Islamorada is recognized globally as the undisputed Sport Fishing Capital of the World, and we couldn’t agree more. One look at Google Earth and it is easy to see why. Bordering Islamorada’s southern shores sits the expansive Atlantic Ocean. Just a short distance from the coast the bottom plummets hundreds of feet into near abyssal depths. This nutrient rich zone is constantly fed by the Straits of Florida and is home to pelagic predators in numbers most of us only dream about. Dolphin, sailfish, swordfish, blackfin tuna…they are all here and they are often very cooperative. Iconic marinas like Whale Harbor, Bud-N-Mary’s and Holiday Isle are home to celebrated offshore charter fleets claiming fame to millions of satisfied customers.
Paralleling the same shore rests a vast network of natural patch reefs. You want snapper and other tasty bottom dwellers? You’ve come to the right place, as there’s no other destination like this in the continental United States. A steady flowing chum slick nearly anywhere along these reefs always attracts a cloud of hungry ‘tails and aggressive mangroves, in addition to prized mutton snapper and tackle-testing grouper. And we can’t forget about the backcountry. Islamorada’s northern shores reach into Florida Bay and Everglades National Park. This is exactly where tarpon, permit, bonefish, redfish, trout and snook are all within reach on any given day. I’m sure you have heard of Lorelei—base camp to legendary backcountry guides who continue to etch their names in sight fishing history books.
After only a few trips I’ve already released numerous bonnethead sharks, powerful lemon sharks and a number of aggressive blacktips…
Adding to the already long list of possibilities, there is yet another worthy option that has recently emerged as a real crowd pleaser—shark fishing the flats. This isn’t open ocean shark fishing with big tackle in big water. This is Florida Bay light tackle fishing in gin-clear shallows barely waist deep. But make no mistake; it is just as exciting! Local guides claim even more so because the entire hunt is visual. To experience the excitement for myself I recently ventured to Islamorada, Superfly in tow with the goal of learning more about this exciting fishery.
With so much promising territory in the backcountry, perhaps the greatest challenge of this entire quest was deciding exactly where to fish. After studying local charts and satellite images, I selected a location within easy reach of any resort or lodge along the scenic Overseas Highway. My hopes were that the enticing scent from the oily fish racks I planned to hang over the side of my skiff would disperse across the expansive Islamorada flat before spilling into the emerald green Gulf. This particular flat was bordered by a deep channel and several large islands home only to squawking birds. With a bit of luck interested parties would swim up the slick, only to find me waiting with bait in hand ready to throw the perfect pitch. Fortunately, my hunch was on the money and only minutes after setting up I connected with my first toothy taker of the day—a mature bonnethead. Though bonnethead sharks are typically the smallest sharks you’ll encounter on the flats, they are aggressive and provide a solid indication that larger predators may be lurking nearby. Before lunch a lemon shark eclipsing the triple digit mark put up a respectable battle before being released unharmed. This was for me!
I’ve since been back to Islamorada to film an episode of Florida Sport Fishing TV on the same topic, and I’m convinced I have further honed my shark hunting skills. Experimentation has taught me that flats covered in healthy grass beds may not be as productive as lighter, sandy flats. Four feet seems to be the perfect depth, though I clearly spotted sharks cruising in 2 feet and 6 feet of water respectively. It’s also important to note that wading birds, turtles and forage fish are all great indications of larger, toothier things to come. Expect to see minnows, houndfish, pinfish, ballyhoo, various jacks and juvenile snapper all enjoying free tidbits.
Once you key in on a specific location, follow the clearly defined maze of channels out to the desired area and stake your territory. Prop scars are nasty and bad for the environment, so please avoid damaging the fragile ecosystem. Florida Keys flats are exactly where a shallow water anchor like a Power Pole or Minn Kota Talon come into play, although a standard Fortress will get the job done. Some guys will tell you to rig a buoy at the end of your anchor rode in the event you need to ditch in hot pursuit of a reel screamer. In realty, it only takes a few seconds to haul an anchor from 4 feet of water.
Whether incoming or outgoing, tidal movement is essential. Without it your enticing scent will go nowhere fast. Speaking of which, some form of chum is obviously in order. I prefer whole bonito scored and sliced, though barracuda, kingfish, dolphin and leftover snapper scraps will do the trick. Pretty much any combination of fresh fish carcasses will attract sharks. The same applies to bait, with meaty steaks preferred over strips.
Once the dinner bell is ringing it’s time to fish. Medium action 20 lb. class spinning outfits are adequate for the majority of sharks you’ll encounter on the flats. Natural baits can be fished directly on the bottom or suspended under a balloon. An option is to simply wait it out and present bait only when you see a shark coming in hot. A fired up shark will immediately turn on the bait and the rest is shark fishing history. A wary shark may blow out from the splash, so having a bait floating behind the boat and one ready to toss will cover the bases. Five feet of 50 lb. mono leader tied to 18 inches of #5 single strand wire will keep you connected. More importantly, a 7/0 non-offset circle-hook is the only game in town.
After only a few trips I’ve already released numerous bonnethead sharks, powerful lemon sharks and a number of aggressive blacktips that race in when least expected. Really exciting stuff! If you are looking for a challenge, get in on this incredible shallow water fishery. The fabulous Florida Keys are within easy reach and with a tropical setting and world-class fishing opportunities, it’s literally a fisherman’s heaven on earth.
Shark fishing Florida Keys flats is a 100 percent release fishery. While most of the beasts encountered on the flats are indeed edible, they are certainly worth much more alive than dead. It’s unfortunate, but sharks continue to be abused globally by indiscriminate finning activity and wasteful commercial harvest. It is our duty as conservation-minded anglers to ensure no harm comes to these magnificent creatures. Sharks keep the flats balanced and are an integral part of nearly every shallow water ecosystem. Make it a point to fish only non-stainless, non-offset circle-hooks and always have a long de-hooker and wire cutters within easy reach. Remember that a fiberglass reproduction release mount can be made to commemorate your trophy catch, so shoot a bunch of photos after estimating the fish’s size and enjoy watching the beaten shark swim away.