Want to hunt the skittish gray ghost of the flats, the bonefish? Come to the Keys. Want to sit in a beach chair, sipping a cold cocktail while watching your bobber dance in the current? Come to the Keys.
The tropical weather, nearby Gulf Stream and 120-mile-long arc of islands that comprise the Florida Keys
together create a fishing environment unique in the world.
Off the Keys' "outer" curve lies the Atlantic Ocean. Warm and shallow near shore, the sea reaches depths of more than 600 feet just 11 miles offshore in the Upper Keys. Near Key West
, 600-foot depths are just over five miles from shore. Travel another 12 to 15 miles south and the depths begin to approach 2,000 feet.
Deep-sea fishing, best accomplished with one of the Keys' experienced charter captains, seeks out some of the greatest sport fish in the world: sailfish, swordfish and marlin. High-speed thrills are delivered by rocket-like wahoo and kingfish. Exceptional table fare comes from the Keys' most popular summer visitor, the dolphin, also called mahi-mahi.
Sailfish season runs November through February. Most wahoo race through Keys waters during April and May, and November through December. Kingfish are most active September to March. Dolphin fishing starts around April and continues through September. However, the Florida Keys are unique in that the seasons often overlap because most species can be caught year-round.
Reef and Bottom Fishing
Closer to the reef lines, grouper and a variety of snapper are caught with lighter gear. Visiting anglers quickly learn why locals describe grouper fishing as "whoever wins the first three seconds, wins the battle." Moving a grouper out from under a rock takes arms of steel and tackle to match.
Yellowtail snapper, regarded by many as the Keys' tastiest fish, are year-round residents, but the hottest fishing tends to be in April through June. Grouper, also year-round residents, are best fished November through March.
Charter fleets dot the Keys from Key Largo
to Key West. Boats range from 26-foot-long outboard-powered center consoles to 65-foot-long air-conditioned long-range sport fishers.
There also are a number of party boats throughout the Keys. These large vessels are built to take 20 or 30 people fishing. The boat operator typically supplies all the fishing tackle that's needed, along with bait and lots of know-how. The rule for party boat fishing is, just walk on and fish.
Backcountry and Flats Fishing
Florida Bay, edged by the "inner" curve of the Keys and the Florida mainland, is referred to by locals as the backcountry. It is home to five of the most sought-after game fish in angling circles: bonefish, tarpon, permit, redfish (red drum) and snook.
The largest bonefish in the world, 8 to 14 pounds, are caught near Islamorada
. Tarpon from 60 to 150 pounds are challenged along the entire length of the Keys. Permit, for years exclusive to the Lower Keys and far north Key Largo, have begun showing up on flats everywhere in between.
The redfish and snook of the Keys usually require some coaxing out from their mangrove hideaways. Once hooked, these backcountry brutes will test even the most experienced angler.
Backcountry species are year-round residents of the Keys. The temperature-sensitive bonefish is caught all year long, with the prime months being September through November. Tarpon come close to Keys bridges from April through July. Permit are on the flats in the greatest numbers from April through September. Redfish and snook fishing is best from December through July.
For visitors, hiring a backcountry guide can make for a successful and educational day. The shallow, unmarked waters of Florida Bay can be confusing and potentially dangerous for the inexperienced.
A saltwater fishing license is required to fish in the Keys. These can be purchased at many bait and tackle shops, online at myfwc.com
Visitors also must abide by Florida state fishing regulations, which define bag limits and closed seasons. Current regulations can be found at most bait and tackle shops or online