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Reefs and wreaths

12/23/2009

ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Christmas features the "must do" saltwater fishing excursions along the coasts of the United States. Between now and year's end, we'll present a bucket list of fishing trips any angler would love to receive.

'Twas the night before a fishing trip and outside the house, not a creature was stirring, 'cept Amy Simko's spouse.

OK, bear with me. This is gonna make sense in a moment — I promise.

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See, Amy Simko is the namesake of a 35-foot diesel powered center console named "Aim E" — the very boat her husband Mike would use to take me fishing off Jupiter, Fla., one early December day.

To make this a one candy cane story, Simko had been struggling with engine problems most of the afternoon and evening when I arrived at his home around 10 p.m.

Dealing with this challenge, then the job of cleaning and prepping the boat, and a lengthy search for a misplaced key that would unlock the trailer hitch, Simko worked through the night and into the following morning before finally launching his boat around noon.

Now, in many cases, this late start would have reduced a fishing trip to a glorified boat ride; but not this day.

Realizing he was like a time-strapped parent with presents neither bought, nor wrapped the eve of Dec. 24, Simko headed to the one-stop shopping of angling abundance — Southeast Florida's coastal reefs.

Rich in diversity and easily accessed, these mounds of live coral flanking the Atlantic shore are kinda like a Christmas stocking — self-contained treasure troves filled with goodies and often holding a special treat.

Now, if that last part sounds like foreshadowing in this holiday tale, you're correct. Read on.

When and where

Reefs of various size occur throughout Florida's east coast and this day found Simko, his son Darren (15) and family friend Matt Brown (16) showing me the ropes over a long series of ridges and valleys running parallel to the beach from Jupiter Inlet to about seven miles south.

These reefs ranged in depth from 40 feet on the shoreward side to 210 feet on the ocean side. Local reports kept us in the 87- to 130-foot range.

"The hot area can change day to day so your networking is critical," he said. "Sometimes, the bite can be in really shallow. In these transitional months (fall to winter), it's all heavily conditioned on currents and the cold fronts. The bite seems to turn on and off in different depths."

Mike stays on top of the reef action by communicating with other local anglers. On his way to the inlet, he chatted with a friend who hears all the latest news — Capt. Eric Weterman of the "Mr. Sportsman" bait boat.

After scooping out the dozen live blue runners and bigeye scad ("goggle eyes") that Mike had ordered via cell phone, Capt. Eric pointed us in the right direction. Soon, we were on a northward drift that started southeast of the Jupiter Inlet, about four miles off the Juno Pier.

The run out was much smoother than our bumpy return, as clouds building from the west foretold the approaching cold front. The backside of a fall-winter weather system brings high pressure and that can shut down the bite.

As we cleared the jetties, Mike told me he likes timing a reef trip with the leading edge of a front because the barometric fluctuation triggers aggressive feeding. To bottom line it, our mutton snapper, yellowtail snapper, red grouper, triggerfish, porgy, bonita and a near miss with a big kingfish validated the theory.

Other reef species may include sharks, cobia, barracuda, dolphin, wahoo and tuna, with the latter trio more common over structures in 200-plus feet, closer to the Gulf Stream's warm blue water.

Catching such mixed bags in relatively close proximity to land exemplifies the appeal of reef fishing — diversity, consistent action and economics. If you search diligently and adjust wisely, you can keep the rods bent for hours. You won't catch every fish that bites, but you'll get plenty of shots without a huge gas bill.

"When you're getting a young person involved in fishing, it's not so much about waiting a long time for that one trophy fish; it's more about constant activity," Mike noted. "They enjoy it when they're getting hit as soon as their bait reaches the bottom. Also (reef drifting) is economical. We're not running around and trolling all day. We just get in our zone and focus on action."

Billfish bonus

Remember that "Christmas stocking" thing? Well, here's where the story gets good.

In addition to bottom fishing tactics savvy reef anglers cover their bases by free-lining live baits or hold them at the surface below a fishing kite. The latter creates a splashy surface commotion as the bait struggles to dive below where the kite holds it.

Pelagic predators hunting the reefs instinctively key on such distressed prey, so kiting simultaneously serves as a teaser as well as a bait presentation.

Strapping a helium balloon to a kite overcomes light wind limitations, but even with a steady breeze, Mike likes the added stability a balloon offers. For easy access, he installed a dedicated hatch to hold a helium tank and hose near his bow.

An accomplished kite fisherman, Simko invented the Kite Keeper — a soft sided container that hangs from the underside of a t-top and holds several fully assembled kites. Varying wind conditions often necessitate different kite sizes and stopping to disassemble, roll up and store one kite, only to unroll and assemble another burns valuable fishing time. Rotating ready kites to and from the Kite Keeper minimizes down time.

Our first kite bait was a goggle eye and within 15 minutes a sudden, frothy boil followed by a slack line told of a kingfish hit-and-run. Wire leaders and treble hooks will snare these toothy predators, but the fluorocarbon leaders and circle hooks common to kiting rarely stand up to the king's high-speed assault.

Mike re-rigged with a big blue runner bridled to the hook and it didn't take long for this bait to draw attention. I moved closer to the kite rod when I notice the runner's frantic reaction and as I turned to glance across the boat, the telltale "POP" of a sprung release clip signaled go-time.

I grabbed the rod, fed the fish a good 10 count, came tight on the reel and then settled in for the show – three monster runs and all the dazzling pageantry of a 50-pound Atlantic sailfish leaping and twisting like a briny ballerina.

With the fish about 40 yards out, I passed the rod to Darren, who sealed the deal like a Major League closer. With fish at boatside, Mike held the bill while his son placed a research tag near the dorsal fin. These tags are harmless to the sailfish, but they provide invaluable data when the details of a tagged fish's recapture are compared with the stats from the original catch.

Tagging is optional, but I guess it's kind of like dropping some change in the Salvation Army bucket after Christmas shopping — you don't have to do it, but helping someone out makes you feel good.

Local charts will indicate natural reefs, as well as artificial sites.

See Reef baits and tactics.