December 22, 2015

2015 Florida Christmas (Day 4)

Waking up at 5am after only sleeping for 3 hours the previous night...yeah, it was rough. I almost didn't want to get out of bed. But Elijah and I had plans for some predawn fishing.

We arrived at Duck Key to find really strong current. However, the area was a bit more sheltered from the wind and it wasn't as bad as we expected. Elijah poked around the eddies behind the pylons and eventually caught his lifer Porkfish.

I searched around the rock at the base of the bridge but found only grunts and Sergeant Major.

It was almost time to pick up the boat, so we wrapped up the fishing. Elijah and I went back to Marathon to get some breakfast and a couple of chum blocks, before we arrived at the marina.

Michael, Bartek and George were already sorting out the gear they plan to take. With 5 people on the 24ft boat, there isn't much room and we could only take a couple of rods and one tackle bag.

After some safety and operation instructions, we loaded up the boat. We thought George had brought 15lbs of shrimp for bait, but he must have taken the wrong bag and there was barely 3lbs. So Elijah and I had to search for a bait shop. Luckily, there was one just around the corner and we got 10 blocks of squid, another chum block and about 3 dozen of live shrimp.

All appeared good to go until we found out the bait well was not working. Our live shrimp were soon struggling to stay live.

But in any case, we started to pull out of the marina. Elijah assigned us roles based on our experience. I was 2nd captain, Michael was first mate, and Bartek was deckhand. George, being the most senior on our boat, was our paid customer for the day. :)

Once out of the marina, it got real lumpy very quickly. The 4-5 foot swells came in a southeast direction so we were heading up seas on the way out and we were bounced around quite a bit. Finally, we arrived at a set of coordinates marking shallow patch reefs. We were in about 27 feet of water and there were some fish marked. We were not allowed to anchor intentionally on the reef, so we tried to set anchor in the sandy patches and hopefully drift back to the reef. Our chum block was used to draw the fish out of the reef to the boat.

Well, that was the plan anyways. The current and swells were too strong for our anchor to hold, so we drifted over the reef instead. We did a couple of drifts, caught a few Grunts and small Yellowtail Snappers before Bartek got seriously seasick, and Michael was feeling a bit off too. Elijah and I had hoped to stay on the patch reef and try fishing for King Mackerel or other reef fish. But for the greater good, we decided to head for the sheltered water of Florida Bay.

Elijah and I were looking for the channel marker to Vaca Cut when we drifted a little too shallow and we felt the prop grinding on the sandy bottom. Thank God it was just sand bottom...but we immediately learned first hand how quickly the bottom can come up in the Keys. Only a minute of looking at the GPS charts and not paying attention to the sonar and the boat drifted right into dangerous waters.

After righting out course, we navigated through Vaca Cut under a strong current. The current was pushing boats around as they passed under the bridge supporting the Overseas Highway, can caution must be taken was there was little room for error between the tight bridge pylons.

Once out of the channel, we glided over the shallow flats of Florida Bay. We were looking for a seagrass bed in about 11 feet of water. We had no coordinates to follow, but merely decided to drive around and look on the sonar. Once we found something with potential, we tried to set anchor. Although we were protected from the swells, the strong 15kt wind was enough to drag our boat off anchor. In the end, we decided to simply drift slowly over the flats using the anchor to slow our drift.

We all started fishing with sabiki or dropper loop baited with squid. On one of the first few drops, Elijah caught a Sharksucker which I look on with envy. Everyone was catching Sand Perch, Pinfish, Lane Snapper, Yellowtail Snapper and White Grunt, but there wasn't anything really interesting. Bartek and George did pull up two Grass Porgy. At the time, we thought they were Knobbed Porgy.

Elijah started casting a Gotcha plug around and soon hooked into a Spanish Mackerel. Bartek and Michael then started casting the Gotcha as well. Bartek had a follow but he cannot get the fish to commit at boatside. Elijah showed his mastery with lure fishing and landed another Spanish Mackerel before they moved on.

Elijah, Bartek and George wanted to catch Leatherjacket. Our chum slick attracted a few of them to our boat and Elijah caught one on the Gotcha. It took Bartek a while to catch one of the sabiki, and yet even longer for George. But eventually, all three got their lifers.

George and I were fishing with dropper loop rig when he hooked into something big. It was digging the bottom pretty well and soon we saw a nice Red Grouper surfaced. There was a Sharksucker following this fish and I got excited. However, I didn't want to toss in my line until the Red Grouper was landed. We guesstimated the Red Grouper to be 18-19" long, just shy of legal. Once the Grouper was released, I quickly tossed in my rig but the Remora refused it and went to bit on George's rig. Just my kind of luck...

Soon, our chum block was done and it was getting toward 4pm. We decided to return to the marina before it got too late. We were not familiar with the area and it would be foolish trying to navigate in dying light. On the way back to Vaca Cut, we veered just a bit off the channel marker and found bottom again. Thankful for a second time, we only hit a sandy area. But it was yet another reminder that the Florida Keys are not the place to be careless when boating.

Once back in the marina, we unload the gear quickly. George pointed out the schools of Hardhead Silverside in the shallows. Although there was a No-Fishing sign on the dock, I was too tempted and the tanago rod quickly came to hand. I had to wait a bit to fish since the rental boat employees were at the dock to see if we had any issues.

My previous experience with Hardhead Silverside suggested that they were very difficult to tempt a bite, and even more difficult to hook. Strangely, my first drop with a tiny bit of shrimp resulted in a hooked Hardhead Silverside! It took absolute zero effort!

Hardhead Silverside (Atherinomorus stipes) - Species #480

Somehow, I avoided a lifer-less day. I wasn't expecting to find any Hardhead Silverside at all, and definitely did not plan on targeting any on this trip. It sure felt great in the end since everyone found at least one lifer today. :)

After we were packed and ready to go, we decided to go to Robbie's for dinner. As usual, Robbie's did not disappoint. The seafood platter was very satisfying!

Everyone was too tired to even contemplate fishing the bridges tonight. We were all in bed and lights out before 10pm.

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