It’s the unexpected good things in fishing that we so often remember with such clarity, like the spring afternoon my wife Chris and I were in the middle Florida Keys. We were on the boat dock at Islamorada’s famed Cheeca Lodge following a mid-day snorkeling trip. We sat on the dock catching our breath and enjoying a cool drink when I looked north up the island.
I squinted my eyes in disbelief at the disturbances I saw in the water. My eyes saw fish, but my mind wouldn’t accept what I thought I saw because the early evening swimming, snorkeling and dinner-jacket crowd all were stirring around the water’s edge.
I watched the fish intently, not knowing for sure what they were until I saw tails—-big, silver tails—-of feedingbonefish, tipping and pirouetting just 30 feet off the bank, directly below the ocean-side rooms of Cheeca Lodge.
In a flash I raced to Cheeca, through the lobby, up to our room via elevator, and was back down on the dock with a fly rod and a spinning rod. The bones were still tipping and feeding, and Chris’ first cast with a jig brought an instant strike. Before the whole school flushed I presented my streamer to another bone, and we had a double-header, fish of about 6-pounds—-modest by Keys standards, big by most winter fishing benchmarks, and forever a highlight of my Florida Keys memories.
But such things happen regularly in the Florida Keys, which is one reason it’s at the top of the go-to list for many anglers wanting a dream spring getaway.
For people unfamiliar with the Keys, it’s important to know they stretch (surrounded by water and fish) for well over 125 miles at Florida’s southeastern tip. The fishing available is about as diverse as anything in angling. This is why many anglers break up the Keys into “thirds,” as in the “Upper Keys,” “Middle Keys” and “Lower Keys.”
The Upper Keys is roughly defined as that region from the north end of Key Largo to the south end of Plantation Key. This area offers fast access to deep water Atlantic-side trolling for most pelagic marine species; while the “inside” or west side of the Upper Keys offers quick access to shallow Florida Bay, offering everything from snook and seatrout, to redfish and tarpon.
The best Upper Keys snook action is September through April when the weather cools, but is not cold. This is believed to trigger an inshore migration of big, “ocean snook” that move into the Upper Keys through Card Sound, Barnes Sound, and Jewfish Creek (connecting Barnes and Blackwater sounds). The best condition is when there’s a lot of freshwater pumping out of Everglades creeks on the mainland. Heavy snook are caught with jigs and plugs near creek mouths at dawn and dusk, with bonus seatrout, redfish and small tarpon.
The first cold snap (usually in December) triggers a seatrout migration through Florida Bay from the open Gulf of Mexico toward the Upper Keys. As the winter season progresses, trout school tightly and move east, until by February they are spread all through Florida Bay to Buttonwood Sound right at Key Largo. Especially good seatrout action can be found around Manatee, Stake and Captain keys west of Tavernier.
The entire eastern (Atlantic) side of the Upper Keys offers excellent bonefishing. October-November, February-April are top months for the speedsters, as cool weather keeps flats temperatures ideal for all-day, shallow-water fishing. Upper Keys bonefish average 7-pounds, and 10-pounders are not uncommon.
Virtually every flat on the ocean side of Key Largo can have big bonefish, and anywhere you can get into the water to wade may produce flats action. The key to catching bones is to know what tide to fish a particular flat. Off Largo, the last of a falling tide is good. Off Tavernier, a rising tide is productive. Rattlesnake Key, in John Pennekamp State Park, is a super place for bones, and very accessible to visitors.
North Key Largo offers great fall-winter dolphin trolling in near-shore waters. Some of the best action for heavyweight dolphin is had in late afternoons, when the sun is behind anglers heading offshore. This allows fishermen running and trolling southeast of North Key Largo to have the sun at their backs and are thus able to easily spot diving frigate birds, weedlines and color changes—-all of which may signal dolphin.
December through April are best months for Upper Keys sailfish, sometimes within six miles of Key Largo. Best action for sails is in 100 to 300 feet of water, from Cary’s Fort Light off the tip of North Key Largo, to “the Elbow” off Pennekamp Park. Another Upper Keys prime “corridor” for sails is from Pickles Reef to Conch Reef, off Tavernier. Slow trolling with live ballyhoo is most deadly for sails, and if you have your own boat it’s not difficult to do.
From November to May the “Middle Keys” (from Plantation Key to about Marathon) also has some of the fastest sailfishing in the Sunshine State, especially off Islamorada and Marathon. Sailfishing really gets going after the first couple cold nor’easters blow through the Middle Keys in late November or December. Sometimes sails will be in only 15 or 20 feet of water…crashing bait huddled in the shallows. Sailfish action is good all along the Middle Keys at that time of year, especially off reef points. Anywhere there’s a lighthouse is a good reef point area for sails. Sombero, Alligator and Tennessee Reef lighthouses are all prime bets for sails.
At that same time of year when there’s abundant baitfish on Middle Keys reefs, excellent fishing for kingfish, cero and Spanish mackerel, grouper, yellowtails and other species can be had. Slow trolling or drifting with live ballyhoo or shrimp is deadly.
Tarpon begin showing in good numbers in the Middle Keys as early as February. When the water is 74 to 75 degrees, anglers drifting or anchoring with mullet baits near Seven-Mile Bridge do well on early-run tarpon weighing 50 to 150 pounds.
A good case can be made that the best bonefishing in North America is found on the abundant flats throughout the Middle Keys. A quick look at the IGFA world record listings for bonefish shows no fewer than 15 current ones set in the Middle Keys (including fly-rod), most of them out of Islamorada. Bonefish are caught in the Middle Keys year-round. But September-October, February through April are prime. At these times of year, bonefish can be found tailing on flats throughout the day because water temperature is ideal.
Bonefish can be found on both the Florida Bay and the Atlantic sides of the Middle Keys, simply because there are more passes to allow bonefish access to the Florida Bay side of the Keys from the Atlantic.
Bonefishing also is good in the “lower Keys” (from Marathon through Key West and out to the Marquesas Keys), but not as well known as in the Middle Keys. Almost any flat can yield bonefish at the right time, but the permit fishing in the lower Keys is perhaps the best in the world. As early as February permit are as thick around wrecks west and north of Key West as anyone can hope for. Some anglers see as many as 1,000 permit in a single day as the fish cruise around sunken wrecks in a curious, circling pattern that is a spawning instinct. While permit on the flats are among the most difficult of all gamefish to catch, when they are found deep on wrecks they are far easier to take. But they still are permit, and many anglers would gladly trade a month’s wages to hook, fight and land any permit, via any method.
Wrecks and reefs off the Lower Keys also have top winter-early spring cobia fishing; blackfin tuna in huge numbers feeding around anchored shrimp boats; and even in the coolest weather tarpon and permit often can be found feeding in Key West harbor.
One great spring Keys fishery that often is overlooked is flats action for barracuda. Most are under 20-pounds, but they are in good supply, and are blazing-fast predators that pounce on fast-moving top-water plugs and tube lures.
Lots of great guides, marinas and tackle shops can be found throughout the Keys. One of the many top Key West charter captains is Robert “RT” Trosset (phone 866-293-9550) who specializes in offshore action from sails to cobia, kingfish to tuna. Pelican Landing Resort and Marina (phone 610-375-6013) is a good place to headquarter in Key West.
In the Middle Keys, two of the best “skiff guides” are Lenny Moffo (phone 305-872-4683) and Bus Bergman (phone 305-743-7021). Banana Bay Resort (phone 305-743-3500) is a relaxing family spot, with boat rentals and a marina at Marathon and close to great fishing action.
No single story can do justice to all the great fishing the Florida Keys offers cold weather-weary anglers. Inshore, offshore, wrecks, reefs, flats, fly fishing, trolling, light-tackle spinning and plug fishermen can find everything they want in the Keys. And don’t forget there’s great snorkeling, SCUBA diving, eco-tours and more for those days when you simply want to lay back in the sun, listen to Jimmy Buffet, and enjoy a cool beverage with a little umbrella atop the ice.