Capt. Alex Crawford
May 5, 2005
Carrabelle - Saltwater Fishing Report
OFFSHORE ON THE FORGOTTEN COAST
When the waters in the Gulf warm up in May, cabin-weary fishermen turn their thoughts from deer, hogs and turkeys to grouper and snappers. Offshore of the pristine barrier islands of the Forgotten Coast, productive habitat exists for these bottom dwellers. Limestone ledges are prevalent and hold schools of chunky snappers, including red, lane and vermilion. Red snapper season reopened for recreationals on April 22nd. Artificial and live bottom, natural reefs are perfect homes for gag and red groupers. Numerous ship wrecks exist here and attract all the most highly-prized bottom species, as well as pelagic predators like cobia and kingfish. You can find the latitude/longitude coordinates of dozens of these wrecks in the public domain. However, a short list of the most productive ones on a seasonal basis will include the Stormy Seas, Gilmore, Empire Mica, Angela, Flaming Star and the Paula. The Air Force maintains five (5) towers that are used for training purposes. They are spread across the Forgotten Coast from about 10 to 20 miles out into the northern Gulf of Mexico. These fish magnets are called alphabet towers by their names C,O,V,K and S. The underwater superstructure of these towers create ideal habitat for all manner of fishy critters. Be the first boat on one of these towers in the early morning and drop a live bait down. You may be rewarded with a hefty cobia.
Professional fishing guides use proven techniques to help their customers have a fun and productive day on the water. Two of the most effective methods of filling the fish box are proper chumming and the use of live bait. Live baits catch more fish, period. But this only holds true if the angler knows the first secret of fishing, “fish where fish are.” You can capture your own live bait with some prior planning and the right tools. First, catching live baits with sabiki rigs tipped with squid is always a fun way to start the fishing day. A friend of mine is perfectly happy catching hardtails all day with sabikis on a little spinning outfit. But, the most efficient way to catch large quantities of high quality, frisky baits is with a good cast net. Pogies are one of the very best baits. They are available in huge schools to the stealthy castnetter. Just look for the rain drops on the water, position your vessel upwind/upcurrent, turn off your motor and drift onto the school for a perfect throw. Large, live bait wells with plenty of raw water flow are necessary to keep oxygen-dependent pogies frisky, especially as temperatures rise into the eighties in summer.
It is generally agreed that hard-size pinfish are the numero uno bubba-grouper baits. The best tactic I have learned to capture bunches of lively pins is by using an offshore bait trap. This is not your basic inshore, hang at the dock, pinfish trap. It is a slightly modified version. First, you will be deploying your trap offshore on a live bottom in deep water. Tie an adequate length of stout nylon handline onto the top of your trap. Secure a couple 5 pound lead weights to the inside, bottom of the trap so it will stand upright on the bottom. Add a large, highly visible marker/float on top, so you can see and retrieve it in choppy seas. You may want to punch the numbers into your GPS when you drop it overboard. Best baits are pogies and squid. Simply fish around the area for an hour or so and, when you pull up your offshore trap, you will be rewarded with enough fresh live baits for the day. And your fishing friends will be quite envious of your new found expertise.
Successful chumming techniques are as varied as the anglers that employ them. And one could write a book about all of the products that are commercially available for chumming fish. For snappers and groupers there are two methods that have proven to be highly effective. One is called the Chum Churn, an innovative device that allows the angler to introduce large quantities of quality chum at the top of the water column. The tool consists of a plastic tube with holes cut into the sides. Inside are a sharp set of stainless cutting blades. Fresh cut baits, chunks, chum and small, whole fish are loaded into the top of the churn. A rapid up and down pumping action in the water disperses the cut chum into the water. Mangrove and red snappers are especially susceptible to this tactic, as they come up on top to feed.
A chum basket or chum bag can be lowered to the bottom for groupers on a handline or on your downrigger ball. Groupers seldom come up in the water column, so you have to induce them by sight and smell where they live.
Anchoring is another extremely important key to your fishy adventure. Deep water bottom fishing requires lots of chain and anchor line. Most small, lunch- hook Danforth anchors will not get the job done. With strong offshore currents, wind and seas, it is necessary to have a large anchor with heavy chain and sufficient line to set up. Wreck anchoring requires a specialized wreck anchor. Have the right equipment for a good result.
When you arrive at your waypoint, begin to do figure eights around the area. Spend some time searching for a great show of fish on your bottom machine. Deploy a marker buoy that plays out only the amount of line for the water depth. Homemade marker buoys typically have excess line and don’t mark the fish adequately with blowback from wind and current. It is important to anchor your boat so you are vertical over the show of fish. This may require several attempts at anchoring in the right position, but it is critical. Sometimes your boat’s position may be off only 20 feet or so, but that makes the difference between fishing and catching. By moving your outdrive back and forth in the current, you will waggle left and right. Or pull forward and go back on your anchor line. Many times these maneuvers will put you on new fish.
From the comfort of your great room easy chair, you can organize your tackle and become the ultimate prepared opportunist angler. Tie leaders, sharpen hooks, spool new line, lube reels, check drags, inventory sinkers and store everything onboard for easy access. Even the simple act of tying a leader while anchored in choppy seas becomes a difficult task. The basic premise is to minimize downtime and maximize catching time. Since there is so little time to fish, prior planning will enhance the fishing experience and put more fish on the table.
Fluorocarbon leader material will help you catch more fish. Scale down your barrel swivels for leader-shy species like snappers. Sharp out of the box, high quality steel hooks will give you an edge. Circle hooks are proven successful to out fish conventional “J” hooks. Buy the best quality reels with superior drag systems and maintain them. And lastly, the most important piece of tackle you own, you fishing boat must be ship-shape to be safe and have fun out on the wild, blue yonder.
Grouper and snapper fishing offshore of Apalach is simply loads of fun. May is prime time for these species and you can get in on all the action with a good fish plan. The beautiful Forgotten Coast means good fishing, what are you waiting for?
Captain Alex Crawford is a full time guide who has fished the Florida Panhandle offshore for 26 years. He specializes in grouper and snapper trips with light tackle on live bait. Custom trips for companies with multiple boats will be arranged.
Inshore trips targeting specific species and custom eco trips are available for birding, gator watching, shelling, picnics and barrier islands.
Contact Captain Alex for a fun and productive trip on Florida's Forgotten Coast.