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Mutton Snapper Ledges

Deep jigging for mutton snapper on the Florida Keys


Photo © Ron Brooks

Hard fighting fish

Photo © Ron Brooks
After a day of chasing dolphin (mahi mahi) we came back in toward the north end of Key Largo to look for some mutton snapper. The Gulf Stream runs as close as a couple of miles off the west coast of the Florida Keys, and the edge of the reek system at Key Largo has some very interesting ledges, humps and drops.

We had been trolling weed lines in an early attempt to find some dolphin, but as we expected, it was just a bit too early. The stream temperatures were still climbing. With the bottom fishing situation along the Southeast Atlantic coast in regulatory turmoil, it appeared that mutton snapper might be our only shot at some good fish.

Location and Barracuda!

We ran back north toward the Key Largo whistle buoy south of Angelfish. The buoy was, as usual, covered up in barracuda. I never really understood why these huge cudas, and these were literally logs, like to stack up in the current around the big chain that anchors the buoy to the bottom. But they do, and they like to attack a lure tossed their way.

We broke out the pink and chartreuse colored surgical tubing lures we made. Four sets of hooks, the on the end of the two foot long snake-like lure being a treble, made a hook up seem easy. I threw a chartreuse color while Charlie threw a pink one. The idea was to work them back to the boat quickly and erratically on top of the water. The cudas would fall in behind the lure and follow it all the way to the boat. I’m not sure what lind of bait they thought these snakes were.

They were always there and always seemed interested in the lures – no matter when we stopped to fish them. But on some days, they would light up and attack either color like they had not eaten in weeks. On other days they would follow the lure to the boat, then slowly turn and move back to their position with their mates behind the chain. If we caught one, we might catch another, but no more than two. They get smart in a hurry. Today was a day they were not eating. I counted probably 25 of them all in the thirty to forty pound range – all four to five feet long.

Finding the Ledge

We cranked and ran slowly southeast (the reef line actually begins running from northeast to southwest about this location). We ran on down and across the edge of the reef into deep water. Then we turned and headed directly at Carysfort light. In a small triangle of sorts about half way between the whistle buoy and the light we found the ledge we were looking of in 180 feet of water. The ledge ran from 180 feet deep out to about 200 feet deep – maybe a quarter of a mile.


We used out heavy jigging outfits – Penn super 4/0’s with 50 pound mono and 100 pound mono leaders. The jigs were simple red and white 8 ounce nylon jigs with 9/0 hooks. We double hooked the jigs with another 9/0 hook and then hooked a fresh, clean strip bait to them. One funny thing about muttons – they never seem to strike a ragged bait. They like a fresh cut clean bait. I believe it has to do with the bait actually looking like a fish, but I have never proven anything.

Drifting Tips

In this location, you have to be lucky. The wind and tide need to be at right angles. It never seems to matter which direction the tide is moving, as long as it is moving. If the wind and tide are moving the same direction, you are wasting your time, because the boat will drift so fast you can’t get a bait to the bottom. If they oppose each other, you end up sitting in one place and your bait drops far away from the boat in the current. Neither scenario is fishable here. What we needed was a slight breeze that would move us along about the same speed as the tide – and that is exactly what we got.

Drifting Technique

We ran upwind to about 140 feet of water and cut the engine. Then we dropped our baits to the bottom and made two cranks up. As we drifted we worked the rod tips up and down – sharply – hence the term jigging. And, as we drifted into the deeper water, we let out a bit more line to keep out baits off the bottom.

In about 180 feet of water we both hooked up, and the grunting and groaning began. The first part of fighting these fish is pretty tough. They fight much harder than most other snappers their size. But once you get them off the bottom , their swim bladder will take over and you will be racing to keep up with their rise to the surface.

We boated two nice muttons, one about 15, the other about 18 pounds. Two beauties!

Bottom Line

We could have caught more, but that one fish was enough for dinner for my family, and the other was enough for Charlie. Trying to catch and release fish in these water depths will almost always lead to their death. So – we conserve and simply plan to come back on another dolphin trip!

From Palm Beach down to Key West, the reef edges hold Mutton Snapper. You can catch them like we did, or try some of the new deep jigging lures. Either way, you need to have some fairly stout tackle, and a current/wind combination that will aloow you to get to the bottom.

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