Runnin' The Reefs

Hard bottom sites offer loads of offshore opportunity

Story and photos by David A. Brown

Published Summer 2014

Photo of of a fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico
The bite starts early, once the daybreak starts to illuminate the reef.

It’s that trendy coffee shop, the mall food court, the neighborhood sports bar – that dependable source of respite, refreshment and a broad mix of faces and fancies. The same can be said for the many natural and artificial reefs dotting the Gulf of Mexico bottom.

Some sport a natural makeup with corals, sea fans, sponges and the like. Rock piles also qualify for our purposes here. Complementing nature’s formations, you’ll also find a host of artificial structures scattered across the sea floor and offering room and board to sport fish aplenty.

Examples of the latter range from piles of construction/demolition rubble to retired army tanks and barges that outlived their usefulness. Even the mitigation reefs and control structures along the Gulfstream Natural Gas Pipeline stretching from Alabama to Tampa Bay fit this picture.

Nautical charts often list the publicly known reef sites, and coastal counties typically publish their planted reef locations for recreational anglers and divers. Past that, there’s plenty of sneaky little honey holes that a lucky few have located – or in some cases, deployed.

It’s considered bad form – and potentially dangerous – to idle around an anchored boat to see what the crew’s fishing. Public sites are fair game, but stealing another captain’s private numbers often leads to uncomfortable discussions back at the dock.

That being said, anything you find on your own with no other boats on anchor is also fair game. Tough to say where to start looking, but say you’re running to a known reef site and you spot a school of sardines, threadfin herring or blue runners frothing at the surface; it’s a safe bet that they’re holding over some type of hard bottom. Slide in for a closer look and you might be adding a sweet little number to you list.

Photo of a red snapper caught in the Gulf of Mexico
Tasty red snapper give reef anglers plenty to smile about.

Reefs Rock

Many are the reasons why reefs of various size and makeup attract fish and the fisherman that seek them. Key points include:

Something for Everyone: Simply put, reefs are the sea’s melting pot. Residents include: grouper, snapper, amberjack, triggerfish, porgies, grunts, flounder, triggerfish, jacks and sharks.

Habitat: Lots of hidey holes provide solace for reef fish to duck and hide from more menacing denizens. Also, expansive surface area hosts crustaceans, invertebrates and all types of sea growth, which feed increasingly larger species.

Local Forage: Schooling baitfish like those sardines, threads and runners, along with smatterings of pinfish, spottails, tomtates, smaller grunts and porgies, provide a briny buffet for top-shelf predators. These little nuggets also offer fresh bait for anglers handy with a gold hook “sabiki” rig or a double dropper rig baited with cut squid.

Visual Reference: Unlike a tide line, Sargasso mat or some random flotsam, a reef represents a static position that provides a clear target for anchoring and bait deployment.

Geometric Diversity: Reefs are inherently individualistic – even those manmade sites. This means lots of turns, angles, crevices and caverns. Often one particular end or corner of a reef will yield the day’s best action. Could be baitfish positioning, current direction or some other unseen factor. Good thing is, most reefs will offer multiple options, so experiment and take note of when/where the bites occur.

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Rigging Right

Try these rigs on your next reef fishing trip.

Reef Rigs

Fish Finder: Run your main line through a slip sinker and tie it to a heavy duty swivel. Tie your leader to the swivel’s opposite side. This basic bottom rig will keep your bait pegged where it falls and holds your line straight when fishing your bait a few cranks off the bottom.

Live bait leaders can run four feet or more to allow the bait room to struggle and attract attention. For dead bait, limit leaders to three feet so the line tightens quickly enough for effective strike response.

Knocker: Skipping the swivel and leader step, just run your main line through the slip sinker and tie directly to your hook. With unrestricted movement, your weight slides right down to and “knocks” against your hook. (Some add a bead below the weight to protect their knot.)

By keeping the bait and weight in line, the knocker rig helps prevent line twist on descents into deeper spots. Also, because the line slips freely through the weight, fish feel virtually no resistance and are less likely to spit a bait. This stealth trait is particularly beneficial with spooky snappers.

Chicken Rig: A consistent producer of yellowtail, scamp, porgies, triggers and other reef fish, this rig comprises two hooks on droppers with a sinker hung below. Make your own or modify a large sabiki rig by clipping all but the top two hooks and leaving about a foot and a half leader for the weight.

Bait the hooks with squid strips and jiggle the chicken rig like you’re working a sabiki for baitfish. This rig leverages reef competition, so when you feel a hookup, leave it in place for a few moments and you’ll usually get that second bite.

Free-lining: A block of frozen chum hung from a cleat, along with an occasional dribble of frozen glass minnows, often brings mangrove and/or yellowtail snapper right to the surface. Drift an unweighted chunk of cut bait into the chum slick for immediate connections.

Required Equipment: To help prevent release mortality, the National Marine Fisheries Service requires anglers targeting any species of reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico to use non-stainless steel circle hooks, which are easy to remove, and they dissolve in saltwater if left in a fish’s mouth. Also, reef anglers must possess a dehooking tool for removing hooks as quickly as possible – preferably with the fish in the water.