Florida Saltwater Fishing
Cabo San Lucas, The Bahamas, Langara Islands, Prince Edward Island, Belize, Costa Rica… Mention any of these names to any serious fisherman and you’ll see their eyes light up and maybe even catch a trace of a smile. Each of these sportsman destinations offer excellent fishing opportunities, but generally they are limited to fairly narrow terrain from a fishing perspective. Oh… and you’ll need your passport to get there. But what if there was a magical place, one that afforded a fisherman a legitimate opportunity to not just target pelagic species, reef species, or backcountry and flats species in one day, but ALL OF THE ABOVE? Actually, there is a place like this. But, for many laymen it may not be well known. Sure, since the days of Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey this place has been rather well known to the serious line caster. This place is Florida and more specifically the Southwest Florida and the Florida Keys, where Florida saltwater fishing is at it’s best.
So, what makes Southwest Florida and the Keys such a magical fishing destination? Variety! One would be hard pressed to find another fishing location with more variants when it comes to fishing! For starters let’s keep in mind that Florida is a huge state. And not only is Florida huge a wet state with numerous lakes and rivers it is surrounded with water. 1,350 miles of it to be exact. Now I’m almost a 100% saltwater fisherman so the focus of this blog will lie on the subject of Florida saltwater fishing.
Florida saltwater fishing has many facets but generally they fall into 5 major categories. Gulf fishing with most depths 30-60 feet until one travels farther into the Gulf off of the panhandle and western coast. Bay fishing that includes the shallower waters and grass flats on the bay side of islands and the back-country of the Florida Keys. The inlets and bridge areas. The reefs primarily found in the Keys or near shore waters of the Atlantic side of South Florida. And pelagic fishing in the deeper waters off of the the Keys and Southern Florida.
Back-country fishing will generally consist of fishing the flats for such species as bonefish and tarpon. However, a day of back-country fishing may include other targets as well including redfish, sea trout and snook. Waters around mangrove islands will also produce mangrove snapper, sheeps head, and barracuda. In the deeper bay waters red grouper and hogfish tend to populate holes and ledges in the hard bottom and other areas with structure. Light tackle fly or spinning gear will be sufficient in a majority of situations. Channels and canals will produce sharks and other larger predatory fish, but be warned these aren’t that trophy bass that you’ll see in freshwater lakes and rivers. That same trophy fish that you may be used to would generally suffice size-wise as bait. Large bait, but bait none the less. Deeper bay side waters also will produce Spanish mackerel with a nice shiny spoon on the troll.
Moving out towards the ocean side brings us to the creeks and inlets. Frequently you will find structure in the areas the most obvious being bridges and pilings. These areas will hold many of the reef and bayside species and can be fished a multitude of ways. Many bridges can be platforms for fishing, be sure to make sure that where you fish from the bridges it is legal to do so as many will have limited access for fishing. Kayaks are becoming more and more popular for the more adventurous and agile. These are great platforms for fishing since you can get into many areas that most boats could never get to. If you do have access to a boat simply stay clear of the navigation channels and drop anchor up current of the structure and drop your lines.
Once on the reef you have even more options. The patch reefs of the Keys hold too many species of fish to name. These reefs are scattered on the shallow side of the main reef and are generally surrounded by sandy bottom. While you may get lucky and hook some memorable fish on the shallow patches in waters less than 50’ or so the real action tends to begin once you get past 75’. The best technique for reef fishing is to mind the wind and currents and anchor far enough up current to get your baits to the bottom. And chum! A wise fisherman once told me when I first started fishing the Keys the truest axiom regarding reef fishing. “He who chums the most wins”. Don’t be afraid to chum a lot. You still have to be patient, it can take a good half-hour to draw fish to your slick. But, once they show it will be in numbers. Unfortunately, large gatherings of fish and a nice big slick also get the attention of sharks. And there is nothing more attractive to a shark than a 20# black grouper struggling to get off of your line. Getting fish to the boat as quickly as possible is a cardinal rule. Wondering how big a fish was by looking at the disembodied head hanging from your hook gets old fairly quickly.
Though you can troll on the reef for grouper and mackerel getting off of the reef in 150’ is my personal favorite. This is where the monsters lurk. Now, I’m not saying that catching a nice redfish on light tackle isn’t exciting, because it is. But the first time you’re on the troll (OK… actually EVERY time) and you hear that unmistakable sound of line screaming from the reel the adrenaline just is off the charts. No one ever announces a hit with a whisper. Not the first timer and not even the old timers that have seen it 1000 times. These are the pelagic waters where the mani, blackfin, and wahoo live. For a fish to survive out here it takes size, speed, and agility. You have not experienced the best in saltwater fishing until you’ve seen a hooked gaffer mahi or blue marlin dancing on the end of a fishing line. Especially when it is your line. Baits can be rigged or you can pull “artificials”. Even though the water is deep you want to look for signs of where to fish. In the calmer waters weed lines begin to develop along the currents. These can sometimes stretch forever and are like an oasis for fish. Other things to look for are flotsam, flocking birds and frigate birds. And don’t discount anything that floats no matter how seemingly insignificant. One of the nicest schools of mahi we’ve found were on a floating 2 liter soda bottle.
Some points to remember. while Florida saltwater fishing. Almost all varieties of fish will cross-over the different areas and can be found in areas you generally wouldn’t suspect or think of. I’ve seen species such as hogfish and numerous others on the reefs, the deeper grass flats, and even swimming in deep water canals. Fish love structure. “Structure” can be just about anything, a bridge, a reef, a log- it doesn’t really matter. As long as it gives a fish a reference point or a place to hide in the open water you’ll most likely find them holding on structure. Saltwater is corrosive! Make sure any gear is made for use in the environment and/or rinse it thoroughly after use. Know ALL of the laws. If not sure DON’T DO IT! Fishing in Florida, especially the Keys, can get confusing with the convergence of areas that are under different governance. Federal and state laws differ, sometimes greatly and the Keys fall under different jurisdictions. Don’t be put off. Just do your homework.
If you have access to your own boat come on down and make sure you have the latest charts. If you don’t have access to a boat you have the options of fishing from shore or the bridges. Other alternatives are to look for a headboat/partyboat (they are really relatively inexpensive), or if you can budget for it hire a local guide or charter. The latter is more expensive, but the locals know their stuff and if you are serious about fishing will almost guaranteed a memorable and successful trip. Regardless of how you go about it relax. You’re on vacation in the American Caribbean and Florida saltwater fishing!
For more information on Florida saltwater fishing click here.
A big thank you to Eric our guest blogger!
Eric Porteus moved to Key Largo from Philly area 5 years ago. Eric grew up freshwater fishing in PA. Both Eric and Matt attended Milton Hershey School in Hershey PA. Eric spent many years fishing throughout New Jersey and Maryland. He moved to Key Largo after falling in love with the Keys during a vacation.