Temperatures are falling and the wind is up as we transition into the fall and early winter season. Windy conditions can make it difficult for smaller boats to get out but north and northeast breezes with accompanying cooler temps are a necessary precursor for triggering the winter migrations which over time will improve the quality of fishing in the lower Keys. Already schools of Ballyhoo are congregating along the reef edge. This bait will in turn attract and sustain the game fish we associate with the late fall and early winter; Cero Mackerel, Sailfish, Blackfin Tuna, and King Mackerel. Localized concentrations of Ballyhoo will also produce feeding frenzies featuring Jack Cravalle, Yellow Jacks and Mutton Snapper.

The presence of Frigate Birds along with your own sharp eye sight will help determine where the ballyhoo are located. Ballyhoo are relatively easy to catch this time of year and will keep for a day’s fishing in a live well which is round or oval and through which fresh salt water is pumped. If you anchor up current of where the ballyhoo are holding, soon enough they will swim up in your chum slick. I use a very fine mesh bag when chumming Ballyhoo so I don’t attract too many Yellowtail and Cero who will spook the bait. Use a 3/8 or ½ inch cast net or hair hooks to catch them live. 50lb mono with a 5/0 live bait hook is good for Sailfish while #3 wire with a trailing “stinger” hook is good for the toothy critters. Use a short piece of copper wire to secure the ballyhoo’s bill to the shank of your hook.

Fresh dead ballyhoo can also be trolled this time of year with good results. I rig with 60lb mono for Sailfish and Tuna and #8 wire for Kings and Wahoo. Fresh dead ballyhoo will troll for long periods without washing out and with the use of small chin leads can be made to swim like the real thing. Dead baiting allows you to cover more ground, look for color changes and current lines from tight to the reef edge out to about 300’.

I have often mentioned the eating quality of fresh Cero in this column so; given that this is the time of year when Cero are a commonly caught I’ll leave you with a simple recipe:

Filet the Cero and leave the skin on. Cut out the rib cage bones and the pin bones which extend for a few inches along the lateral line at the front of the filet. Place two filets of Cero, skin side down in an oiled baking pan, sprinkle with S&P and drizzle with lemon juice. Bake in a pre heated 350 degree oven for 6 minutes. While the fish cooks mix two parts mayo with one part stone ground mustard and a spoonful of horse radish. After 6 minutes slather the filets with this mixture and sprinkle the top with Panko bread crumbs. Return the pan to a higher rack in the oven and brown under the broiler, delicious.

Tight lines and good luck,

Capt. Brad Simonds