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Head West for a Bottom Fishing Bonanza Beyond Imagination

Capt. Steve Dougherty November 19, 2015

When it comes to the world’s top angling destinations, the Florida Keys rank high on the list of entertaining options. Driving down the nostalgic Overseas Highway will leave you in awe as you find it difficult to focus on the road and not the surrounding waters. When you finally arrive at Mile Marker O in Key West you know you’ve made it to paradise, but now it’s time to make a decision. Although the countless reefs and wrecks within a stone’s throw from the harbor hold copious amounts of life, those who are in for an adventure know that heading west at the end of the road leads the way to some of the most productive bottom fishing found anywhere in Florida.

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Photo: doughertyphotos.com

While numerous overnight charter operations regularly visit the fertile waters surrounding the Dry Tortugas, this game clearly isn’t for everyone. Fortunately there’s a better way, but it’s not for the faint of heart and it will certainly take a toll on your body. You also can’t be afraid of burning a serious amount of fuel, but if you take my word for it you’ll have the trip of a lifetime.

While the numerous wrecks and obstructions hold incredible amounts of life in relatively shallow water, the most impressive anomalies are the radio towers put in place by the Department of Defense.

From unfortunate modern and dated shipwrecks, downed aircraft, radio towers, isolated navigation markers and more, the amount of underwater features littering the Gulf to the west of Key West is simply remarkable. There are hundreds of known structures and many more that have yet to be discovered. While there are certainly plenty of opportunities much closer to Key West, what makes these structures so bountiful is the fact they see very little pressure because they are farther than most are interested in fishing. Few charters captains have the necessary federal permits and clients that are willing to cover upwards of 120 miles in a single day. However, it is only because it is so isolated that the action is so incredible, with many of these spots rarely seeing a baited hook.

The immediate area northwest of Key West is a rather featureless expanse, but heading west from the Northwest Channel puts anglers in prime position with fertile structures ranging from 10 to 100 feet or more in depth. You’ll find that the numerous underwater obstructions are home to a variety of species including amberjack, goliath grouper, barracuda, kingfish, permit, cobia, snapper and grouper, but what you’ll soon come to realize is that each structure is unique and favored by a particular species. No two structures out here are alike, with some hunted by black grouper and permit, while a similar feature only a few hundred yards away could be home to a giant school of mangrove snapper. You never know what’s in store next, and when you first send a bait to the bottom it won’t take you long to know if it’s worth sticking it out, or better to move on.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to fish out west, then you’ll be happy to know that there are a series of wrecks, rockpiles, radio towers and reefs clearly marked on NOAA nautical charts to point you in the right direction. Although powerful and user friendly digital charts feature highly desirable features such as satellite imagery linked to chart locations, weather overlay and 3D bathymetry, there’s no substitute for a paper chart. I highly recommend you take a good look at NOAA chart #11439 before leaving port. You’ll see a number of noted wrecks and areas with variance in depth and contour you’ll want to mark in your GPS before leaving the dock. Being prepared is more than half the battle in this endeavor. Additionally, once you’re in the vicinity, keep a close eye on the sounder while prospecting the area. As you motor around you will certainly notice marks that deserve closer inspection and possibly uncover structures that aren’t labeled on any chart.

Heading past the Marquesas you’ll reach an area known as the Quicksands. Bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the north and Atlantic Ocean to the south, this area is littered with wrecks, including the famed Atocha where there’s been over half a billion dollars in gold and silver recovered. A true watery grave, many of the area’s shipwrecks are exposed and haunted by large populations of hungry sharks. While you should certainly stop here and investigate promising bottom, adventurous anglers don’t pull back the throttles until they reach Rebecca Shoal, which separates the Marquesas from the Dry Tortugas. The Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse rests approximately 43 miles west of Key West and local guides and private boaters who are privy of the area’s incredible mutton snapper fishing don’t hesitate to make the run. This is the westernmost limit of fishable waters in a day trip, and anglers who make the effort to visit these distant honey holes know most spots won’t be fished until their next trip out west.

While the numerous wrecks and obstructions hold incredible amounts of life in relatively shallow water, the most impressive anomalies are the radio towers put in place by the Department of Defense. The towers are anchored by steel stanchions that span the water column and come to rest on a giant concrete pad. Providing essential habitat for a variety of forage and predator species, these giant towers are some of the most impressive structures you will ever see in the open ocean. The closest tower to Key West is V Tower, approximately 32 miles to the west northwest, with the S Tower resting 56 miles northwest of Key West.

With so many underwater obstructions in the area, anglers must have complete situational awareness when searching for fish. Here it is more important than ever to be aware of the noted navigational aids on nautical charts including beacons, buoys, markers, range lights, wrecks, rockpiles and radio towers, and fully understand their describing characteristics. For example, if you see FL G 10ft 2m 5 on your chart you are looking at a flashing green buoy that’s 10-feet high, can be seen for 2 miles, and is labeled #5. The amount of information revealed on paper charts is monumental and you’ll notice that some structures are labeled pa and pd, meaning position accurate and position doubtful, so even though you are referencing a chart, nothing substitutes attentive observation while on the water.

Most anglers familiar with fishing this far out west commonly ride on overnight vessels, but with the proponent of today’s incredibly fast center consoles, fishing a structure 60 miles from the dock and returning home for fresh fish dinner isn’t out of the question. If you decide to make it a day trip, it’s highly recommended you make the run home in the daylight or your vessel might very well become the next fish haven.

Rig it Right

You’ve likely heard horror stories of mutton snapper so wary that anglers resort to crazy tactics including 20-foot fluorocarbon leaders and sinkers painted to match the sand, but out here in open water between the Marquesas and the Tortugas anglers don’t need to go crazy. When fishing in 40 to 60 feet of water a simple 5-foot section of 40 lb. mono and a 5/0 circle-hook is all that’s needed. To get your bait to the zone a knocker rig or traditional fish finder rig with 3 oz. of lead will suffice. Nothing fancy, but incredibly effective.

Rules & Regulations

When searching out the numerous structures west of Key West, you will likely be traversing across the dividing line of Gulf and Atlantic waters. The line goes right through the Quicksands and Rebecca Shoal, so you must be fully aware of the Gulf-Atlantic boundary line as well as the state and federal boundary lines for the Gulf and Atlantic. If you are fishing the area during grouper season, you need to remember that grouper regulations in all state waters off Monroe County follow the regulations for state waters of the Atlantic in terms of seasons, size limits, bag limits and gear requirements.

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