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January 30, 2013

Pilchard Power

How a Pro Uses Livies for Mixed-Bag Action at its Best Off Key West

Some cooperative January weather made the 10-mile run to Western Dry Rocks an easy one. Western Dry Rocks is one of a series of shoals that stretches west from just off Key West to beyond the Marquesas, marking the ridge of reefs separating the 20- to 50-foot depths of Hawk’s Channel from the steep drop into the Atlantic.

A livewell full of scaled sardines, aka pilchards, offers pretty good odds for fast action off Key West from a variety of light-tackle game fish. Yellow jacks are among the author’s favorites.

The goal of the team from Quantum/Fin-Nor that had invited me down to try out some of its new gear was a pretty simple one: Catch fish. Lots of ’em, and different kinds. Anytime a day of fishing is likely to provide my two favorite aspects of the sport — fast action and good variety — I’m all over it, and all the more so when that action is combined with fairly light gear.

Species Suite

In that regard, activity did lead to more activity during the day, and our mission was accomplished. That probably wouldn’t have been the case without a) Trosset’s expertise at putting us where we would find the most fish, but also b) having plenty of live chum to stir things up.


The variety seems endless; this lane snapper approaches trophy size for the species.

Although it’s a short run from Key West Harbor, Western Dry Rocks offers plenty of structure around the reef crest. We fished spots along there from the Dry Rocks and west 15 miles or so to Cosgrove Shoal.

It didn’t take long for rods to start bending once Trosset (spindriftfishing​.com, rtspindrift@​, 305-797-5693) had anchored his 34-foot Yellowfin and began putting scent — via frozen chum blocks — in the water, followed by flash, in the form of handfuls of wriggling pilchards from the generous supply in the baitwell.

In two days, we ended up with a pretty respectable species list, including: yellow jacks (great nearshore game fish!), cero mackerel (a couple of impressive size), rock hinds, yellowtail snapper (fired-up enough even to grab my topwater plug), kingfish, little tunny, gag grouper, scamp, gray snapper, red grouper, lane snapper, black grouper, jack crevalle and goliath grouper. Although we didn’t happen to catch any mutton snapper, blackfin tuna or hogfish (for which live jumbo shrimp are the real ticket), they’re among a number of other species anglers commonly take in these waters.

If our success seemed easy, that was largely a reflection of Trosset’s 38 years as a Key West fishing guide. Most anglers don’t have that sort of experience, so I endeavored to pick the captain’s brain, in his occasional moments when not rigging up or releasing or boating a fish.

A Catch-All Bait


bait well
Live “white-bait” chumming around rocks and coral heads usually stirs things up in a hurry.

What eats pilchards?

Easier question: What doesn’t?

“All game fish I know of eat pilchards,” Trosset says.

They’re most available around Key West from October into June, then harder to come by during the warmer months.

Although you get what you get when catching ’em, if you end up with various size options in your live well, Trosset suggests 4- to 6-inchers for sails, kings and wahoo and 2- to 4-inchers for blackfin, cero and other smaller predators.

That said, elephants do eat peanuts also: “During the years we were catching big yellowfin tuna here — 100- to 200-pounders — they’d be filled with small pilchards, but never large ones,” Trosset says.

Pilchards are the live bait of choice for almost everything. Reasonably hardy and abundant, pilchards are caught by Trosset both by cast-netting and by using sabiki rigs.