Fishing Opportunities in the Florida Keys & Key West
The geographical layout and location of the Florida Keys provide anglers with many fishing opportunities. With the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay on the North side and the Atlantic Ocean to the south, it’s no wonder so many fishing enthusiasts flock to the Keys each year to pursue a dream of a permit on fly or to catch some fresh fish for dinner.
The Florida Keys chain of islands flow south and west from the Miami area of Florida. The waters surrounding the islands provide many types of habitat for fish. Flats, or shallow water areas, surround many of the islands and extend into Florida Bay and the Everglades. To the west of Key West also lies one of the only atolls in North America, the Marquesas. This area of flats surrounding the Marquesas is 3 miles wide and has been referred to as “the golden donut” by famous author, Jeffrey Cardenas. The Marquesas is a magical place where tarpon, bonefish and permit feed daily on the flats. There is more life here at this atoll, just 22 miles from Key West Harbor, than in many of the other areas of the backcountry of the Lower Keys. Because it is separated from other points of land by 8 miles of brutally rough water, the Boca Grande Channel. This shallow but wide channel feeds water from the Atlantic to the Gulf and on any given day can be brutal to cross in a small boat. Anglers find this place to be most promising on days during the annual tarpon migration while slow summer days you may have the whole atoll to yourself.
The Keys not only attract saltwater fly fishing enthusiasts in search of their first permit on a flyrod but light tackle anglers in search of some arm burning fish to give them a run for their money. Many species call the shallow patch reefs and wrecks home in the Lower Keys. Grouper, mutton snapper, yellowtail snapper, porgy, cobia, grunts, and triggerfish should fill your vocabulary when talking about reef dwelling fish. Many of these species will eat a variety of bait including bucktail jigs, rubber DOA shrimp, live pilchards, squid or chunks of ballyhoo. Bottom fishing is always better during the cooler months here in the Keys. Fall is when many of the larger grouper will move from deeper water where they spent the summer back up onto the reef areas.
For the offshore enthusiast there are so many species to fish for. Challenge your angling ability with light tackle sport fishing for wahoo, sailfish, mahi mahi or tuna, or jump on board a sport fishing vessel and head further offshore for marlin, sharks, swordfish and deep drop for snowy grouper. Many of the species mentioned for light tackle and reef fishing may also be caught off an offshore trolling vessel. It highly depends on the conditions and the captain’s abilities.
If you have heard someone talk about fishing the Dry Tortugas they probably had some big fish stories to tell about this fishing playground some 70 miles from Key West. Fort Jefferson is located in the Dry Tortugas National Park and is a tourist attraction not to be missed. This beautiful outpost was never actually used as a fort but served as a safe harbor for shrimp and fishing boats traveling to the mainland Florida, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Today it still serves as a safe haven from the weather but there are many visitors by seaplane and boats from Key West daily. There are few fishing charters with the licensing to fish the grounds around the Dry Tortugas but if you get to go it will certainly be a big fish event.
Recent Key West Fishing Report
Just like when life gives you lemons you make lemonade, when the Keys give you wind you do your best to hide from it or make the best of it.
This week has been a tough one for both flats and offshore guides alike. Big wind over 20 mph not only makes it difficult to get out to your regular spots, it churns up the water and makes for rough navigation in a small vessel.
The shallows are showing a good number of tarpon. They are moving on the flats and despite the wind the skies were pretty clear and easy to spot these silver kings. Fly fishing might be a more difficult task if you can’t get that downwind shot. There have been a fair amount of permit caught this week in the shallows. That’s good news since the permit have been spawning offshore for the past month or so.
When all else fails there’s some hope if you’d an find a shallow sandy spot and bring some shrimp to chum in the bonefish or a few bonnethead sharks. It makes for some excitement and they are fun to fight on light tackle.
Light tackle fishing has been sporty but productive. The mutton snapper fishing this time of year is exceptional. The muttons spawn on the full moon in May and June just off the reef. There’s a bar they congregate on that’s just past the reef and they can be found in good numbers and range from 8-15 lbs on average.
Some of the offshore boats that have spent the day on the high seas have been catching marlin, sailfish, kingfish and Mahi-mahi lately. A surprising number of marlin for this early in the season but great news regardless.
The winds continue this week and some weather will move through. Then it looks like we might get into a groove of our regular late spring weather. Calm days are ahead we hope, especially for tarpon fishing!
Planning to catch the notorious Palolo worm hatch in the Keys this spring? It’s still always a guessing game even for the seasoned captains that live here. The formula has always been known to be on a full or new moon with an outgoing tide into the evening hours. For 2017 it looks like the first time it could occur is on May 10th or within 3 days of the date. The outgoing tide is just about perfect on the 13th. So that’s my guess…
But the tarpon will key in on that worm way before the full moon. They tend to do a disappearing act close to the worm hatch time. Sure you can still find them concentrated between the Old and New Bahia Honda Bridges, but on the flats they may be scarce. Then when you find them be sure to try a worm fly if you are fly fishing. Chances are they are already keyed in on the worm and will follow and even take a worm fly without much coaxing. Tarpon start acting strange sometimes a week before the worms emerge from the hard coral rock. They might even just about disappear on the flats. It’s usually a tell tale sign that the “hatch” is going to happen. It’s frustrating to say the least when you run around all day looking for a meatball of fish only to find tarpon here and there scattered along the ocean flats. Of course there are other places to find them but those big ocean fish are what attracts fly anglers to the Keys this time of year and keeps them coming back year after year.
Feeding tarpon during a worm hatch, however, can be a whole different story. Some anglers seem to think it’s like a “gimme” where you throw the fly in and automatically hook up. If that has happened to you – awesome! In fly fishing we tie and strip the fly to mimic the real thing. A Palolo worm will emerge from the coral rock and swim to the surface and continue its journey along the surface of the water.
The worm hatch will create a frenzy of tarpon in areas on the oceanside and around Key West Harbor. Sometimes if there are too many worms, your fly can be forgotten. The key is to get it right on their nose and use a long sweeping strip or striper strip so emulate the movement of the Palolo Worm.
Tarpon will swim differently too. They almost wiggle on the surface and you will see them not just roll but stay up longer pursuing a worm as it darts along the surface.
Worm Flies are very simple to tie and I suggest rigging up the fly on the leader before you get out there. Do a dozen if you have time. Whether you just want a few jumps out of the fish or want to land him (which I don’t really suggest during the hatch because you are missing all the fun) you will lose a few flies.
Next Full Moon: May 10, 2017 – 5:42 pm
Next New Moon: May 25, 2017 – 3:44 pm
Palolo Worm Fly
Bruce Chard’s Palolo Worm Fly – From Gink and Gasoline
If you think it’s easy being a fishing guide in the Florida Keys – – think again especially the past week or so. It’s surprising that more of our guides have not become kiteboard instructors or even yet just decided to hit the hopping flat or go to the White St. Pier for some high flying fun! Yes…. it has been windy – not just windy – nuclear!
It’s not all bad though. There has been a small craft advisory in affect for quite some time now. It’s just a regular occurrence these days. Our seasoned fishing guides know how to drive a skiff in rougher weather. Well, most do.
I’d say to fish on the flats this week you must have an open mind to it all. The fish are still there – it’s just a rougher ride getting there and dealing with heavier wind. Fly fishing is not for whimps this week. My advice, wear several layers of clothing, a sun gaiter and a hat. That way the fly has other things to penetrate first besides your skin. It’s a chuck and duck kind of day out there. BUT there’s tarpon, permit, bonefish, cudas and sharks to be had. I’ve seen them all with my own eyes!
Offshore the name of the game is not to get sick I think. No, seriously – there’s been some good yellowtailing just off the reef and the deeper water holds some kings and a few mahi but not like it really should be this time of year. A regular April offshore will be superb for sailfish with live bait or trolling. Some of the light tackle boats will make the journey 20 – 50 miles to the shrimp boats in the Gulf for some tuna action. Not only are there some fatty tunas there but bonito and of course the sharks.
Look for the winds to die down this weekend. We just had clearing skies this afternoon and that’s all it takes to make the fish and the guides happy once again.
What kind of fishing do we do in Key West?
Shallow water sight fishing for tarpon, bonefish, permit, sharks and barracuda. The excitement of sight casting with a fly or spin tackle is unsurpassed. Our clear water in the Keys makes it all the more fun!
Light Tackle Fishing
Fishing in Key West opens up a lot of possibilities. Especially if you have live bait! Light tackle fishing is done from a center console boat and most boats take 3-4 people.
Deep Sea Fishing
The water beyond the reef is teeming with all kinds of fish. Both food fish like snapper and grouper and gamefish like sailfish and marlin. You just have to decide what you want to go for.
What better way to be at one with the fishes than to get in the water with them! Spearfishing is very popular in the Keys. There are many places to go and do it and a few charter companies that will take you there too.
World Class Fishing in the Florida Keys!
Take a look at what time is best to come for the fish of your lifetime! Our fishing calendar will put it all in perspective!