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Magic Hours in the Marquesas

Take the comforts of home with you on a mothership trip.

Base mothership near Marquesas atoll offers room and comfort for tired anglers.

For many who visit Key West, watching the sun set over the water at Mallory Square is a major attraction. You feel like you're at the end of the world. For anglers, however, it's not the sun but a crescent-moon formation of islands that tugs the imagination westward: the Marquesas Keys.

Getting to this subtropical wilderness has always been an adventure in itself. Twenty four miles is a long ride in a flats skiff; if the distance alone doesn't make you raise an eyebrow, consider the potentially treacherous Boca Grand Channel: a 7-mile-wide river of water, 30 feet deep in spots, bridging the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. On a postcard morning, with no wind, departing Key West and crossing the channel is no big deal. But, if the wind picks up and the tide changes, such that waves and water are in opposition, it's a harrowing experience. Veteran skiff guides prepare for these situations by planning crossings around the tide—and on many days the practical demands of marine navigation can eat away at fishing time.

Probably the best way to fish the Marquesas is in the company of a bigger cabin boat, one with space for sleeping and showering, and provisions for a few days of camping afloat. Mooney Harbor, inside the crescent of the islands, is a protected anchorage that's perfect for this approach. If you don't have access to a rig like this, you can charter a mothership from several sources in the Keys. Camping on the islands is prohibited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the area.

With a traveling home base, you're in charge of your fishing schedule, ducking the need to make a twice-daily crossing. With a few days, you'll have time to really explore the fishery. Best of all, I think, is that you'll have the luxury of fishing the “dark side” at the beginning and end of a day: sunrise and sunset, when many fish are most active.

Last summer I experienced the Marquesas from the deck of the Playmate, a 60-foot dive boat run by a husband and wife team. The boat served as a hotel, restaurant, boat dock and launching point for a group of eight anglers and their flats boats.

The convenience of waking at a decent hour and hitting the water at sunup with a belly full of hot breakfast was only matched by the end of the day, where freshwater showers, ice-cold libations and fresh-caught seafood dinners awaited us. In between was a choice of box lunch on the water, or a noon meal in the air-conditioned galley, followed by a nap. Who says a fishing trip shouldn't be comfortable?

Over three days, we explored a range of fishing opportunities. Tarpon, bonefish, permit, sharks, barracuda and even year-round redfish are available on the flats. Skiffs as well as offshore boats can fish the close-by wrecks north and west of the islands; these spots (numbers of which are available on many charts) offer great fishing for cobia, permit, snapper and grouper. South of the Marquesas, the Atlantic edge drops off into a fantastic tuna fishery, as well as plenty of sailfish and dolphin.

We mostly stuck to the flats, planning our days around the 2-hour difference between exterior and internal flats.

Where did you say those bonefish were yesterday? This skiff is good to go.

Permit represent a year-round fishery, limited only by tropical storms and hard cold fronts. Local lore has it that permit go offshore in April to spawn and aren't likely to be found on the flats that month. The prior month of March, though, is great, as are all summer months from May through September.

You can fish permit on exterior as well as interior flats. The key to finding them, simply enough, is to fish water from 1 1/2 to 4 feet in depth. Poling along one of many channel edges found along the southern and western side of the atoll pretty much guarantees sighting permit, assuming you've got good sunlight. Fling all the crab flies you want at these fish, but if you really want to ensure your chances, plant a live crab on their nose. Hope, pray, wish, make blood sacrifices to the wind gods: Do whatever you have to do to get mirror-calm conditions and you will be treated to some of the most spectacular tailing permit fishing you will experience anywhere. Especially as the day comes to a close. Be prepared to get out of the boat and wade to a tailing fish for the best shot, providing the bottom is hard enough to do so (which it is in many areas).

The Marquesas aren't known for their bonefish but they are there. The best way to locate bonefish is to pole along the channel edges or where the flat has a dropoff edge on the lower stages of the tide. Pack a selection of fast-sinking flies for deeper edges and light-landing patterns as well for the shallow bones. If you are permit fishing it may pay to keep a shrimp rigged Texas-style on a spinner and at the ready with the shrimp in the water to keep it fresh just in case bonefish appear where permit are supposed to be. Most of your bonefish will be found at the beginning or the end of the day in summer. Winter months with cooler water temperatures are likely to have fish on the flats all day.

Calmer, summer weather is great.

The Marquesas offers you two choices when it comes to tarpon: big or small. The small guys are plentiful enough along the interior edge of the northernmost and largest island of the atoll; deep in the mangrove recesses of this island are where the juveniles find safe harbor. It takes a fair amount of poling and exploring to find these fish, but with the time a mothership affords you, you will be able to do just that: pole and explore. I am a big fan of topwater flies and lures for baby tarpon, but small jigs as well as flies that imitate shrimp and small minnow perform well, too.

Big migratory tarpon hold court in the area April through July. On calm mornings, look for fish on outside flats, rolling and porpoising on the glassy surface. Shallow points that mark the end of the channels on the western and southern side of the atoll are good places to stake out and watch for tarpon moving along the edges of the flats. The northwest corner of the island is a famous spot for early morning fish as is the northeast corner, providing the water is mirror calm or just slightly ruffled by wind. Select any of your favorite traditional tarpon flies or bunny-strip patterns and you should do fine.

Sharks are very plentiful in the Marquesas and provide a great fishery. You can expect to see some really large sharks in spring and summer, coinciding with the tarpon run: big hammerheads, blacktips, lemons and bull sharks. The biggest nurse sharks you will see all year will be on the flats in May and June as they cluster up in twos and fours in an attempt to spawn.

If you can't find permit here during summer, consider takin up bowling.

Your best bet for catching a shark is to catch a small barracuda, butterfly it and hang it over the side of the boat. The scent of freshly filleted 'cuda, for reasons we can only speculate on, is irresistable to sharks. Set up the chumslick close to deep water or with a good flow of tide—or wherever you spot a good number of sharks. Fishing is as simple as baiting up with a chunk of barracuda and casting it in the path of the fish. Fly fisherman can cast large orange, red or yellow “meat” flies; remember it's important to make the fly pass right next to the shark's eyes to elicit a take. Lures can be used in the same way; try topwater or shallow-running minnow plugs, retrofitted with a single hook to facilitate safe releases at boatside.

Barracudas are easy to catch on tube lures and topwater plugs. Fly fishermen ready to lay out casts of 70 feet or more can get in on the act, using big baitfish flies or noisy surface flies stripped as quickly as possible across the surface.

For a regulations pamphlet on the Marquesas atoll (part of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge), visit the Wildlife Refuge visitor center on Big Pine Key, in the Winn Dixie Parking lot; phone (305) 872-2239. Florida Sportsman Fishing Chart No. 011 Key West covers the Marquesas area. FS

Playmate Details

What you won't have to worry about packing is daily meals or ice, at least not on the 60-foot mothership Playmate. Shaved ice is provided by an onboard ice machine which produces 500 pounds daily. Meals are prepared by the captain's wife in a fully stocked kitchen. Fresh water is readily available at 500 gallons a day produced by reverse osmosis. For more, including photos of the boat's interior and deck plan, visit

What you will have to bring are extra fuel cans to cover each day you plan to fish; these are stored on the back deck of the mothership. Also bring drinks or snack items, as well as other personal stuff you may want. There are no convenience stores, pharmacies or tackle shops in the Marquesas—there is nothing in the Marquesas but pure nature.

Flats fishermen should think about bringing live baits like crabs and shrimp and a means for keeping them alive for bonefish and permit fishing. There are plenty of pilchards and glass minnows in the Marquesas if you plan to fish wrecks or blue water. Bring your cast nets and look for the everpresent diving pelicans and seagulls to mark the bait schools' whereabouts.

While you may not find a chocolate mint on your pillow when you turn in, you won't have to worry about bringing sheets or bedding. Bring your own towel though, if you plan to shower at the end of the day.


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