Winter time weather in Key West can be a lot more mild than the rest of the state. The cold fronts still pass through, the water still gets cold, and the wind definitely still blows. So what’s different then? What separates the Keys from elsewhere in Florida is the variety of action packed species that take over the backcountry and surrounding shallow reef environments. As more cold fronts approach and gusty conditions occur, things change out on the water. Bait gets pummeled into areas they definitely don’t appreciate being in, followed by your seasonal predators. This gives us the opportunity for hookups on fish we may not see during other times of the year.
After I have a giant cup of coffee and get all bundled up in my Floridian style winter gear, my clients and I take off to action packed areas in the backcountry to go on the hunt. How many species might we catch in the day? I guess we will find out! Be sure to keep track because sometimes you’ll forget what you caught during the day. The range of species down here in the winter include five types of snappers, four types of groupers, spotted sea trout, six species of jacks, cobia, barracuda, six kinds of sharks, three species of mackerel, ladyfish, bonito, and occasionally, the illusive Key West redfish. Catching all of these in one day may be a little out of reach, but you’ll certainly have your shot at a pretty good number of them. Who knows, maybe you’ll even stump the captain on a couple species if you get into some wild-looking tropical fish.
A day or two after a big cold front is my favorite, as areas are still a little stirred up. So, when I’m looking for areas to target a plethora of species, I’ll look for a little bit of dirty water. The crystal clear waters may hold fish as well, but usually a little bit of murkiness can help with the hookup ratio. These murky areas are typically parts of channels where the tide and wind may be going against each other, thus creating a mud slick. Also, I’ve had pretty good luck fishing in some of the 5-8 foot grass basins, as they also create nice slicks. These areas usually have a small doorway to enter (a more narrow section) that funnels the baitfish coming from the Gulf/Atlantic. Once the bait comes in, they can’t find their way out, and tend to just stay there to eventually get eaten. Some of these areas usually open up pretty wide, so if you can find the mud slicks you’ll probably be on the fish in no time. Frigate birds hovering up high can also be a big giveaway that there are some bait fish in its general area. Don’t forget your deeper mangrove lines either. Mangroves with no nearby boat traffic are usually the most productive, and you may even see some juvenile tarpon if you’re lucky.
All of these fish are mainly feeding on pilchards, pinfish, and small ballyhoo. Using live bait can help your efforts in these areas, as well as chumming with fresh dead baits. This is more useful if you are anchored up on the edge of a flat or in a channel. Chumming will definitely bring in your more edible species, like snapper. If I’m just blind casting and covering more of the whole area, I will throw a lighter colored buck tail jig, or a lighter colored soft plastic like a D.O.A. jerk bait. Buck tail jigs happen to be my favorite type of artificial enticement, as they mimic so many different types of baits. You can work them on the surface, mid level, and on the bottom of the water column effectively. Every species I have come across in the Keys will eat a buck tail jig, if the presentation is correct. The D.O.A. jerk baits or the paddle tail models are also good to use when you are trying to target a variety of fish, but also when you are attempting to narrow it down to a few specifics, like trout. Soft plastics can also be a lifesaver when you have a lot of pinfish or baby snappers around that continuously tear up your buck tail hairs. All of my rigs consist of 15-25lb ANDE fluorocarbon. In the event that some toothy critters like bluefish or mackerel are around, I’ll lead off with a small piece of 40lb fluro or some light wire.
The winter time in Key West is a good time for getting out on the water to enjoy great fishing and beautiful habitats, while also enjoying this cooler weather. And by the way, don’t let the wind fool you because the fishing can still be productive, and there’s usually always a place to hide. Come spend the holidays with us and rip on a cool variety of fish!