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Key West: Fishing Opportunities

Key West: Fishing Opportunities
Key West: Fishing Opportunities

On the ground and on the water in Key West



Our Fishing Key West Resource guide puts you on the ground in Key West, and even better, on the water. In these pages you'll find all the resources you need to plan your first trip to one of Florida's, and the world's, great fishing destinations, or to make your next trip even better. Whether you're an experienced resident Keys angler, a visitor chartering a trip for the first time or an angler towing your own boat down to the Keys from mainland Florida or out of state, rely on our video, how-to features and inside knowledge of the Keys fishery to put you where you want to be.




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The view from above of one of Florida's—and the world's—great fishing towns, Key West.

Capt. Paul D'Antoni with a Key West Harbor tarpon.

Key West is a legendary destination among anglers, and for plenty of good reasons: bonefish and permit on backcountry flats, a reef with some of Florida's best snapper and grouper fishing, a Gulf and Atlantic dotted with wrecks that hold a variety of resident and migratory species, and pelagic action in the nearby Gulf Stream—all of that within striking distance of the Dry Tortugas and the Marquesas, two dream destinations for anglers the world over.

For saltwater flats fly anglers, Key West and the Lower Keys are an ultimate proving ground of their skills and instincts.

There's so much action to be had in almost every direction out of Key West Harbor, or any of the nearby marinas, as a visiting angler to Key West, and even sometimes for the experienced hands, it can be hard to know which way to turn. Our resource guide to fishing Key West will help you pinpoint when to go for your chosen quarry, where to stay, and how to get the most out of your trip. We'll put you in touch with the local Key West fishing scene and the how-to features will detail the gear, tackle and know-how you'll need to pursue your chosen species.

Though permit run the channels and the reef and the Gulf wrecks, catching one on the flats, where they're most wary, is a true accomplishment.

In pursuit of bonefish on the flats, stealth is a supreme discipline.

Go to Key West not only to catch tarpon on the legendary flats, or to fill a box with yellowtail at the reef, or to chase cobia at the towers in the Gulf…go to Key West because as an angler, it will change your life. You can fish every day of the year (barring a hurricane), in any direction of the compass, and be in companionship with some of the best, most innovative anglers in Florida—in other words, some of the best in the world. To be surrounded by so much angling possibility will make you rethink what's possible in your own angling life.

The channels that course through the Keys and backcountry keys hold plenty of fish, including tarpon, snapper, sharks and cobia.

The tiny island of Key West, only two miles by four miles, is itself the end of the road. That's another major attraction: as popular as it is, it still doesn't see the angling traffic of other big name destinations. And to the west, by the Marquesas and the Dry Tortugas, you can fish all day and not see another boat.

Livebait stop, ramshackle style, on the way out from Key West.

It's a six-mile ride from Key West Harbor to the reef from the main ship channel into the Atlantic, seven miles southwest to Sand Key Light. There, the reefline stretches up the Keys and provides world-class diving and fishing. Past the reef, depths drop to about 110 feet and rise again to about 45 feet on the bar, which is itself a submerged reef. The bar starts at American Shoals and stops south of Boca Grande. The End of the Bar, as it's known, is a popular destination for live baiting tuna, wahoo and other pelagics.

With the wide variety of fishing options available, local captains ride ready for anything with an array of gear on their boats.

To the north of the island, less than half a mile away, lie the backcountry keys and channels and the flats, the arena where much of today's knowledge of saltwater fly fishing for permit, bonefish and tarpon was created. Farther to the north, the Gulf: where wrecks, towers and reefs are an incredibly varied and exciting fishery in its own right. Grouper, including blacks, gags, reds and scamp, mangrove and yellowtail snapper, cobia and sharks, and many other gamefish, are present in the Gulf year round.

Captain Rob Delph with a good black grouper trolled up over structure west of Key West.

There are a good number of classic Key West trips that shouldn't be missed: going out for dolphin during the spring run, a day of yellowtail snapper fishing at the reef, anchoring up over structure near the reef, day or night, for mangrove and mutton snapper, and jigging for grouper and snapper in the deeper waters past the reef, in 120 feet to 200 feet, just to name a few.

To name a few more:

• Lobstering either early in the season, or just before the season's close.

• Chasing a tropical slam of permit, tarpon and bonefish on the flats.

• Spending a night, or even two, fishing and camping at Fort Jefferson, the Dry Tortugas.

• Running out for an overnight, or even a single day trip to the Marquesas for flats and channel fishing.

• Livebaiting tuna and wahoo at the End of the Bar.

• Spring cobia at the towers in the Gulf.

• Reef fishing in the spring or summer for permit, snapper and grouper.

• Tarpon fishing in Key West Harbor.

• Shark fishing on the clear flats in winter.

Amberjack by a Gulf tower, where you'll also find cobia and snapper. Wrecks, too, in the Gulf are fishing hotspots.

Captain Bill Delph at the Dry Tortugas' Fort Jefferson, catching bait.

Capt. Rob Harris with a big blackfin tuna and a friend Down West of Key West.

Capt. Pepe Gonzalez and a reef permit before release. Permit gather in spawning groups in the spring at the reef and over Gulf and Atlantic wrecks.

Capt. Mike Weinhofer at the shrimpboats in the Gulf before a morning of catching kings, tuna, amberjack and more.

There's really no wrong time to go to Key West. It's a revolving door of fishing, with new migratory species showing up when others leave. In the cooler months, migrating cobia and kingfish, wahoo and sailfish hunt out past the reef. By the late spring, dolphin will be coursing along the Gulf Stream and the mutton snapper and yellowtail fishing will be heating up.

Yes you'll find blackfin tuna at the wrecks in the Atlantic starting in the fall and lasting through the winter and early spring.

In the summer, the blue water heats up and action moves farther off, into deeper waters where dolphin, blue marlin and wahoo hang around rips and known bottom structures. When water temps get too hot inshore for reliable flats fishing, there's always lobstering in the backcountry and the reef. In short, you're never lacking for something to do on the water in Key West.

Kingfish are a year-round catch in the Keys, at the reef and just beyond, and also in the Gulf, and they're especially heavy in the winter.

Admittedly, not every fishery has it all, and if Key West has a weakness, it would be the lack of truly big game fish offshore. Yes, you can find big tarpon in season, very big permit, terrific reef fish and bottom fish, and quite large sharks, but if you're after big marlin, big tuna and big swordfish, Key West is a longshot.

Blue marlin roam the deeper waters of the Atlantic, though they have been known to come close to the reef, especially in the spring time, more than likely hunting migrating dolphin.

Blue marlin can certainly be pursued out of Key West, and there's a long history of it that starts with Norman Wood, famed for the name of Wood's Wall, and the tournament he started, now called the Drambuie Key West Marlin Tournament, held in July. Typically, it might take three days to find a blue marlin off Key West.

In recent years, a longstanding run of big yellowfin tuna to the End of the Bar in December, called the Christmas run, has slowed down and stopped. It's been a few years since those fish have been seen, and no one quite knows why. Catches of big yellowfin are quite rare off Key West, and perhaps a little more common up the Keys.

Capt. Rob Harris and wife Missy with a good swordfish. Harris is considered an expert on the local sword fishery.

And the Middle Keys probably beats the Lower Keys when it comes to catching big swordfish. There are plenty of keeper swordfish off Key West, and plenty of big ones, too, but the big numbers of big fish come from the Middle Keys north, up toward Southeast Florida. Some people consider Key West's Continental Shelf, where the swords tend to live, a nursery for the species, and while there are plenty of keeper fish to make a trip of it, if you're coming from out of town for swordfishing exclusively, there might be other towns to visit first.

Managing Editor David Conway's book, Fishing Key West & the Lower Keys.

If you're interested in reading more about fishing in Key West, check out Managing Editor David Conway's book Fishing Key West & the Lower Keys, published by the University Press of Florida.

Conway's book covers the fishery as no other book has before, from the flats to the blue water, to the Gulf to the reef and down to the Marquesas and Tortugas, and has expert advice from some of the best captains in The Lower Keys. It contains the lore and the legends that have made Key West fishing so famous and it stands as a testament to the incredible variety of saltwater game in those waters, and to the passion and ingenuity of Keys' anglers and charter captains--past and present, resident and visiting, alike. It has plenty of interviews and technical advice from leading local captains.

“It's an extremely valuable resource,” says Doug Kelly of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. “No matter what the reader's favorite style of fishing may be, the diverse ‘how-to' techniques and invaluable ‘where-to' aspects of the book will significantly improve the chances of successful fishing outings when visiting the Key West area.”

If you truly want to understand the incredible array of options available to you in the Key West fishery, and how to take advantage of them, Fishing Key West & the Lower Keys is the book.

You can find a copy at www.amazon.com or at Barnes & Noble, Borders, or of course at a Keys bookstore.

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