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Fishing - An endless summer found on Key West

A veteran snowbird angler knows that short runs off the island in modest boats can be rewarding

A veteran snowbird angler knows that short runs off the island in modest boats can be rewarding

Florida’s Key West, the much-

written-about little island at the end of The Keys, offers lots of winter fishing opportunities, many of them highlighted in TV shows with jumping sailfish, speedy kingfish or monster, gleaming tarpon — sometimes spending more time in the air than the water when hooked.

As a winter resident, I know there are plenty of other fishing possibilities around the island, many of them suited to the Average Angler more interested in just bending a rod than a new world record.

Capt. Tony Barone is a retired Navy Chief who spends his summer running a small charter boat out of Clinton, Conn. During the winter Tony stays afloat, active and fishing out of a second boat kept at the Key West Naval Base.

The name of the winter vessel is “Scraps,” so-called because it is a 25-foot cabin boat cobbled together from various other craft. Scraps may never win Best In Show, but it is affordable transit to fishing from December through March.

Tony’s usual day takes him from the ramp at the naval base on about a 1-hour, 20-minute run west to the north end of Boca Grande Channel — one of the main routes between the Gulf and the Atlantic.

Tony anchors up on the edge of some hard bottom in roughly 20 to 25 feet of water, with the tide running north to south, and with the help of a chum mixture of cut fish and sand, proceeds to chum up a mix of grunts, blue runners, yellowtail and gray snappers. From time to time cobia will spice up the catch as well as the occasional kingfish.

This type of bottom fishing is looked down on by the purists but the action is incredibly fast, very little time between bites, great for kids, always looking over the side to see what is coming aboard next.

Dunking the reefs

Another type of fishing sometimes overlooked by those interested in big game or big name species is bottom dunking on the patch reefs just outside Key West, running for miles either west toward and past the Marquesas or east back toward Marathon.

One never knows what you’ll catch when you anchor down on a coral head, anything from grouper to all types of snapper to the occasional large kingfish to cobia, some of them larger than 40 pounds.

And, this fishing is very doable in even a small boat. One of my neighbors in our park is Abe Kershaw, 80 years young, a snowbird to the SunshineState when the weather on his farm in Illinois gets too cold. Abe keeps a 16-foot Lund at a nearby dock and when the winter winds lay back, he runs out the two to three miles from Key West to catch a variety of great eating fish.

Two winters ago, when many of us were repairing our homes from the damage from Hurricane Wilma, I took time off from painting and chalking for a trip with Abe and one of his daughters.

We used pinfish caught from around the grass beds in nearby Boca Chica Channel for bait to catch a cooler-plus of mutton snapper, yellowtails, cero mackerel, red grouper and the prized catch of the day: a 26-inch gag grouper that almost dragged Abe’s rod overboard when it hit.

Abe was one happy camper on his return, spending an hour cleaning fish for the freezer. Not bad, I thought to myself, for a fellow just turned 80 in a 16-foot boat in 25 to 35 feet of water, a short, gas-saving run from his home.

As just mentioned, the shallow patch reefs run all the way past the Marquesas, an atoll about 30 miles west of Key West. The further one runs to the west, the less the fishing pressure the bottom receives, often offering good-to-excellent catches to those that make the ever-more expensive run down and back in a day.

Run for it

About two to three times per winter Capt. Jerry Hill, of Gloucester, Mass., in the summer and Key West in the winter, gets together two to four of his fishing crew and makes the run to these far patches, sometimes covering almost 40 miles one way in his 42-foot Wesmac.

Our catch runs almost the entire list of bottom species available, including tangles with larger grouper and snapper. On one of our 2007 trips, Jerry caught a 10-pound scamp grouper, a monster for that species. That same trip we also landed several red grouper and a 40-pound goliath grouper on 12-pound spinning, the latter a protected species that must be returned to the water.

We should mention that despite the price of gas, some anglers delight in running their own boats down to the last Key. Three years ago Capt. Roger Jarvis and his wife, Sandy, bought a new 32-foot power cat, then proceeded to run it from Kingston, Mass., to Key West, stopping for two days to enjoy the sights and also an afternoon fishing on a nearby patch reef.

That trip was followed by a great but simple seafood dinner at Bob-A-Lou’s on Big Coppitt Key, the main course the snapper Roger got just a few hours earlier.

Capt. Pete Shea of Rockport, Mass., just bought a used Rampage that he is redoing, soon to be put on a trailer and towed over land to some winter fishing just outside Pete’s brand new home at Geiger Key.

Pete and others delight in heading out, not at the crack of dawn, but late in the afternoon, stopping by some grass beds to catch a supply of live pinfish for bait. Dropping those out along the deeper parts of the reef, usually in 120 to 140 feet of water, Pete does well for himself, his trick often fishing around sunset when most of the private boat fleet is back at the dock.

Snapper and grouper often bite best early in the day or again at sunset, just like striped bass back home. If you have a boat at the ready, this practice can produce an exceptional catch and still have you home at the dock for an 8 p.m. supper and cold beer after enjoying a usually great South Florida sunset. The spots where Pete fishes are only five to seven miles south from his back door.

Another northern angler headed south with his own boat, a restored 25-foot Sea Vee once owned by the late Capt. Wally Albrecht, is Al Golinski of South Hadley, Mass., who will be down for the month of February, renting a cottage around Cudjoe Key and keeping his boat in the water at a marina at Stock Island, close Key West.

One of Al’s many tricks is to head over to the Northwest Channel, another deep-water route between the Gulf and Atlantic. What makes that spot so special is it’s close to shore, somewhat in the lee of winds from the east, allowing Al and his guests to get in a day on the water when other venues are closed due to rough seas, catching anything from all types of legal snapper and smaller grouper to possibly a large cobia or permit, a hard fighting fish that doesn’t know when to quit pulling.

Many of your neighbors come to Florida, not to catch the highlighters, but often for a simple trip not far from their homes or rentals that lands supper, produces a great time on the water and reaffirms an appreciation of enjoying life in The Keys.

Tim Coleman has been fishing Key West and 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.