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Hit the Keys for winter fishing

If you can dig up the time and the funds,

a Key West fishing trip is the best use of your winter

If you can dig up the time and the funds,

a Key West fishing trip is the best use of your winter

Ever since semi-retiring (to take up a life of fishing and writing), I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the last few winters around Key West, bumming, enjoying sunsets and dropping a line in weather a lot more hospitable than in the Northeast. It’s a fine feeling, heading over the George Washington Bridge, 24-foot fishing machine in tow, not due back until newspaper columns about local saltwater fishing start anew in the spring.

If you want to meet fellow fishing and boating people from all walks of life, trailer an uncovered, sleek center console down I-95 (in this case, 1,600 miles from Rhode Island) to the end of the Keys. You’ll marvel at the incidents along the way. Travelers in a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike will come over to the gas pump wanting to know where you’re headed with winter in the air, how fast the machine will turn or how much it costs. Truckers beyond Washington might slow down and give you a long blast on their air horn, followed by a thumbs-up, meaning they like the looks of your rig. At a Pilot Truck Stop below the Mason-Dixon Line you might be asked over the P.A. system where you’re bound. And, not far from the Georgia state line, after clearing away the small circle of kids checking out the Hydra-Sports after a Sunday service, parishioners stop traffic to help get your truck and trailer back to the interstate. With a friendly wave you’re gone on the last leg of a snowbird’s final days on the road.

Thanks to a friend from my previous life in the publishing business, my boat ends up in a canal with ocean access not far from famed Key West. One year I came across a 4-foot iguana, a local lizard that looks like a prop from a monster movie, perched along the sea wall when I docked. He was not concerned in the least about my presence. Instead, he was looking for leftover bait from a fishing trip, well trained in the art of mooching. Receiving none, he jumped into the water and swam across the small canal, bound for better lunch prospects.

On other trips a great white heron would show up as the last dock lines were secured. He or she favored fresh ballyhoo, a local baitfish, but not pinfish or other small fish. If a ballyhoo wasn’t flipped up on the sea wall by its feet the heron walked majestically away, refusing to lower its culinary standards.

Most successful trips to Keys waters start with live bait, gotten by anchoring on grass flats or near metal navigation markers. Those are good spots to chum and catch ballyhoo, pinfish or thread herring on small Sabiki rigs, a series of six hooks tied in tandem. Depending on the baitfish sought, I might add a small piece of squid or shrimp to the bottom two hooks or just slowly work the rig up and down, the tiny feathers on each hook attracting your quarry. Once I have enough bait in the live well, it’s off to the reef or the drop-off just beyond, seeking what is lurking around that day, hopefully in T-shirt weather.

From roughly Key Largo all the way past Key West, a coral reef extends out to the south from two to four-plus miles in depths from a foot to roughly 40 feet, the mix of sand and coral drawing fish from all over. The bad news is the fish are usually smaller, great for consistent action for any little folks aboard but not the best for seeking legal grouper and snapper for dinner.

Out beyond the 40-foot mark, the reef drops cliff-like away to 120 feet and beyond. You don’t have to run very far from the edge to be in 300 feet or more. The reef edge is a fishy highway that draws hefty grouper, beautiful, hard fighting mutton snapper and many other tasty bottom feeders. These are caught by lowering a live bait down with the help of egg sinkers from 2 to 8 or more ounces. It’s common practice when anchored up and bottom dropping to pitch a live bait over the back of the boat and let it swim around near the surface, attracting kingfish, a silvery torpedo capable of zinging through the water at better than 30 mph when hooked, dolphin (the fish, not the mammal) or the prize of all, a sailfish. The latter sometimes spend more time in the air than the water when first hooked.

While it’s nice to think about all the great days, don’t forget the Keys are in the grip of winter from late November through early March. Strong cold fronts often make it that far south, roiling the water, sending both locals and snow birds hunting for jackets and blankets when temps drop to the mid-50s at night, arctic-like conditions by Keys standards.

On days when the marina flags are flapping straight away, people in the retirement parks go about their morning routine of coffee and the local newspapers, followed by gab sessions in front of trailers. Topics vary from who had a large grouper last Wednesday, to the state of pro football, to how much snow is forecast for Boston.

Like clockwork, the bait shops and marinas are bustling by 7 a.m. when the ocean is still and it’s time to make up for days on shore. Fishing is so prevalent down there you find large displays of fishing tackle for sale even at the local food marts along with at least one freezer offering bait.

The Keys are noted for large fish and many long-standing world records were set there. When someone in our park hits it big, word spreads quickly — so much so, you might get asked by a complete stranger at the coffee shop how big was the black grouper you caught only the day before.

One memorable evening I had the front fish box full with trophy mutton snapper that averaged 16 pounds, topped by a 50-pound black grouper, all caught between 4 and 7 p.m. I left the fish biting, settling for the view of a spectacular February sunset on the way home, one of the many benefits to spending a winter in the Keys.

If you can swing time without busting the budget or life’s endeavors, try your hand and see if it’s not money well spent. Many of your neighbors are already in place. Maybe it’s time for renewal between fishing trips or just a slower pace, coffee and conversation on a blowy morning. Maybe you’ll bump into the boat of your dreams.

The possibilities are there, watching the wind and listening for the next good day to be on the water off the Keys when the rest of the country is in winter lockdown. n

Tim Coleman was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine’s New England edition until 2001, and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.