Your fingers twitch in anticipation as you pull the second beer of the morning out of your YETI. As the frigatebird’s path crosses the first hint of sunrise, your gaze rests on the trail of foamy wake you’ve slashed through the Gulf Stream in your pursuit. The outriggers creak with tension as you snap the fighting belt across your waist.
“It’s time,” you think to yourself, and on cue you hear the characteristic snap and fizz of line escaping your reel as the trophy fish attacks the ballyhoo adorned with the vibrant neon lure.
You eagerly lift the rod from its holster, and as the engines die and the pressure mounts between man and fish, you know the battle has begun.
If you’ve ever spent time in the iconic archipelago that marks the southern tip of the continental United States, chances are the previous anecdote is all too familiar. Sure, the Florida Keys have plenty of amenities to offer, from the ramshackle resorts that dot US-1 like channel markers, to the neverending party along Duval Street, but the true lure of this island chain lies in the pursuit of sportfish across its crystal blue waters.
It’s not quite so simple as dropping a line in the water and reaping the beautiful (and edible) benefits the reef has to offer. A journey to the Florida Keys is one fraught with choices, and the first choice you face can easily dictate the success or failure of your expeditions. Each of the major islands offer their own opportunities, and coming prepared sets you up for the highest chance of returning home with a cooler full of the filets of your labor.
The first of the Florida Keys, Key Largo serves as the perfect blend between the chaos of South Florida and the casual atmosphere of the lower islands.
Key Largo offers an excellent mix of both offshore and inshore exploits depending on where your preferences lie. Exploring the mangrove forests of the bay side of the island can easily lead to hitting your bag limits on Mangrove Snapper, Speckled Trout, and Pompano in a quick afternoon excursion.
If inshore isn’t your style, a night trip hunting Yellowtail Snapper is always an option worth considering. While the largest Yellowtails are among the most finicky eaters of the Florida Keys, and well placed live shrimp on a fluorocarbon leader can land even the most timid member of the school.
Known as the “Sportsfishing Capital of the World,” Islamorada certainly lives up to its moniker. While the bay side of the island lacks the depth and variety of the other major islands, the true appeal of an Islamorada trip rests in the depths offshore.
A 15 mile journey south from the island leads you to a spot known simply as “The Hump.” A drastic change in depth from 800 to 400 feet makes this spot an all-you-can-eat buffet for several species. Arriving with a livewell full of pilchards can easily cause a Blackfin Tuna feeding frenzy, where even an empty hook can deliver delicious results. Tropy Mahi Mahi circle the outskirts of the hump, and a well placed butterfly jig dropped to the bottom can lead to a backbreaking duel with a monstrous amberjack lurking in the darkness below.
A journey to The Hump is all but guaranteed to lead to sore shoulders, an awkward Costa sunglasses tan, and a dinner plate full of the tastiest offerings the sea can grant.
As the most versatile of the Keys, Marathon hosts some of the best offshore and inshore spots for anglers of any skill level. From the bay side banks touting flag Mangrove snapper, to the countless reef spots hosting scores of Yellowtail, no matter your preferences, Marathon will provide. One unique angling opportunity Marathon has to offer lies along the picturesque Seven-Mile Bridge.
Fishing along structure is a basic skill that any angler should know, and because the Seven-Mile Bridge marks a connection between the Atlantic Ocean and the Florida Bay, the opportunities are abundant. Tethering near any of the bridge pylons presents an excellent shot at pulling in that trophy Tarpon that you’ll brag to your friends about for decades. The nearby island of Pigeon Key also touts enough Snapper to fill the plates of an entire family.
While your journey to Marathon will likely take you all across the reef and bay, don’t miss out on your shot to reel in the living fossil that is a tarpon. Just make sure your leader is strong and your arms are ready. It’s bound to be a hell of a fight.credit msscacti
It can be difficult to leave the party vibes of the most populous island in the Florida Keys, but if you’re spending your entire trip to Key West sucking down daiquiris on Duval Street, you’re missing out on some of the best fishing the entire world has to offer.
While most will stick the the always-fruitful reef off of Key West, the true challenge lies a distant 70 miles to the west of the island. Dry Tortugas National Park hosts the decommissioned Fort Jefferson, a 200-year old naval fort built shortly after Florida joined the United States of America. With it’s crystal clear moat and impressive masonry, Fort Jefferson is an amazing sight on it’s own, but the true beauty of the Dry Tortugas lies beneath the depths waiting to swallow your hook.
While you will need to book an overnight charter to visit the Dry Tortugas, the price of admission is well worth it. Some of the largest snapper and grouper ever captured came from these placid waters. You’re far more likely to pull a tendon in your shoulder than run out of fish to catch in this exotic string of isles.credit Per Salomonsson
No matter what island you choose on your Florida Keys vacation, you’re in for the experience of a lifetime. Replacing that morning cup of coffee at your desk with an ice cold beer and the first bite of the day lets you leave the worries of the real world behind you at the dock. Each time you return with a full cooler and a blood-stained fishing shirt, you won’t be able to resist the urge to smile in excitement for your next opportunity to tackle the open ocean. What are you waiting for?