A Day on the Yabba Issue One—Summer Season

Many of you poring over this website might be trying to get an idea of, well, gee, I’ve got some vacation time in early June, the kids will be out of school…what would it be like if we made our way down to Islamorada and really did this thing…you know, pull the trigger, book Capt. Steve and the Yabba Dabba Doo?

The “A Day on the Yabba” series is designed to do just that, answer this question for you as a painting, in words—that is, a picture of exactly the kinds of things you can expect at different times of the year, and for different kinds of fishing options you might elect to try based on input from your captain. The following description could happen any time from late March to late September, with the heart of the summer season running from late April to mid-September.

Capt. Steve will ask you to show up fairly early in the morning to get a good start on your day. The sun may be just peeking over the horizon as you park near the boat, grab your lunch and drinks, and walk over towards the gleaming white fishing boat with the colorful transom. The mate will be bustling around the cockpit making sure everything is aboard and just right. Capt. Steve will be in and out of the salon area, and in the cockpit too. The air will be balmy, you’ll likely feel light puffs of fresh ocean breeze wafting in from offshore, and the palm fronds will be whispering. The sunrise will be lighting billowing cumulus clouds aglow in every shade of orange.

One of the first things you’ll notice in the early morning light is the beautiful clear water, even in the marina slip. Perhaps one of Capt. Steve’s enormous “pet” tarpon will glide by, looking for a handout. Gaudy black and yellow sergeant majors, bluestriped grunts, mangrove snappers, and other tropical reef fish will be swimming around the pilings. You might notice a few antennae sticking out of the rock crevices at the base of the slip—those are Capt. Steve’s “pet” spiny lobsters.

Your crew will quickly and efficiently have your lunches and drinks stowed and have you comfortably settled aboard, lounging on cushioned cockpit chairs, around the salon table, air conditioner humming, or you might like to take in the view from the bridge as the diesels come to life and the mate releases the docklines. You’ll feel a palpable atmosphere of excited anticipation as the Yabba idles out into the channel leading offshore between shimmering flats of sand and turtle grass, which will build quickly as your captain pushes the throttles forward in the deeper water beyond the channel mouth to head offshore.

The main target species on summer trips is usually mahi mahi, which means you will head straight off the reef edge, about 4 miles offshore, and out into the gorgeous blue waters of the Gulf Stream. Sometimes the Yabba crew will stop briefly at a baitfish patch reef on the way out and quickly cast net some live bait, or they may already have loaded up live baitfish from their dockside cages. Mahi mahi are normally aggressive feeders and will readily take lures, or freshly thawed or fresh dead bait like ballyhoo, squid, or chunks or strips of tuna, but if you get a picky individual or school, having live bait can be the difference between a slow day and a massive success. What else might you catch? Wahoo, blackfin tuna, skipjack tuna, sailfish, white marlin, blue marlin, longbill spearfish, sharks, amberjacks, groupers, snappers, porgies, tilefish, rainbow runners, barracuda…to name a few.

Now that the sun is up and rising fast, and as the Yabba skims quickly over the sea you’ll find yourself in impossibly beautiful blue water. Capt. Steve will have his binoculars out looking for birds, he’ll be studying the ocean surface carefully for weed lines, current lines, and debris, he’ll be listening to early chatter amongst the fishing boats on the VHF radio, and he may even make a mobile phone call or two to a couple of the other elite captains to get an idea of how far offshore these migrating mahi mahi are streaming through. He’ll inevitably be fielding inquiries from other captains, as the Yabba is one of the fastest and most experienced operations in the fleet, and is often well offshore with a good catch in hand before the other boats have even reached the strike zone. In the midst of all of that, Capt. Steve always has time to explain what’s going on, and socialize with clients, many of whom have been looking forward to this day for months.

Somewhere along the line—maybe 8, maybe 10 or 12, maybe even 25 miles-plus offshore, the throttles will come back, and it’ll be time to fish. Capt. Steve might just like the looks of the conditions, have the mate put out a full spread of rigged baits and lures, with sight-casting rods readily at hand, and start trolling at 6 to 8 knots. Or, he might have spotted a tell-tale group of hovering and diving terns, and already be maneuvering the boat for sight casting to or trolling by a school of mahi mahi. If it’s a slick-calm morning way offshore, he may even have driven out from high in the tower, and spotted a floating pallet or log, loaded with mahi mahi, and, beneath them, a pack of wahoo. Or, he might have come upon a current edge loaded with Sargasso weed, and begin the search along this feature.

When the action starts, it’s often fast and furious, and very, very exciting. Mahi mahi are among the fastest and most beautiful creatures that swim, and when they want a bait or a lure, they race in at, literally, 60 miles per hour to inhale it. Oftentimes the day starts with school-sized fish, from a few to 10 or 12 pounds, excellent and spectacular fighters on light spinning tackle…lightning fast runs, stunning leaps and greyhounds…and then a quick trip over the side and into an icy cooler where they quickly and humanely come to rest. The mate will add seawater to the ice, creating a sub-freezing slush, which essentially freezes the skin color and makes the fillets firm, perfect, and delectable for an unforgettable evening meal. Capt. Steve encourages his clients not to take more than they need of these schoolies—sometimes you will have a school of literally hundreds of fish up behind the boat—so that catch and release fishing can take the place of unnecessarily killing large numbers. This is a great time to break out light spinning rods with popping lures and barbless hooks, or fly rods, and relax and enjoy these incredible gamefish. Often Capt. Steve is able to keep the school close to the boat by leaving a hooked individual in the water, chumming, and idling slowly southwest as the school keeps pace at and around the transom. It’s an unforgettable sight, the lovely neon-blue speedsters, with bright lemon-yellow tails or even flashing green with dark bars as they attack baits, against the brilliant blue background of subtropical ocean.

With a good catch of school dolphin in hand, Capt. Steve will often then turn his attention to sight fishing for “slammers”. These are small pods of large mahi mahi, from over 12 to over 50 pounds, traveling in groups of often two to seven or so, with one or more males, or “bulls”, each attended by one to several females, or “cows.” These larger mahi often migrate in deeper water, outside the area where school dolphin may be pouring through, along the drop-off in 1,000 to 1,200 foot depths, or deeper. Fishing for the big ones takes more patience, and meticulous hunting on the part of your captain. He will usually spot the pod, or signs that one is swimming in the vicinity, such as a hovering, diving frigate bird or terns, maneuver the boat in front of their swimming path, clamber up to the tower, and direct sight-casting of whole squid, flyingfish, ballyhoo, or live baits to the various individuals in the group. When the fish eats, the client will have been instructed to allow the mahi to swallow the bait while the line is in free-spool, then close the bail, quickly wind up the slack, come tight, and set the hook. Then, the battle is on, often initiated by high leaps, greyhounding, and blistering runs. Twenty to 50 pound mahi mahi on 20 pound test spinning tackle are one of the great sportfishing experiences for any angler.

What else might happen? Well, even though Islamorada isn’t a premier destination for specifically targeting blue marlin, they do pass through the area in some numbers in the spring and summer, and the meticulous, harder-working captains consistently catch them every year. One way to do this is to run a marlin teaser short in front of one of the flat lines, which is armed with a marlin lure. Another is to put out a live school dolphin on marlin tackle while catching its schoolmates. Yet another is to slow-troll larger live baits or a marlin lure spread along specific deep walls and drop-offs. The other effective strategy is to troll heavy monofilament leaders and appropriate terminal tackle for all dolphin dead-bait and bait/lure combinations, so that when a blue or white marlin pounces on it, you hook them on gear capable of catching them. The best boats also always have a blue marlin rig ready on stand-by in case of a sighting, so that if one rushes in while you are catching school dolphin or in any other circumstances, your deckhand will have a live bait in the water on the marlin rig in a blink of an eye, enabling you to capitalize on the opportunity. These are all strategies employed on the Yabba, so it’s little wonder they catch as many marlin as any boat in the area.

In the heat of the summer, from late July to early September, Capt. Steve may opt to fish for mahi mahi early, and then spend the middle of the day deep-dropping—which often raises mahi mahi from the cooler depths they may descend to in the hottest part of the day. Deep-dropping means maneuvering the Yabba in power drifts, and sending heavily-weighted, multiple-hook rigs baited with live or dead baits down usually 400 to 900 feet to productive areas of the seafloor—ledges, pinnacles, and sharp slopes—inhabited by delicious-eating tilefish, snappers, groupers, porgies, rudderfish, and other species. Normally you will be using electric reels, and the action is often fast and furious. The rod tip goes from bent to horizontal as the bait hits the bottom, you hit the button to get the rig clear by a few feet, and BANG, BANG the rod starts jumping. Capt. Steve will sometimes be able to count the number of fish loading up on the circle hooks, and only instruct you to hit the retrieve button when the rig is loaded with multiple fish. Whether you bring up crimson red vermilion or yelloweye snappers, pink porgies, blueline or golden tilefish, or snowy or misty groupers, it’s always an exciting mixed bag and you never know for sure what you have until you’ve got them to the surface. Recent regulations protect many of these species, so your mate may need to release air from the bladders and release some species, but the good news is the fishery has returned to good health in many cases and has re-opened for harvest, with strict bag limits. These fish tend to have delicious firm white meat which local restaurants will prepare for you at the end of the day. Then, in the afternoon, you will often either troll your way in, or cruise home on a plane with eyes peeled for mahi rising to feed as the surface temperatures cool.

There’s a lot more that can happen on summer trips—dropping or slow-trolling live baits around wrecks and seamounts, often for big amberjacks and almaco jacks, anchoring up on the reef to fish for yellowtail snappers, mutton snappers, groupers, and other premier species, and specifically targeting other gems like wahoo. One common scenario is to find a pallet or log, catch the mahi around it, and then switch tactics to drop live baits deep on wire rigs, or deep-troll lures or rigged baits repeatedly by and under the debris, catching the school-sized wahoo that often stack up deep under the mahi in such situations. It’s not uncommon to catch six to twelve wahoo or more under such floating objects, and adding these neon-banded speedsters to your catch will thrill everyone aboard.

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