How To:

How To Fish The Patch Reefs In The Winter

Author: Flying Fish Charters

Fishing the patch reefs and inshore rock piles in the lower Florida Keys.

Fishing the patch reefs and inshore rock piles in the lower Florida Keys can be a lot of fun in the winter and can yield some tasty fish.  Often times, when we get cold fronts here it will blow very hard from the north for days at a time. Many of the offshore and deeper wreck spots are too rough to fish.  The nice thing about inshore patch reefs is that it can stay relatively calm and still yield a productive day of fishing.  I target many different types of fish like, snappers, groupers, kingfish, jacks, porgies, barracudas, cobia, and sharks.  Knowing how to fish these rock piles is crucial to making the best of a windy winter day.

Cobia In Key West

Choosing your spot.

I will fish rock piles in any depth from 15ft to 40ft of water anywhere from a half mile to 5 miles south of the keys.  I already have spots I like to fish, but I constantly find new spots.  Whenever I am cruising inshore I always look at my fish finder and GPS for areas that look like good structure.  Any GPS will show these rock piles clearly defined on the chart.  Once I am at my spot, I like to anchor just up current of the pile I am fishing, not right over the top of it.  Anchoring properly is very important because you will be chumming and drifting jigs back toward the rock pile.  If you are anchored off of one side or another, your chum and your baits will be missing the rock pile and you will not catch much.  This can be very tricky when you have a wind against current situation because the rock piles are not very big.  It can take anchoring a couple times to get you in the right location.

Red Grouper

Chum the Waters.

Most of the time I like to chum these patch reefs with ground up Menhaden.  Sometimes on the shallower reefs I do not chum right away because it can attract a lot of smaller fish too.  I always chum on the deeper rock piles because kingfish are likely to be out there.  Mostly, I like fishing with pink banana jigs from 1/8oz to 1.5oz.  Live pilchards are the best, but I will use all kinds of bait from live pinfish and ballyhoo, to bonita strips, squid, and shrimp.  Drift the jigs back with the current, obviously the heavy jigs will sink faster, but mess around with the jig sizes and see what is working best for you.  By putting a live bait way back on the surface with wire leader and you can catch kingfish, jacks, barracudas or sharks.  I like using lighter spinning gear with 20-30lb bullbuster braid and 20-30lb bullbuster fluorocarbon leaders, depending on the size of the jig I am using.  Of course, if I am shark fishing I will use heavier gear. 


Netting Ballyhoo.

Pay attention to your chum slick, usually in the winter you can get the ballyhoo to come into your slick.  Ideally, they will come in close so you can throw a cast net on them, if not you will have to sabiki them.  But having live ballyhoo will really help you.  They work great as surface baits for kingfish, but are also some of the best bottom fishing baits for mutton snappers and groupers.  Any live baits you do not use can be salted, frozen and used during the summer for dead bait trolling.

mutton snapper

Everyone has their own style and technique for fishing certain places. These are just a few tactics I use when I fish the patch reefs.  The fishing changes so much from day to day, I constantly have to change things such as leader size, jig size, bait, etc.  One thing I do know, is that being able to fish these rock piles productively will make your winter fishing in the keys a lot more enjoyable.  You will not be able to make it offshore everyday, but being able to sit in the leeward side of the keys and put quality fish on the table is essential when the fronts come in and the wind picks up.


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