By David Conway, Managing Editor
With nights under the stars in the sheltered harbor at Garden Key, and days spent targeting big grouper, snapper and pelagics in the rich waters nearby, an overnight venture to the Dry Tortugas National Park has long been an offshore angler’s dream trip. Now, new regulations prohibit fishing in roughly half the park’s waters, but those new laws should not completely discourage interested anglers from making that dream trip a reality.
Just ask Greg Oropeza of Key West, who grew up fishing the Dry Tortugas with his father and grandfather. Oropeza, now 24, made the trip 12 to 14 times a year while in high school, and now, as a law student at Florida State University, he still manages to make it to the Tortugas five or six times a year in his 31-foot center console. He and his friends sleep in his boat and cook on the island of Garden Key, site of historic Fort Jefferson.
“The new law is a disappointment,” he says, “because it cuts out some areas for us to explore. However, it doesn’t cut back my interest in the trip. The fishable waters in the east half of the park are still really good, very productive for grouper and snapper. In 40 feet of water we’ve caught the biggest yellowtail I’ve ever seen. Plus, there’s a lot of bottom right outside the park, in 60 to 100 feet, for yellowtails, muttons, blacks, porgies, hogfish and mangroves.”
The new closed zone won’t affect Oropeza’s strategy for the trips greatly, because he already spends most of his fishing time outside the park’s bounds.
“Over the years, we’d occasionally catch black groupers within the park, but not near as many as we’d find south of the park, near the reef and deeper. Plus, the entire park is in Gulf waters, and since the stricter Gulf limits went into effect a while back, like one red grouper per person, we had to look outside the park for those fish anyway, into federal waters on the Atlantic side. Our mutton snapper fishing was a byproduct of our grouper bottom fishing, so all in all, we’ve been looking south of the park for good bottom structure for some time now, and we run back to the park for the night,” Oropeza says.
“We go from two to three nights, and we like to fish along the way. It breaks up the trip. At Garden Key, we beach the boat, or throw out our Bruce anchor and wade to shore, and we use the grills on the island and sleep on the boat. We don’t bring tents because it’s added gear.”
Other than the most basic facilities meant for campers, there are no resources, not even fresh running water, for overnight stays, and you can’t leave anything at all. All your trash comes back with you.
On his trips, Oropeza likes to bottom fish the first day or two, and recently he’s been putting in time out in deeper water, in 200-plus feet, working those ledges that run east-west and produce big fish. Newcomers will have to look for good spots and they’ll probably strike out a few times before they get on fish, he says, but that’s paying your dues. He advises anglers to check charts in advance, and keep an eye on their depthfinders everywhere they go to discover their own spots, including rocks with groupers, wrecks and mutton snapper holes.
Eight to 12 miles out, about a 45-minute ride from the fort, you’re in those 200- and 300-foot depths, where, especially in summer, depending on where the Gulf Stream is, nice weedlines form that hold dolphin and good numbers of sailfish.
In shallower water, from 10 to 90 feet, any 4-, 5- or 10-foot bit of significant relief off the bottom makes a worthwhile spot to stop, drop the anchor and start chumming. A study of bathymetric charts of the area, or even a look at on-line nautical charts with GPS coordinates, can give anglers plenty of spots to try on their first trips out. The territory right around the southern boundary of the park, in about 70 to 90 feet of water, hasn’t been too productive for Oropeza. “It’s kind of muddy bottom, and it’s not worth working when there’s so much better cover around,” he says.
Oropeza also likes to reserve some time every trip to explore a new area.
“There’s so much good fishing down there, but every time we go, we try to come into park waters along a different line, and keep our eyes on our depthfinder to try to discover a new spot.”
As for hazards in the long trip, in the winter, watch the crossing at Rebecca Channel, Oropeza advises, which can get very rough, and in the summer, watch for lightning storms.
“We don’t have radar on our boat, but we monitor the weather band and keep our eyes on the horizon at all times. You’ve got to be smart and be ready to run back into the harbor.”
Oropeza’s legal training doesn’t hurt when it comes to interpreting and keeping up-to-date with the regulations on Tortugas fishing. He points out that since the Dry Tortugas lie on the line dividing Gulf from Atlantic waters, anglers like him who fish in the Atlantic federal waters and return to the fort at Garden Key must be aware of regulations for both sets of waters.
“Before I come back into the park, I call the rangers on channel 16, which they monitor. They switch me to another channel, and I declare my federal catch, or Atlantic limits, to them, and give them my FL registration numbers so that if they see me, they know what to expect,” he says.
Anglers should also be aware that they are limited to the possession of one day’s bag limit, per angler, no matter how many nights that they stay at Garden Key. The exception to the rule applies to anglers fishing on headboats that travel into the park’s waters, and they can have two days’ bag limits in their possession.
Spring and summer’s calmer weather make them the favored seasons for the trip, and at 70 miles away, Key West is the closest staging grounds. Rob Harris, who owns and runs Conchy Joe’s Marine and Tackle in Key West, outfits quite a few of the anglers making the Tortugas run, and offers a list of must-haves for the trip.
First and foremost, Harris emphasizes safety concerns. Have more than enough fuel for the 150-mile-round trip, plus time spent trolling and exploring in the park. Have good nautical charts, or appropriate chartplotter card, and a pre-planned route into and out of the harbor area at Garden Key. If your vessel has dual switches for the batteries, he suggests that once you fire up, run off one bank of batteries and keep one in reserve.
“That way, if something goes wrong, you won’t be sitting 70 miles to the west with no way to call somebody. There’s not a lot of boat traffic down there,” Harris says.
Stocking up for the fun begins with chum, “as much as you can carry,” he suggests. For frozen baits, take ballyhoo for jigging and trolling, cigar minnows, Spanish sardines, threadfins and even squid. Use them as cutbaits and to catch fresh baits like grunts and blue runners.
“A lot of guys, especially from the Miami area, ask for fresh goggle-eyes, but those aren’t really a big bait down here, except for sailfish,” Harris says. “Als
o, guys often don’t bring enough big-lipped lures for trolling for grouper and snapper, and wire, and lead egg sinkers for bottom-fishing Carolina rigs. You can go through an awful lot of that stuff when you don’t have enough.”
Harris points out that people tend to overlook jigging for bottom fish with whole dead ballyhoo, butterflied baits or even plastic tails.
“They’ll mark fish and they’ll want to anchor up and drop down live baits, which is fine, but jigging can be very effective down in the Tortugas, especially when you’re drifting to cover territory, which is a smart technique when you’re not really familiar with an area.”
For live baits, Harris recommends that just before making the trip, anglers go out to the grassflats surrounding Key West and nearby keys and load up on pinfish, which he calls “the Tic-Tac of the oceans, since every fish will pop one into their mouths once in a while. They’re also very hardy.
“In the spring, the Keys grassflats and channels also hold plenty of ballyhoo. You can get them in the waters around the Tortugas too, but there aren’t a lot of markers down there that hold threadfins and other baits to catch with sabikis. There will be bait down there, especially around structure in the Garden Key area.”
Harris knows plenty of guys who run down and stay south of the Fort and do their reef and bottom fishing, and then head farther south, out to the Gulf Stream, and set up for a night of swordfishing at the deep dropoff at the edge of the continental shelf. It’s the version of the trip for those who don’t want to spend a single minute on anything but fishing.
“They’ll swordfish overnight, and then at daylight, start to troll with the Gulf Stream back toward Key West. Down there, you get first shot at any fish coming up to the Keys on the Gulf Stream, and that’s a huge advantage.”
If you or your party members don’t mind some down time from fishing, the National Park offers attractions, including historical interest, like Fort Jefferson itself, and shallow-water wrecks to dive, and wildlife viewing, including excellent birding.
However you plan the trip, there’s undeniable satisfaction in hooking up, and setting up, for at least a night, in the Tortugas. For centuries, ever since Ponce de Leon came across those seven islands in 1513 and named them for the sea turtles he found there, “Las Tortugas” has been a wild outpost, for traders, pirates, ship wreckers, the military, and still to this day, for determined and adventurous anglers.
The New No-Fishing Zone
The Dry Tortugas Research and Natural Area, implemented by the State of Florida and the National Park Service on January 19, 2007, effectively prohibits fishing in 46 square miles of the roughly 100-square-mile park. On the north side this is contiguous with the Tortugas North Ecological Reserve, established in 2001. Excepted from this no-fishing zone is the one-mile radius area around Garden Key. Recreational vessels will be allowed to beach at Loggerhead Key so people can visit the light house and view wildlife, including birds, but no fishing is allowed at or near Loggerhead Key.
The National Park authorities are in the process of setting up mooring and boundary buoys for the R.N.A., but in the meantime, recreational vessels will be allowed to anchor in the R.N.A. on sand bottom only, for diving and snorkeling. For more information on the closure, visit www.nps.gov/drto, and follow the link to the Research and Natural Area site. Questions about trips and fishing in The Dry Tortugas National Park can be directed to Chief Ranger Bonnie Foist’s office (located in the Everglades National Park’s offices) at (305) 242-7730.
There’s a visitor fee of five dollars for the park, payable on the honor system at drop boxes at Garden Key. Put your boat registration number on the form with your payment, and the fee covers your entire stay. There is also a three dollar per night fee for each camper. F
Kayak Like a Rock Star
Rock stars pay thousands of dollars a night to stay on secluded island retreats a lot like the Dry Tortugas, and as long as you like camping, you can make it your own (nearly) private island retreat for little more than a song. Within the one-mile-radius fishing zone around Garden Key lie plenty of fishable wrecks, ledges and bottom structures that hold sizeable yellowtail, mangroves, amberjack and grouper, among other species. Spearing and lobstering within park bounds are prohibited.
The extensive travel and gear this trip requires makes it much more worthwhile for a two night stay. First, bring plenty of fresh water for your time there. Three important “dry” items go on my list of gear: dry chum, dry ice and dry bags. The dehydrated chum, available at tackle stores, lightens the load, as did the dry ice in a cooler, and dry bags protect gear like cameras, GPSs., and a very important hand-held VHF radio, kept on the kayak at all times. It’s not necessarily a survivalist’s trip, but it may feel like one.
Two ferry companies in Key West transport visitors, including campers and their kayaks, to the Tortugas, by reservation only.
Sunny Days Catamarans: (305) 292-6100/(800) 236-7937. www.drytortugasferry.com. $150 per person, plus camping and entrance fees, plus $35 for kayak transport.
Yankee Freedom II: (305) 294-7009. www.yankeefreedom.com. $164 per person, includes park fees, plus $45 for transport of kayak no longer than fifteen and a half feet.
Hard-core Overnight Headboats from Key West: Fish, fish, eat, barely sleep, fish, fish, fish, all on one big boat with other guys:
The Yankee Captains: (800) 942-5464.
Florida Fishfinders: (305) 296-0111.
For private group charters:
Playmate Charters: www.seaclusive.com (305) 744-9928
Andy Griffiths Charters: (305) 292-2277 www.fishandy.com
In addition, a number of Key West light tackle guides—generally the go-fast center consoles—offer day trips to fish the waters around the Dry Tortugas. The charter rates tend to be higher for the long trip.
Jumping Off at Key West
If you trailer your boat down to the Keys and want to leave from the marina, you can put in and park at City Marina (305) 292-8167, or you can put in at Oceanside Marina’s ramp on Stock Island (305) 294-4676 and store your trailer at nearby Standard Marine (305) 294-2515, or let the forklift take your boat and put it in at Sunset Marina on Stock Island, (305) 296-7101.
If you’re planning a vacation and want to rent a nice unit with a dock, you can stay at:
Pelican Landing: (305) 293-9730.
The Westin, good for big boats, downtown: (305) 294-4000.
The Hyatt Hotel, downtown: (305) 809-1234.
Coconut Mallory Resort: (305) 292-0017.
The Galleon Resort, downtown, (305) 296-7711 is next to the Galleon Marina (305) 292-1292.
Banana Bay Resort: (305) 296-6925.