Every time I visit the tuxedo-clad mouse in Central Florida, I gravitate toward a handful of my favorite theme park rides. However, when a recent family trip with my 4-year-old niece revolved around rides of a younger focus, I had a refreshingly enjoyable time.
These weren't new rides; I just had occasion to try something different and it was pretty cool.
Reef fishing offers similar opportunities for an enjoyable change of pace. Gag and red groupers, along with mangrove and red snapper have long dominated reef action off Florida's Gulf Coast.
However, tight regulations, closed seasons, plus the fish's occasionally uncooperative disposition can leave reef anglers wondering why they spent so much at the fuel dock.
Such is not the case for fishermen who learn to appreciate the cast of reef neighbors keeping company with the top-shelf species.
Who's down there?
Grunts, porgies, triggerfish and vermillion snapper inhabit most Gulf Coast reefs, but their smaller proportions usually makes common reef fishing gear ineffective.
All will nibble at many of the dead baits fished for grouper and larger snappers until the hook is picked clean, but these little sneaks can be had.
Downsize the hardware and you'll find a host of aggressive and tasty understudies ready and willing to fill in the gaps between the high-end fish.
You might also encounter sizable versions of common inshore bycatch species — specifically, toadfish, lizardfish and pufferfish.
For the record, we're not suggesting hard-core offshore types will find themselves enamored with that trio, but young anglers get a kick out of things with big jaws, big teeth and inflation tendencies. Let your little anglers pull up a few of those reef gremlins and you'll cement lasting memories and the fodder of future storytelling.
How to get 'em
Good news about reef alternatives is the same type of gear you'd use for the A-team fish works fine on the backup players. The only real difference is a lighter approach.
Start with a 6½- to 7-foot medium-heavy conventional or spinning outfit carrying 20- to 30-pound line and a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader. For terminal gear, rig a 2- to 4-ounce slip sinker above the swivel connecting main line to leader and finish with a No. 2 or No. 4 hook.
For optimal attraction, carry multiple dead baits. Spanish sardines are the standard, but investing in a couple flats of Northern mackerel or a bag of frozen pilchards boosts your diversity.
For all of these options, thawing allows you to separate individual baits, but cut them into chunks while they're still firm. Same applies to frozen squid — cut while the bait is still frosty or you'll be chasing a slippery wad across the cutting board.
For best results, use quarter-sized chunks of baitfish and squid for the alternative reef species. Big fish may also bite a tiny offering, but when smaller fish attack a large bait, they typically just peck away without coming close to the business end of the rig.
During slow periods, dropping a stout sabiki rig to the bottom can prove strategically productive. Blue runners — a premium offshore bait — often swarm reefs, and catching a dozen or so of these stout fish provides attractive ammo for larger pursuits.
On deeper reefs, wrecks and springs, deploying a live blue runner on a slip sinker rig, or trolling the bait on downriggers is often the sure bet for a big grouper or amberjack bite.
Also, while you're sitting on a reef or wreck site, free line a live runner on a wire stinger rig and you're likely to tempt any kingfish, wahoo or barracuda that turns its attention topside.
For bottom fishing, blue runners or vermillion snapper yield tremendous cut bait options for big gag grouper, as well as hefty mangrove and red snapper. Filet the sides off these baits and fish them in inch-wide strips.
Another option: butterfly a fresh reef rat by filleting the sides up to the gills, leaving both flanks attached at the top and removing the backbone. This presentation combines maximum scent dispersal with the visual appeal of flapping filets for a big-fish slam dunk enticement.
For added appeal, tip the bottom two or three sabiki hooks with squid strips. This varies the presentation while releasing scent into the water.
Remember, state and federal regulations require anglers to use nonstainless steel circle hooks, release tools and venting tools when targeting reef fish.