A Day on the Yabba Issue Two—Winter Season
OK, we’re still poring over this website trying to get an idea of what it would be like if we made our way down to Islamorada and really did this thing…pulled the trigger, booked Capt. Steve and the Yabba Dabba Doo. Now, you’ve read “A Day on the Yabba Issue One—Summer Season”, so instead of June, let’s say you’re up north somewhere in the U.S.A., it’s some time in December, January, or February, the wind is howling, the snow is blowing, and you’re saying “that’s nice about June, but we need a break right now, let’s head for the Keys…” What can you expect? The following description could happen any time from October through March, with the heart of the winter fishing season running mid-November to early March.
Again, Capt. Steve will ask you to show up fairly early in the morning to get a good start on your day. The days are shorter, and the sun may not quite be peeking over the horizon as you park at the marina, grab your lunch and drinks, and walk over towards the gleaming white fishing boat with the colorful transom. Although winter weather varies from calm, fairly warm, and settled, to cool and windy, let’s say it’s a classic winter day and a cool north wind is flowing. Again, the mate will be bustling around the cockpit making sure everything is aboard and just right, and Capt. Steve will be in and out of the salon area, and in the cockpit too. The air will be brisk and fresh, you’ll feel cool gusts, and the palm fronds will be rattling energetically. The sunrise to follow will be lighting small puffs of scudding winter clouds against a grayish-blue background. Perfect for sailfish, king mackerel, groupers, mutton snappers, wahoo, and other premier target species.
It’ll be all business as your crew quickly and efficiently stows your lunches and drinks, sets out chum and sand for catching live bait, and has you comfortably settled aboard. You might look up and see multiple white flags fluttering from the outriggers, featuring the blue profile of a sailfish, one for each of yesterday’s releases. The air will crackle with excitement. There’s nothing Capt. Steve loves better than sailfishing, a specialty to which his long list of tournament wins attests he is a top expert. Before you know it you’ll exit the channel and blast out to one of Capt. Steve’s pet bait patches, a short ride on the speedy Yabba, a mesh bag containing a frozen block of chum (oily, ground up fish that attracts schools of baitfish) goes over the side, suspended from one of the cleats by a short length of line, and the mate will be dropping anchor.
It sounds funny, yet the live bait-catching exercise that precedes winter fishing is one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of the trip. You can easily see the bottom through the clear water, and the swarms of fish rising to eat the bits of bait drifting out of the chum bag. Capt. Steve will hand you light spinning rods armed with small hooks and bait, small jigs, or tiny lures called bait quills, and get you fishing to give the crew a hand. You will catch blue runners, cigar minnows, and other species, usually one after the other, as fast as you can get the rig back into the water. Kids go ballistic at the bait patch, and for them it only gets better…large shimmering schools of ballyhoo come swarming in to the chum slick, and the mate gets ready with a big cast net, flinging it magically in a huge circle, then pursing it and retrieving it, lifting the net full of silvery, flopping fish aboard, and shaking them out into the live wells. Of course, the kids are encouraged to scramble around and grab the strays, and put them in, and then it gets even better. Capt. Steve will mix sand and chum into balls, toss these over, and the mate (or Steve) will throw the cast net, and this time let it sink to the bottom in search of cigar minnows and other premier bait. Again, the crew tugs hard on the line, purses the net, and pulls it back on board to empty into the live wells, except now there are different species in the net and the kids will be treated to their first sights of green razorfish, colorful wrasses, grunts, snappers, and other reef fish, which are quickly returned to the sea unharmed. By now, sometimes large mangrove snappers, cero mackerel, mutton snappers, or large barracuda may have cruised in to check out the action, and Capt. Steve may take a moment to put out a light spinning rod so the kids can catch a few of these before it’s time to haul anchor and go sailfishing. Needless to say, the kids often don’t want to leave the bait patch…I mean, here we are catching tons of fish in the most beautiful setting possible, and we’re leaving?
Unlike summer season fishing, it’s only minutes from the bait patch to the outer reef drop-off, about four miles offshore, three-plus of which you have already traveled. Unlike mahi mahi, sailfish migrate right down the edge of the reef. You can easily see the Keys and individual buildings and features as your crew deftly deploys four live baits, and perhaps a live-bait teaser (string of live baits trolled close by the transom with no hooks to attract sailfish into the trolling spread), in the 50 to 180-foot depths ideal for sails. Often this involves trolling two flatlines and one line from each outrigger, and at other times your crew will suspend live baits by flying fishing kites, the lines of which have two or more outrigger clips to allow deploying live blue runners and other frisky, hardy baits vertically. Then, it’s a waiting game, idling along the reef, watching for the purple shadows of flaring sails to appear behind your baits, one of the great sights in sport fishing. Often times you will see your live bait get very nervous and even start jumping and skipping first. Most sailfish strikes feature the magnificent visual treat of the majestic billfish lit up, swirling and excited, as it wheels in and grasps the bait between its bill and lower jaw, then sinks to turn the bait and swallow it…as you gently free-spool the slack from your reel. After a count of on average “ten one thousand”, Capt. Steve will give you the signal, you wind out the slack, and come tight to the fish, allowing the circle hook to gently and securely rotate securely into the corner of the fish’s jaw. Pandemonium follows—blistering runs, spectacular leaps, thrashings, tailwalks, greyhounding bounds. And guess what? Sails often attack in groups of two, three, or four, so other family or fishing group members may also be in various stages of dropping back, hooking, or fighting additional sails. Capt. Steve will let you know from the bridge or the tower who is over, who is under, and which of the fish he will back down on first to release.
Another very common phenomenon this time of year is sailfish, individuals or more often pods, racing up over the reef edge and chasing schools of ballyhoo, that leap frantically and repeatedly away in panicked horizontal bounds, en masse, creating unforgettable glittering cascades known as “bait showers.” Such showering activity can also occur in the deep water off the edge. Capt. Steve will shout a warning, hit the throttles, and race for the bait shower, as the mate quickly retrieves the trolling lines, pops off the bait, and attaches fresh live baits to casting rods. Steve will have scurried up into the tower, and will direct where to cast over his intercom loudspeaker. Clients never fail to be thrilled by the sight of two or three blue-black sailfish silhouetted against the white sand of the shallows, maybe in only 15 feet of water, and watching them race to eat a perfectly cast live ballyhoo right before their eyes.
And sailfishing is hardly the only winter season option. This is also prime time for king mackerel, often available from 10 to 40-plus pounds. They’ll rise to eat surface-deployed baits, slow-trolled or from the fishing kite, and they are very susceptible to live baits trolled on downriggers at depth (and you can anchor up and catch them too). Capt. Steve is an expert at identifying clusters of big kings at depth on his color scope, and trolling live baits right into their midst. Another specialty of his is to go out to the reef edge first thing in the morning, use highly specialized hoop-netting techniques, and catch large, silvery mackerel scad (locally called speedos), pack his hi-tech, large capacity live wells with them, and then race to one of his favorite spots in 135 to 180 foot depths and troll them for extra-big king mackerel and hefty wintertime wahoo to 50-plus pounds. While you are catching these exciting fish on spinning tackle, Capt. Steve almost always has a sailfish bait out at the same time. He figures it’s kind of like a lottery, you’ve got to play to win.
Think that’s all? Not by a long shot. We’ll cover many specialty options in our spring/fall issue of the series, which is next, but while slow-trolling for big kings and wahoo, and/or sails, Capt. Steve will also often have a deep downrigger out, and troll slowly around one of his pet wrecks or ledges, to get you a big grouper, mutton snapper, African pompano, or other prize. This operation goes all out for their clients all day long, the only way to consistently deliver great fishing experiences.