Dry Tortugas Snapper-Grouper Fest

Non-stop action from snapper and grouper rewards those who know the spots and make the long day trip from Key West to fish these waters.

RED SNAPPER ON FLY

Located not quite 70 miles west of Key West, Florida's Dry Tortugas include a small atoll with famous Fort Jefferson taking up most of the largest island, Garden Key (apparently named by someone with a wry and ironic sense of humor). While some of the waters within the Dry Tortugas National Park are closed to fishing, much of the surrounding area is open and, for boats making the long run from Key West, amazingly productive, as Capt. Rob Delph showed us. We enjoyed pretty much nonstop action from snapper and grouper all day. Pictured above is one of the most Tortugas-savvy anglers on the planet, Rob Hammer, who struck first blood with a red snapper on fly. (Being the day before the federal 10-day season opened, this fish was quickly released and swam back down.)Doug Olander

THE TORTUGAS BECKON

A western extenstion of the Florida Keys, the Tortugas beckon from Key West; fishing its waters is a long but do-able day trip. (Map courtesy Googlemaps.com)

TRASH TALKIN'

The customary beer-for-shrimp-boat-trash swap yields a mesh bag loaded with an amazing array of bycatch — small fish and crustaceans — shoveled from the deck of the boat. That’s a lot of fresh chum.Doug Olander

GOLD MINE FOR GROUPER

Find structure or relief in the waters of the Tortugas and you’ll find any of several species of grouper (here, a brace of reds and, in the middle, a scamp).Doug Olander

CHUMMNG 'EM UP

Shrimp-boat chum is a great way to get a rise out of fish that would otherwise be too deep for a fly, and Delph stopped chumming long enough to capitalize.Doug Olander

STUBBORN FIGHTER

After a tough fight, Delph releases his prize, a thick-bodied little tunny.Doug Olander

OSTENTATIOUS IN ORANGE

From my experience, the Tortugas continue to offer some of the most reliable fishing for prized, bright-hued mutton snapper anywhere.Doug Olander

MUTTON ATTACK

Muttons readily attack jigs and plastic lures.Doug Olander

A FUTURE IN FIBERGLASS

Ray Douglas, of King Sailfish Mounts, admires a hefty red grouper which would make most anglers think of dinner, but which Douglas took back on ice to use for a mold from which countless fiberglass replica mounts can be made.Doug Olander

BIG BLACK

Proving that blind-pig saw, I bested this black grouper of 30 pounds or so using 30-pound braid on Daiwa's brand-new Saltiga 4000H. It hit a 6-ounce Hogy Harness Jig in about 180 feet.Doug Olander

SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE FORT

Meanwhile, back at the fort — Fort Jefferson — folks were setting up tents in the limited area the Park Service provides for the purpose, and they’ll soon be firing up the grills to cook dinner. Boats can offload but a “1-hour parking” rule means they need to anchor away from the park overnight.Doug Olander

ABANDONED SENTINEL

The fort and its famed moat were built during the second half of the 19th Century to protect strategic waters, but the strucure was abandoned by the U.S. Army shortly thereafter.Doug Olander

FUN ON FLY

Red snapper this size were a dime a dozen. While we released them all, they offered great sport on fly and light gear.Doug Olander

WHAT A DOWNER

Red snapper brought up from depths sufficient to cause barotrauma would have simply floated away if released. Instead, we lowered them 50 feet with this Seaqualizer and didn't see them again.Doug Olander

BUCKET-LIST SCRATCH-OFF

Daiwa’s marketing director, Curt Arakawa, flew out from Southern California to sample Tortugas’ fishing and wasn’t disappointed. Here, he pulls in his first-ever mutton snapper.Doug Olander

MUTTONS AND MORE MUTTONS

A fat one, caught by Delph, is destined for the fish box, as Hammer (background) fishes a live bait in hopes of another.Doug Olander

SNAPPER ON ICE

And there you go: In the fish box as promised. Delph had plenty of ice onboard to ensure the quality of these great-eating snappers and groupers.Doug Olander

SILVER SURPRISE

That’s one fat jolthead porgy, caught on a lead-head jig by Hammer, who donated it to Douglas. By now the latter has no doubt made his first jolthead porgy fiberglass mold.Doug Olander

A GOOD GAG

This respectable gag grouper, with its bright-blue pelvic fins, went right back down, since the species was out of season at that time in federal waters.Doug Olander

UNMISTAKEABLE TAIL

Arakawa pulls in another scamp, easily identified thanks to its ragged tail, much like that of the Pacific broomtail grouper.Doug Olander

A PORTRAIT IN RED

Closeup of a red grouper that couldn’t resist my Hogy Harness Jig.Doug Olander

LAST FISH

The last fish of the trip was this small red grouper, caught by Hammer using light (20-pound) braid on a Daiwa Ballistic spinner.Doug Olander