During the cold of winter, when kingfish have migrated to warmer waters, grouper fishing can be red hot at many of your favorite kingfish ledges.
"Dad, something just blew up in our topaz charter boat when I tried to start the starboard motor," Terry David Lacoss said. "I don't think it was the engine though, it may have been a battery as the entire rear deck raised up. You better call Dan McCranie and see if he can reschedule his fishing trip."
"Dan, the winds are light and variable, perfect conditions for running to the reefs and drift fishing with my Triton bay boat,"I explained. "I have a mechanical problem with the topaz. We will only need to run eight-miles offshore to find some good bottom fishing action."
Dan McCranie agreed that conditions were perfect for fishing offshore with a bay boat. I called my son back and asked him to get all of the bottom fishing tackle ready, we were going to use the Triton bay boat.
However there was one catch, I didn't have one offshore fish haven location logged into my Lowrance X-113 GPS/Fish Finder. During the entire fishing season, I had targeted kingfish, tarpon, cobia and redfish in close to the beaches and inlets of Amelia Island, Florida. I had left the deep sea fishing charters up to my son and our 32-foot Topaz.
"Write some of the good kingfish numbers down on a piece of paper Terry David,"I instructed. "I will pick them up when I load up the fishing tackle and bait."
Soon, I was tying my bay boat up to the charter dock, gathering all the necessary fishing gear and bait for a day of offshore ledge fishing. My fishing guests were longtime friends, Dan McCranie, Perry Penland, Shawn Pope and Judge Granville Burgess.
"What is the compass reading and how far will I need to run to arrive at the first ledge,"I asked Terry David?
"Once you clear the jetty rocks, use a 135-degree course and run eight miles,"Terry David explained.
I actually did not have time to enter latitude and longitude numbers for the ledges as my fishing guests were anxiously waiting to catch their first big grouper of the season. So off we went!
Once I had passed the tip of the St. Mary's rock jetties, I took the recommended 135-degree compass reading. Next, I programmed my Lowrance GPS-Fish/Finder to the split screen option, using the map and sonar features. I then zoomed out so that I could see the offshore bottom contours and moved the cursor until it read eight miles and with a 135-degree compass heading.
Obviously the boat ride was so smooth I could have entered the correct waypoint numbers while navigating offshore. I just wanted to see how close I could come to our targeted fishing waters by using the mapping feature, compass and while watching the fish finder.
Shortly after our arrival, we began scanning the bottom contour with the fish finder, looking for both baitfish, game fish and ledges. The mapping feature showed our fishing boat location at the north end of a deep slough with water depths ranging from 62- to 65-feet of water. The surrounding water depths were 45- to 52-feet of water. Perfect kingfish waters, but it was late November and the wrong time of year for northeast Florida kingfish.
Just this past summer, we had enjoyed non-stop kingfish action in these very same waters while employing traditional live bait slow trolling tactics.
After marking a good bottom and a few fish, I instructed our fishing party to drop down their grouper baits. Meanwhile, I began entering the correct latitude and longitude coordinates into my Lowrance GPS. When this was completed, I entered the option, "Go to the Waypoint." The GPS indicated that we were only 25-microseconds away from the kingfish ledge. I guess that I had proved my point, that the new mapping option on the Lowrance GPS-Fish/Finder was very accurate. I know if I had taken more time to run the bottom with the fish finder, I would have located the kingfish ledge as well.
"Reel the baits up,"I instructed our fishing party. "We are within a good kingfish run of that big ledge."
After arriving at the lime rock ledge, the Lowrance fish finder began marking clouds of baitfish holding just off from the bottom. On the high side of the ledge, larger species of fish were identified and resembled boomerangs on the fish finder screen.
"Before we drop your baits down, let's toss this buoy overboard and mark the high spot of this kingfish ledge,"I instructed. Then we can drift up current of the ledge and catch some of these big grouper and snapper that are marking on the fish finder."
A large black line marked vertically on the float showed which way the current was running, which is an extremely important fact for drift fishermen.
After determining that the drift was running to the north, I positioned the boat some 30-microseconds to the south of the ledge and we dropped down our grouper baits. Our drift fishing tackle actually consisted of 30-pound kingfish tackle that we had used during the summer while slow trolling large kingfish baits. First, thread a six-ounce egg sinker onto the 30-pound fishing line. Next, a small plastic bead is attached to the line and a 50-pound swivel is tied to the tag end of the terminal fishing line. Finally, a three-foot section of hundred-pound fluorocarbon shock leader is tied to the remaining side of the swivel and a 6/0-kahle hook is attached to the tag end of the leader. We had now transformed our kingfish tackle into drift fishing gear!
"Grouper Candy" was soon barbed to the large saltwater hooks and sent down to the bottom. A more accurate description is "Boston Mackerel." However grouper eat it like candy! Boston mackerel were cut into two-inch square chunks, allowing the fish scent to attract nearby grouper and snapper too.
During our first drift, we managed to catch one keeper gag grouper and several black sea bass. However we had not located the sweet spot yet, so I dropped over the Motorguide electric motor and began navigating slowly around the marker buoy. At the same time, my fishing guests continued to fish without interruption.
"Are you marking any good bottom," Perry Penland asked?
"Wow, it's looking real good,"I remarked. "You should be catching fish!"
For the next 30 minutes, I was able to position the Triton bay boat right over the kingfish ledge with the aid of the 105-pound thrust electric motor. A variety of reef species were hooked and landed including a pair of 22-inch red snapper.
Now it was time to give the ledge a rest, so I entered into the Lowrance GPS a second nearby kingfish ledge. Here we continued to catch reef species, while a 30-pound cobia came up from the deep-water ledge for a brief visit, almost unnoticed.
Obviously using the electric motor in 60 feet of water is not the usual, particularly when fishing eight miles offshore. However when the seas are as calm as they were during our morning of drift fishing, the electric motor was an unexpected bonus. I dread using a heavy anchor, which often alerts nearby reef species when it's dropped to the bottom. Anchors often damage the bottom when they are retrieved as well.
"Terry we need to head back to the Fernandina Harbor Marina so that we can watch a little football,"Dan McCranie said. "We have a bunch of fish to clean as well!"
Fortunately the Triton bay boat had been a great backup plan when our regular deep-sea boat had blown a battery. And one thing that I have learned from 30 seasons of king fishing, some of the best winter reef fishing can be found where you hook up to speedy king mackerel during the warmer fishing seasons.
My only regret that day, was not having time to bring along a downrigger and trolling rod to troll a minnow type plug over the reef before drift fishing. This is definitely a great tactic for catching big winter grouper!