The nice thing about the Florida Keys is the amount of reef structure we have. The rest of the ocean is barren sand bottom, and the fish don’t like to congregate around that because they’re vulnerable to predation, but anywhere you have structure where they can hide, there’s going to be a lot of fish, from baitfish to snapper and grouper to ocean pelagics.
In most of the Keys, there’s a very good bite for yellowtail snapper on the edge of the reef in 50 to 70 feet of water. That bite is consistent all year, but the best fishing is from June through September, when the seas are calm and there’s a lot of juvenile baitfish in the area.
You’ll want to run out to the reef, and just slowly motor around looking for a good rocky ledge where you’re marking fish, then get up-current of that spot and set out your anchor. A big key to successfully catching yellowtail snapper is current, which will spread your chum across a large area and draw the fish to the boat. If there’s not a lot of current, you’re not going to pull in a lot of fish.
We use lots of chum, often 25 pound blocks of ground chum in chum bags which we supplement with horse oats to draw the fish towards the surface. You can find schools of yellowtail snapper anywhere up and down that reef line from Key Largo to Key West.
Unlike a lot of the other snapper species, yellowtail snapper are extremely line and leader shy, so I like using no more than 12 pound test when targeting them. The standard yellowtail outfit is clear Sufix 12-pound monofilament with no leader, a 1/16th ounce HookUp Jighead with a small piece of bait or a whole silverside. The key is to match the drift of your bait with the drift of the chum, so if the current is really moving you might have to use a little heavier jighead.
You want to freespool the bait back into the chum line with no tension so it falls naturally with the other bits of chum. When the bite comes the line will accelerate, and all you have to do is close the bail and reel the fish in.
You can supplement your ground chum with glass minnows, which will really get the fish feeding aggressively. Another thing a lot of yellowtail anglers do is make chum balls out of Masonry sand, ground chum or glass minnows and oats. They’ll pour all the contents into a five-gallon bucket and mix it up, and sometimes even add a little menhaden oil for scent. Then you form a palm-sized ball out of the mixture with your hands, and set it on the cutting board to dry and harden.
Once it’s hardened, you softly place it into the water and let it fall out of your hand. The chum ball will sink to the bottom and when it hits break open, exposing all the chum. The chum that’s still in the sand will get picked at by fish for several minutes, holding them in the area.
Yellowtail snapper fishing isn’t difficult, but you need to make sure you don’t skimp on the chum, or you can get the fish feeding well in your chum line and then run out. If that happens, the fish will quickly wander off.
The average yellowtail snapper in the Florida Keys is around two pounds, with a lot of three and four pounders, and anything over five pound considered a flag yellowtail. With a little bit of effort and a lot of chum, you can catch enough snapper to fill your limit and provide dinner for your entire crew.Captain Tips