fluoro leaders. Larger fish fell victim to live pinfish on knocker rigs. On this particular trip, a large yellow jack somehow managed to beat the mangroves to Woods’ deep bait and provided the best fight of the day on a 20-pound outfit. “You can catch all the 12- to 15-inch fish you want on smaller baits, but large live baits — and I mean pinfish the size of your palm — get the big ones. Plus, those big baits usually make it to bottom without smaller fish eating them,” he says.
TIME AND PLACE
“You can tell when this is all about to go off,” Woods explains. “When the canals and creeks seem devoid of spawningsize mangroves, that means they’re on these contours — sharp elevations, hangs and reefs with 5 to 10 feet of relief between 30 and 100 feet. I’ve found that they start feeding between three days and a week after they’ve migrated out here.
“This is one time when Cudjoe gets a lot of attention, but the crowds are nowhere near what you’ll encounter in better-known locales. Fish them as you would yellowtails: chum and free-line baits with the current. But to get those big ones, drop a big live bait to the bottom and get ready. You won’t be disappointed.”
MOVING TARGET: Cobia on the surface provide a visible casting target.