Schools of dolphins signal the fall fishing season is near

Looking back through 20 years of fishing trip logbooks, I noticed September as being one of the most productive months of the year.

Even though the kids are back to school, and if the weather holds up, there are lots of opportunities for great action at the reef, offshore and throughout the backcountry.

Out in the backcountry, there were some goliath groupers caught at the wrecks west of the park boundaries over the weekend. Some redfish were caught, but the ones I saw were on the smaller side. A small handful of tarpon were caught.

Offshore, there was a 237-pound swordfish caught in the daytime aboard the Catch 22 out of Bud n’ Mary’s marina, which I would call the catch of the week.

Dolphin fishing was very good last week with some of the boats limiting out. (10 per person) Some of the schools that were found were gigantic, or “one-stop shopping,” as some like to say. It was reported that a single school of fish was a quarter-mile square. Big schoolies (4 to 8 pounds) and gaffers (up to 18 pounds) were found anywhere from seven miles on out to the deep blue Gulf Stream as far as 26 miles offshore.

At the hump areas, the current has been smoking to the northeast at about 4 to 6 knots, and there have been some good schools of blackfin and skipjack tunas showing up and settling in to stay awhile.

The shark population has swelled considerably at the hump and surrounding areas upon the arrival of the fall tuna run, as is common for September. The hump can be a stretch on a half-day trip, especially if you like to troll for wahoo and zigzag around on the way out. If time is limited and you are fishing a half-day trip, there have been plenty of yellowtail snapper biting at the usual locations from 50 feet to the bottom of the dropoff at the reef edge, which is around 100 feet deep.

On the deep side of the reef, and often over the sandy bottom flat coral, is where the mutton snappers can be found. Several were caught last week up to around 15 pounds. Richard DeLeon caught a beautiful 15-pound example on Saturday fishing from the Sailor’s Choice party boat out of Key Largo. He used live bait with a 15-pound spinning outfit in about 60 feet of water.

When I think of reef fishing and mutton snappers this week it makes me think of the master. Our fishing community mourns a painful loss as we said goodbye last week to one of the finest reef fishermen Islamorada has ever known. Capt. Kerry “Zilla” Price was taken away far too soon for my liking. But believing God’s timing is perfect, I shall focus on being thankful to have learned from Zilla and was able to know him well enough to call him a friend.

He was the first charter boat captain that made me feel truly welcomed into the Islamorada fleet. He gave us live bait when we needed it most on my first trip offshore of Islamorada. Consequently, this attracted me to stay in the Keys for 20-some-odd years to make a living on the water.

I will never ever forget backing up to the Heidi Baby that sunny afternoon to receive a 5-gallon bucket bustling with frisky pilchard replenishment while drifting right over the top of the hump and watching the frigate birds. It changed the course of events in my life for ever.

Thank you for so many great memories, Z. Now your spirit is flying with the frigate birds. We are gonna miss you brother.

Capt. Donald Deputy writes for The Reporter every other week. Reach him direct with your own personal fish tales and photos at