- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
If Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis really wants to perfect a knockout punch, they ought to travel to the Florida Keys and go toe-to-fin with a mutton snapper. Anyone who spends time bottom-fishing quickly learns that mutton snapper are the pit bulls of the reef. Sporting a roundish, powerful frame, the mutton is built low to the ground yet quickly crunches into high gear by calling upon brutish strength and surprising speed.
Mutton snapper (Lutjanus analis) are definitely sought-after reef prizes. The world record is a 30-pound, 4-ounce monster caught off the Dry Tortugas in 1998, and big boys in the 15-pound-plus category are usually caught in depths of 150 to 200 feet. But the mutton has gained an even greater reputation inshore. Anglers stalking the flats are sometimes astonished when a berserk mutton snapper crashes their fly instead of the expected bonefish or permit. And the fight a mutton gives an angler on the flats is truly phenomenal. The mutton hits, spins and runs like a fullback, making it nigh impossible to land.
Muttons, According To Bill
This 17-pound-plus mutton, caught off Islamorad in the Florida Keys, was once the IGFA world record for mutton snapper in the 12-pound line class.
All the squawk about muttons on the flats was far from my mind when fishing years ago with pal Bill Lindsay. Lindsay, who has won numerous flats tournaments over the years, made a picture-perfect fly cast while we surveyed the flats near Flamingo on Florida’s southern tip. I watched him strip in the retrieve and asked which fish gives him the most trouble on the flats: a bonefish, permit or redfish.
“None of ‘em,” he responded.
“Sorry,” I quickly apologized. “I forgot that snook can be found on the flats around here too.
“Nope, not that one either,” Lindsay sniffed.
Speculating that he wasn’t into small talk this day, I decided to call the guessing game. “Okay Bill, I give up. Just what is it you’ve got in mind?”
“A mutton snapper is the toughest critter to fight you on the flats,” he answered. “Not only are they strong and scrappy, but you’re usually not expecting them, which means your leader is rigged for a redfish or bonefish. Unless you get lucky, those jagged teeth will cut you off just like that,” said Lindsay, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
As if Providence was smiling on us, a mutton was spotted cruising nearby less than an hour later—and a nice-sized one to boot. Lindsay made a great cast, dragging the fly right in front of the mutton’s big mouth. The fish sucked up the fly like a Hoover and Lindsay set the hook mightily. The water erupted in a violent mess, with water and mud spewing every which way. About 8 minutes and four runs later, a feisty 10-pounder was coaxed boat side and I released it after we admired the menacing teeth and powerful, colorful body.
Best Bets On Catching ‘Em
Plugs can excel when muttons are shallow, but at depths of 100 feet or more, it's tough to beat a drifted live or dead bait.
Muttons can be found just about anywhere in tropical regions but have been caught as far north as Massachusetts and as far south as Brazil. In summer, they tend to favor deeper waters, but otherwise muttons frequent flats, patch reefs, reef lines and offshore into waters 300 feet deep or more. They also can be found around wrecks, rocks, grassy areas and sandy shallows.
Perhaps the easiest way to bag muttons around the Florida Keys and similar locations is to fish patch reefs. Patches are the small, shallow reefs that range 6 to 15 feet deep and appear as dark, rocky areas in contrast to surrounding sand.
Troll at a speed of about 5 or 6 knots around the perimeter of the patch reefs, not directly over them. Big-lipped diving plugs such as those made by Rapala, Rebel or Bomber do really well, and you just might pick up a nice black grouper too while you’re at it.
Another tried-and-true method is fishing out from the reef in waters from 150 to 200 feet. Drifting near wrecks and over valleys can often be productive, especially just over the bottom with a live ballyhoo or pinfish.
Lots of muttons are caught on dead bait, however, because they tend to fiddle around and just maw and mouth the live bait without actually taking it. One deadly bait is a de-boned ballyhoo, rigged with one hook coming out at the rear of the ‘hoo and a second hook facing upwards just ahead of the dorsal.
Still another great bait rig is a mullet, but presented in an unusual way: The head and fillets are removed, leaving the backbone and entrails. A hook at the top of the backbone and down at the tail is just too juicy for any self-respecting mutton to pass up.
The opposite of the mullet rig is butterflying a grunt. This means removing the backbone so the fillets flap behind the head. When deep-jigged near a mutton, it’s sure to produce results.
The most novel rig I’ve ever used involves lobster parts. First, gather discarded Florida lobster carcasses (the ones with antennas) for use as chum. Break off the antennas and toss the carcasses in the area you’re going to fish for muttons. Now take one of the antennas and blow out what’s inside so it’s hollow. Slip your leader through the tip and bring it down the antenna to the thicker base. Tie on a 4/0 long-shank Eagle Claw 66N hook or one similar, and place two nice plump shrimp on it.
Even at the smaller end of the scale, a mutton will test an angler's fighting ability.
Here’s the scenario: The mutton will be attracted to this menagerie by the scent of the carcasses and make right for the antennas. Lobster antennas are great delicacies to mutton snapper, and they love to savor the meat and fluids from them. Upon approaching and seeing the innocent swatch of lovely shrimp hiding the hook with the length of the antenna hiding the terminal end of the leader, the mutton will be fooled and chomp the shrimp without a moment’s hesitation. Honest.
A Mutton We Will Go
Muttons can be caught on medium spinning gear of 12- to 15-pound test if no obstructions are around. Otherwise, conventional tackle with 30-pound line is advised for yanking them away from wrecks and rocks. Leaders are generally in the 50-pound mono class and about 8 feet in length. Hooks range in size from 4/0 to 6/0, depending on the size of the bait and the class of fish that seem to be in the area. I favor bronze short-shank 9174 Mustad hooks for just about all reef fish.
Muttons, also referred to as “pargos” or “reef kings” in various regions, are the second largest of the snapper family. They’re usually salmon in color and sport a black spot near the rear of the dorsal fin. Mutton snapper also have a distinctive blue line from each nostril to the eyes. They make for very tasty eating, with thick, juicy fillets.
Any way you choose it—trolling, anchored, drifting, using plugs, live or cut bait—a mutton snapper is going to give you a knock-down, drawn-out fight. And the decision will usually go to your opponent.