Bottom Fishing for Reef Fish

You can catch a variety of fish on our natural live reefs.

A couple showing off their catch of red snapper
( CC BY-ND 2.0) by MyFWCmedia

From about half way down the state of Florida south all the way to the Florida Keys, lies the continental United States’ only natural, living coral reef. This reef is home to a huge variety of fish, and lots of them are catchable and good table fare. So, how do we fish for these reef fish?

Understand the Bottom

Obviously, the bottom in this area is a live coral reef. But it’s not a flat, formless bottom. That reef can be as deep as 100 feet in places and can be out of the water at low tide in other areas. When you run over this reef, you need to have a chart and you need to know the “lay of the bottom”. It’s easy to take the lower unit of your engine out on a shallow reef outcropping. Make no mistake, they are as hard as rocks!

Coral is a tiny, live animal that builds its home apartment style with millions of other little coral animals. This apartment or condo is the skeleton that you see as a coral formation. When the animals die, the apartment houses remain and act as cover for fish and other marine growth. Some coral formations look like fans growing up from the ocean floor. They look like a plant, but are actually an animal!

Inside the Reef or Outside the Reef

When you check out your chart, you will see that the water depth increases along the Florida Keys and Southeast coast as you move east. Then the water shallows as you reach the reef. The water depth in that “in-between” area is from 30 to as much as 60 feet deep. That deeper water running inside the reef goes from Key West all the way north to Fort Lauderdale and beyond. It is called the Hawk Channel. It’s a great, mile-wide, protected pathway because, on a strong easterly flow of weather, the shallow reef protects the water and allows vessels to navigate in comparative calm. Over the years numerous smaller cargo vessels used the Hawk Channel and in WWII, it was protection from German submarines.

On the outside of the reef, the water drops off to the depths of the Gulfstream, which can meander in as close as the edge of that reef sometimes.

Look for the Patches

All along the outside edge of the Hawk Channel – the edge next to the reef – are areas of “reefy” bottom. We call these areas patches, and we have a specific way that we fish the patches. On top of the reef proper, you will find all of the tropical reef fish, aquarium grade fish. It’s these patches that hold the bigger sport fish that recreational and commercial anglers alike seek.

A Variety of Fish

The patches are home to the fish we want to catch. Black, gag and Nassau grouper, a variety of snapper, including mutton and yellowtail, porgies, and hogfish are all good to eat, fun to catch and live on the patch reefs. I catch them while bottom fishing the patch reefs.

Fishing Technique

When I bottom fish on a patch reef, I pick one that is slightly separated from the main reef structure. The bottom in the Hawk Channel is mostly sand or turtle grass, and it’s mostly flat. Patch reefs stick up off that flat bottom sometimes as much as 15 to 20 feet. A patch reef in 40 feet of water may be thirty feet in diameter and the water depth on top of the patch may be only 10 to 15 feet deep. This round, up-cropping is full of nooks, crannies, and holes and is a perfect home for grouper and other bottom species.

Anchoring

First, you have to make sure you are in an area where anchoring is permitted. Much of the ocean side of the Florida Keys is restricted in one way or another. But wherever you are, anchoring on top of that patch is the wrong thing to do. I judge the current and wind, and then move up alongside the patch. I anchor in the sand bottom beside the patch, or I move well up current from the patch, drop the anchor in the sand, and allow the boat to come back to the patch. I am going to fish as close to the patch as I can without fishing right on the patch.

Let’s Fish!

I use what we call a “knocker rig” when I fish these patches. It simply a hook and egg sinker. The sinker is on the line and able to slide right down to the hook. I’m fishing with 20-pound test line, so no leader is needed. I cast the rig with a live shrimp for bait so that it is on the bottom as close to the edge of the patch as I can get it.

Sometimes, if the fishing is slow, I will put out a chum bag of blood chum. That’s a frozen block of chopped up fish parts. The chum will draw baitfish and usually a school of ballyhoo. When the ballyhoo show up in the chum, I catch some of them with a small cane poll and use them for bait. I’ll put a live ballyhoo on the bottom next to the patch reef. That’s a bait that a mutton snapper simply cannot resist. I will also chunk up a ballyhoo for cut bait.​

Bottom Line

You never know what you will catch of a reef. A patch reef is home to so many species of fish. Keep what you plan to eat without freezing, and come back another day when you run out. Catch and release is a good practice on these patch reefs, as it is anywhere in shallow water. Try fishing the patches in the Hawk Channel next trip to the keys. You will be surprised at how many bottom fish there are!