Island-hopping down the Florida Gulf Coast.
Launch a boat in the Panhandle and follow the coastline southward, you’ll eventually reach the Florida Keys, assuming you stop for fuel a few times. Along the way, your GPS chartplotter will display the term “key” several times before you reach the 126-mile stretch of 100-plus bridge-linked landmasses that have made the word famous.
Features and opportunities vary greatly, but mind the basics of depth, bottom composition and water movement and you’ll find dependable “keys” fishing throughout the Gulf Coast. We haven’t the space to describe every key on Florida’s west side, so we’ll highlight some of the more prominent.
Situated between Horseshoe Beach and Steinhatchee, this collection of three uninhabited rocky islands defines Big Bend seclusion. Locals dig sight fishing for reds over shallow, ultra-clear flats with low grass and extensive rocky bottom. Higher tides find redfish moving up to the bigger limestone outcroppings. You can’t miss with gold spoons, but Berkley Gulp! shrimp on 1⁄8- to 3⁄16-ounce jigheads or rigged weedless on wide gap hooks will tempt plenty of reds. Topwaters in early mornings or any low light periods are a good bet for reds, along with big trout. The Pepperfish area produces lots of scallops and you’ll have plenty of room to snorkel without bumping into competitors.
Historians know this cluster of Levy County islands as a former Seminole Indian stronghold, a watering stop for Spanish explorers and an occasional pirate lair. However, the keys named for their native red cedars boast a bounty of trout and redfish action over shallow grassflats, along with grouper, cobia, kingfish and Spanish mackerel over the rock reefs off their Gulfward edges. Reds are the top draw and they’ll eat live pinfish, shrimp and finger mullet, or cut mullet fished around points.
The town of Cedar Key is located on Way Key, the largest of the group. At the south end of town, a fishing pier offers landbound access to redfish, flounder, mackerel and others. The Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge comprises about 20 surrounding keys including designated wilderness areas Snake, Bird (a.k.a. “Dead Man’s”), North, Atsena Otie and Seahorse. The latter is home to the University of Florida’s marine research and environmental education center.
ST. MARTINS KEYS
With lush mangrove island habitat sitting 2-3 miles northwest of the Homosassa River mouth, this group of about two dozen keys will make you forget you’re not tucked away in some quiet backwater bay. Redfish roam the mangrove edges on higher tides and lounge in grass beds during low water. Trout favor the deeper grass, while sandy spots appeal to flounder. Captain Mike Locklear says it’s hard to beat a red Cotee jig with a root beer grub tail, but topwaters and suspending twitchbaits like the MirrOlure MirrOdine do well over the area grass.
Outlying limestone reefs hold keeper gag grouper during spring and fall. Late spring-summer finds cobia snooping around the rocks or trailing giant southern stingrays in hopes of nabbing free meals that rays flush from the bottom.
A real sleeper, this modest spoil island a mile west of the Pithlachascotee (Cotee) River only gained official status in 2007 when the U.S. Board of Geographic Names voted to accept the name that locals have used for several decades to honor the late Port Richey businessman/politician John Durney, responsible for the dredging from which it emerged. Surrounding grass flats, along with the nearby stilt houses, harbor lots of trout, while snook use the clean western beach for summer spawning. Mackerel and sharks patrol the perimeter during spring and summer, while schools of big redfish often gather around the stilt houses during their fall movements.
Spanish for “anchor,” Anclote, along with its eastern collection of North Keys and Dutchman Key, sits due west of the Anclote River, about three miles west of Tarpon Springs. The Anclote Key National Wildlife Refuge comprises the largest part of the Anclote Key State Preserve that also includes Anclote North Bar, Anclote South Bar and Three Rooker Bar. Anclote’s historic lighthouse (1887) and pine flatwoods overlook a broad Gulf beach with lots of tidal contours favored by spawning snook each summer. Wade the western beach and the deep drop at the north end and freeline live pilchards or cast white bucktails, spoons and small swimbaits parallel to the beach. From a boat, the north end’s weathered snags hold snook and mangrove snapper.
Redfish rule the key’s eastern interior where a mix of lush turtle grass and sandy potholes flank mangrove edges and oyster colonies. Tailing reds gobble Berkley Gulp! Shrimp and other weedless-rigged soft plastics in the shallow grass. Approach this skinny zone slowly. Only specific paths hold sufficient depth for approach and dozens of prop scars tell of hapless boaters who ran out of water.
The deeper grass a few hundred yards east of Anclote Key holds some of the region’s best trout fishing. Drift the area and cast shadtail jigs, soft jerkbaits or jig-and-cork rigs. Bluefish, mackerel, pompano and cobia also frequent the Anclote grass. Spring and summer find a ton of mackerel and sharks feeding in and around the deep cut between Anclote’s northern tip and the large sandbar to the north, along with the deep water around the south end’s shoaling.
BOCA CIEGA BAY KEYS
This unofficial designation comprises a smattering of mangrove islands between Hwy. 679/Pinellas Bayway and I-275/US 19 just north of Tampa Bay’s mouth. Indian and Bird keys sit to the west of Pinellas Point, with Tarpon Key located west of the causeway leading to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The marshy mangrove shorelines attract redfish schools that push close on rising tides and scatter into surrounding grass on low water. Tarpon Key’s no-motor zone prohibits noisy outboards, but pushpoles and wind drifts are always best for approaching these highly pressured areas. Freelined or corked pilchards are most common, but local reds will chase spoons and weedless-rigged plastics.
Perimeter grass in four to six feet holds trout, bluefish, mackerel and sharks (spring-summer). Anchor with a chumbag and freeline pilchards for a mixed bag. Each spring, herds of big black drum graze the deeper grass flats around these keys. Look for muds and sporadic tailing. Scented soft plastics rigged weedless are most productive.
The largest of five keys comprising Fort Desoto Park, the boomerang shaped Mullet Key presents the Gulf Coast’s most user-friendly environment with its walking and paddling trails, camping, beach and picnic facilities, historic fort and museum, spacious boat ramp and two fishing piers (Bay and Gulf). Redfish and trout will grab jigs and soft jerkbaits around the grass, oysters and mangrove edges of Mullet Key Bayou, between Mullet’s north-south arm and the interior keys. Surf fishing along the west beach yields pompano, whiting, silver trout (fall) and snook (summer). Spoon slingers nab loads of mackerel on the piers, while others catch a mix of mangrove snapper, redfish, trout and cobia on live shrimp, pilchards. Fiddler crabs and sandfleas tempt sheepshead. The navigational light north of the Gulf Pier is a good spot to net greenbacks or sabiki up some fat blue runners.
Sitting outside the mouth of Tampa Bay on the south side of its namesake channel, this National Wildlife Refuge and state park intrigues history buffs with its tall white lighthouse and the remains of Fort Dade, while captivating nature lovers with gopher tortoises, box turtles and scores of shorebirds like piping plovers, oystercatchers and least terns. Anglers favor Egmont for the tarpon that roam its north and east sides during spring and summer. The 90-foot hole off the key’s northern tip is the sweet spot for drifting crabs and pinfish for ‘poons, or slow trolling live pilchards and blue runners for kingfish. Grassy shallows on the east side hold redfish, trout and the occasional cobia, while the Egmont Key Reef (southeast side) is a good bet for snapper, grunts, mackerel, sharks and the occasional gag grouper.
Between Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor, a trio of keys—Longboat, Siesta and Casey—guards the Sarasota-Venice area and offers tremendous angling opportunities. Specific spots vary along this lengthy stretch, but consistent generalities include snook in the surf and tarpon a little deeper during summer months; redfish around mangrove shorelines, residential docks and oyster bars; trout, bluefish, mackerel and pompano over fertile grass beds and a mix of blues, macks, pompano, snook, cobia and sharks in the passes and on adjacent beaches.
Just inside Longboat Pass (north end of Longboat), Jewfish Key is a big-time snook haunt—especially along the south end where a deep cut runs close to a rocky edge spiked with lots of downed timber. Fish big pilchards for linesiders and tiny baitfish for the mangrove snapper that also run this edge. To the south, Sister Keys often attract redfish which tuck under the overhanging mangroves on flood tides. Skip jigs or cut threadfins into the shadows for lounging reds.
The Venice Jetty at the Casey’s south end is a prime snook spot, while the Venice pier delights with a mix of snapper, sheepshead, redfish, trout, mackerel, kingfish and tarpon. Rocks and artificial reefs just a short run off Longboat attract mackerel, bluefish, bonito and sharks.
Boca Grande Pass, which runs between Cayo Costa State Park and Gasparilla Island to the north, enjoys worldwide acclaim for its tarpon bounty, but these waters also attract huge kingfish during the spring runs. Outside the pass, scattered along Cayo Costa’s north end, random limestone outcroppings are like roadside diners and you can expect a mix of trout, snapper, sharks, mackerel and a few decent grouper.
Cayo Costa’s Gulf beach sees strong summer snook action, while snags on the north and south ends attract linesiders between the moon tide spawns. On the east side, several smaller islands and lesser keys form bays and bayous where tidal flushing combines with grass beds, points and sandbars to offer abundant habitat for snook, redfish and trout. Poll or troll this shallow realm and try a mix of 1⁄8- to 3⁄16-ounce jigs with shad tails, scented plastic shrimp and gold spoons. Throw topwaters early for a big trout bite and work suspending twitchbaits over grass beds on full tides.
With these and any other keys you visit, study the area’s topography and waterways (Google Earth, local charts, chartplotter) to establish a game plan and then poke around to see what the day’s specific conditions will offer. Use this combined recon to unlock the key’s treasure chest of angling potential. FS
THE KEY TO ISLAND NAMING
Land masses detached from the Florida peninsula—why are some called “islands,” while others go by “key?” That’s right up there with the one about redfish spot variances, but there’s actually a reasonable explanation.
Florida’s history of exploration saw visitors of diverse origin, but English and Spanish were their most common languages. The latter tongue translates island as “isla.” However, Spanish explorers described many of the state’s small and, then, uninhabitable islands as “cayos,” which refers to an undesirable island with no naturally occurring freshwater and lots of bugs.
According to the Florida Bureau of Archeological Research, Spaniards used the term “Cayos de los Martires” (Islands of the Martyrs), because they appeared to be exiled from the mainland. Over the years, English speakers morphed the word “cayo” into “key” and that’s how the Sunshine State ended up with so many keys.