Friday, March 18, 2022

X Term Offshore

This is post is on a week of fishing I did aboard the Reward Fleet with a group of friends as part of a trip we organized at school. We spent parts of four days from March 14th to March 17th fishing on the boat, going out in the morning of the first three days and at night on the last day. All around, it was an awesome week; we caught lots of fish, tried new fishing methods, and caught new species.

Day 1 - Monday, March 14, 2022

    We started off the week with arguably the most intense morning we experienced. It was cloudy, windy, and very rocky out on the water. Soon after getting through the jetty, a good portion of the group felt quite seasick, which was obviously not a pleasant sight to see. Regardless, we set out to catch fish and soon enough we were hooking up.

    We started off at a buoy to catch bait using sabiki rigs. We stopped the motor and put out a chum bag in the back of the boat, and tossed out our hooks. Despite being baitfish, it was still fun to catch them. Among the species we caught were Pilchards, Blue Runners, Speedos (Mackerel Shad, a long baitfish), Rainbow Runners, Leatherjackets, and Bermuda Chubs. I was rather excited as a multi species angler because some of these species were new to me. That being said, I was very likely the only one on the boat that was fine with catching Leatherjackets (not only are there better bait fish out there, but they can also be tough to handle with venomous spikes next to their dorsal and anal fins). Some of the spike rigs were tipped with small cut baits and some weren't. The tipped baits were a bit more successful at catching fish, but the fish they caught were generally larger and not the targeted baitfish.

    Due to a lack of Pilchards, the plan was to troll about 10 to 15 minutes over to a hump (a general term used to describe underwater structures resembling small seamounts - they are made of Limestone in Florida). There, we would drop a few lines to the bottom for Snappers and Groupers while vertical jigging for Tunas and other game fish. However, we wouldn't get the chance.

    About 5 minutes into the troll, we hooked up on a solid fish. I took the rod and began to fight the fish. The setup I was using had a planer, a device that keeps the attached trolling line deeper in the water column. The power of the Blackfin Tuna, known as being one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in Florida, made for an entertaining fight. I brought it in up to the planer, when the deckhand hand-lined the leader and pulled it over the transom. We had our first fish on deck!

    The rest of the day was absolutely filled with action. It seemed as though every two minutes another fish was hooked on one of our four trolling lines. At one point we even had all four hooked up at once (we brought in three fish, one got away). Everyone that wasn't sick enough to decline a fight was able to catch Blackfin Tuna, Atlantic Bonito, and False Albacore. I'm glad to say that I'm lucky when it comes to seasickness; I have never been seasick and do not plan on being so anytime soon. I don't need to take Dramamine either.

    After about a dozen tuna (and tuna relatives) were caught on the troll, we went in and cut the trip a bit short because of the prevalent seasickness. But before we docked, we anchored by Government Cut near the jetty at South Beach. Dropping down pieces of cut ballyhoo on chicken rigs, we were able to come away with a few more fish to end a very successful day. I caught a Bluestriped Grunt and a Red Grouper, the latter being an especially exciting catch - groupers are some of my favorite fish. Interestingly, the grouper spit out a crab and shrimp (large and whole enough that I am sure it came from the hook of a fisherman from the nearby South Pointe Pier) that it had recently ate.

    Today was the most successful trolling trip I have ever had. The action was nonstop, and you could almost expect another rod to double over every two minutes. We filled up the cooler and (most of us) enjoyed the experience. It was rough on the water, but we did what it takes to catch the fish. We surely were rewarded.




Day 2 - Tuesday, March 15, 2022

    After a very successful day 1, we were excited to head out the next morning. The water was expected to be a bit less rough, but as we saw waves blowing up on the jetty rocks, we knew that it would be another tough trip. On top of that, it was going to rain, and hard. We could see it pouring offshore, right over the spots for which we were going. We made it clear, however, that we were not going to cut this trip short.

    Soon after we left the jetty, while we were still inshore and had just put out our trolling lines, we hooked up. Milan took the rod and we caught a Spanish Mackerel. Very similar to the Cero Mackerel, which can also be caught off Miami, the distinguishable difference is in their almost identical yellow patterns: Cero Mackerel have bars as well as spots on their sides, while Spanish Mackerel only have spots. It was a new species for me, and the last of the three mackerel species that can be found in Miami - King, Cero, and Spanish.

    We were glad that our trip started off on such a good note, but unfortunately the rest of the trip didn’t prove to be very productive. We trolled through the rain for another hour or so with no bites, stopping here and there to vertical jig and freeline live pilchards when Captain Wayne marked fish. At one point we saw two Sailfish jump out of the water right in front of us, but we were unfortunately not able to hook up on any. Although I didn’t catch anything on the jigs, and the current made vertical jigging difficult, I was glad to be able to try out a new method of fishing that I had been eager to learn about for a while. It’s a growing technique that involves dropping a specialized jig to the bottom and quickly jerking the rod and reeling to imitate an injured baitfish.

    The only catches of the day were Cliff’s False Albacore and Mr. Muhlig’s Blacktip Shark. Both put up great fights that lasted for a few minutes. The False Albacore was caught on a dead ballyhoo, which the Captain called “tourist bait” because of its popularity on party boats in Miami that attract tourists; they generally just rig up a frozen ballyhoo and toss them out. The bait works, but it’s generally considered inferior to more expensive live bait. But as the Captain was saying, good fishermen can catch fish with worse bait and bad fishermen can come home empty handed with good bait. And there’s always an aspect of luck involved as well.

    Muhlig’s shark was caught with light gear that Sam brought onboard for snapper. He was dismayed to see that it wasn’t a quality eating fish like a tuna or snapper, but it was a great entertaining fight on the light gear nonetheless.

    It’s called fishing, not catching. It’s a game of give and take. Some days you catch a lot, and some days you catch a little. But no matter what, it’s always great being on the water, and every fishing trip and effort you make results in a positive for the future whether fish were caught or not. Looking back, it was respectable, almost honorable, our willingness to go out in such unfavorable conditions to the fishermen. As they say, weather separates the fishermen from the googans; those that are undeterred by the weather in their pursuit of fish, that choose to experience the real force of nature, are true fishermen. We finished the day with high hopes for the next trips to come.


Day 3 - Wednesday, March 16, 2022

    We arrived at the dock once again at around half past 7 in pursuit of fish. By then we all knew what was going on and were ready for the fish. The waves on the jetty weren't nearly as explosive, meaning the water was not going to be nearly as rough offshore. This came as a relief to many of the people on our boat. The skies were relatively clear and there was a nice breeze - it was a great time to be out on the water.
    We soon stopped by a buoy to go bait fishing with the sabiki rigs. Cigar Minnows, Pinfish, Blue Runners, and even Triggerfish were caught. Milan was especially crushing the cigar minnows. We had enough to head out and try kite fishing.

    Kite fishing is a very popular offshore fishing method in South Florida. The way it works is very similar to an outrigger, just on a larger scale to spread baits out and keep them on the surface. First you fly a kite out from the boat. Fishing kites are connected to a specialized reel and small rod. We had three clips on our kite line. Once the kite was flying, we baited one hook and attached the fishing line to the first clip. Then we let line out of the reel and let the clip be taken out further along the line by wind and tension. We repeated with the other two rods in order, until all three clips were holding a fishing line. What resulted was a setup with three baits being set out at different distances from the boat, held up by the kite line. The baits were suspended just under the surface of the water. Each fishing line had a brightly colored bobber in order to make it easier to track the baits - if the bait is pulled out of the water by wind or current, you need to let more line out from the reel to drop the bait back in. When kite fishing, you must always watch the baits to make sure they are at the right depths and not being suspended out of the water or too deep. Kite fishing is a lot of work, but it can be worth it. Captain Wayne told us some stories of the spectacle of Sailfish and tuna chasing after kite baits on the surface of the water.

    While Sam, the captain, and I were focusing on the kite baits, we were also bottom fishing on the reefs. Soon after our first drop, a live pinfish on the bottom was bit by a BIG fish. Jake took the rod and steadily reeled in his first offshore fish, a monster Mutton Snapper. It was a great catch, and very well deserved. I have a ton of respect for him, especially after willingly putting up with two previous trips on which he got quite seasick. After all that, it was great to see him bring in one of the biggest and tastiest fish we would catch all day.

    Next we caught a huge Scamp Grouper on the same bottom rig, a new species of Grouper. The rig involved a heavy sinker and about 4-5 feet long leader of heavy mono line attached to a cycle hook, all connected with a 3-way swivel. The pinfish used as bait for both fish were hooked in the back near the anal fin; that way, the bait swims down against the pressure towards the bottom and looks more natural.

    The rest of the day was spent by stopping at different reefs and bottom fishing while putting out the kite baits. We caught Sand Tilefish and more Mutton Snappers, which are a fish that I had on my bucket list entering the trip. I was really excited to catch them. Mutton Snappers are strong, colorful bottom fish known for their spot in the back, blue lines under their eyes, and great taste. I kept a Sand Tilefish because Colton, the deckhand, said that they tasted like lobster. Keeping kosher and having never eaten lobster before, I was intrigued.

    The kite baits did not get bit, unfortunately. But it was very cool to try it out, and I'm glad I got that experience. I know that I'll catch an elusive Sailfish, perhaps on a kite bait, someday.

    We had a feeling that the fishing would be good today because of the rough waters over the past week; the water was being mixed up throughout the water column, which spreads nutrients and oxygen. It generally makes fish more ready and willing to eat. It was a very fun day on the water, catching some great fish. Heading back in to the dock, passing the buildings of Miami, I felt grateful for living and having grown up in such a city. It's beautiful, interesting, and right on some of the best fishing waters in the world. It's a vacation spot for a reason. One of the best feelings I have ever experienced is when I'm coming in on a boat on a weekday with a full cooler. Seeing the buildings in which people are living their lives and working while I'm on a boat after a great day of fishing is quite the thrill. It was bittersweet, arriving at the dock, because it was our last morning trip of the week. But we were looking forward to the next night.


Day 4 - Thursday, March 17, 2022

    Tonight we went on a bottom fishing trip, anchored up on reefs. It was a nice experience to be out on the water, almost pitch black, with the near full moon and lights of the Miami skyline in the distance being the only sources of light on the water.  Our bait was primarily cut frozen pilchards and ballyhoo, fished on chicken rigs.

    It was a great way to end the week. Bottom fishing is relatively relaxing, as you just drop a baited hook to the bottom and wait for a bite, but exciting at the same time. Many times, fish would start to nibble as soon as the bit dropped to the bottom. The most agonizing part of it was when they took a long time to actually bite and get hooked; with circle hooks, you can't set the hook when you feel a fish as the rounded point will slide out of the fish's mouth. You must wait until a fish hooks itself, given a little tension on the line.

    I was crushing the Yellowtail Snapper today, catching the most on the boat with four. I also caught two Lane Snappers, two Squirrelfish, a Mutton Snapper, and some new species including a small Goggle Eye, a Toro (Coral Snapper), and a Horse-Eye Jack.

    We also got a few fish "sharked" as soon as we hooked up. One time, after carefully applying tension on the line and waiting to hook a fish, I was finally on and started reeling in. After about four seconds, however, I instantly felt a big tug and then nothing. I reeled in my line to see that the hook was cut clean off by the teeth of a shark down there. A few other fishermen on the boat said the same thing at around the same time, proof of those pesky sharks. It's the infamous "tax" that fishermen are forced to pay when fishing on reefs. Who knows if George Harrison was reef fishing when he wrote "one for you, nineteen for me"?

    Handling the snappers was another obstacle I faced on the trip, sometimes getting spiked by their fins when unhooking them. But, after all, if I was going to eat them, I consider that retaliation fair enough.

    Heading in at around midnight, we reflected on the great week of fishing we had. With so many different fish and methods being caught and used, it was an amazing experience. As always, no matter what you catch (or don't catch), each trip on the water is educational. I certainly learned a lot during this trip, and I anticipate applying the new knowledge in the future. I caught a total of 40 fish and 11 new species - which is what I call a successful week! We had a great time each trip out and made lots of  memories on the water. That's what it's all about.