March and April are transition months in the Florida Keys, as winter winds die down and water temperatures rise. During this six- to eight-week period it’s possible to catch a variety of species that bridge both the winter and summer seasons.
Essentially the seasons define which species move through the area and how well they feed. Beginning in May, things change, and for the next three months anglers will be busy catching their limit on both sides of the 110-mile archipelago, either on the ocean side or in the backcountry of Florida Bay. It’s the wide variety of fish that attracts anglers from all over the world to the Keys.
Local guides love to tell the story of Michael Toth, the Field & Stream editor who set out to catch 50 species of fish to celebrate his 50th birthday. In fact, he caught 51 species in less than a week while fishing out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada.
We’ve talked with experienced guides and tackle shop owners to provide a report of what to expect this summer.
By May, the trade winds settle in and blow a steady but gentle east-southeast, improving the conditions for catching several popular species. The reef and the cobalt blue waters of the Gulf Stream are less than an hour’s run — often just 10 miles out — from most locations, so little time is wasted getting to the hot spots.
Dolphin (aka mahi-mahi or dorado) will be found along the weed lines in 300 to 1,500 feet. Blackfin tuna from 5 to 30 pounds also will be found in the deep water through the spring and into early summer. May through August are the peak months for wahoo, which are attracted to tapered lures trolled at high speeds.
Sailfish can be caught year-round in the Keys, usually beyond the 100-fathom line in the Gulf Stream, and they will average 60 to 80 pounds. Sailfishing really starts to peak in October and tapers off by the end of April. The months of April, May and June have historically been peak months for marlin (white or blue) as they work their way down the island chain. However, most captains agree that marlin is not a highly targeted species in the Keys, and they are typically caught while fishing for something else, such as dolphin.
Swordfishing, on the other hand, has become one of the hottest specialties of the Keys, thanks to the efforts of pros such as Richard Stanczyk, owner of Bud N’ Mary’s, and his son Nick. Until about 13 years ago most swordfishing was done at night, but the Stanczyks helped develop a daytime, deep-drop technique that has been hugely successful. Nick reports that he caught at least one swordfish on 53 consecutive trips — something for the record books.
The technique calls for dropping bait, usually bonito or dolphin strips, 1,500 to 1,800 feet, using 10-pound lead weights on 80-pound test. With the help of custom rod builder Rick Berry of Key Largo Rods, special standup rods were developed that combine superior strength and flexible tips to compensate for the swordfish’s soft mouth. “We went through more than 20 different designs before we found the right combination,” Berry says.
The Stanczyks emphasize that only hand-cranked reels are allowed on their boats — no electrics. “These fish are unlike any other animal out there,” says Nick. “They’re mean, and they fight like big tuna or marlin, except they can pull a big marlin backwards.”
The fight can easily take two to three hours, and the fish can weigh 250 pounds or more. The host of a popular TV fishing show was once filmed being pulled overboard by a 265-pound swordfish. He lived to catch the fish and finish his show.
The geological phenomena of the Keys that contribute greatly to the abundance of fish in offshore waters are known as “The Humps.” Although the world’s oceans contain thousands of these mountains, which rise from the seafloor, there are four humps off the Keys that are of particular interest to anglers: Key Largo Hump, Islamorada Hump, 409 Hump (named for its most shallow depth) and Marathon or West Hump.
The Gulf Stream slams into these mountains and creates an upwelling of oxygen-rich water that attracts baitfish, which in turn bring in such predators as amberjack, grouper, deep-water snapper and blackfin tuna. Deep-dropping, trolling combinations of artificials with skirted ballyhoo or chumming with live bait are effective techniques. “Those with the most chum win,” says Mike Abel of Islamorada’s Abel Tackle Box.
The good news for summer anglers is that when the fishing slows elsewhere in the Keys, The Humps will often be productive.
Florida Bay’s shallow water, dotted with mangrove islands, is the perfect habitat for tarpon, permit, redfish, trout, snapper and snook. If none of these species is biting, shark can be a sure bet.
This is light-tackle country, and unless you’ve spent some time here, you’ll want to hire a guide to take you to the hot spots. Much of the area is part of Everglades National Park. Islamorada, Key Largo, Marathon and Key West all offer charters with seasoned captains who will get you hooked on fishing this very productive part of the world. A big attraction to Keys backcountry fishing is that beginner and advanced anglers will find success.
One of the most explosive of all species is tarpon, and they migrate through the Keys from mid-March until September. By May, the water temperature is above 70 degrees, and the big fish — many approaching 200 pounds — are on. Bridges and channels tend to hold the fish, but they also can be found out on the expansive mud flats. Boca Grande has a reputation for Florida’s best tarpon fishing, but it’s the wide expanse of open, uncrowded waters that give the Keys angler an advantage. This advantage is enhanced in the summer months, when there’s less boat traffic.
Nighttime tarpon fishing is very popular, but sunrise and sunset are also great times to fish, preferably on a falling tide. Catching a big tarpon on a fly can be an incredible experience. It’s amazing what these 100-plus-pounders will do while going after a fly. Heavy-duty spinning tackle with mullet, crabs, pilchard or shrimp also work well, and even beginners will have good luck catching these explosive monsters. Drifting along the edges of the flats and around structure seems to work best. Capt. Rick Stanczyk (Richard’s other son) offers good tarpon-fishing advice on his blog (budnmarysblog.com/tarpon-fishing). If you follow it, you’ll find yourself in the middle of an exciting fight that could last an hour or more.
Fishing for dinner takes a different tack, and once the water warms, there’s no better place to catch delicious spotted trout than the Keys. Live shrimp on a quarter-ounce jig with a popping cork usually does the trick. Artificial Gulp! shrimp also work. Drift into the cloudy mud flats being stirred up by mullet and jig away. Size restrictions here are 15 inches minimum and 20 inches maximum, with a limit of four fish per person.
Another relatively easy fish to catch — great for family outings — is the mangrove snapper, and it’s one of the better-tasting species you’ll put on your plate.
Once the water temperature passes 70 degrees, they’ll be found in abundance in cuts, channels and deep holes, and around bridges. Shrimp or minnows on a half-ounce jig head work best. Anglers without a boat will find bridge fishing for mangrove snappers quite satisfying.
Snook, redfish and permit also are popular species, and each calls for different tactics. Now that the water temperature is rising and winds are diminishing, the summer fishing possibilities in the Keys are virtually endless.
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June 2014 issue