Its summer-time and you’re imagining yourself in the beautiful Florida Keys. Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Fresh mahi on the grill, warm breezes and beautiful sunsets should quickly consume your imagination. Let’s also not forget about the eruption of a spectacular fishing season. Inshore or off, Atlantic or Gulf side including all through the Everglades, there’s plenty of exciting action for every type of enthusiast to take advantage of. Generally speaking, the transition from spring species and tactics to summer is subtle. Both the air and water temperatures gradually warm up as the mischievous fronts slowly fade away. The already excellent fishing in the Keys will follow suit and continue to burn line off your reels. Local and visiting anglers should have plenty of fish stories to brag about and will catch plenty of trophies that will leave lifelong memories.
In all honesty, and I’m sure most seafarers will agree with me, since January I personally feel the consistent wind has been annoying. We’ve had some very sporty days on the water with wind gusts averaging 30 mph. The silver lining to the dark cloud though was that not only the fishing, but the catching throughout the spring was spectacular! If the recent season is any indication of what we’re in store for,then resident and visiting anglers are in for one hell of a summer! Plus, there’s an unspoken feeling down here that only the locals recognize. Trust me when I tell you we’re all very excited to finally be fishing in friendlier sea conditions and lighter winds.
One of the more difficult decisions anglers have to make throughout the Keys this time of year is exactly which direction to head. Like most fishermen, I enjoy all types of fishing. When you’re blessed with so many exciting options, the choice of which species to target on any given day can be quite frustrating. The most difficult decision is debating between heading offshore for tasty dolphin or staying close to home and targeting hard fighting tarpon. Which ever you choose, both species are commendable adversaries and will fulfill plenty of exhilarating thrills for all.
As the summer heat continues, the offshore waters will definitely be fired up with a variety of activity. Dolphin, the most colorful of all acrobatic species, will be migrating close to our coast. With rising water temperatures schools of hungry fish will be found in the pristine Gulf Stream currents traveling northward. Expect the largest, bruiser size bulls and cows to be found in early June. These slammers are normally traveling in small packs and groups of only two or three fish. A great indicator to their location is finding bird activity. While the naked eye will do the trick, a quality pair of binoculars is an essential tool in locating frigate and tuna birds. When you find these screeching feathered friends dipping and diving in a specific area, dolphin are close! Weed lines or floating objects can be very productive as well. This structure provides shelter to bait fish and predators will always stay close to a consistent food source.
Wahoo, though not here in big numbers in the dead heat of the summer, will occasionally be found hanging well below the shadows. Try trolling a ballyhoo rigged on wire or a metal jig dropped deep into the darkness.
Most offshore guys who are specifically chasing dolphin troll lures or rigged ballyhoo with the use of 30 lb. and 50 lb. class outfits. Though this is an effective technique and the ideal tackle for trolling applications, keep those spinning outfits close by. You’ll appreciate each and every fish much more. A good set up for catching schoolie size fish up to 15 lbs. is a Penn 6500 spooled with either 12 lb. or 15 lb. string. Tie a bimini twist and connect 12 ft. of 50 lb. leader material. Finish this rig off with a sharpened 7766 6/0 Mustad hook. For larger fish step up to a Penn 7500 with 20 lb. line, bimini to 60 lb. leader and a 7/0 Mustad 7766. If you’re competing in a tournament, a 7 ft. medium/heavy action rod accented with a Penn 8500 topped off with 30 lb. PowerPro will give you a fighting chance against even the largest dolphin. Finish things off with an 80 lb. fluorocarbon leader and a sharpened 9/0. When it comes to baits, chunks of fresh bonito are hard to beat. For the larger dolphin, try a whole flying fish. If you encounter any finicky slammers, toss in a small blue runner or pinfish. The results should be immediate.
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!