In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous. Aristotle

Since I have most of my life I am fairly comfortable on the water. It's just a matter of offering a fish what they will eat in a manner that they can get it. It takes some doing but as my Robbie and I use to remind ourselves we are going fishing, not necessarily catching. But if Poseiden favors us I am really looking forward to enjoying some yellowfin and mutton grouper. And like they say a bad day fishing is still better than ..... Due to the variety of fishing methods used in the Keys the first thing I have done is to narrow down the type of fishing we will be doing. And it appears one of the simplest is bottom fishing on small patch reefs.


These reefs are general small and located all over the area. With the chartplotter and a day or two of exploring I am hoping to find some convenient sites that are holding fish.

I found the following article on line and it seems simple enough and will roughly guide me on my first trip. 

" The best way to find the most productive Patch Reefs is to troll in and around the areas with small lures; Yozuri’s and Rapalas have always served me well. Once I have a an idea of which patch reef is producing not only the most fish, but if I’m lucky, also the species I am craving for dinner, I will usually anchor up-current from the reef. Something not everyone may realize is that inconsiderate anglers and divers damage the reefs by dropping on top of them. It is much more environmentally friendly and better for your fishing if you drop anchor in the sand just up-current. You will also lose much less tackle by not snagging it on the coral, sea fans and any other life at the bottom.

Once you have found an area that you want to fish and have anchored, it is a good idea to put a block of chum in a chum bag and hang it over the side. This is like ringing the dinner bell as everything from small baitfish to sharks will find their way to the chum. Since the water is relatively shallow, tying it off to a stern cleat along with the rocking of the boat should produce a good chum slick provided there is some current; either current is usually fine as long as it is a moving tide.

I prefer to use live bait such as pilchard that I can easily catch by casting a net in the bay or by using sabiki rigs just outside the inlet, usually on the incoming tide. If no pilchard are to be found, cut ballyhoo or live shrimp work well too. Keep a sharp eye open for live Ballyhoo swimming in your chum slick, as these can be easily caught with small hooks or a cast net and can often bring in amazing results such as Grouper, etc.

The tackle I prefer to use while fishing in the shallow waters of the patch reef is light spinning tackle in the 10 to 20 pound class. Although I like the lighter tackle, the variety of species and sizes fishing the patch reefs makes me lean to the heavier side. Baitcasting gear in this range would be suitable as well. Pretty much anything you use will get results; I prefer small jigs tip with a piece of shrimp or strip of ballyhoo while my brother uses a fish finder rig with an egg sinker anywhere from 1/8 ounce to an ounce depending upon the current. Place this above a swivel then a few feet of leader of about 30 lb test and you are ready to go. I prefer to go to the light side on leaders and sinkers as well as I feel I get more action that way and I don’t lose as many fish as you may think."

I talked with a guy at West Marine in Marathon where we are stopping on the way down to purchase licenses and chartswho said he would even go out with me while down there. I may take him up on it. I definitely will take advantage of his knowledges in prepping.

Our target Yellow Snapper, Mutton Group and Mangrove Snapper. 


 In addition to being tasty, I remember from one trip down that a small Yellow Snapper on the line can attract larger fish.

Here is a second article that led me to believe patch reef fishing is the way to go.

For variety activity and accessibility not to mention edibility, there is no comparison to fishing the patches.

The patches are loosely defined, as their name suggests a roughly circular reef structure, found from the shore line to the outer edge of the reef line. They are found anywhere from in eight feet of water and reaching almost to the surface to just over forty feet in Hawks Channel, reaching to about fifteen feet of the surface.  The most productive however, are often those with very little relief from the bottom.  Patches that are found on top of the reef line in water about twenty feet deep and with only a few feet of relief can be active year round.  The variety of fish found on the patches, tend to over lap during the course of the year.  Some subtle differences though, are that the number of Grouper caught on the patches, is greater in the winter months, and more Snapper are caught in the summer half of the year.

Finding a patch reef with more than a few feet of relief is as simple as covering ground and watching your bottom finder.  You have found one when there is a sharp rise on the screen.  Often when the visibility is good on the reef, you can easily see the patches for your self.  A glass bottom viewing bucket is handy for verifying that the bottom you have located is a coral outcropping and not a grass ledge.  For those times when you cannot see the bottom, you will need to learn what the bottom differences look like on your recorder.  Bottom that has a good covering of both hard and soft corals will tend to appear fuzzy or shaded on your screen.

After locating a prospective reef you should motor up current from the edge of the reef.  Anchor so that you drop back to where you are hanging within casting distance, and your chum will travel out over the center line of the reef.

The use of chum while fishing the patches will make the difference between fishing and catching.  On most days there is enough current flowing over the reef to carry the sent of your chum a long way.  Fish that are feeding down current and cross your chum line will follow it back to its origin.  The activity created by bait fish attracted to the chum, can often coerce fish that are not biting into changing their tune.  

Chum is most effectively deployed by use of a chum cage, as opposed to that of a chum bag.  Frozen commercial chum should be left in its box and only the corner or very end of the box be torn away to regulate the flow of chum.  For calm days place the chum in the cage with the open end down to help the flow of chum.  On rough days place the box open end up to slow the flow.  By the way if your brand of chum comes in a plastic bag it must be removed prior to placing the chum into the cage.  One last word about chum….The boxes are not disposable at sea, they are most definitely trash, they do not readily bio degrade, and should be brought back and disposed of properly.

Bait should be presented toward the reef, along the outer fringe in the sandy edge, in order to draw the fish away from the cover of the reef.  Bait, that end up on the reef top, have a high probability of never making it out.  Once a fish takes the bait you should set hook before he can reach cover.  In other words there is no finessing a fish away from reef cover with light lines and loose drags.  If you choose much less than twenty pound test line, you will probably loose more fish than you catch. 

When rigging your terminal tackle it is usually best to follow the K.I.S.S. method of rigging.  The knocker rig which employs an egg sinker threaded on to the line and allowed to slide all of the way to the hook probably accounts for the majority of fish taken on the patches.  The hook is usually a short shank live bait hook.  When a fish takes the bait the line slides freely through the egg sinker and is largely unnoticed by the fish until you come tight on the line when setting the hook.  By that time it is hopefully too late.   Another benefit of the knocker rig is that it keeps live bait closer to the sinker and helps avoid tangles on the reef structure.

When selecting bait for the patch reefs there are many options. If you were to use only pinfish for a live bait choice, and fresh ballyhoo for a dead bait choice, you would find few who could argue with the logic. Both pinfish and fresh ballyhoo are tough enough to stand up to the onslaught of bait stealers, who usually make it to the bait before the game fish.  Bait like live shrimp will get a lot of attention but will usually succumb to the first nibblers to find it.  Pilchards are usually a little more difficult to acquire and are not as hardy in the bait well as are pinfish.

The list of fish that can be caught on the list is longer than that in any one other fishery to be found in the keys waters.  The list includes Black, Gag, Red, Yellow Fin and several smaller groupers, along with the protected groupers such as Jew Fish and Nassau Grouper.  Snapper found on the patches include Mangrove, Mutton, Yellow Tail, Lane and Dog.  Other edibles found on the reef include but are not limited to Cobia, Yellow Jack, (not to be confused with the strong tasting Jack Cravelle) Cero Mackerel, along with other surprise less often encountered fish. 

Now when you are heading out for a day on the reef you can answer the question of what did you catch, with, “You name it we caught it.” 

Captain John Sahagian, FUNYET Charters