Fall Fishing in Key West, Florida

We put Fin-Nor's latest tackle to the test in October off the southernmost city.

Sometimes you just know a fishing trip is going to be action-packed. That's when you pull out the light tackle to see what you and your gear are made of! I joined Fin-Nor fishing tackle down in Key West to test their new Mega Lite and Primal reels on "flag" yellowtail snapper, grouper, mackerel, blackfin tuna and other species. Key West captains R.T. and Chris Trosset hosted us and provided their expertise for two days of fishing west of the Marquesas.

castnet baitfish
Prepping With PilchardsSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

Netting bait is often an exercise in futility, but this past October the Trossets had it easy. Capt. Chris Trosset, son of R.T. Trosset, throws a pancake on a shallow flat. His 32-foot Contender is surrounded by a cloud of grey pilchards, oblivious to the hull and net above. R.T. relies on pilchards to kick-start the bite at some of his favorite bottom-fishing spots.

He's after sand-key and razor-edge pilchards, preferring the two different types of baits in different scenarios. "The razor-edge are smaller and perfect for chumming to pelagics," he says, "while the sand-key are larger, but much more fragile, so I'll use them for bottom fish."

bait station
Chum Until They ComeSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

After a speedy 40-minute run west, and a necessary anchor drop to position up-current of the bottom structure, Trosset started chumming the waters behind the boat. We were posted along a drop from 70 to 160 feet that looked like a nub on the bottom machine. Trosset tossed out pilchards with the current while we free-lined baits on yellowtail jigheads ( a small J-hook with the weight attached to the hook shank).

Fin-Nor Bait Teaser
A Bait TeaserSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

Although the Fin-Nor Bait Teaser was not a new reel this year, it's still a prime option for yellowtail fishing. The reel can disengage from its primary drag to allow a pilchard to free-line and drift back with the current naturally. Yellowtails require a natural presentation, especially larger fish, sometimes 30 yards or more behind the boat. When a yellowtail hits, start reeling — the angler never has to flip the bail on his spinning reel.

big yellowtail snapper
Flag YellowtailsSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

Soon, the big yellowtails started to cooperate. Angler Mark MacKenzie, Bonnier's content strategy director for the fishing group, landed this full-size specimen on Fin-Nor's Mega Lite reel.

yellowtail catch
Going DeepSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

Next up, angler Alan McGuckin landed this 'tail. He used the Mega Lite spinner, but kept the bail open to allow the pilchard to drift back with the current. Once line raced off the reel signaling a fish, he flipped the bail and cranked the reel handle. There's an obvious correlation between how deep we fished and the size of the yellowtails caught—go deep for bigger snapper.

Cero mackerel
Mack AttackMark MacKenzie

Another common technique while anchored over hard-bottom and reef structure is to free-line live baits for mackerel. Regular Keys mackerel catches include kings and ceros, and we caught both on this trip. Pictured, this cero mackerel fights for freedom near the boat.

Fin-Nor Primal
Top SecretSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

This lever-drag from Fin-Nor won't be available until 2018. Called the Primal, Fin-Nor's Chris Littau says the reel will be introduced at next year's ICAST show. I can't go into details, but this reel is the definition of a workhorse.

shark eats mangrove snapper
SharkedSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

MacKenzie used the Primal reel to live-bait this hefty mangrove snapper. He was a little too slow during the fight and a shark clipped the snapper's tail. (No problem, we still ate the tasty snapper for dinner that night!)

mutton snapper
Key West's Most Famous SnapperSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

Moving around to different spots throughout the day, Capt. Chris Trosset anchored us over live bottom in about 50 feet of water that afternoon. Dropping down live-bait rigs that mimic a bass angler's dropshot rig, we caught the attention of plenty of mutton snapper. Most of the snapper were shorts, but a couple were long enough to ice in the cooler. Besides muttons, our boatful of anglers caught porgies, false albacore, jacks, grouper and snapper from the sea-fan bottom. Reef fishing off Key West offers mixed-bag catches that all can enjoy.

Key West blackfin tuna fishing
Sundown Triple HookupSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

With the sun waning in the west, Trosset anchored us in 200 feet of water off Key West. Below us sat a massive rubble pile while we live-chummed pilchards at the surface in hopes of igniting a blackfin tuna bite. The goal was to throw topwaters into the melee when the tuna showed, but that scenario never played out. At one point, tuna surfaced far behind the boat. Thankfully, we had live baits set at the surface that far back in the spread. Alan McGuckin (center), Mark MacKenzie (right), and Chris Littau (left) all hooked up at the same moment.

blackfin tuna
Tough Tuna BiteSam Hudson/ sportfishingmag.com

Only MacKenzie's fish turned out to be a blackfin tuna.

shark catch
Wary of the TeethSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

McGuckin (who goes by "Guck") had the feistiest fish of the three. Using 20-pound braid and a short fluorocarbon leader, he managed to bring to boat side a 5-foot shark that weighed 75 pounds. He was fishing with Fin-Nor's newly redesigned Offshore spinner model, introduced at this year's ICAST show. Lighter in weight and just as durable, I'm not surprised Guck made short work of the shark.

filleting yellowtail snapper
Dinner is ServedSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

After a full 12 hours of fishing, we finally made it back to Hurricane Hole Marina in Key West. All of us were concerned with Hurricane Matthew, expected to hit the state of Florida later in the week. Chris, pictured, and R.T. headed straight to the cleaning tables to fillet our catches. Between the two boats fishing all day, we had plenty of fish to feed our 10 anglers. Hurricane Hole Marina Restaurant prepped all of our fish for dinner and provided enough sides to constitute a feast.

Hurricane Hole Marina
Gluttons for PunishmentSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

The second day of fishing, I joined Capt. R.T. Trosset aboard his 34-foot Yellowfin center console. With Hurricane Matthew looming, the weather held out and we headed out to the Marquesas for a half-day fishing. Because there were at least 10 anglers in our party, we fished in two separate boats, but generally hung close enough together share the fishing action.

gag grouper
Mixed BagAlan McGuckin

When mate Patrick Cline wasn't helping set baits and re-rig aboard Capt. R.T.'s boat, he was fishing too. Pictured, he landed this black grouper on a live pilchard bounced along the bottom.

hooked up to a sawfish
What did I Hook?Sam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

After a couple different goliath grouper nabbed our hooked snapper at the boat, Cline decided he wanted to hook one. He rigged up a Fin-Nor Marquesa 30 — fitting, since we were in sight of the Marquesas keys— and rigged a live blue runner to 150-pound leader. Soon he was hooked up.

Sam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com
Surprise CatchMark MacKenzie

But that goliath grouper turned out to be a massive sawfish. Measuring longer and larger than any angler on the boat, the sawfish took Cline all over the place, sometimes pinning him to the gunwale. Capt. R.T. estimated the fish was at least 12 feet long. We took a couple photos of the camera-shy fish before the leader parted on the fish's toothy nose.

Key West cobia
A Cobia PassengerSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

When the sawfish came to the surface, so did this cobia. Luckily, we had a jig rigged and ready to cast. Capt. R.T. Trosset dropped the lure in front of the cobia with frightening accuracy. Game on!

red grouper
Artificials Work TooSam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

Catching grouper on pilchards is fun. Landing them on soft plastics is even better. This red grouper attacked a Z-Man soft-plastic jigged along the bottom. Red grouper were the most common catch on the jigs, though I suspect some bigger jacks broke us off before we could identify them.

Key West barracuda
A Reef RegularAlan McGuckin

Every Key West reef seems to have a resident barracuda, and we caught a couple. Like mackerel, cudas will jump clear out of the water after a baitfish. We had two instances when barracuda rocketed on our baits, with one almost landing inside the boat. But just to experience that kind of excitement is worthwhile. Between the many different species caught over the two days of fishing, Fin-Nor tackle passed our torture tests with flying colors.