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Escape to an angler’s paradise

Whether it’s deep water or the shallow reefs, the Florida Keys offer a variety of fish — and lots of them

Whether it’s deep water or the shallow reefs, the Florida Keys offer a variety of fish — and lots of them

Mercifully the congestion at both the George Washington and Woodrow Wilson bridges lies behind you. The road opens up, soon Richmond is to your north and the plains of the Carolinas come into view as you head south for some time in the fishy Florida Keys.

Whether you go for a week or a winter, snow-weary New Englanders deserve a break, warmer temperatures and a chance to get out on the water.

The Keys might not be the sleepy, end-of-the-road hideaway they once were, but they still offer fishermen and boaters respite from the cold and the go-go life so often seen in the Northeast. You can find plenty of quiet spots to ponder your future, read a book, visit a marina or see if the winds will lie down enough to get you afloat the next day.

At the height of the tourist season, the main drag through the Keys bustles with lots of like-minded folks (they keep coming back for a reason) but north and south of the highway are many rentals offering quiet time.

Some border canals and small coves where you can try to catch tarpon. My humble trailer lies on one such place. I can often see the small tarpon rolling, especially prior to a weather front, eager at times to take a small lure on light rod then jump away, reminding me why I traveled here in the first place. One quiet night in the early spring, the same cove was alive with fish to 20 pounds, eager to take a lure on a trout rod — great fun. The downside to their eager feeding prior to a blow is the colder winds drop water temperatures, chasing the tarpon away for a week or more until the water warms back up to their liking.

Someone else’s boat

Probably the easiest way to go fishing is to charter one of the many boats for hire along the Keys. You can catch jumping sailfish or line-burning kingfish that pull drag from a reel quicker than most fish in the Northeast. Kids will remember their first large king, their eyes growing wide as the spool on the reel spins in a blur when the silver torpedo gets the hook.

On the bottom are snapper and grouper, the latter often hitting 40-plus pounds. Some charter skippers specialize in bottom species; ask around in local tackle shops or make some calls. A check of the local phone book reveals pages of ads for charter fishing. The fact that large grocery stores often devote space to selling tackle or frozen bait is a clear indication you are in a place where they take their fishing seriously.

Local restaurants will cook your catch to order. A fresh grouper dinner, cold beer and a piece of Key Lime pie among the simple pleasures of life in the Keys. Even if the wind rustles outside as a cold front bears down, there’s always good conversation to be enjoyed in spots like Bob-A-Lou’s on Big Coppitt Key in the lower part of the island chain.

Keep your options open

One downside to getting away from your appointment book and Monday traffic snarls is the vagaries of the weather. It’s winter there too; Mother Nature blows cold air that far south, sometimes dropping temps in Key West to the low 50s and high 40s in Key Largo. Bring a jacket and be ready to spend some time ashore, maybe checking out all the sleek fish machines in nearby marinas, or take the tackle shop tour, looking for a local wrinkle you bring back home.

While kingfish, sailfish and big grouper often take top space in local papers, don’t overlook a trip to the shallow reefs that dot the south side of the Keys. These coral heads and hard spots in 20 to 40 feet of water teem with life. Gear down the tackle to 8- or 12-pound spinning gear and you can have a ball, much like you can in the Northeast with porgies or sea bass. And, we might add, the reef fishing can be done on days with so-so weather, which can be too much for your kids to endure further offshore. Some captains offer half-day fishing to the patch reefs, cutting down on the fishing tab and leaving time in the morning for other activities.

Most of the fish from the reefs come in under 10 pounds, but every once in a while you get surprised. One hot February afternoon in 2005 we dropped the anchor on a reef just off Geiger Key. Using a small beanie jig and small piece of fresh ballyhoo, we caught a 46-pound cobia instead of the mangrove snapper we thought we’d find. Nobody seemed to mind, including the fact we couldn’t fit the fish into our small cooler.

Besides charter boats, the Keys also offers party-boat fishing, both full- and half-day. They can be crowded on weekends, but are an inexpensive way to get you and two kids out on the water, rod in hand. If you want to move up a bit, some large party boats offer overnight trips to the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West. The tab for such goes up and you need two or more days from your vacation schedule, often rewarded with fishing not found closer to home.

The winter getaway

Some people that visit the Keys drop anchor in many different ways, the pull of the place and the fishing so strong. One well-to-do gent from Alabama bought two condos over time, one right on the ocean facing Cuba at Oceanside Marina on Stock Island.

He flies in regularly in his own plane then hires a local guide to pilot his 27-foot Conch to some great snapper and grouper fishing 40 to 60 miles west of his home away from home. They’ll leave around sunrise and be back in time for Monday Night Football or maybe a dinner at the Rusty Anchor, a locals’ hangout on the island.

Don’t expect lodging in the Keys to be cheap during the prime winter months, but it’s often worth the recharge if you have some money in the fish budget. A week down south, even if it’s on the breezy side, beats another day in traffic, listening to the weather god on the radio tell you how much snow the latest winter storm will drop on you.

A foot of the white stuff could fall, but you won’t care, watching it unfold on a TV in a warmer spot, close to an ocean full of fish — with time left on your vacation.

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for more than 30 years. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine’s New England edition until 2001, and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.