End of the Road

Historic Highway Leads Anglers to a Winter Wonderland

Capt. Steve Dougherty April 18, 2017

It’s a typical winter in Fort Kent, Maine where the streets are salted and outside air temp reads a bone chilling 37 degrees. While this small town in Aroostook County is known for winter recreation and sees annual snowfall averaging 97 inches, it’s also home to America’s first mile. U.S. Route 1 begins here and if you follow this historic highway south for nearly 2,500 miles you’ll run out of road at MILE MARKER ZERO on Whitehead St. where the mercury currently rests at 83 degrees. Though the advancing of cooler air masses can greatly influence weekly weather patterns in the Keys, the variety of species available during the winter months makes for some of the best angling opportunities of the entire year.

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Photo: Thinkstock

The feeling that a Jimmy Buffett chorus has come to life is overwhelming once arriving in Key West. It’s a wild and colorful island escape that symbolizes the carefree Caribbean lifestyle. But as much as I enjoy laying in the shade, playing the part of tourist and watching the sunset at Mallory Square, there’s more to this eccentric little island than meets the eye.

...red, gag and black grouper begin moving to shallower structures as the first cold fronts arrive in November.

Avid anglers from around the world are well aware the surrounding waters provide some of the most extensive angling options and available species found anywhere. When it comes to ranking the world’s top destinations and must-visit escapes, Key West is always high on the list because fish-of-a-lifetime can be caught nearly any day of the year. In fact, as of press date there are more than 280 active IGFA world records from Key West.

While many choose to visit the Florida Keys in the summer when tarpon, dolphin and yellowtail snapper take top honors, the winter season is not to be overlooked. Furthermore, what passes for a cold front in the Keys would widely be considered a warming trend for much of the United States currently locked in the chilly grips of winter.

There’s a lot to do this time of year and you can stay as busy as you want. Whether you prefer hunting the shallows or spending time outside the reef line, approaching cold fronts determine the available species and when and where they are likely to be encountered.

Weather changes quickly here and one day it can be blowing 20 out of the north with anglers encountering traditional winter targets, while the days following push warmer air from southern latitudes, enticing the usual summer suspects to come out and play. Each passing front is different from the last and the most successful anglers can predict approaching winds and weather based on a storm’s intensity, depth and movement.

Ahead of an approaching front winds typically blow from southern quadrants and gradually veer to the southwest. When a boundary envelops Key West it is generally accompanied by a squall line featuring heavy winds, rain and lightning. Storms pass through quickly and as temperatures drop winds continue to shift in a clockwise direction. As these dominant weather patterns begin to stabilize northerly winds prevail before eventually turning east.

The velocity, duration and direction of wind is highly dependent on the speed and path of frontal boundaries. With east winds offshore anglers know that sailfish will rise to the surface and tail down sea as they work their way towards the Yucatan Peninsula.

While the sailfish bite off Key West peaks in the spring when double-digit releases are common occurrences, during November and December sails can be seen showering ballyhoo schools in shallow water just off the reef line. Here, cobalt blue water of the Gulf Stream mixes with green water from Florida Bay to create a powder-blue paradise where sight casting to migrating sailfish proves to be the most exciting and effective approach.

Fishing the color changes and current rips approximately 10 miles west of Key West, near Cosgrove Shoal Light, will put you in prime position to not only encounter sailfish, but nearly every pelagic predator that calls these waters home. And don’t worry so much about depth, because the color change is king whether it rests above 30- or 230-feet of water. While sailfish are easy to spot on the surface, when east winds and eastbound currents collide everything in the ocean rises to the top.

Although unbeknownst to most, since it takes place on the seafloor, grouper also make impressive migrations during the winter months. They don’t travel as far as sailfish, but red, gag and black grouper begin moving to shallower structures as the first cold fronts arrive in November.

Patch reef fishing can be red hot this time of year, with the preferred method anchoring and chumming. While you’re sure to entice a variety of snapper, porgy, grunt and mackerel, what you’re really doing is building a food chain and bringing large grouper out from the safety of their holes and caverns within the expansive reef system.

While a large portion of this extensive reef tract lies just a few miles from shore in water only 10- to 30-feet deep, head further than most are interested in fishing and you’ll see catches increase exponentially. The distant waters west of Key West are a bottom fisherman’s paradise. Here, there’s an amazing assortment of shipwrecks, downed aircraft, remote navigation markers and giant radio towers bringing the typically featureless bottom to life. Unfortunately, grouper season in the Keys is highly regulated and several species close to recreational and commercial harvest starting the first of the year, so you better get on them while the opportunity exists.

Winter weather has a much greater influence on shallow water fisheries, but that’s not to say the top three disappear during the coming months. Prime season for tarpon and bonefish is still a few months away, yet they aren’t out of the question and die-hards still battle the elements with relative consistency.

Since mature bonefish are more tolerant to the colder conditions than their juvenile counterparts, the advantage to fishing the flats during the winter is that you’ll likely have shots at the biggest fish of the entire year. Additionally, winter wind adds a slight chop to the surface that helps disguise your natural or artificial presentation.

Permit are more tolerant to the cooler water than bonefish and tarpon, though severe cold fronts still affect their behavior. Because this is a sight fishery and cool water benefits by warming from the sun, even if only for a few hours, ideal conditions exist with midday incoming tides. When incoming tides occur early or late in the day excessive glare limits your ability to spot fish from a distance.

Water temperature is a driving factor this time of year and leeward shorelines enable shallows to heat and hold warmth longer with the benefit of being blocked by the wind. Oceanside flats typically provide more stable conditions as they are influenced by warm ocean water in comparison to flooding from colder waters of Florida Bay. Additionally, oceanside flats are in the lee when north winds prevail, making them ideal areas to focus your efforts during periods of inclement weather.

There’s nowhere else in the world quite like Key West, with anglers afforded the opportunity to target an incredible diversity of species throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean every day of the year! Passing cold fronts don’t have a huge influence on daily life in Key West and there’s always fish to be caught if you know where to look.

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