The must-visited Florida Keys are magical and for shallow water enthusiasts pursuing local trophies—whether it be in the form of bonefish, permit, tarpon or redfish—the coral cay archipelago is perhaps the greatest stretch of tropical real estate on the planet.
Today, the total landmass of the Florida Keys is only 137 square miles encompassing a surprising 1,700 islands. However, only a very limited number of these exposed ancient coral heads are populated, and many are barely large enough to pitch a tent. Of the 1,700 landmasses comprising the famed Florida Keys, only 43 are connected by bridges, with the Seven Mile Bridge the most impressive and easily recognizable.
Even if you are the determined do-it-yourself type, at the very least I urge you to experience the region with a professional guide before attempting to venture into the unknown on your own.
Because there are so many islands within the Florida Keys chain, which enjoy a Caribbean-like climate, someone at some point decided it was a good idea to divide them into several categories, including the Upper Keys, the Middle Keys, the Lower Keys and the rarely publicized Outlying Keys.
Key Largo and the Upper Keys, which are composed of sandy limestone produced by plants and marine organisms, are located the farthest north and closest to Florida’s mainland. The groups extend south and west, with Big Pine and the Lower Keys remnants of large fossilized coral reefs concluding the stretch of piscatorial paradise.
What’s important here and now are the Outlying Keys stretching north-northwest into Florida Bay that see little attention in the media. These priceless pieces of real estate are only accessible by boat, and the fertile waters surrounding them host a multitude of world-class fisheries.
Most anglers who trailer their skiffs down the Turnpike can’t seem to avoid making that right turn in Florida City. They’re afraid to venture to this little talked about territory due to lack of local knowledge, and for good reason. The shallows surrounding the Outlying Keys can be treacherous, with water only ankle deep in many places. Those unfamiliar with the area are simply asking for trouble. Still, there is plenty of accessible territory and exciting opportunities to be had with a multitude of local experts who know these waters like the back of their hand.
Even if you are the determined do-it-yourself type, at the very least I urge you to experience the region with a professional guide before attempting to venture into the unknown on your own. Putting things in perspective, one guy’s pay for the day is far more affordable than irreversible damage to the fragile ecosystem, or ripping off a lower unit and ending up stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Content Keys may just be the most popular of the outlying islands. This series of mangrove isles with its surrounding expansive flats lies north-northwest of Big Torch and is a favorite stretch for guides looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. While this particular stretch borders Florida Bay and features numerous cuts leading to open water, there are few channel markers so only those who are truly adept at reading the water should venture into these uncharted waters. Out here, it only takes one wrong turn to transform a great day in to a really bad day.
Interestingly, the lack of navigational aids is also a blessing in disguise, resulting in very little fishing pressure. Ask around and you’ll see. Any guide who fishes the Outlying Keys will tell you it’s common to pole through an entire tide without seeing another skiff.
What you will see is the pristine Florida Keys like you’ve never experienced them before with the big three—bonefish, permit and tarpon—comprising the main draw for sight fishing enthusiasts during the coming months. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, redfish are continuing to increase in numbers and are currently viable targets, with drag-screaming jacks, barracuda and sharks all real possibilities as well. Many of the hard bottom cuts dissecting the islands also hold healthy populations of mangrove snapper, with the occasional mutton making a welcomed appearance.
Spanish Banks, due east of the Contents is another favorite area, especially for those launching from Big Pine…that is if you can make it past the miles of promising flats and channel edges in between. Visit Google Maps or study a local chart and you’ll see that actually, there is an extensive bar interrupted by numerous cuts and mangrove-encrusted cays that stretches all the way to Key West. You can be sure the remote wilderness out here looks the same today as it did when the Calusa and Tequesta indians first landed. The long bar encompasses a number of extensive basins and includes Sawyer Key, Barracuda Keys, Mud Keys and plenty of popular points in between. The entire length is wide open and potentially productive on any given day with an array of highly prized species calling these forage-rich shallows home. While this is flats fishing at its absolute finest, just because you see a pack of permit or laid up tarpon doesn’t mean you are going to catch them.
Like many of his comrades, Captain Scott Yetter (sightfishfloridakeys.com) has been fishing the Outlying Keys for over 16 years and knows the region extremely well. Yetter launches at various points and considers four major factors when determining exactly where to fish and what to look for on any given day. These key factors include visibility, wind direction, tidal stage and water temperature.
Discolored water or complete cloud cover results in extremely poor visibility, making sight fishing for highly coveted bonefish extremely challenging. Wind direction also plays a vital role as it influences tidal fluctuations and creates surface chop. Guides also evaluate wind direction and speed to determine where to enter or exactly how to approach a particular stretch of fishy water.
Optimal tidal stage is equally important, but varies from one target species to the next. While you can rarely go wrong with a flooding tide, the bottom of a falling tide often sets the stage for exciting redfishing. Water temperature is the last part of the equation, with a reading in the low 80s ideal, but with so many varied species action of one sort or another can be found no matter the prevalent conditions.
Don’t let the remoteness of the Outlying Keys deter you. On your own or with a professional, this rarely visited habitat has something for everyone and may just be the last frontier.
While there is no question that fly-fishing presents sight fishermen with the best opportunity at a stealthy presentation and soft landing—a requirement when targeting wary fish in water only inches deep—it’s not the only way to connect. Anglers intimidated by the long stick can still achieve a respectable level of success with spinning gear in hand.
Rig It Right
Top natural baits include the usual suspects, with shrimp, shrimp-tipped jigs and small crabs all go-to baits. Artificial junkies turn to small skimmer jigs in hues of brown or tan. In either case, a 7’0″ light/medium action rod rated for 10 to 15 lb. line will seal the deal. Complete the arsenal with a size 4000 spinner loaded with fresh 10 lb. braid with a 15 or 20 lb. class fluorocarbon leader, and you’ll enjoy the sporting qualities of every fish to the fullest.
With permit and tarpon in the crosshairs, step up to a medium action outfit loaded with 20 lb. braid for a fighting chance at success.