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August is not always the best time to go out on the water in Key West, FL. We are smack dab in the middle of hurricane season which means that the weather is often unpredictable and spotty. Squalls are more common as the temperature rises as the day progresses. With nothing but 90 miles of open water between Key West and Cuba the winds are often times a factor as well. When the wind kicks up from the south then so do the seas.
You may be asking yourself, “Why would you even bother to go out on the Water?” A cautious angler can keep an eye on the weather and pick a day that suits their level of comfort. We were bold for this trip and choose to just go with whatever happened. We used a local charter out of Key West to go deep drop fishing. For those who don’t know the term “deep dropping”, it is exactly as it sounds. An angler drops their bait really, really deep. Think 300-1000 feet deep.
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In this little adventure, we were dropping to about 800-1000 feet below the surface of the water. To put this into perspective, the Empire State Building’s 86th floor observatory stands at 1050 feet. Also, depending on the level of badassery, an angler typically doesn’t hand crank these fish up from the depths of Dave Jones’ Locker. Nope, an electric reel is used to bring them up. As simple as it sounds, there is still some skill in hooking a fish with an electric reel. Not to mention, there is about 10 minutes of reeling where you can lose a fish off of the hook. We chose to go out with a guide for these two reason. One, I had never deep dropped before and I didn’t own an electric reel.
Our timing wasn’t ideal for other reasons outside of the weather. The water we were fishing is regulated by NOAA’s Atlantic Fisheries rules which closed two of the major species, Snowy Grouper and Blue Line Tile Fish just days before our trip. We discussed this with our guides ahead of time and came up with some alternative plans if we started to catch too many of the closed species. You cannot simple catch and release a fish that has been pulled up from 800+ feet below the surface.
Not only were we deep dropping, we would also target tuna and Mahi while we were out. The guides had a good location for tuna which had been producing nice fish over the past few days. We would keep an eye out for birds and flotsam while in transit and hit those spots for Mahi Mahi schools.
The guides opened the morning by taking us to cast net pilchards (aka, sardines). These little fellas are like fish crack on the open water. You can simply start tossing them into the water where you know the target fish are hanging out at and they will come running like kids to an ice cream truck. We traveled due south past the reef line and out into the blue water. We bounced along on the boat while watching the water morph from a calm turquoise color, to a rolling dark blue sapphire color. Rolling is a generous term for the conditions. The wind was blowing about 10-15kts and the seas were approximately 4-6 feet. It didn’t matter, we were on a mission. My Dramamine inoculated buddies and I held on tight as we pitched and rolled to the first stop.
We drifted to a stop as the Captain killed the boat’s engines and began scooping the fish crack off the side of the boat into the water. We rigged live pilchards onto hooks and tossed them into the water. Our target was Blackfin Tuna, but we would take anything. I love catching tuna because they always make me work for it. I can always expect the reel to scream and a good fight to ensue once a tuna hits. All of those things happened in true fashion over and over until we were tired of fighting the fish and the rocking boat. Although, we caught no Blackfin Tuna, we pulled in a dozen Bonito.
This is a great opportunity to highlight a very common ambiguous term which caused a large amount of confusion and debate that day. Bonito can refer to two different fish species in South Florida, Little Tunny (False Albacore) and Atlantic Bonito. These two species are very different fish in taste but similar in appearance. First off, I am not one to shy away from trying out “trash fish”, so there is always that thought that leads me to taste, test, and research cooking methods for all fish I catch. The Bonito, actually Tunny Fish, we caught that day were no exception. Most anglers will save them for bait thinking that they are true Atlantic Bonito, but they are missing out because the meat is incredible. So what is the big difference in appearance? The Tunny Fish have four black dots on their belly and blue-green waves on each side of their dorsal fins. Atlantic Bonito have vertical stripes.
You still have to bleed the Little Tunny like other tunas to reduce that bloodline, but if you miss that step then you can soak the fillets in ice water baths, changing out the water a few times, to draw out the blood. I used my fillets for poke bowls, which is a recipe for another time. The meat was absolutely delicious fresh, with no off putting flavors at all.
We did deep drop and we caught some Black Bellied Rose Fish and Blue Line Tile Fish. While we were drifting, a school of Mahi appeared, almost out of nowhere, off the stern of the boat and we caught some of those as well.
In the end, we ended up with a cornucopia of fish but the Battle for the Bonito was the highlight of my day and made for a several great meals to follow. We safely braved the seas, weather, and wind to walk away with a good amount of fish and a great time with friends. What more could a guy ask for?