Wow, what a fantastic year of awesome fishing. The majority of people who spent time on the water will testify that this year may be the most productive we’ve had in some time. This past spring set the pace with an outstanding run of sailfish. Marinas resembled used car dealerships with countless numbers of release flags flapping in the wind. All varieties of fish stayed active and hungry, including a great migration of cobia, wahoo, kingfish and all the popular reef and wreck dwellers. The exciting spring action boiled over into the summer as the nutrient rich blue water currents of the Gulf Stream provided some very impressive dolphin catches and calmer sea conditions than most anglers expected. The real bonus this past summer had to be the visiting schools of yellowfin tuna. These dynamically shaped trucks surprised many fishermen who ventured offshore, and tested the skills of numerous unsuspecting dolphin hunters. Many anglers found themselves a bit under-matched. The other saltwater Olympians that wreaked havoc were blue marlin. They provided more than a handful of lucky anglers with world class acrobatic shows.
If you’re a skinny water fisherman, then you know you too had equally phenomenal opportunities to clobber monster tarpon in the shallows or duel nasty bones on the flats. Let’s not forget the great summer run of powerhouse permit, ravenous reds and electrified snook. By no means is the fishing frenzy over, and don’t even think it’s time to put the rods away and cover the boats. We can expect more dolphin to squirt through the Florida Keys this fall, and as far as the tarpon are concerned, it seems that they vacation here later and later with each passing year. Being a full time charter captain and guide, I look forward to our offseason. September is when things slow down a bit and we have a little time to relax and regroup. We spend more days fun fishing and exploring during this time of the year since fewer families are vacationing. Finally fishing less than 8 days a week provides me an opportunity to work on my tackle, equipment and accessories. Since these chores don’t require month’s worth of attention, I often get to sneak out and pull on some fish myself. Less boat traffic, fair weather and consistent fishing make the fall a wonderful time of the year for both resident and visiting anglers. During the fall, hard core sinker bouncers will get their fill of hard fought battles. Kicking it off down south, the Tortugas and Marquesas will swarm with life. Reef fishermen can expect to find balled up yellowtails, muttons meandering through the sea fans and grouper occupying coral encrusted caves.
Slightly higher up in the water column, cero mackerel make a point to regularly visit bait busy areas. For all hell to break loose, add some Bionic Bait or Tournament Master chum and enjoy. Quality double ground chum will quickly get the party started. I use the oiliest stuff I can find, especially if the chum is infused with Menhaden Milk. Don’t forget to bring some shrimp. Devilish looking hogfish love them, and we love hogs!
The lower Florida Keys are definitely a fun place to fish. Scattered wrecks provide explosive fisheries for any number of species. The action here can erupt at any time with muttons, groupers and big AJ’s hanging in the wreckage while blackfin tuna, kings and the occasional wahoo can be baited just below the surface. During the fall, you can count on something chewing!
The middle Florida Keys will have a spark of their own, as migratory baitfish settle in. Huge numbers of runners, cigar minnows and ballyhoo dictate where larger fish concentrations will be held. For starters, look for schools of yellowtail snapper balled up on your bottom machine. Any grouper or larger mutton snapper in the vicinity will be hanging below. A big grouper’s favorite past time is picking off careless yellowtails that have wandered a bit too far into their territory. An angler in the know would fish a live grunt or ‘tail right on the bottom!
Geographically, the upper Florida Keys may change a bit, but reef fishing will be every bit as good. Anchoring in 60 to 70 feet over a solid patch reef will produce consistent action. Head out even deeper for the larger snapper and groupers.
If you’re venturing to the Gulf side of the Florida Keys, you can count on a rewarding experience. The Gulf of Mexico houses tremendous resources, though blindly fishing in such a large area may leave you short of your expectations. High profile structure oriented areas such as bars, rock piles and wrecks are the main targets you should focus on. In particular, artificial reefs dotting the shallow Gulf side should be flourishing with life. All of your usual grouper species are locals to these communities. Headlining the area are monster goliath grouper. These fish have huge, broad shoulders and remind me of diesel powered Mack trucks! They’ll readily inhale any wiggling bait dropped to the fringes of their lairs. Beefy conventional tackle is a requirement for even standing a chance at stopping one of these runaway brutes. Don’t forget to fasten your fighting belt and adjust your drag before dropping down.
For the shear battle of a lifetime, try landing a goliath on spinning gear. I use a Penn 6500ss loaded to the gills with 20 pound PowerPro connected to 60 pound leader material. Tie on quarter ounce jig head baited with a pilchard, pinfish or jumbo shrimp. Pesky snapper will get a running start at this rig but when Moby does get to your bait first, hold on for dear life baby ‘cause you’re in for the fight of your life! While visiting the Gulf, shiny jigs and spoons rigged on short traces of light wire can be worked above these same spots to pick off Spanish mackerel, cobia and the possible bull redfish.
Speaking of redfish, the Everglades flats remain very busy with these brute members of the drum family. Look for muddy pockets of activity where mullet are being chased. Schooling reds will bully and batter these helpless vegetarians. In the heat of the carnage, reds will allow anglers opportunities to get right into the strike zone. Walking topwater stick-baits through the busting fish should result in an immediate connection. Soft plastics should also not get overlooked. Make sure to fish depressions and pot holes in the flats while keeping a keen eye open for tailing reds picking off the bottom. Whenever there is redfish action on the flats, you can count on sneaky snook being close by. As an alternative, try runoffs and creeks, especially mangrove-shaded areas with heavy tidal flow. Nighttime snook fishing is very good, as these fish prefer to prowl after dark. Think about illuminating your favorite fishing hole. We’ve really enjoyed experimenting with a HydroGlow light stick and have had excellent results. This soft green light attracts swarms of bait and shrimp. It’s like opening the door to a bait buffet. Fish the edge of the light where the fish will be popping.
Be well prepared when chasing dolphin and keep a lighter rod ready for tripletail. It’s not uncommon to run into these funny looking fish when investigating floating debris. They provide some of the best table fare you could wish for and offer a bit of variety. A small chunk bait or peeled shrimp on a 2/0 hook works great. On the Atlantic side, the deeper wrecks and humps paralleling the entire Keys chain will provide consistent action with blackfin tuna, skipjack and little tunny (bonito). Live chumming with small pilchards is the absolute best way to get these fish fired up. Troll black/red feathers, small jet heads and cedar plugs to locate pockets of activity and then let the live baits take over.
Farther offshore, a handful of migrating yellowfin tuna will sporadically be found. Yellowfin tuna are brutes and if you are not properly prepared, you won’t even stand a chance! Hot on the yellowfin’s tails, billfish will also be at their peak. While you’re out there chasing dolphin, pull a couple large softhead or chugger style lures. My favorite is a blue and white Hawaiian eye w/ a horse ballyhoo rigged on 300 lb. mono. Adding a couple larger lures into your spread will improve raising more mahi and provide you a chance of hooking that hungry blue or white. Remember to always run your bigger lures close to the boat on stout 50 to 80 lb. class gear.
Speaking of billfish, it’s no surprise that even down here in the Keys, swordfishing is increasing in popularity. With sea conditions at a comfortable range due to diminished winds, you can count on these broad bill gladiators being targeted on a nightly basis. Set up just before dark in 800 ft. to 1200 ft. on the edge of the Gulf Stream. A set of Penn International 50’s or 70’s are ideal weapons. Several baits should be fished staggered in different levels of the water column. Due to the swordfish’s sharp bill, 200 lb. to 400 lb. leader material is a must. A 12/0 southern style tuna hook bridled to a live blue runner or rigged squid will outfit you nicely. Don’t forget your glow stick, and hang on tight!
A bit closer to home, structure oriented fishing will increase as the season progresses. Large yellowtails can be sand-balled up and down the reef throughout the entire Key’s system. Larger muttons may spice up the catch as they are finishing off their annual spawn and looking for one more solid bite. To top things off, some black grouper will be mixed in. Even though there are a few ‘secret spots’ just about all large coral heads and ‘good’ pieces of bottom in 30 ft. to 90 ft. will hold most of your snapper and grouper species.
As the steamy summer progresses, grey snapper (mangrove) will make a solid showing. These fish will invade the reefs throughout the Keys. Fishing under the cover of darkness will produce the deadliest results and you’ll be more comfortable avoiding the scorching sun. Periods as far away from the full moon as possible will fill coolers with solid catches of fish in the 1 lb. to 8 lb. Range. Anchor in 50 ft. to 60 ft. of water. Make sure to have plenty of live bait and burn plenty of chum. Monster cubera snapper, a unique species to target, will come to life in July and August. Contrary to the mangrove bite, this fishing will peak during the full moon phases. Deep wrecks in the 100 ft. to 300 ft. range offer comfortable surroundings for these scaly freight trains that enjoy snacking on whole lobster! If you’re serious about landing one of these brutes, you better get out the fighting belt and at least a 50 lb. class stand up outfit. Otherwise, stay home and eat the lobster!
Shallow water wrecks will also hold a variety of species. At any given time, a pack of hungry permit or a bomber cobia may be lurking in the vicinity of the cursed ship. Don’t be surprised to find AJ’s along with and all your common bottom dwellers hiding between the deteriorating planks.
Approaching late July and well into August, higher up in the water column smoker size kingfish will be a possibility. Runners or speedos aggravate these toothy missiles and some of the kings could tip the scales in the low 50’s. Stinger rigs and long leaders are the way to go here.
For the flats enthusiast, the lower Keys should be swarming with permit and bonefish. Look for both species during early morning or late afternoon tides. During the blistering midday heat they’ll be looking for refuge from the penetrating rays. For consistent shots at bones, spend most of your time ocean-side. These ghostly apparitions will be spotted rummaging around the flats from Key West to Key Largo. These light tackle monsters are best fished with 8 lb. to 10 lb tackle. Shrimp and small quarter size crabs will quickly get gobbled up or try a 1/8 ounce jig for a new twist. If you want to test your fly skills, Clouser’s and Crazy Charlie’s will both be productive.
Snook action rolls hard right thru the summer as the sideliner’s finish off there annual spawning cycle. Not a single snook can be kept from May through August, so only catch & release fishing may be practiced. Using your electric motor to maneuver, skipping a large D.O.A. shrimp under residential docks is a great way to pinpoint concentrations of fish. In addition, look for these masters of ambush to be hiding along mangrove shorelines and well-lit docks. It’s hard to beat a live pinfish, shrimp or mullet, though all the usual baits will keep you connected. For anglers choosing to fish artificials, top water lures, soft bodied jigs and fly patterns will score.
Of course a Florida Keys fishing forecast wouldn’t be a Florida Keys fishing forecast if we didn’t talk about tarpon. Mixed-size fish from 30 lbs. to 130 lbs. will infiltrate bait-rich waters from the Tortuga’s to Key Largo. Ocean side flats are great places to start your search as are most bridges and Gulf banks. Furthermore, tarpon will meander into the ‘Glades and inhabit channels and moats around mangrove islands. Keep your eyes peeled for rolling or porpoising activity in the areas mentioned. These huge fish can often be seen from a long distance off. Remember; always bow to the silver king!
Mullet will induce the most savage strikes but pinfish and ladyfish will fill the void. In addition, hungry tarpon looking for an easy meal won’t hesitate munching down a properly presented crab or extra large shrimp.
If all that inshore action isn’t enough, redfishing will hit the highest point with the continuing warming conditions. Look for tailing fish up in the ‘Glades on the grassy flats and exposed root banks. Early morning will yield the best results. The calm water is ideal for spotting tailing reds as they forage for breakfast in the grassy bottom. Try gold spoons and Hook Up jigs to entice these active drum. If you can’t seem to get them going, a quarter size crab or lively shrimp will definitely do the trick.
Whatever you decide to fish for, bring along plenty of sun protection, drink plenty of fluids and I guarantee the action won’t disappoint you. There is one other thing I would like to mention. If you don’t own a pair of polarized sunglasses, go buy them now!