Art by Flick Ford
A Prince of the Flats
I doubt there is a fish more accommodating than the mutton snapper. They grow to almost 20 pounds, provide outstanding table fare and can be caught everywhere, from 200 feet of water to the flats. They are common throughout the Florida Keys and Bahamas, and the variety of ways to catch them is almost endless.
In 1971, I was stationed in Key West with the Navy. I had a 17-foot skiff and was more than a bit obsessed with learning how to flats fish. I hadn’t been there but a few months when I was fishing on a flat just north of Boca Grande. I spotted a stingray, and it looked like there was something following it, so I put a cast directly on the ray and hooked up.
I was expecting a permit or at least a bonefish, but I wound up with a 17-pound mutton. At the time, I had no idea what a prize catch it was. I’ve since learned that a mutton snapper on the flats is just as prestigious as a permit — especially on a fly.
There haven’t been too many muttons on the Key West flats lately, but they still can be found in the Bahamas and Cuba. Fish them just like a permit. They are just as spooky.
A more realistic approach to catching muttons is with live bait. Offshore, they are best caught drifting with 30 feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon leader behind whatever sinker weight is necessary to get to the bottom. Muttons prefer live bait, and pilchards and ballyhoo are the best bets. If you’re anchored on a wreck, it always pays to drop a live bait, but a long leader isn’t necessary and will actually make things more difficult. You might have to wade through a few amberjack, but some trophy muttons down there will show up eventually.
Several years ago, I fished Cuba aboard the Avalon II, a 131-foot liveaboard for 20 passengers and nine crew. The permit and tarpon were playing hard to find, and it didn’t take long to catch our fill of bonefish, so we started throwing plugs and soft baits in the channels.
We caught enough muttons to feed the whole boat each night, and we had a blast. Cuba’s waters are still pretty virgin, but I’m sure the same technique would work in the Bahamas.
My favorite way to catch muttons for the table is to chum the channels between flats with live pilchards. This works well in the Keys and, surprisingly, in Florida’s Biscayne Bay. In the Bahamas, the technique can be amazing.
It’s a simple operation. First, you’ll need a cast net to fill your bait well with live pilchards. Next, you’ll want to find a deep channel between flats. Depressions in the channel hold the most fish, as do coral areas. Stay around the area where the channel flows into the deeper, ocean-side water. Anchor and start throwing out live pilchards, a few at a time. A 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and a 4/0 hook on a medium-heavy spinning rod is the most effective combination. At times, I’ve seen muttons on the surface in the channels, where you can get a shot at them on a fly, but usually live baits and lures work best.
Muttons can be caught year round in the Keys and are usually in play whenever you’re on an ocean-side trip. It pays to keep muttons in mind and rig accordingly. Your family and friends will appreciate your forethought at dinner time.
Pat Ford is an award-winning fishing photographer and angler who has held two dozen world records during decades of angling.