November 08, 2011
Roll into the Lower Keys, where it's quiet on shore, but rowdy on the reefs.
By Max Branyon
One of the beauties of small-boat ownership—besides the fuel savings—is mobility. It's a snap trailering to those destinations you dream about. Certainly one such trip is the Florida Keys. Having traveled there from Central Florida numerous times over the years, I'm convinced that the last third of the famed Overseas Highway represents one of the state's most desirable stretches for anglers with boats in tow.
My son Kyle and I chose Big Pine Key, 30 miles from the western terminus of U.S. Highway 1. Our trip was in August, a good month for introductions to new waters in the region. The weeks between lobster sport-diving season (late July) and Thanksgiving represent a low period of sorts for the island chain, when facilities and waterways are uncrowded.
Kyle and I hit it good, enjoying four days of father-son time, catching everything from yellowtail, lane and mangrove snapper to sharks, barracuda and grouper. We even topped off our trip with a nice sailfish.
Our friends Paul and Marcia Whorton invited us to stay in their apartment on the water. Thus, we were able to keep our 17-foot boat in the water in their scenic canal, which expedited our access to the fishing grounds.
Variety is a huge part of the appeal of Lower Keys fishing, and it's a great area to explore on a small, seaworthy bay boat. Outside the reef on the Atlantic side, you're in tuna (blackfin and yellowfin) and marlin waters. Closer in, you can go for dolphin or sails. On the Gulf side, it's cobia and grouper.
Of course, in the shallower backcountry waters, bonefish and permit fishing is great. Even bigger fish hang around in the shallows, especially sharks and tarpon.
Another plus is the availability of shelter. If the wind is strong on the Atlantic side, then it's usually calmer and fishable on the Gulf side. Furthermore, if it's raining on either side, anglers can get under the bridges for shelter. Fishing under the bridges offers good shots at snapper, sharks, tarpon and goliath grouper.
We started off fishing oceanside reefs in 20 to 30 feet of water the first day and moved on out to deeper water and more chumming in 30 to 90 feet the second day. There are good reefs throughout the Big Pine area on the Atlantic side, so we paid special attention to the fishfinder. Once we spotted fish and good rugged bottom, we dropped the anchor just off the structure and put out the chumbags. Before long, the yellowtails began to appear. At one of the deeper reefs, a large school of ballyhoo appeared near the boat. Kyle found a tiny hook in his tackle box while I cut up small bits of squid. Within a few minutes we began catching ballyhoo, hooking them through the bottom jaw and dropping them back for larger fish. Spanish and cero mackerel soon appeared and we began catching them on live ballyhoo, while yellowtails went for small chunks of cutbait and squid. Some barracuda began showing up as well.
That's when I decided to drop some live ballyhoo to the bottom and immediately began hooking up on grouper and snapper. Some made it to the safety of the reef, until I switched to heavier tackle. Kyle connected with grouper and snapper as well as with yellowtails that came up to the chum. The water clarity was almost too good, which made the yellowtails a bit skittish, but we managed to get some takers.
Our last day of fishing was a memorable and exciting one. After Kyle and I fished for grouper and snapper all morning, we came in for lunch and maybe a nap. However, our plans changed rapidly as Paul invited us to go deep-dropping with him that afternoon. We grabbed our gear and hopped aboard Paul's bigger offshore boat.
While motoring out toward deeper water, I asked Paul what attracted him to the Keys.
“I spent 10 years living in Key West when I was 6 to 16 years old and loved the climate and the beautiful water.
“My dad was a commercial fisherman, so I grew up loving to fish.”
Paul never gave up on moving to the Keys while in the banking business in Fort Myers. Finally, he bought a vacation home in Ramrod Key in the Big Pine area in 1983. And, after retiring from the banking business, he and his wife Marcia decided to move to their home in the Keys.
“In addition to the wonderful fishing we have made many new friends with the great local charter captains and other retirees,” Paul said as we approached 600 feet of water.
We stopped, rigged the cutbaits on six hooks and dropped the leads and baited hooks to the bottom 600 feet below. As soon as they hit bottom, Paul started up with the electric reel after noticing some action. However, it malfunctioned and the lines wouldn't come up. After manually getting the rigs to the top, we assessed the situation. Paul, having been an ace fishing charter captain, who just let his captain's license expire a year ago, has had to resort to Plan B many times.
After we got the hooks and leads situated inside the boat, Paul spotted some diving frigatebirds nearby and began letting out trolling baits. We were getting excited. We barely had the lines out when the left outrigger popped.
“Take him!” I told Kyle. He grabbed the rod and began battling a barracuda in the boat's wash.
Seconds later, something slammed a second rod and I wasted no time getting into the action. The fish was melting line until I finally slowed it and began retrieving. Paul seemed to have us in 'cuda territory as we battled half a dozen of the scrappers to the boat.
We had the utmost confidence in Whorton, whose charter career highlights included putting a lady client on a 72-pound dolphin on 20-pound line. He had many more stories and I was about to observe him in action a few minutes later.
“It's a sail,” Paul said excitedly as a fish appeared behind a rigged ballyhoo.
Kyle and the sail went into action as he dropped back on the line and let the sailfish take the bait. Then, he set the hook.
I lost count of how many times it jumped before Kyle worked it alongside Paul's boat. However, when Kyle and Paul tried to release it without bringing it aboard, they really had their work cut out for them.
The sailfish was so active I was afraid it was going to spear either Paul or Kyle. They worked on it time and time again as it leapt above the waves near the boat. Finally, they got the hook out without bringing the sail aboard and made sure it was revived before releasing it. It was getting late and time to return.
We celebrated our trip with our gracious hosts Paul and Marcia at a Cuban restaurant, El Siboney, in Key West; it had some of the best plantains, beans, rice and yellowtail snapper this side of the Stream.
Big Pine Trip Planner
The Lower Keys offer many places to stay. For a complete list, visit www.fla-keys.com/lowerkeys/placestostay.cfm Three popular spots:
• Dolphin Marin, www.dolphinmarina.net (800) 553-0308
• Parmer's Resort, www.parmersplace.com (305) 872-2157
• Looe Key Reef Resort, www.diveflakeys.com (800) 942-5397
• Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge (305) 872-2351
Some hotels in the Keys, such as Captain Pip's Marina and Hideaway, up the road a little in Marathon (www.captainpips.com; 800-707-1692), offer the trailer-boat experience without the need to haul your own rig. Pip's, near the Seven-Mile Bridge channel, provides use of 19- to 24-foot boats included in the room rates.
• Little Torch Key has a good boat ramp on State Road 4A two miles west of Big Pine Key
• Dolphin Marina is another good Torch Key launch site
• Looe Key Resort, if you're staying there
A few of my favorites include Parrotdise Restaurant on Little Torch Key; Boondocks at Ramrod Key; and El Siboney in Key West, for great Cuban food.
Some of the best autumn fishing here is around the Atlantic reefs, for grouper, mangrove, yellowtail and mutton snapper. Inshore, Newfound Harbour Channel is a good mixed-bag spot. Also, try Hawk Channel and nearby patch reefs for grouper, snapper and mackerel. Try the bridges for tarpon, grouper and big sharks. Fishing in October is usually best during the cooler hours of early morning and late afternoon; midday is a good time for a nap. Try the flats on either side of the Keys for bonefish. Fish the channels and backcountry for snook, reds and permit. Some tarpon will hang in Gulfside basins, while trout hug the grassflats.
Buy chumbags and squid at nearby tackle shops. Anchor and fish the channels, bridges and reefs. Use as little weight as possible, and hide hooks within bait. Fish can be skittish—especially yellowtails. Use the fishfinder to locate fish along the reefs, which abound in the Big Pine area. Anchor along the edges of the reefs so as not damage them. Then, tie the chumbags to attract fish (near the surface for yellowtails, deeper for bottom fish). Use a sinker and drop a live ballyhoo or other baitfish down for grouper or a big snapper.
Trolling the Gulf Stream
For some good information on trolling and kite fishing, log onto Capt. John Sahagian's Web site, fishingthefloridakeys.com. He's been fishing that area of the Keys for years. His Web site also offers information on flats fishing in that area for bones, tarpon and permit.
Big Pine Tackle Shops
• Jig's Bait and Tackle: (305) 872-1040
• Reef Light Tackle: (305) 872-7679