Key West guide taps area's angling riches

If - as its boosters proclaim - Florida is the sportfishing capital of the United States, then Key West likely could be tagged as the White House.

The end of an island chain that extends more than 100 miles out to sea, this two-by-four-mile rock that separates the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean features year-round fishing for scores of species not found in such abundance anywhere else.

One of Key West's best-enjoyed attributes is its reef and bottom fishing for grouper and snapper, Spanish and cero mackerel, cobia, sharks - even permit. And few are better at figuring out when and where to drop a weighted bait, a flat line or a jig than captain Mark Schmidt, who runs light-tackle sportfishing charters out of Murray Marine on Stock Island.

"You can bottom fish on the reef. There are a lot of areas in Hawks Channel," Schmidt said. "There are areas in the Gulf from the Marquesas to Rebecca Shoal - a series of rock piles and structure. You can do this from 120 feet deep off the edge of the reef, and on top of the reef, to Hawks Channel in 15 feet of water."

When Schmidt began guiding in 1980, he could catch all the premium species he wanted within a short boat ride of Key West. But during the past 27 years, fishing pressure has kept pace with Florida's growth, so Schmidt must range farther from the island city. On a recent weekday, he motored past the Marquesas - a distance of more than 30 miles - before stopping in a 45-foot deep area of scattered rock piles known as Newground.

The water was a grainy, pea-soup color from the recent passage of a cold front and bites were few.

"Hmmm, this spot has been real active lately," Schmidt said.

Looking south to shallower water, he noticed the clarity was improved. So he pulled up and reanchored in a bumpy region of peaks and valleys about 25 feet deep. There, Schmidt and a customer caught and released more than two dozen red grouper up to about 12 pounds using knocker rigs baited with dead pinfish, mojarras and squid.

Schmidt's favorite season to scour the patches, reefs and rock piles is from the first cold fronts of autumn to April's spring warm-up. That's when anglers can catch plenty of quality bottom fish and other species in 20 to 40 feet of water.

"You're not only bottom fishing," he said. "You can catch bally hoo on hair hooks and use them to catch Spanish and cero mackerel, kingfish, barracuda and sharks" _ many hang out at or near the surface.

Large schools of cobia winter in the lower Keys, so you never know where they will be. Gaggles of barracuda and the appearance of a loggerhead sea turtle on the surface is usually a good indicator. As winter turns to spring, the common species are lane, mutton and mangrove snapper; red, black, scamp and gag grouper; and permit.

"Fishing the rock piles in Hawks Channel, I'd always carry a crab because there might be a permit," Schmidt said.

The best conditions?

"I want the tide running, but not screaming. I don't want it slack. I don't want the water too clear or too muddy," Schmidt said.

Bait doesn't have to be too fancy - or even live. It's a bonus to have live shrimp, crabs, bally hoo or pinfish. "You can be just as successful with frozen herring, squid or chunks of bally hoo," Schmidt said.

Local guides favor shrimp boat chum - a redolent combination of crabs, mantis shrimp, pink shrimp and minnows. But since most of Key West's shrimp fleet has relocated in recent years, that kind of bait can be hard to come by.

For the 20-to-50-foot depth range, Schmidt uses up to a 1 ½-ounce arrowhead or lima bean jig, or a knocker rig (egg sinker next to the hook) of one to two ounces and a 3/0 or 4/0 hook. He favors braided line, such as 50-80-pound-test Power Pro tied to 40-pound monofilament of fluorocarbon leader.

"Don't use leader more than 40-pound-test," he said. "I'd rather get the bites. If you lose a few fish, then you lose a few fish."

He favors a stiff, graphite Biscayne Rod up to 7 ½ feet long with a fast taper, with Penn and Daiwa spinning reels that are known for durability and smooth drag.

"I want to be able to lock that down and get the fish's head turned in the first few feet," Schmidt said. "You've got to short-stroke him to get his head turned out of the structure."

For those who eschew live or dead bait, artificial lures such as a popper or swimming plug should be ready to cast.

"You never know when a cobia or a school of jacks will swim up," Schmidt said. "You don't want to miss opportunities."

As spring evolves into white-hot, melting summer, reef and bottom fishers head to deeper water in search of yellowtail snapper near the surface and large grouper down deep.

"You want to yellowtail in 70 to 120 feet of water and send down a live pinfish on the bottom," Schmidt said.

But Gulf waters tend to be cooler than the Atlantic, so you could have good success on drop-offs in the 40-to-60-foot range.

Schmidt said the most rewarding way to bottom- or reef-fish is to search out your own spots instead of relying on fleet intelligence.

"Constantly ride around with your depth recorder on to find new areas," he said. "I'd work from shallow to deep and from cleaner to dirtier water. You need to establish a local pattern - is that area better on an incoming or outgoing tide? People could catch a lot more fish if they'd take note of when the fish are biting and what the tide is doing.''