If you’ve never been to the Florida Keys than you are in for a real treat. The first time you cruise down the nostalgic Overseas Highway with boat in tow you’ll have to pinch yourself as you gaze into the surrounding aquamarine waters. While you’re still relatively close to home, you’ll feel like you’re a world away. Paradise found is exactly what you’ll think while questioning yourself why it took so long to finally visit heaven on earth.
A staple fishery, dolphin delight visiting anglers during May and June.
If you’re a routine visitor and well aware of the laid back atmosphere and the true definition of “Island Time,” than you’ve probably already planned your next sabbatical to The Conch Republic. And while there’s a host of activities for aquatic lovers and landlubbers alike, the azure offshore waters offer some of the greatest angling opportunities in the entire world. The following is a Florida Keys bucket list that blue water anglers-on-the-go can easily accomplish on their own.
5. Key Largo [Gulf Stream]
Fish: To most traveling sportsman neon green dolphin taking to the air are synonymous with summertime in the Keys. Lucky for you some of the biggest bulls and chunkiest cows are taken in May, with healthy fish still cooperative in June. While juvenile dolphin can be found closer to shore, for the most spectacular fish depart Key Largo and head east 20 miles, always keeping your eyes peeled for current edges and active birds. Water temperature between 78 and 82 degrees offer ideal conditions. While rigged ballyhoo work wonders, don’t dare leave the dock without a supply of chunk and/or live bait. The beauty is that when you come across dolphin in the open ocean odds are they will be receptive to feeding—you just have to figure out what they’re hungry for. If you come across schoolies and need some rod-bending action, toss light spinning outfits rigged with 15 lb. test and 40 lb. leaders. Be sure to keep a heavier spinner handy incase a larger bull or cow invades the party.
Food: Since 1950 The Pilot House has been a favorite watering hole for local conchs. Dine and drink while you peer into the water afforded by the one of a kind glass bottom bar.
Fun: Get a fish eye view while snorkeling the world famous John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (pennekamppark.com) in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
4. Islamorada [Offshore Humps]
Fish: Underwater seamounts are essential feeding grounds for a variety of nomadic game fish and as the offshore season progresses, visiting anglers should scour blue water arenas for signs of life. Possibly the most popular fishing spot in all of the Keys, the Islamorada Hump (24°48.1’N; 080°26.6’W) is a fertile oasis that sees traffic nearly every day of the year from boats of all sizes and anglers of all skill levels. In addition to this proven seamount the 409 Hump (24°35.5’N; 080°35.5’W) and Marathon West Hump (24°25.5’N; 080°45.3’W) are within reach and offer viable alternatives when traffic is heavy around The Hump. Fertile upwellings near these underwater structures create current rips that trap prey and attract prowling predators. At all three aforementioned locales diving birds lead the way to schooling blackfin, which are receptive to trolled feathers and skirts, vertical jigs and live baits. When fishing the humps etiquette and common courtesy go a long way, especially if you’re battling for territory with local charter captains. If blackfin aren’t cooperating or skipjack tuna are thick as thieves, don’t hesitate to target backbreaking amberjack. Schooling jack often stage close to the bottom along the up-current edges of these submerged seamounts. Large live baits and hefty tackle are necessary if you want to beat a beast.
Food: Since 1947 The Green Turtle has been a part of Islamorada’s legacy. Today, both locals and visitors can be found at The Turtle enjoying authentic Keys cuisine.
Fun: If you can’t get trophy game fish off your brain head over to Robbie’s and hand feed the resident tarpon as they rise from the water in a lightning fast flash of brilliance.
3. Marathon [Reefs]
Fish: After a four month closure, grouper season opens May 1 and local and visiting anglers alike will be probing aggressive structures for these tasty denizens of the deep. While you can certainly score during the day, reef fishing is best done under the cover of darkness during the steamy months of summer. A variety of grouper and snapper work the night shift, so plan accordingly. Trophy yellowtail can be found on the deeper edges of area reefs in 60 to 90 feet southwest of Sombrero Light (24°37.5’N; 081°06.6’W), with broad shouldered mutton snapper showing along deeper reefs and wrecks beyond 120 feet. Most grouper are taken while mutton fishing so don’t think you’ll need to rig extra heavy outfits or fish super sized baits. Take your time and fight every fish like it’s a trophy and when that keeper red or black grouper comes over the gunnel it will be that much more magnificent.
Food: The Keys Fisheries Market offers a relaxed and casual atmosphere with fresh, local bounty. A great place to watch the sunset, don’t forget your favorite nursery rhyme!
Fun: Visit the Dolphin Research Center at MM 59 for an enjoyable day of hands-on interaction with one of the most playful predators in the ocean.
2. Big Pine [Wood’s Wall]
Fish: For a battle with one of the feistiest fish of all try your luck daytime swordfishing at East Crack (24°14.2’N; 081°35.8’W), which is part of Wood’s Wall, a sheer ledge that runs from Big Pine to The Marquesas. “The Wall” as it’s often referred to, features a near vertical drop-off along the continental shelf that quickly plummets to near abyssal depths. Most swordfish gurus fish 1,500 to 2,100 feet with rigged squid and oversized strip baits. When the bite is on it shouldn’t take long to get connected…wish we could say the same about the fight—especially if you forgo electric power for a true test of stamina. While not as large as the daytimers taken off Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, broadbills in the 100- to 200-pound range are common. If you’re up for the challenge a 10 lb. lead will keep your bait in the strike zone, with 65 lb. braid perfectly suited to cut through the current. If you’re not well versed in the technique or looking for some guidance, don’t hesitate hiring a local captain who can join you on your boat. Your odds of catching a trophy will increase dramatically with specific areas and techniques dialed in.
Food: Get local intel to find the No Name Pub. Enjoy a cold cocktail with their famous deep-dish pizza in a unique Keys ambiance.
Fun: Big Pine Key is home to The National Key Deer Refuge. The smallest of whitetail subspecies, Key deer are most active around dawn and dusk. Take pictures and leave only footprints.
1. Key West [The Ups & Downs]
Fish: Key West has always been a favored port of call for traveling anglers. Not only because of its well-earned reputation as a party town, but also because of the incredible angling opportunities. In Key West anything goes and this is particularly true when fishing offshore. Visiting anglers can expect the Gulf Stream to push in close during the summer, which will make the most prized pelagics easily accessible. Blue marlin aren’t targeted with much fervor, but anglers who put in their time certainly stand a chance with the man in the blue suit. Pass the edge heading south and when you find schoolie dolphin around surface floating debris, expect wahoo to be found lurking in the shadowy depths. Wahoo can also be encountered hunting around schools of surface busting bonito and while certainly more prevalent during the winter months, some of the largest wahoo of the year are taken in the summer. If you aren’t sure where to start, head toward the Ups & Downs (24°22.9’N; 081°39.7’W).
Food: Key West offers a plethora of dining options to suit the palate of the most discriminating diner. The A&B Lobster House is an all-time favorite.
Fun: While a Duval Crawl should be on everyone’s bucket list, it may limit your early morning angling activities. Instead, visit Hemingway House for a step back in time.