Runnin' The Reefs

Story and Photos By David A. Brown

Hard bottom sites offer loads of offshore opportunity.

Photo of a fish caught in the Gulf of MexicoThe 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 MexicoTasty 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 "sabik" 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.

Get the Party Started

Natural or manmade, reefs throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic host a diverse array of resident and transient species. Some readily leave their structure to investigate a chum line, while others are content to hold their ground and gobble any freebies that fall their way. All will respond to the prospect of free chow.

Chumming methods are many, but the simplest and most effective option is the frozen chum block. Wrapped in mesh bags and hung from gunwale cleats, chum blocks melt in the waves and disperse oily slicks with tiny bits of ground baitfish. Quality counts, so pay a little more for reputable brands. Look for deep red coloration and a finely ground texture. High blood content means maximum scent, while smaller particles spread best without filling up the fish.

Some augment the chum block contents with concentrated fish oil dispersed from a medical IV-style dripper bag. Most fish oils float at the surface, but a specialized product called Menhaden Milk actually disperses into the water column with a smelly cloud. Another option: soak sinking catfish feed pellets in standard menhaden oil to carry the scent through the water column.

For deeper chum efforts — or for gathering large predators like sharks and amberjack — drop a few chunks of cut baitfish downcurrent and these tasty appetizers will get your target audience ready for dinner. (Bonita are mostly a nuisance bycatch for reef anglers, but their bloody, oily flesh is highly effective in a chum slick – and on a hook. Make opposing sets of diagonal slices in the fish's flanks and then run your filet knife down the backbone to cut lose convenient chum/bait chunks.)

Juvenile baitfish netted over grass flats or near docks provide a convenient variation, as do blocks of frozen anchovies — aka "glass minnows." Just dribble a half dozen of these inch-long fry every few minutes and the silver shards will quickly attract hungry fish. Chum grinders further diversify this strategy by turning fresh or dead baitfish into a scent-laden paste that spreads much like a melting chum block.

Keep in mind that chumming can occur indirectly. Even with livies in their wells, most reef anglers start with dead baits like squid and sardines, which release a lot of scent near the structure. Twisting off the tails of frozen baitfish maximizes aroma dispersion. Also, don't fret if your first handful of hookups yield smaller reef rats like vermillion snapper, grunts and undersized grouper. When hooked, these little guys often vomit their stomach contents. Nothing goes to waste in nature, so this will stimulate the local scene, as well.

Photo of an angler with a bent fishing rodWhen chumming efforts fire up the reef fish, bent rods are common.

Best with Baits

No self-respecting reef-fishing crew would launch without several flats of frozen squid and frozen baitfish (sardines, menhaden, Boston mackerel, etc.). Depending on the expected size of your targeted fish, you may fish these whole or in chunks. For the latter, do yourself a favor and cut your bait while it's still partly frozen. The firmness facilitates slicing, unlike the mushiness of thawed baits.

For maximum reef presentation diversity, complement those dead heads with a selection of live baits. Experienced reef runners will castnet pilchards, threadfins, finger mullet and the like prior to heading offshore, but keep a sabiki rig handy and you might score some fresh livies around the actual reef sites you'll be fishing. (Fishing live baits you catch onsite defines match the hatch.)

Bottom fishing tactics don't change when chumming a reef (see RIGGING RIGHT); but presenting baits to fish that rise in the water column requires some strategy. First, fish know that their vulnerability rises as they ascend, so the farther they venture from safety, the more jittery they become. For this reason, free-lining small baits in a light presentation beats plunking a heavy rig into a pod of nervous fish.

Free-line cut baits on short shank hooks and try to bury the metal in the meat to avoid tipping off suspicious fish. Yellowtail and mangrove snapper are notoriously particular, so you may have to downsize hooks and leaders to draw their interest. In open water, you can often get away with no leader and tie straight to a monofilament main line.

When snapper are especially spooky — as in ultra-clear water — timing can prove critical. A lone bait chunk may find a taker, but camouflaging your hooked bait by dropping it moments after tossing a handful of chum chunks, or after shaking a fresh cloud of particles from your chum bag heightens your chances.

One thing to note is that chumming on shallow reefs may gather a pod of baitfish behind your boat. Kingfish, mackerel, bluefish, sharks and cobia will slash through the school, while snapper will sneak up and grab hapless baits. Improve your hook-up probability by flipping a rigged bait on the outskirts of the school, where predators quickly pick off vulnerable stragglers.

Whatever species responds to your chum will eventually shut down from fishing pressure or lack of interest. Fret not, for there's always another spot or another fish ready to justify your efforts. Just give the chum bag another shake or cut another handful of chum chunks and get ready for another hookup. End of story hook

— Published: Summer 2014

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.


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.


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.


Pelagic Bonus Play

Migrating kingfish, blackfin tuna and mackerel will raid every reef and rock they find in perpetual pursuit of their next meal. Reef regulars know this and they keep a live bait flat-lined behind the transom. The key to consistent catches is holding the fish on a particular structure and nothing does so like generous chumming.

Fill your livewell with small baitfish in the 2- to 3-inch range, chum liberally with these livies and send the same size baits into duty on wire rigs. You don’t want to burn your bait supply with a steady stream of freebies, but when the bite is on, rods won’t sit still for more than a minute or so. If they do, your action is departing, so hit ‘em with another round of chum.

Similarly, blackfin tuna dependably follow shrimp boats for the free meals they enjoy when the shrimpers anchor over hard bottom to cull their nets. Tossing out bycatch finfish and crustaceans damaged in the nets creates a long line of free chow that attracts tuna, along with kingfish, bonita and sharks. Moreover, the snapper and grouper inhabiting the structure below will also rise to the freebies.

Savvy anglers who spot anchored shrimpers are quick to capitalize on this complimentary chum job until the culling ends and the attraction ceases. The bite may slow, but the show isn't necessarily over. Predators are all scavengers at heart and many will tarry in hopes of a second round.

Dice up a couple pounds of frozen or fresh baitfish and you may be able to bring the players back for an encore. Chunk the smelly nuggets downcurrent from the shrimper, hang a chum block and you'll quickly reestablish the consistency that keeps the fish close.

If you're slow-trolling a reef site for kingfish, Spanish mackerel or tuna, use your boat to push your chum into the water column. Hang chum blocks amidships and drop any hand-cut chum chunks from the same position. This gives your chum time to sink beneath the hull so the prop wash forces it all deeper. For stationary or mobile chumming, judge current and wind to avoid having your chum flow out of the strike zone and carry your fish with it.


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