How to Patch Reef fish in the Florida Keys

Heiko here! I've been living in the Florida keys for the past 5 years. My first time living on the islands was on Geiger key by mile marker 10. Then I moved 90 miles north to the top of the keys in Key Largo and never left! Over the years I have been on fishing trips off islands all over the Florida keys including off Tavernier, Islamorada, Marathon, Summerland and Key West. Whether you're trying to catch a fat grouper, colorful mutton snapper, sought after bright yellowtail snapper or just have some fun reeling in grunts, jacks or barracuda the Florida Keys patch reefs can provide it all!

 

I have put out hundreds of videos (literally hundreds) of fishing the Florida Keys patch reefs and going to try and put a little tutorial together here for y'all on what has worked for me.


I’ll add some of my patch reef fishing videos at the bottom of this article, but first let me go over everything you need to know on successfully fishing the patch reefs.


I’m going to cover:

  1. The best weather for fishing the florida keys patch reefs
  2. Where to find the florida keys patch reefs
  3. How to Anchor, chum and find the fish on your patch reef.
  4. What rigs and bait to use


The Best Weather For Fishing the Florida Keys Patch Reefs


I understand that most people plan their trip months ahead of coming down to the Florida keys. There’s no way to know what the weather will be like a couple months in advance… HECK the weather reports are hardly accurate for 1-2 days out. But generally you can expect 5-6 days a week to be too windy to go offshore in a boat under 26ft between late december to mid march. If you have a bigger boat (32+ft) you may be able to get out closer to 3-4 days a week without getting totally rocked.


April to November tends to have less wind and less waves, but be prepared for those summer storms to form and roll in within hours sometimes. I have a couple videos where we go offshore with perfect looking weather and then a massive storm front forms, we get hammered with waves and rain and lightning for an hour and then as fast as it came it disappears leaving us soaked and surrounded by beautiful flat blue water all around us.


August, September and October are personally 3 of my favorite months. Sometimes we get 2 weeks straight of perfect light winds and no waves. I don’t mind a small summer storm rolling through and getting us wet during a nice hot day on the water.


While the windy months can put a dent in your winter offshore plans you can generally still fill your fish box by not getting beat up offshore by fishing the Florida patch reefs instead.

I run a 24ft center console boat and I look at the wind reports to determine where I will be fishing. If the wind is reported to blow below 10mph these are the days I aim to run as far offshore as I can. If the wind is blowing offshore and under 12mph I’ll still shoot for running offshore. Keep in mind, if it’s blowing 15-20mph offshore it may be flat with a light chop while running offshore but if the wind turns onshore through the day and you are 10-20 miles offshore you might get caught in some big waves all of a sudden.


When it’s blowing between 10-16mph and the weather seems to be a little uncertain about what it may do, these are the perfect days to stay closer inshore instead of running out to the deep blue. 


This is where the patch reefs come in!


When the reports are coming in at 18+mph I tend to stay at home and spend the day editing video. With higher winds, especially over 20mph I get beat up pretty badly on my 24ft boat both offshore and on the patch reefs.


Creeping into the mangroves and doing some inshore/flats fishing on these windy days is always a great option too, but that will be for a different guide.


At the end of the day, know your boats limits and the people on your boat. If it’s just you and your die hard fishing buddy and you don’t mind getting pounded by waves and sprayed by saltwater all day then the Florida patch reefs are a great fishing option almost any day of the year where there are no major storm surges. 



Where to find the Florida Keys patch reefs


The cool thing about the patch reefs is that they are EVERYWHERE and I’ll show you just how easy it can be to scout out your next potential ‘secret spot’. Let’s start big and then get more specific.


Here is a map of the Florida keys and I outlined the area where patch reefs are found inside the red lines. Basically the patch reefs run from the islands and stretch 4-5 miles out to the reefs drop off where it goes from 30ft to 90ft. My favorite depth for patch reef fishing is between 15-30ft deep.

patch reef fishing location outline of the florida keys


I use google maps in satellite mode to search for patch reefs in this outlined area. If you zoom in the patch reefs will get a little more clear:

outline of a patch reef in the florida keys


I outlined an area in the picture above where you can find a nice patchy reef, but you need to zoom in just a bit more to really see all the reef structure. Let’s try that now:

Close up of what the Florida keys patch reefs look like from aerial satellite image


Can you see the patch reefs?!


It literally just looks like patches of rocks. Because that’s what they are! There’s big patches like the one outline in the picture above. There’s also smaller patches all around that also hold great fish.


I don’t know how many patches of reef like this are located off the Florida keys but my guess would be in the hundreds if not thousands.


I’m about to go into how to anchor up on these patch reefs, but first some more advice on finding patch reef spots. I would find 6 patch reefs like the one above and save the location they are in for your fishing trip. 6 spots is usually a good number to have incase the fish aren't biting at one spots.


Usually I will hit 2-3 different patch reefs looking for the good bite. Sometimes I get lucky and they are at the first spot I check. Sometimes it’s slow and it takes a handful of moving spots to find the bite, but we’ll get more into how to fish the patch reefs later in this article!




How to anchor, chum and find the fish on your patch reef


There’s definitely a right and wrong way to fish the patch reefs and hopefully I can cover all the basics to ensure you hook up on some fish your first attempt at fishing the patch reefs.


The very first thing is figuring out the way your boat is drifting and then anchor accordingly to position our boat upcurrent of the patch reefs. Here’s an image I made of how you should anchor, the dot is your boat. Can you tell what the arrow is supposed to be?

How to anchor when fishing the florida keys patch reef example map


The arrows show the direction of the current!


So let’s take red for example. The current is running NorthWest. So you would anchor on the SouthEast side of the patch reefs.


Patch reefs are usually surrounded by sand, this is where you want to throw your anchor so it buries into the sand. You want to be on the outside of the patch reef you plan on fishing. If you anchor right in the center of the patch reef it will make fish weary, could turn off the bite and also your anchor can slam into the rocks, break off corals and destroy precious marine life.


Anchor outside of the rocky patches and anchor in a position where the current will take your chum over the patch reef.


This way all the fish hiding inside the rocks and swimming in the protection between the rocks will start to come out and follow the chum slick right up to your boat. Generally I try and anchor in a way where the boat is positioned 50ft or so from the patch reefs.


Another issue with anchoring directly on top of the patch reef is when you hook up on a nice fish, like a mutton snapper, it will drag out your line and run around the rocks and it’s just a matter of time before your line gets cut off. Not only will your line get cut off, but your leader will be chafed from rubbing along the rocks and you will need to re-rig your entire setup.


Ok, so you’re positioned perfectly just outside the patch reef and the current is flowing towards the rocky patches from your boat. Time to chum! I always say “Chum till they Come”. It shouldn’t take long. 10-20 minutes at most before the bite starts turning on. If it’s been 30 minutes with a chum bag out and you’re hardly getting nibbles it’s time to move spots.


To find the fish you need to be prepared to move spots. Some people I have fished with will not want to move once they are anchored. Don’t be lazy! If the bite is off, move spots! Sometimes I will jump 2-3 spots (giving each spot 20-30min) before finding a hotspot.


Fish aren’t always in the same exact spot. Some of my best patch reef spots may produce great snapper and grouper for months and then all of a sudden I can’t get a bite on that spot for a few weeks before the bite turns on again.


Have a handful of patch reef spots picked out you want to check. Chum heavy on every spot for 20 minutes. If there’s no bites move to the next spot. Once you find the bite, chum hard and put the fish in the boat while the bite is turned on!



What rigs and bait to use


You found the hotspot. You put out chum next to a patch reef and fish are everywhere! Clouds of yellowtail snapper shimmer in the sunlight, dark black figures scoot along the bottom over the sand and ballyhoo are splashing out of the water to get a piece of chum out of your slick.


Time to maximize your bite!


You should always be running 3 rods. If you’re with a group of people you can fish more rods, but when I fish solo or on a trip with the lady it’s usually 3 rods.


  1. A rod with a bait on the bottom using a Knocker Rig 
    1. This will catch snapper, grouper, hogfish, grunts, porgies and whatever else may be swimming along the bottom.
    2. Most of the time a 1.5oz lead will be plenty. If it’s deeper like 30-40ft with heavy current consider using a 3oz weight.
    3. For bait I would use a butterflied ballyhoo or cigar minnow or threadfin herring to land a big mutton snapper. Squid makes great bait for all snappers too and other fish and stays on the hook real good (use the whole squid if you want to land a big snapper). Shrimp is great bait for hogfish and just about any fish on the patch reefs.
  2. A rod with a live ballyhoo on the top rigged up on a Stinger Rig
    1. A live ballyhoo swimming on the surface catches the attention of big barracuda and cero mackerel. I’ve also seen mutton snapper and grouper swim to the surface in 10-15ft of water and slam a live ballyhoo on the top. You may even catch the occasional sailfish swimming by.
    2. Let the ballyhoo drift back with the current over the patch reef. This is always my furthest bait back. 100-150ft sometimes. I usually put this rod in the T-top rod holders so the line stays up high and out of the way of our other rods.
    3. If you can’t get a live ballyhoo a mullet, large pilchard, rainbow runner, blue runner or speedo would also work but I have always had my best results on ballyhoo as they stay right on the surface of the water and don’t swim into the rocks and get tangled up.
  3. A rod setup with a Freeliner Rig
    1. 20# or 40# mono leader going to a circle hook is my favorite Freeliner Rig setup. If the current is really strong sometimes I’ll squeeze on a little1/8th oz or 1/4th oz weight to keep the bait from staying on the surface.
    2. You want to drop this rig in right at your chum block and let it drift back with the current. Keep feeding line to let the bait go further and further back. This is the rod that will always be in your hand. Keep feeding line. The goal is for your bait to be sinking very slowly and be suspended about halfway in the water column as it flows back with the current in your chum slick. Let your bait drift out 100-200ft before reeling in and trying again.
    3. Almost any bait works great for this method. Live pilchards can give great results when the snapper are fierce and hungry, but something like cut ballyhoo, barracuda, squid, shrimp, clam, herring, minnows are all awesome options. 

Some days we may get most of our bites off the bottom on the knocker rigs. The Snapper Rigs and Grouper Rigs are also great substitutes for using a knocker rig. Some days we won’t get any bites off the bottom and most of the fish are hitting the freeliner rigs higher up in the water column. Usually yellowtail snapper prefer baits slightly higher in the water column.


Some days the live ballyhoo drifting way behind the boat gets slammed every 5-10 minutes and other times it won’t get a single wack all day long…


There is no one method that guarantees you will catch fish. You need to adapt and find out what the fish want and then give them more of what they want. That is why I run 3 rods using 3 different rigs and usually using different baits. And if I can’t produce a good bite after 20-30 minutes I quickly call it and move to the next set of patch reefs.

You may be able to fill your fish box on the very first patch reef you anchor next to and that is always great, but no matter what kind of day you are having remember that you are in the Florida Keys and it’s a great day. Kick back, relax and enjoy the moment.


If you found this guide helpful don’t hesitate to share it with your friends and family!


Consider helping me out by checking out our collection of fishing rigs in the fishing shop. All purchases help me be able to spend more time on the water, designing new rigs and techniques and putting out more tutorials just like this one.

1 comment

  • Staying in Key Largo and thinking about renting a boat to do some snorkeling and fishing on March 13th. Leaning towards a1a watersports for rental…do you have any other rental suggestions? Still a week out, but forecast calling for east 10-20 knots. Is that rough for hitting the patches?

    JR

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