The weather finally has calmed enough to allow anglers access to the deeper waters offshore.
Jaunts to the 70-foot range have been producing great catches of gag grouper, amberjack and mangrove snapper. Many of the gags have been bigger than average, with 15-pounders common and an occasional 20-pound beast dragged from the depths.
Dead bait such as sardines, mullet, ladyfish or grunts have been the top choice for the grouper.
Patience is the key. Due to cold water temperatures at the bottom, gags are moving a little slower than normal.
When the water is warmer, 10 minutes usually is enough to tell if there are decent grouper home or not.
Lately however, it has taken 20 or 30 minutes on the right spot before the fish begin to turn on. Even when they do get fired up, there may be periods between bites long enough to make you wonder if you have caught the last one there.
Give it the benefit of the doubt, keeping the bait down there longer then normal.
In 2 hours Thursday, we landed 12 big gags from the same spot.
There were few shorts or other fish pulling on our lines. We simply had to wait for each big bite to come. When they did, it was worth it.
After feeling the hook, the fish would go for the rocks full speed, putting incredible strain on the gear and angler. There was no question what was on the other end.
Our largest fish was 18 pounds, but there was one that we couldn't stop even with two anglers teaming up on the rod. We are pretty sure he was a 20-pounder.
Amberjacks have been holding over the larger wrecks in good numbers. Live bait or artificials are a must for the fish, as they seldom bite anything that doesn't look alive.
The trick to catching quality live bait right now is to get it offshore. There are few good-sized pinfish in the inshore areas. Most of the big pins have migrated to deep water and can be difficult to find.
Sea bass, squirrel fish and grunts are great baits and can be easily gathered by dropping a baited sabiki rig to the hard bottom at 25-40 feet.
Any deeper than 40 and the pressure change creates decompression problems for the would-be live baits, and they may not be as lively. Rapid expansion causes the fishes' air bladder to enlarge, making them float upside down in the livewell and slowly die.
This problem can be fixed by venting the air out of each fish, similar to the technique used for grouper and others brought up quickly from deep water.
The insertion of a small knife blade behind the pectoral fin will allow the air in the body cavity, behind the extended stomach, to escape. The intact stomach then will move back into its normal position, and the fish should be fine.
Since amberjacks tend to roam the wrecks rather than sit in particular spots, power-drifting usually works better than anchoring.
By lowering two baits to the depth the fish appear on the sonar and slowly drifting them through the school, double hook-ups are common.
Vertical jigging with steel jigs or heavy soft plastics also will get the AJs excited enough to strike.