Saltwater Sportsman - - Top Shot -

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

Easy Ac­cess

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.”


“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.


“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.

Cud­joe Key

SNAP ’EM UP: Man­grove snap­per con­gre­gate over At­lantic reefs to spawn in June. MIXED BAG: Ac­cess to Gulf and At­lantic waters al­lows for a va­ri­etal day of fish­ing, right.

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