Leschper: Keys offer great fishing, relaxation
KEY WEST — The Florida Keys are the epitome of angling paradise, and at the end of the road rests the quaint hamlet of Key West, famed for colorful characters, amazing history and the best fishing most of us may ever have the pleasure to experience.
The southernmost city in the continental United States, which sits roughly 90 miles from Cuba, has gained a reputation as a tourist destination for obvious reasons, but it’s tough to overlook just how impressive and varied the angling options are nearby whether you’re discussing opportunities ranging from the beginner looking for anything to stretch a line to the old salt reveling in a shot at the fish of legends.
There literally is something for everyone, and it should be noted that more world records have been established in the Keys than any other angling destination, according to the International Game Fish Association.
Shallow flats and “backcountry” skinny water locales hold bonefish, tarpon and permit — the true big three of saltwater catch-and-release quarries are especially impressive on a fly rod — while coral reef and patch reef systems not far from shore harbor grouper, snapper and a plethora of other targets — even the toothy barracuda. Then there are the offshore species fit for big-game hunters on safari in the best blue-water angling imaginable. It’s not uncommon to have multiple hook-ups from different species including marlin, sailfish, mahi-mahi, tuna, ling, wahoo, amberjack and even sharks on a run that’s not as time-consuming as most anglers might think.
The fishing methods used in the area are diverse and accommodating to any skill set. Fly fishing purists will feel right at home pursuing a targets as they root around for crabs and other unlucky prey items in as little as 6 inches of water. A stout fly rod — at the very least an eight-weight — is required for most of these fish, but other tackle options include lightweight spinfishing and bait-casting setups that can yield impressive results. Offshore trips targeting the larger species such as billfish typically include a trolling spread of hefty plugs or baitfish that could bring almost anything to the surface, which is what makes that type of expedition so exciting.
Another way to target blue-water species is to locate a reef, shipwreck or other fish-holding structure and dangle heavy jigs nearby, which could produce a robust amberjack or other large specimen that you could then take to any number of restaurants once you return to the dock and enjoy a fresh seafood dinner unlike any you might have had.
For the hardcore angler, a 70-mile trip west to the Dry Tortugas can yield all of these species above — and more — with less fishing pressure and competition for the best angling spots. The excursion typically is done as an overnight or multi-day trip and can get pricey, but the results can be off the charts, and the scenery — including Dry Tortugas National Park and abandoned military outpost Fort Jefferson — are nothing short of spectacular. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León first laid eyes on the area in the early 1500s, naming it for the turtles that call it home, and little has changed in the time since in the region known for crystal-clear water teeming with massive coral formations.
When it comes to planning your fishing trip to the Keys, there really is no bad time, which opens up opportunities to hit the area even during what could be considered slow times and still have a great trip. May, June and July are peak fishing times for a number of species, especially for “silver kings” during the remarkable tarpon migration, and large permit also are readily available and willing to take crab-pattern imitations.
Bonefish angling hits its peak later in the summer, and into the early fall there are a number of sought-after species that will remain on the flats during somewhat cooler periods. Fishing in the winter doesn’t typically involve tarpon and other upper-tier angling targets, but the winter can be some of the best months to hit the reefs, especially those that are in 50 feet of water or less, where you can try to bring up yellowtail snapper and other species that love to hit a small jig tipped with shrimp.
Key West also has a number of can’t-miss visitor spots, including Hemingway’s House, the former residence of the world-renowned writer, which features a herd of cats, each having an extra digit or two. For the gourmand, there is world-class dining featuring an array of seafood such as conch fritters, and there also is no shortage of other family-friendly day trips, including snorkeling, kayaking, eco-tours and art galleries of all sizes. There are a number of notable festivals planned throughout the year that cater to tourists and residents alike.
When it comes to expenses, you don’t have to break the bank. There are wildly expensive accommodations, but there also are reasonable hotels, motels and even RV parks and campgrounds in the Keys. The same goes for restaurants, where you can enjoy a lavish seafood spread or a meal with fresh catches from local waters that are much more affordable.
More than anything, the Keys offer a relaxing and laid-back atmosphere where no one really is in a rush, which makes it such a pleasurable destination for young and old. The weather also stays relatively stable year-round, which allows no shortage of time to soak up the sun and ambiance on any type of excursion. And while you could spend all of your time in Key West, plan to check out other areas such as Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon and even Everglades National Park, which all offer their own scenery that’s not far but is still a world away from ordinary.