MIAMI — Captain Joe Petrucco and his crew had just boated 10 blackfin tuna and three dolphin on the Islamorada Hump when they overheard a fellow charter boat captain complaining on VHF radio about how slow the fishing was in the area.
“No current, no fish. It (stinks),” Petrucco told one of his colleagues seeking a status report.
Petrucco and first mate Kevin “Caveman” Potter reeled up another blackfin near the 280-foot deep pinnacle.
“Keep talkin’, guys,” Petrucco chuckled to himself as he stowed the catch in the fish box of the 31-foot Bluewater.
In plain view of at least a dozen private and charter boats that were unsuccessfully slow-trolling live baits on the popular fishing grounds 14 miles off Islamorada, Petrucco, Potter and a guest had reeled up tuna, dolphin and lesser amberjack all afternoon.
They had not one live bait on board.
What was their secret?
“Butterfly jigs,” Petrucco said. “They are so deadly.”
Petrucco, who runs light-tackle, offshore charters aboard a center-console out of Tavernier Creek Marina, said he stumbled on the technique through one of his charter groups — outdoors writers and TV show producers from Spain.
“They’d bring stuff and test it out. They’d say, ‘Do you mind if we jig?”‘ Petrucco said. “And they started catching fish with it. It started to get interesting to me.”
His customers frequently left tackle behind so he could experiment with it. Now, there are many occasions when the butterfly, or deep jigs, outfish all other bait and lures. The jigs have been a staple for years in the Pacific Rim but gained popularity in the United States only recently.
“We came up with combinations that work just by doing it all the time,” Petrucco said. “It has everything to do with matching the hatch. I think those fish right now are after squid, and the jigs imitate the squid perfectly. When the fish stay down deep, the jigs work.”
Petrucco said anglers should be prepared with a full arsenal when making the journey to the Hump; that means a variety of live baits, soft plastics, trolling feathers, casting jigs and flies, especially small deceiver patterns. That way, if one technique doesn’t work, other methods can be tried.
“I’ve come out here loaded to the gills with pilchards and couldn’t catch a fish,” Petrucco said. Other times, he said, the only thing that worked were tiny deceiver flies in blue and white or blue and green.
But Petrucco and his guests love deep-jigging because it’s more active and hands-on than trolling. They get a workout from dropping the jig deep to the bottom and then bumping and reeling it back to the surface. Fish that have fallen victim to the butterfly jig include blackfin and yellowfin tuna; Almaco, and greater and lesser amberjack; bonito; dolphin; Warsaw grouper; and queen snapper.
Unlike standard jigs, butterfly models are designed to flutter down instead of plummeting to the bottom. Made of painted lead, they look a lot like a trumpetfish — long and angular with a blade-like edge. The hook usually is attached at the head of the jig, not at the bottom.
Petrucco won’t say what kind of butterfly jig he uses, except that he orders them from a lure maker in Australia.
“If everybody used it, it might not work as well,” he said.
Still, there are several models readily available on the market that are quite effective, including those made by Shimano and Daiwa. The best colors, Petrucco said, are blue and silver; green and silver; chartreuse and silver; and black and gold. “You want a jig that flutters; you want a lot of motion,” he said.
Jigging tackle involves heavy-duty offshore spinning reels, such as those made by Daiwa and Fin-Nor, that can hold plenty of 30-to-65-pound braied line. Rods should be short, stout composites with a soft tip to make the jig work — lightweight enough to avoid fatigue, but with sufficient backbone to winch up a 30-pound blackfin from the depths. Leaders should be a minimum of 60-pound test; but 100-pound might be necessary if the fishing grounds hold a lot of amberjack.
Catching is a workout, but an enjoyable one.
“You get a lot of interaction,” Petrucco said. “You feel the bite. It’s awesome.”
To book an offshore fishing trip with captain Joe Petrucco, call 800-375-7280 or visit www.joepetrucco.com.