As if large expanses of unspoiled reef fishing weren't enough, the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles west of Key West (and 90 miles from Cuba), offer anglers huge chum machines, anchored in 50 to 170 feet of water, swarming with game fish just waiting to be hooked.
Sound too good to be true? It is -- for all but a limited number of private and charter boats out of Key West that can handle the logistics of a very long day trip or overnighting aboard. Having spent some days fishing here with one skipper who is equipped to take advantage of the Tortugas' varied fishing -- and who has probably done so more than anyone -- I can attest to just how fast and diverse the action can be.
If you want to enjoy Dry Tortugas fishing at its best and certainly its fastest, be prepared to do some trash-talkin'. That's because it's all about trash -- shrimp-boat trash.
With acre after acre of productive shrimp grounds out here, scores of commercial shrimp netters ply these waters by night. Then, as dawn approaches, they anchor over reefs 50 to 120 feet deep where they'll finish sorting their catches or just cleaning their decks, dumping over the bycatch, or "trash." Then they'll spend most of the day at anchor, asleep in their upside-down world of day and night.
That bycatch is unfortunate since it means that for every pound of shrimp caught, about a pound of unwanted rock shrimp, crabs, squid and other invertebrates, plus small fish including juvenile snapper and other species, goes back over the side, dead. Such bycatch is inevitable as long as shrimpers exercise their right to drag nets through the ocean.
While that's bad news for the ecology of the area, it is nevertheless a managed fishery that's quite legal (see sidebar "Barter for Bycatch: Is It Ethical?"), and it presents a great opportunity for anglers. Capt. Rob Hammer, who lives in Miami but fishes out of Key West, has been taking advantage of the opportunity for many years and has it down to a science.
Hammer likes to get away from Key West before daylight to reach the shrimpers as early as possible. In his 31-foot SeaVee, powered by twin Yamaha 225 four-strokes, he can make the 70-mile run to the Tortugas in less than two hours with decent conditions. That leaves time to stop at a tower to sabiki up some pilchards and blue runners for the baitwell and still find the shrimpers by 9 a.m. On overnight trips, the run to find shrimp boats from Fort Jefferson is only a few quick miles.
Spending the night anchored up in the fort's protected harbor offers pretty good odds of making contact with a shrimper around dawn, which is just what Hammer did on my last trip with him. While we ate a quick breakfast aboard (camping on the island, not permitted at press time, was apparently about to resume), we monitored the VHF. Soon the chatter of shrimp-vessel skippers gave Hammer an opportunity to ask one, who'd just announced his plan to anchor near the K Buoy (about a 4-mile run), to hold a few bushels of trash for him. The skipper cheerfully promised to do so, though not simply out of whatever goodness may have been in his heart. He knew that better skippers like Hammer say thanks for the help with a couple of six-packs of cold beer -- always welcome in the hot Caribbean sun.
Before running out, we took advantage of the usual populations of pilchards in the harbor. With three throws of the cast net, Hammer filled his livewell, and we ran out to K Buoy.
By the time we arrived, three shrimp boats sat at anchor in about 50 feet of water near the buoy, and two or three more were steaming in. Hammer knew which boat he had already talked to on the VHF and pulled up along its broad stern. We tied off to the shrimper and made the boat-to-boat transaction (helped by the flat-calm conditions). Soon, the swim platform of Hammer's SeaVee was awash in small, colorful and very dead little fish and invertebrates -- and just from the bits of bycatch falling into the water around the platform edges as Hammer turned over each bushel to empty it out, the water under the boat began to come alive.
The fish, he explains, had shown up before we arrived. "That's why I always try to get to the first shrimp boat to anchor up. The first boat to anchor just seems to always have the majority of fish around it."
Even when a crew has shoveled over most of the boat's bycatch before anchoring, as "our" boat had done, predators show up as soon as the first shrimper sets anchor, Hammer insists. He likens their response to classic Pavlovian conditioning -- since these boats often dump bycatch at anchor, fish associate the hull with dinner.
Sounded like a good theory to me, especially when I looked down to see scores of brilliantly hued yellowtail snapper -- with which we quickly began connecting. For the small-mouthed, 2- to 4-pound snapper, we baited up with rock shrimp, mantis shrimp, small crabs and small fish, picked from our vast supply of bycatch/chum, and free-lined them down to the waiting fish.
Below the yellowtail waited mutton snapper. These muttons weren't huge, averaging perhaps 6 to 12 pounds, but they were abundant, as Hammer soon proved. He baited up with live pilchards, putting the hook of a bare 1/4 ounce jig through the mouth and sending it down on 20-pound line, to catch them one after the other.
While those two species provided the bulk of our snapper catch, we also pulled in several gray snapper of 3 to 5 pounds, a small black grouper, a tough horseye jack and a small hog snapper. We even spotted a sailfish chasing bait off the stern of a nearby shrimper.
What we didn't hook were any permit. That proved about the only disappointment because these prized game fish, so elusive and infrequent on the flats where most anglers seek them, can be ridiculously plentiful around the Tortugas in warmer months. "Permit can be a real nuisance out here at times," says Hammer. "I've had days when we've put out 50 baits and hooked up close to 50 permit!"
That's why he puts aside the juiciest crabs from the shrimpers' trash and makes sure to fish some near bottom. Still, they're not around every day, especially as the weather cools.
What we also didn't hook or even see were large sharks. "I almost never lose fish to sharks around the shrimp boats," Hammer says. "I have no idea why." Few anglers complain, mind you. The absence of fish-stealers doesn't extend to barracuda, which, as one familiar with these waters might suppose, do tend to show up, hanging off the stern to help themselves to snapper and whatever else they have a mind to slice in half.
We didn't hook a king mackerel, but had we been there a month or so later, we probably could have had as much light-tackle excitement from ravenous kings as we'd wanted -- and maybe more. "The kingfish get so thick in the winter that sometimes we can use only crabs for bait because they eat everything else," Hammer says. Often these are of the smoker variety; he took 44 last year weighing more than 38 pounds.
Shrimp boats don't always anchor over the fairly shallow reefs near K Buoy; depending on their location and conditions, they may anchor in other areas, often in deeper water. It's these shrimpers that Hammer seeks out in the spring, for that is tuna time -- with cobia often joining the fray.
Tuna were on our minds when Hammer ran to the Tortugas last spring, but we had a tough time finding a shrimp boat at anchor. Before we were within sight of Fort Jefferson, Hammer spotted one on the horizon and made for it. Upon arriving, we found a good news/bad news scenario. The boat was running, not yet ready to stop to anchor. But it had a deck replete with bycatch not yet pushed overboard, and the crew were only too glad to give us as many bushels as the SeaVee could handle.
For the next frustrating hour or so, Hammer headed west-southwest, looking for a shrimper anchored up. When he finally found one, the crew apparently had gone below to sleep. Gulls sat idly on the rigging as the hull rocked gently in the minimal chop.
I tried to mask my disappointment, especially seeing no activity at all in the water behind or around the boat. But that didn't seem to deter Hammer. He started drifting just off the shrimper's stern and began tossing over handfuls of chum from the bycatch we'd gotten earlier. (Unlike our shrimp-boat action in shallow water, out here he avoids anchoring since hooked tuna tend to tangle lines in the shrimpers' heavy teaser chains hanging down in the water along each side from booms.)
Soon I began seeing silver flashes in the periphery of the area where baits drifted slowly in the clear water.
"They're heeeeeere!" Hammer announced with a sly grin. As I grabbed a rod from a rocket launcher, Bill Liston, of the Daiwa Corporation, was already baiting up. Liston had brought some of his new Saltiga reels to try out and was about to get the chance. Soon three of four rods were bent, and everyone was trying to stay clear of each other. We managed to drop two of the fish, releasing the third -- a bonito (little tunny), probably like those that had gotten off.
We soon learned that the larger, more prized blackfin were both fewer in number and deeper. They tended to stay below the tunny, though if we chummed more heavily they could be enticed to come to the top and bully the tunny out of the way. Then anglers needed to be ready to drop a bait right to one -- "sight-dropping," as it were. Soon we had the hang of doing this and pulling the offering quickly away when a bonito rather than a blackfin made a beeline for it. Even so, we hooked about three tunny to every blackfin. (That ratio can be the reverse when the blackfin move in thickly enough.)
Hammer seemed pretty adept at hooking blackfin. I noticed that when he went to bait up, he didn't grab just any small fish from the pile. Rather, he pawed through it to pull out, time and again, a ... little puffer! Far cry from a herring or pilchard or the like, but for some reason, tunny just don't seem to care for them. Blackfin, however, do.
After two or three action-packed hours, the pace slowed, and most of the blackfin disappeared. What about moving into open water and looking for tuna? I wondered. Hammer explained that the odds of finding anything other than little tunny -- even while chumming -- are minimal in open water. The secret is finding a shrimp boat, especially early in the morning.
While we didn't get any cobia, they're often a common catch, along with tuna in fall and spring. The fall of 2003 didn't match the fall of 2002, when, Hammer says, cobes proved particularly numerous, with some whoppers pushing 70 to 80 pounds.
Never Had a Chance
With the tuna activity ramping down, Hammer suggested we do some grouper-trolling. Like shrimp-boat fishing, this is another of his specialties -- and one that can pay big dividends, especially during cold-weather months. "On my best day [of trolling for grouper]," he says, "we caught 96 in about six hours!" Hammer points out that the boat certainly didn't keep them all, and opportunity to release these grouper is excellent since he trolls reefs in just 15 to 50 feet of water. Larger grouper move into surprisingly shallow reefs in the winter months. Most of the trolled-grouper catch consists of reds and blacks, but can include gags, Nassau (of course always released by law), scamps, rock hind, and even yellowfin and tiger grouper.
He has fished a wealth of different plugs over the years. Few have come close to his favorite producer, the MirrOlure 111MR Floater, the skipper says, though lately a Mann's Stretch 30 has been producing, especially in 30 to 45 feet of water. Although we didn't land any monsters during the brief time we put out plugs (knowing that by April it was late enough in the year for many grouper to have moved out deeper), we caught several small grouper, mostly blacks. But mixed in were red grouper, as Sport Fishing's national sales manager Scott Salyers proved. He found himself rocked up before he could get a grouper away from bottom, then eased off as Hammer backed down, waited and got the fish out. Only it turned out to be two red grouper on the same plug -- and a third followed them up!
Shortly after that, we figured out there must be at least a few big grouper still around when one did its best to yank a rod right out of the stern corner flush gunwale holder. Before Liston could pick it up, something had line screaming off the reel so fast that the superbraid dug into itself on the spool. With a bang piercing enough to rival a rifle report, the line snapped and disappeared out the guides as the rod jerked straight and still. We never had a chance.
Beyond the Shrimp Boats
It's easy to spend a couple of days at the Tortugas just fishing the shrimp boats, the action and variety are so rewarding. But heading farther out to fish deeper areas can give you a shot at fish you're unlikely to catch around anchored shrimp boats. Skippers who fish out here much are likely to have the (lat/lon) numbers for quite a few productive spots. These typically are bumps or crevices in the generally featureless limestone bottom that offer just enough relief to attract large predators, both bottom dwellers and, above, blue-water pelagics like wahoo.
Hammer has a book full of these spots, and when the timing's right, a good stop in 200 to 300 feet of water can mean black grouper of 40 or 50 pounds or considerably more, red snapper generally 10 to 15 pounds but sometimes 25-plus, and amberjack big enough to make a WWF wrestler cry uncle.
But speaking of timing, be smarter than I was last time out, when I hoped to latch onto a braggin'-sized Warsaw grouper. We persuaded Hammer to put us over one of his grouper honey holes in 500-plus feet. Without a current, no problem hitting those depths with thin braided lines. But on this day, the current was raging -- and that should have come as no great surprise. The night before, at the fort, I enjoyed watching the full moon rise. I wasn't enjoying it much now, since full- and ebb-moon periods always mean big currents. Next time, I'll plan for a half-moon time; I just know that Warsaw's waiting for me.In fact, my experience in the Tortugas with Hammer in both spring and fall suggests certain inevitabilities about this fishery, notably, to expect to catch both a lot of fish and a lot of variety -- and to miss and lose plenty of fish as well. While much of the Tortugas remains off-limits to all fishing in no-take marine protected areas (see map), plenty of area remains open, assuring anglers enough opportunity for the sort of action that makes the long ride from Key West worthwhile. And when those chum machines turn on a Tortugas feeding frenzy, it's every angler for himself.