By Captain Ted Lund
Planning your next exotic destination fishing expedition? There’s no reason to leave the U.S. and no reason to look farther than the Florida Keys & Key West.
The region owes the abundance of fantastic inshore and offshore angling opportunities to its unique geography; it’s here that five of the planet’s greatest natural wonders come together. The Florida Keys are at the center of confluence of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf Stream current, Florida Bay and the Florida Everglades.
The entire 125-mile-long island chain offers year-round, world-class access to backcountry, inshore and offshore fishing, including species such as tarpon, yellowtail snapper, kingfish, dolphin (mahi-mahi) and sailfish.
But just as each Keys island community has its own flavor, each region enjoys its own specialized fishery — unlike any found elsewhere in the angling world.
For shallow-water anglers, Key Largo is one of the finest destinations for seeking the elusive flats slam: a permit, bonefish and tarpon all in one day. Why? Savvy skiff guides have access to the bonefish- and permit-rich waters of Biscayne National Park. After releasing your first two, it’s off to the remote wilds of Everglades National Park for your tarpon. Reach your goal? Upgrade to a super slam by adding a redfish and a snook.
Key Largo also is a Keys sailfish hotspot, especially in the winter when the high-leaping “spindlebeaks” chase baitfish on the edge of the reef, producing “showers” of ballyhoo that serve as beacons to the prized gamefish.
For over 100 years, Islamorada has been known as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World. Now it has another gem to add to its crown: Daytime Swordfishing Capital of the World.
Thanks to an innovative group of professional charter captains, this unique daytime fishery for broadbill swordfish has blossomed. Using state of-the-art tackle and techniques developed right here, you’ll present baits in depths ranging to 2,000 feet. It’s possible to log several releases of these rare gamefish in one day — with some scaling more than 400 pounds.
And Islamorada’s reefs are prime for yellowtail snapper, one of the tastiest fish of the sea. Chefs at area restaurants will take fillets, skillfully carved by captains and mates, and prepare them in several different styles. You can’t get fish any fresher.
Moving southwest along the island chain, anglers arrive in the Middle Keys and Marathon. This is arguably one of the world’s premier tarpon fishing destinations, especially along the world-famous Seven Mile Bridge. Though many fishermen target the silver king during daylight hours, Marathon’s charter community has been able to cool things off — making it one of the world’s best evening tarpon fisheries.
Marathon also features a great deepwater habitat called the Marathon Hump. It’s literally an underwater mountain where the Gulf Stream current upwelling forces bait to the surface, attracting pelagic species such as blackfin tuna, dolphin and sharks.
Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys
Want to experience the Primal Pull? Then Big Pine and the Lower Keys is the place for blackfin tuna as well as deepwater snapper and grouper. Located just off American Shoal is a series of sunken U.S. Navy ships called the Destroyers. Ranging from depths of 180 feet to nearly 600 feet of water, they offer plenty of non-stop, drag-smoking action to put tackle to the test year-round.
Farther offshore toward the continental shelf, anglers find blue marlin and other species of billfish as well as dolphin, wahoo and blackfin tuna around the East Crack, a deep vertical fissure where water depths range from 750 to 1,500 feet. Such severe bottom relief attracts hordes of baitfish and, in turn, predators.
When you finally come to mile marker 0 in the Southernmost City, you’re only 20 miles from world-famous Wood’s Wall. It’s the continuation of the continental shelf and features Middle and West Cracks. This is the stretch of water Ernest Hemingway roamed.
But Key West also offers exceptional shallow–water habitats for permit. The late legendary fly fisherman Del Brown landed over 500 of the wary gamefish on fly in the region.
Expansive grass flats, big flood tides and abundant populations of the permit’s favorite food source — crabs — have made this a go-to permit destination. Add the abundance of world-class fishing guides, and it’s easy to see why no other destination comes close when you’re chasing this holy grail of light-tackle fishing.
No matter what your fishing fancy, the Florida Keys & Key West have something for every angler — every day of the year.
For more information, visit fla-keys.com/fishing.
Captain Ted Lund is a former editor of Saltwater Sportsman Magazine and a Florida Keys fishing fanatic.