Reef baits and tactics

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During my Jupiter, Fla., reef trip with Mike Simko, an approaching cold front's northeast wind pushed against our bow and countered the current. In a strong current with light wind, Simko keeps his engines in gear with just enough speed to neutralize the swift water.

"A power drift will hold me in the prime fishing zone longer and keep that bait presented in the (best) spots," he said. "This opposes the current that may rip you across the reef quickly."

Several strikes in a tight area may merit a second pass, and if you can narrow down a specific zone, anchoring for a focused effort can yield big dividends. Just consider that giving up your mobility necessitates heavier bottom rigs to punch through the current. Bigger tackle often spooks fish and limits your bites.

Simko fished a mix of frozen sardines and frozen ballyhoo. Whole baits got triple 7/0 hook rigs and smaller bait chunks got double 3/0 hooks. Simko forms multi-part rigs by temporarily opening the eye of one hook and slipping it over the point of another.

Because bumping a 4- to 6-ounce weight across a reef can send fish running — especially snappers — Mike ties his drift rigs with long fluorocarbon leaders, so his bait follows far behind the lead. He'll present a couple of baits with leaders of up to 20 feet and a couple more with maybe 6-foot leaders to determine what the fish will tolerate on a given day.

Conventional or spinning gear works for reef drifting, and outfitting the boat with light 20-pound monofilament rigs and beefier 50-pound braid provides a good mix of sport. One thing to consider with longer leaders is the propensity for line twist. It's simple physics: weighing more than the bait and hooks, the lead sinker falls faster. This pulls your main line parallel with your leader and a big tangle ensues.

Simko avoids this by lowering his entire rig just below the surface and then letting out 10 feet of line at a time — measured by holding the rod tip at the surface and then raising it overhead. At the high point, he'll stop the reel spool and let the current straighten out his leader as he lowers his rod tip. Repeating this routine as needed to reach bottom uses the water's force to keep the line and leader from coming together.