Winter Fishing In the Keys Has It All

Key West, Florida

Story and Photos by Pat Ford

There's no doubt, if I had two weeks to fish anywhere in the U.S., that I would head to Key West, Florida. I had the good fortune to be stationed at the Naval Air Station in Key West in 1971, and I've been fishing its waters ever since. Nowhere else can you fish the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, deep and shallow wrecks, and endless miles of flats, all from the same marina. Prime time begins in November when temperatures are dropping up north and the fish are migrating south. The first to arrive is the bait (mullet, ballyhoo, and pilchards) and the game fish are never far behind.

Photo of an angler holding a Spanish mackerel
This Spanish mackerel fell victim to a big google-eyed fly.

A typical day begins in a 30-foot center console that can easily handle most civilized winds and sea conditions. I fish almost exclusively with Capt. R.T. Trosset and/or his son, Chris, who operate out of Hurricane Hole Marina on Stock Island, but there are a number of excellent light-tackle offshore and skiff guides between Marathon and Key West (see sidebar). A typical day with R.T. begins with chasing bait, pilchards to be exact. Once located on the edges of the flats and captured, these three-inch minnows become the best chum a cast net can provide. All the light-tackle boats have massive live wells that will sustain thousands of baits that are casually thrown over the side while anchored over the reef, bar, or wreck selected for the day's adventure. Incredibly, the disoriented pilchards stay close to the boat and will attract most everything in the area that might consider them a snack. It's not unusual to have mackerel, bonito, kingfish, wahoo, tuna, and sailfish crashing baits just off the stern, in addition to amberjacks, grouper, snapper, bar jacks, and yellowtail hovering below. If you enjoy live-bait fishing, the options are almost unlimited, but fly-fishing also can be wildly rewarding. You'll really need a 12-weight rod and a large-capacity reel for offshore, spooled with clear, intermediate-sinking line.

Phot of a shark being caught on a fly rod in the Florida Keys
Even on "bad days" shark fishing can prove exhilarating. A big shark on a fly rod presents a challenge you'll never forget.

December Runs

Key West also has a serious run of sailfish in December that work their way up onto the reef to chase the newly arrived schools of ballyhoo. These sails can be in extremely shallow water and can be spotted by following the frigate birds that are waiting for the sails to push the 'hoos up to the surface. This is run-and-gun fishing with live ballyhoo cast directly to the foraging sailfish on spinning rods. The hook-ups are always heart-stoppingly close to the boat, and the jumps are spectacular.

Photo of Capt. RT Trosset holding a nice red grouper
Capt R.T. Trosset holds up a nice red grouper.

The tuna seem to slow down in January but the king mackerel action increases. In addition, the Gulf wrecks fill up with cobia, barracuda, kingfish, and the occasional permit. Cobia's one of my favorite fish, appearing in December on the wrecks west of the Marquesas and on the deeper Gulf wrecks. They appear behind shrimp boats, in Key West Harbor, and even in the Atlantic at times. A few decades ago, Key West was infested with them but overfishing has reduced their numbers and size considerably. In March of 1985, R.T. and I set an IGFA (International Game Fish Association) world record when I caught a 67-pound, 4-ounce cobia on a fly rod with an eight-pound tippet. We were filming a TV show at the time and three huge cobia swam up to the surface over a wreck we called the "Tug," which is in about 20 feet of water west of the Marquesas. Cobia are friendly and curious by nature and respond readily to chumming. It took me twoand- a-half hours to land that beauty and my record still hasn't been beaten, probably because if anyone sees a 67-pound cobia, they're not going to cast a fly to it, especially with an eight-pound tippet. Today, a 40-pound cobia is a prize catch; hopefully the size and catch limits in place today will help restore their numbers.

February Is Fit For The Kings

In February, big schools of king mackerel appear in the Gulf and, once located, they tend to hang out in the same area for several days. The kings run from 15 to 50 pounds and will respond to artificial lures and even flies when coaxed to the surface with live pilchards. One day last winter, we caught more than 20 kingfish with Capt. Trosset and none of them were less than 20 pounds. The largest was 36 pounds and that day just may have been the most spectacular day of fishing I've ever had, anywhere. The kings were so aggressive that they were repeatedly skyrocketing hookless plugs. I spent more time taking photos of flying kings than I did fishing for them.

Photo of a tuna feeding frenzy
Shrimp boat by-catch sparks a tuna feeding frenzy.

When the Gulf is hot, the best source of chum (other than live pilchards) is the by-catch from the shrimp boats. Blackfin tuna and big bonito school up right behind the boats while they're cleaning their catch. The fish follow the nets as they're dragged over the sand and when the catch is hauled up on deck, they hang around patiently waiting for the fish parts to be dumped back into the sea. Recently, gas prices have put a damper on running out to the shrimpers, but if conditions are right, it can be a day you'll never forget.

In February, tarpon move into Key West Harbor and the surrounding flats as do permit. The lower Keys seem to have the best early-season tarpon fishing, and the fish are big and eager to suck in a properly presented fly. All you need are a few days of calm, warm weather, and the flats come alive. Recently, bonefish have become relatively scarce in Islamorada, but have increased from Marathon to Key West. People speculate that the cold snap in January 2010, could be the reason, or the increase in boat traffic, but the end result is that the flats fishing in Key West is off-the-charts good, and only getting better. Key West may very well be the best place in the world to catch a permit on fly, but don't overlook the shark fishing.

Back up Weather Plans

There are days everywhere when conditions are just awful and all your plans are ruined. In the Keys this happens from time to time, but there's a backup plan. When the wind is howling, it's nasty offshore, and every respectable tarpon and permit has left the flats, it's shark time. All you need is a barracuda or two or some bonito left over from an offshore trip and you're in business. You can run across Northwest Channel, between Key West Harbor and the Gulf, and through the "Lakes" to Boca Grand Key. Hop a little bit farther north to the edge of the Gulf and you'll find flats and channels teeming with sharks, especially in March and April. The technique is to butterfly-fillet the 'cuda and hang it over the side and drift along. Bull sharks, lemons, blacktips, and occasionally hammerheads and tiger sharks pick up the scent and zero right in to the boat. They range in size from 50 to 500 pounds and can be hooked on any tackle you prefer. My favorite is fly, but you'll need a heavy rod and a big orange fly. A 100-pound blacktip is as strong and fast as anything that swims, and a big lemon or bull will wear you out.

Photo of men fishing in the shallow waters of Key West
You can fish in inches or fathoms of water off Key West and have a great time either way.

Years ago, R.T. guided Mike Stidhem to an IGFA-record hammerhead on fly, which is extremely difficult, with only 12 inches of wire shock tippet. The biggest sharks are on the flats between February and May, but 100-pounders can be found year round. Spending a day hooked up to six-foot sharks is one of the most effective ways to learn how to fight big fish on a fly rod and the best thing is, the nastier the weather, the better the shark fishing.

During the spring, R.T. and Chris run live-bait trips for tarpon in the evenings. Depending on the tides, they'll zip out to one of the numerous nearby channels with live crabs or leftover threadfins and anchor. Tarpon seem to hang in the channels every evening from February through August, even when they aren't on the flats. Fishing starts around 5 p.m. and will last until the angler calls it quits. It's not unusual to jump a half-dozen tarpon bigger than 100 pounds in a three-hour trip while you're watching one of those famous Key West sunsets. If you're really lucky and are fishing shortly after the full or new moon in May and June, you might even hit a palolo worm hatch, where millions of the tiny worm larvae hatch at once and drift through the channels providing a feast for tarpon, which is one of the most amazing experiences you can have in the Keys.

You never know what you're going to run into in Key West. If you're offshore in Key West, you have to be ready to catch whatever the fish gods send your way. Usually that's not a problem most people complain about.