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Fishing – Tortugas

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Tortugas are tops in bottom fishing

Run from Key West aboard a deep-vee center console delivers full day of action and a full fishbox

Tortugas are tops in bottom fishing

Run from Key West aboard a deep-vee center console delivers full day of action and a full fishbox

Key West, the fishy three-by-five-mile island at the end of the Florida Keys, offers many types of sportfishing to the roughly 2.6 million people who visit each year. Tourists can catch aerobatic sailfish, 100-pound tarpon, pan-sized snappers on the inshore reefs or take a long run to the Dry Tortugas. With the help of today’s high-speed, sea-cutting center consoles, such trips are accomplished in a single day.

The Dry Tortugas are a clutch of small islands roughly 70 miles west of Key West. The Dry Tortugas fishing grounds, offering perhaps the best snapper and grouper fishing in the southeastern United States, lies anywhere from 60 to 80 miles west of the Southernmost City, starting west of the Tail End Buoy and stretching to the southwest of Loggerhead Key, one of the islands in the Tortugas proper.

The fishing grounds hold the promise of fish stacked up, waiting for bait to be dropped to them. The catch is the distance.

Enter deep-vee center consoles in the 27- to 34-foot range with two or three large outboards, able to cut through seas at 25 to 30 knots, putting customers on scene roughly 1-1/2 to 2 hours after leaving the dock. After a full day on the grounds, hopefully with a full cooler of seafood, another high-speed run puts you back on shore in time for a reasonable dinner hour.

While promos for The Keys often show light winds and calm seas, some of the winter trips must be made in 10 to 15 mph winds, giving anyone interested a taste of running through choppy, 2- to 3-foot seas.

Another caveat would be cost. Due to the distance, the speed needed and the price of fuel, the freight for one of these ventures is about $1,000, a figure that doesn’t turn off some willing to pay for an above-average trip.

One of the several local charter captains who offer these trips is Capt. Mike Delph: (305) 797-6541. He pilots a 34-foot SeaVee, a fishing machine made in nearby Miami.

Accompanying Mike and me on one recent trip were Al and Emme Golinski from South Hadley, Mass., frequent winter visitors to Key West and combined holders of almost two dozen World and Line Class Records from the International Game Fish Association.

The four of us left Sunset Marina, where Mike keeps his boat, just after 7:30 a.m. on a day with winds forecast for 10 to 15 mph out of the northwest and seas around 2 to 4 feet. We idled past a string of immaculate condos, testimony to yet another spot in Florida where demand for living space is high and property values are skyrocketing.

With the livewell in the stern stocked full of live pinfish, we were soon barreling along the inside passage called The Lakes, down the south end of Boca Grande Channel, headed southwest, then west, not stopping until we were 60-plus miles from the dock. The distance was covered in less than two hours, with the boat eating up the sea conditions it faced.

Mike’s equipment was all top of the line: Diawa spinning or conventional reels with custom rods from Biscayne Rod with plenty of outfits rigged and ready if one got snarled up. Mike doesn’t anchor; rather, he keeps one of his engines in reverse, gently keeping the stern up into the wind or current, whichever is stronger, and his party over the fish.

On Mike’s boat you bait up with a live pinfish, drop the rig to the bottom then follow Mike’s directions. He is a firm believer in maximum pressure on these fish, otherwise a large grouper will dart into bottom cover, flare its gills, and become rocked up — fishermen slang for a fish that’s stuck and may or may not be moved away from its hole.

On our first stop we had a couple large groupers hooked up right away, but both gained their freedom in the bottom. We did land five large mutton snappers, a pink, great-tasting treat highly prized by South Florida anglers. Also mixed in the catch were a couple of 20-pound jack crevalles — hard-pulling critters that don’t know how to quit fighting — plus smaller kingfish, toothy, fast-movers that took our bottom baits on the way down.

So it went off and on during the day, stopping for lunch for a time, but mostly looking here and there, always at the ready for a sign of fish on the fishfinder. At one point we ran over what looked like a very large showing of fish on the bottom. We wheeled back around, located the spike, but whatever they were they had lockjaw — another fisherman slang for fish that refuse to take even a frisky live bait.

As the day headed past 3 p.m., moving on to 4 p.m., it was time to put the tackle away, and ready for another dash back home. After being on one’s feet for most of the day, one appreciates some sit-down time on the way back. This is accomplished on Mike’s boat by two large beanbags placed between the back of the leaning post and transom. I braced my feet against the latter; the soft bags adapted to my back, softening the ride and allowing me to nod off for 20 minutes even as we ran along at 28 knots in the same sloppy sea we started in.

By the time I opened my eyes, we were up in The Lakes, within sight of the cruise ships lining the harbor in Key West.

Back at the dock, Al and Emme posed for the obligatory dead fish pictures destined for the scrapbook, completing another successful winter fishing vacation. By the time we had the lines on the boat we’d covered about 125 miles round trip, keeping 12 large mutton snappers to be filleted then shipped back to Massachusetts for dinner some cold night, a reminder of times spent in the Keys.

These are not your father’s fishing trips, nor will they be the best choice for some newcomers, but for those looking for a chance at the best bottom fishing Key West has to offer, the choice is clear.

Tim Coleman has been fishing the waters of the Florida Keys and New England 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 and Key West.