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Bridge Trippin' in the Keys

The lengths, and heights, people go to fish.

Keys bridges give shorebound anglers access to offshore species, like this red hind.

Coolers of ice, buckets, rods, tackle, flashlights. Cast net, hand net, chumbags, ropes. Chairs, rags, knives, maps, drinking water and a tide chart, all loaded in the pickup for a weekend of bridge fishing in the Keys.

We'd heard stories—snook at Channel Number Two Bridge, hogfish at Bahia Honda, tarpon at Long Key Bridge—even rumors of a 12-pound mangrove caught days before at Seven Mile Bridge! If we timed our stops right to coincide with the tides, we might catch any number of Florida's inshore gamefish species.


In bridge fishing the Keys, timing isn't everything; it's the only thing. The massive amount of water that rushes under the bridges during strong tidal flows makes fishing extremely difficult even with heavy tackle, and when the tide's not running at all, offerings go nowhere in the slack water. Successful anglers possess good knowledge of tides at their favorite bridges, and as many tricks of their trade as any angler offshore.


Along with good decisions about where to catch the right tide, bridge fishing requires style choices. Can you take fishing on a sidewalk with your back to traffic, as is often the case at small bridges? Or will you stand at one of the dedicated fishing bridges alongside U.S.1, 15 to 50 feet over the water? Or, do you want to climb down the banks, where possible, to reach the waterline? As Christina Weinhofer, of Sea Boots Outfitters in Big Pine says, “It's kind of an art to get down to the water level at some places, but it helps.” Each of those positions allows anglers to employ different tackle and techniques—from freelining live baits on light tackle, to soaking cutbait on bottom, to casting soft-plastics and topwater lures.

Despite its inconveniences, bridge fishing is popular because it gives many people, who would not otherwise have it, water access and a chance to hook, and possibly land, a great fish.




A variety of grunts and snapper are hoisted over Keys bridge railings.

North of Key Largo, on Card Sound Road, five little bridges span shallow waterways with dense mangrove banks. These “backcountry” bridges are characteristic of ones you'll find all up and down the Keys, just off the main roads, where you stand on sidewalks with your back to traffic. Their waters can be thick with snappers, and hold tarpon and snook, among other species. With less water flow than bridges on U.S.1, a good tide (moving in the right direction) will take your live baits back to the fish hiding along the banks. These smaller bridges offer closer water access, and quieter fishing, but they are lonely, local roads, true secret spots, not the big bridges that comfortably host all who come. Still, we checked Steamboat Creek Bridge (between Card Sound Road Mile Marker 1 and 2), and the bugs were wicked, so we headed south.


We took a passing glance at Adam's Waterway, (M.M. 104), the only direct water access from U.S.1 in Key Largo. It has a parking lot and deep water, but also plenty of boat traffic.

Mobility allows anglers to follow the optimum bridge tides.

Nearby, at Key Largo Bait and Tackle (M.M. 102), we stocked up on live bait—shrimp, crabs and pinfish. Gary, a shop employee, told us, “Most guys fish on Channel Two Bridge (M.M. 73) for snook on the full moon, with shrimp on a 1- to 2-ounce jighead, depending on the current, and for tarpon in the evenings. We also have guys who will put crabs down near the bridge posts on egg sinkers for permit. You can also freeline a shrimp for mangrove snappers. They're everywhere.”

Down the road, we came to the first real prospect for bridge fishing in the Keys, Tea Table Bridge (M.M. 79). Off southbound U.S.1, a gravel side road ends near the bridge, and from there, a short path leads to the water. It looked like a perfect place to shoot topwater plugs and soft-plastic lures around the pilings for snook and snapper. If a group of anglers wasn't already doing it, we might have even tried to set up a chumline from the banks to reach the deeper water.

In the Upper Keys, Lignumvitae Channel Bridge (M.M. 77), Channel Two Bridge (M.M. 73), Channel Five Bridge (M.M. 71), Long Key Bridge (M.M. 65), Tom's Harbor Cut (M.M. 63), and Tom's Channel (M.M. 60), all have separate fishing bridges alongside U.S.1. These bridges allow you to fish over both sides, and between the pilings of both bridges, so that you can fish on either an incoming or outgoing tide. Both Anne's Beach (M.M. 73) in Islamorada, and an unnamed oceanside flat (M.M. 75), offer roadside access to wadefishing for permit and bonefish.

Tidal flow is the key to bridge fishing.

Jeff, at Jeff's Bait & Tackle in Marathon (M.M. 52), reported frequent catches of redfish and snook at Tom's Harbor Cut, and sheepshead at Tom's Channel, though he recommended Long Key Bridge. He has one customer who “trolls” Long Key Bridge for tarpon with plugs by casting out with heavy gear and walking back and forth along the bridge until he gets a strike.

“He loses a lot of plugs that way,” Jeff said, “but he has a blast with tarpon without paying for gas.”

The more common practice is to drop baits—cut mullet, ballyhoo or squid, or live shrimp or pinfish—down along those bridge pilings, with however much weight is necessary to stay down with the current. The strong tidal movements around bridges will blow light tackle gear away. Even moderate current will take 1- to 3-ounce slip sinker rigs and rock them up constantly. Many anglers use stout rods, 50-pound test and heavy terminal tackle with drop weights rigged for the bottom.

If you actually want to land your catch from one of the higher bridges, bring a bridge landing net on a long rope. Trying to land and hoist a big fish—snook, redfish, small tarpon, even a big snapper—from the fixed position of a bridge is not only sporty, but it invites heartbreak.

That's the appeal of bridge fishing though. It takes great faith to play, and it's almost impossible to win the jackpot. It's the Lotto of angling.

David Still, owner of the The Tackle Box in Marathon, suggests a few general bridge fishing principles that hold true all up and down the Keys.

“The best fishing is early in the day, and around the magic hour, an hour before and after the sunset,” Still says. “Tide is a matter of preference, but it's good to have some current running for sure. Fish the shadows of the bridges during daylight hours, where the fish hide from the sun, and generally, use a sliding sinker, 16-inch fluorocarbon leader, and a 1/0 hook for snapper and a 3/0 for grouper.”

Chumming also works to bring fish around, either with block chum in a bag hung from a long rope tied to the railing, or with chum mix balled-up and dropped in the water.

Flurocarbon leader and lively shrimp fuel the mangrove snapper bite.

About midmorning, we fished Channel Two Bridge's west side in a pretty strong outgoing tide, but even worse, a big barracuda patrolled the waters directly below us and looked like the ruler of that roost, at least for the moment. There were also shoreline rocks to stand on, by the parking lot, and the bridge's embankments for water-level fishing.

We targeted Vaca Cut (M.M. 53), near Marathon, for the end of the falling tide. We'd heard good things about Vaca. Fritz, at the World Class Angler in Marathon, told us that “a lot of people will go down beneath the bridge, where they can sit on chairs and fish around the pilings. They catch a little bit of everything, mostly mutton and mangroves, and tarpon on the incoming tide.”

Vaca Cut is easily accessible. A short road on the northbound side of U.S.1 lets you drive right down to the water. When we arrived, we immediately saw a tarpon rolling in the middle of the waterway, but the current still ripped through there. Water swirled under the low bridge's pilings, and made casting anywhere near that structure a snagging hazard.

“About the only time to fish there is slack tide and when the tide just starts to pick up,” said Nate at Big Time Tackle (M.M. 53), and we could see that he was correct.

We checked our tide charts and figured that Seven Mile Bridge, on an incoming tide, would be our best bet after lunch, and for the afternoon. Our live shrimp in a 5-gallon bucket were still healthy under the oxygenation of the air pump, running on two D batteries. I kept the bucket shaded with a wet towel, and made sure I didn't get any sunscreen from my hands into their water—instant death. Also, you can throw a little ice in there to keep them cool, and put a few rocks or sand on the bottom to let them rest and not wear themselves out during their travels. These are the lessons of the roadside angler.

Chum bag from a bridge attracts snappers and other fish.

David Still, of The Tackle Box, had also given us the report on Seven Mile and Bahia Honda, our two best prospects in the Middle Keys. “We catch hogfish, at least a few a week though May, into the first part of June,” he said. “You can get them on hook and line if you put a live shrimp right in front of their face. People on the bridge actually have a better shot at them than people casting from boats. We also get some big, 7- and 8-pound mangroves on live mullet and shrimp, and keeper grouper, and good size lane snapper, up to three pounds.”

Of course, there are also jack crevalle, barracuda, grunts, needlefish and remoras who love these bridges, too.

Approaching Seven Mile (M.M. 46.5), we stopped for more live bait, chum and advice at The World Class Angler (M.M. 49). There, Halsey told us, “If you could devise an accurate tide table for this area, with all its bridges and shorelines, you'd be a millionaire. Also, the tarpon bite moves around from night to night. We know because all through the spring, we sponsor tournaments, and we get the reports. One night it's at Seven Mile, the next Bahia Honda. It's unpredictable.”

The Road to the Continent’

At 154 miles from Miami to Key West, U.S. 1 follows the Florida Keys archipelago and spans the sea between islands. It’s kind of a geological lesson on the go, since that archipelago is nothing but the remains of a reef that died a hundred thousand years ago when water levels dropped and exposed it. The pieces of shell and coral at the shoulders aren’t just decoration; they’re bits of prehistory lying around.



Not until 1938 did one continuous road make the trip possible without the use of car ferries between some Keys, and U.S. 1 tells the story, with visible remaining artifacts, of the slow, and sometimes doomed, incursions into the Keys over land.



In 1905, Key West had the highest population of any South Florida city, and Henry Flagler, former partner of Rockefeller and a major developer of Palm Beach, had the idea of a railroad to get there from Miami. To build, Flagler’s Railroad took seven years, 17 miles of bridges, hundreds of lives lost to storms and accidents, and 4,000 workers at any one time. By 1915, the line’s “Havana Special” took passengers to Cuba by a combination of rail and ferries. To destroy it took only one hurricane—on Labor Day weekend in 1935, which killed 500 workers and caused enough damage to shut down the railroad.



Its bridges were used in the construction of the two earlier versions of U.S. 1. Today three of those bridges, designated National Historic Sites, still stand at Long Key, the Seven Mile bridge, and Bahia Honda. As you drive the current and third version of U.S. 1, which was completed in 1982, you can see the old bridges right alongside. The old Seven Mile Bridge is a good place to take in the views and get a break from the drive.



To some, U.S. 1 might look seedy, nothing but bait shops, beer stores and boat yards, the ragged edges of a maritime culture clinging to its mainland artery, a more or less accurate perception. The true allure of the road, to me at least, lies in the way it cuts between oceans and the land, where s o many people live perched like ospreys in their nests, exposed to the mercy of the elements, but nonetheless very much at home.



Given its mix of driving thrills, design and construction ingenuity, the country that it passes and the stories that it tells, U.S. 1 is right up there with the best roads in the States, along with California’s Pacific Highway, U.S. 10 through the Atchafalaya Swamp, and the Blue Ridge Parkway. —D.C.

 

Undaunted, we made it to Seven Mile Bridge. Several families were spending the weekend there, by the water. They had taken the afternoon off from fishing, to play on the grassy area, and later, they cleaned the morning's catch, decent mangroves. After they ate, they returned to fish during the sunset and night bite. We caught a couple of mangroves, too, but we quit before the big fish would come through at night.

In the Lower Keys, numerous dedicated fishing bridges offer close access to the water and chances at tarpon, sharks, snappers and permit. Especially in winter, look for schools of pilchards along the banks to cast-net for bait. A few bridges span water too shallow to fish at low tide, so go for those over deeper channels. Opportunities include Little Duck Missouri Channel (M.M. 40), Ohio Missouri Channel (M.M. 39), Ohio Bahia Honda Channel (M.M. 38), and two bridges at Bahia Honda (M.M. 37), U.S.1 and the old U.S.1 bridge in Bahia Honda State Park. No Name Key Bridge, off U.S. 1 between Big Pine and No Name Key, has a deep middle channel, and less fishing pressure than others, said Phil at Jig's Bait and Tackle (M.M. 30.3 Gulfside) in Cudjoe.

The next morning, at Spanish Harbor Channel (M.M. 33), a dedicated fishing bridge, we had an extremely hard outgoing tide, and had trouble not getting rocked up, which is the curse of bridge angling. With our light tackle, we were at the mercy of those currents. Carl Nystrom, down from West Palm Beach, who'd fished there earlier and managed a few good snappers, mangrove and yellowtail, came over and gave us his homemade chum, made from oats, menhaden oil, bread, a can of tuna, and whole finger mullet which he cast-nets. We dropped the chum at the base of the pilings, and the snappers rose to it. He and his friends also used a chumbag lowered to the water with a long rope tied to the bridge.

We skipped Niles (M.M. 26) and Kemp (M.M. 24), both tarpon hotspots in the spring and summer, and headed for Bow Channel (M.M. 21), a.k.a. “the K.O.A.” bridge, on the last of the outgoing. It's a 40-foot-high fishing bridge, over water 10 to 20 feet deep, whose pilings hold good-size gray snapper. We also watched a few hundred-pound tarpon cruise out from the bridge under us in the crystal clear water. Our snapper action waned when the tide slacked off.

Closer to Key West, the Saddlebunch Bridges between M.M. 16 and 19 are over fairly shallow water, but aptly named Shark Key Channel (M.M. 15), has a good, deep channel. Hammerheads occasionally munch tarpon here. Boca Chica Bridge (M.M. 13), is the last big bridge before Key West.

At Boca Chica, ballyhoo and snappers swarmed our chumline off the bridge embankments. On the first cast, a large fish took a shrimp on a good strong run, at least a hundred yards, before it shook the hook. We tried for it again and again, but it didn't return, or at least not before our trip had to end.

That big fish eluded us on our short tour of the bridges. But it's still out there for us, and for anyone else, who wants to try their luck.

FS

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