6 common fallacies about fishing off Key West.
Key West has long been a laboratory for light tackle fishing technique, surrounded as it is by seagrass shallows, coral reefs, fertile Gulf of Mexico and Gulf Stream waters. With more world records than any other port, the island has also been grounds for rumors, speculation and mistruths.
“You can’t catch dolphin on a north wind.”
Capt. Jay Miller, winner of the 2010 Yamaha Dolphin Masters Tournament, plainly debunks this wind-driven myth.
“Some people say you can’t catch dolphin in the winter, or on a north wind. But that’s not the case. Plenty of days when it’s cold, below 60 degrees air temp with a north wind, everybody will come back with dolphin,” Miller told me. “It’s just rougher, but if you want to run to the edge of the Stream, they’re there.”
Miller, of Outer Limits Sportfishing at A&B Marina, is one—if not the only—Key West angler in recent memory to catch an offshore slam of blue marlin, sail and swordfish in the same day, among other bluewater accomplishments.
Miller also puts the kibosh on a wire leader myth.
“Wire leader won’t catch sails.”
“We catch fish with big eyes, like sails, which are supposedly able to see the wire, all the time,” Miller says. “It can be just as effective as fluorocarbon, plus you don’t lose all your tackle to toothy critters.
“As soon as you think you know it all,” he adds, “That’s when you’re not trying hard enough to learn. I’ll always go out with other captains to learn something new.”
“Big bait = Big fish.”
Capt. Richard Houde, of Southbound Sportfishing on Charter Boat Row, has seen it all in his decades as one of Key West’s leading charter captains.
“Normally when you’re trolling for a big fish,” Houde says, “you want to put out a big bait. Here in Key West, that usually means a large ballyhoo or ballyhoo skirt combo. And it does work. But fish will eat what they want and I’ve had some very large fish eat some very little baits. One day, while catching schoolie dolphin on spinning tackle with small ballyhoo, a 125-pound blue marlin swam up and ate a ballyhoo. There were a couple of small dolphin hooked up that he could have easily eaten, but he passed them up and ate a ballyhoo. Blackfin tuna are known for eating small baits and are also fond of artificial squid or squid chains.
“But probably the best ‘big fish’ on small bait I ever caught was a 28-pound grouper on a little gold hook. We were fishing for yellowtail snapper off Western Dry Rocks, using 15-pound fluorocarbon leader and tiny hooks. The bite was steady. Suddenly one of the fish started to pull drag. At first I thought a barracuda had eaten one of the hooked yellowtails. I figured it wouldn’t be long before the ‘cuda bit through the leader. The angler was pretty good and he started to gain line. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked over the side and saw that grouper coming up.”
“Sharks feed at night, so you fish at night for sharks.”
Houde counters this one, too. “I can’t count how many times I’ve had customers ask me if they could do a night shark fishing trip. When I ask why they want to go at night, they looked surprised and reply, ‘Because that’s when they feed, isn’t it?’
“Yes, sharks feed at night, but they also feed during the day. Sharks hunt by sight and smell. Everyone knows how sensitive a shark is to blood in the water. But a shark’s senses work equally well during the day and if there’s blood in the water, they’ll come then too. Personally, I prefer shark fishing in the day because you can see more. Many a day we could see a shark swimming down our chum slick with its dorsal fin and tail fish sticking out of the water as it follows the scent to the bait. The visual experience of seeing the shark’s approach or being able to see them if they come to the surface during the fight is exciting. At night, the line just disappears into the darkness, nothing to see but black. For my money and from their reactions my customers agree, shark fishing during the day is equally productive and usually more fun.
“Deep Water Fishing Closure is necessary to protect Warsaws and Kitty Mitchells.”
Amendment 17B, now under Secretarial review and pending approval, proposes a closure of bottom fishing from 240 feet and seaward in an effort to protect these two species (among other restrictions)—at the cost of preventing fishing for other abundant and popular targets. Capt. Ralph Delph, with over five decades of Key West fishing expertise, dismantles this imbroglio:
“As far as jigging up Warsaw grouper, I’ve caught six in my life, and Kitty Mitchells, maybe about the same, in 50 years of fishing. As far snowies and yellowedge grouper, you could fish for them the rest of your life and not catch a Warsaw or a Kitty Mitchell. You’ll find the snowies over relatively flat bottom, some in ragged bottom. And there, I never, ever catch the Warsaw or a Kitty. For them, I would be going to wrecks inside of 480 feet on heavy structure. You have to use a different bait and go to specific spots.
“In 600, 700, 800 feet, we’ve caught hundreds and hundreds of snowy grouper and never a Warsaw over the course of 50 years, hundreds of trips.”
“Key West is fished out.”
Yeah, right. You can’t catch keeper muttons, grouper, yellowtail and mangroves in the channels and patch reefs all around the island—less than a kayak’s paddle from shore. You can’t catch tarpon after tarpon, and cobia, too, in the harbor, as you could years ago. And you can’t find lobsters by snorkeling off the beach anymore, not to mention those bigger bottom fish around the reef and beyond. Because you aren’t in Key West.