Stretching from Key Largo to Key West the Florida Keys span nearly 120 miles along U.S. Highway 1. Also known as the Overseas Highway and one of the most scenic waterfront roadways in the United States, it winds its way through the keys, where often the only land mass separating the cobalt blue water of the Atlantic Ocean from the sand and grassy flats of Florida Bay is this famed narrow highway. For the traveling angler the Florida Keys offer world-class fishing, and winter is a great time to visit the keys. Though weather plays a critical role in what’s biting where and when, when one door closes on a particular species because of weather, another often opens wide.
On the offshore scene cold fronts, and the northerly breeze accompany them, will send beach fanatics shopping, though anglers looking to tangle with sailfish welcome these cold fronts with open arms. While your clothes will more likely be fitting for a fall football game than a day on the water in Florida, the excitement of battling a tail-walking sailfish will warm you quickly. Typically, from the edge of the reef and beyond, schools of showering bait signal sailfish below, and pitching or slow-trolling live bait is the preferred technique.
Don’t overlook the inshore water though, as we’ve caught sailfish in water depths as shallow as 25 feet. In between sailfish bites look for dolphin (mahi mahi), wahoo, kingfish, blackfin tuna, bonito and Spanish mackerel to provide action. Thanks to an elimination of commercial long-lining along their breeding grounds, swordfish have made a strong comeback, and the keys offer an excellent shot year-round at catching one. However, you’ll need to bring your A game and a strong back, as these denizens are found in depths approaching 1,000 feet or more. The best advice here is to leave this to the pros, and charter an experienced captain to put you on the catch of a lifetime, as tackle, bait rigging and locating these gladiators of the deep takes expertise.
Bonefish, tarpon and permit are the Big Three among flats fisherman, and while each can be found year-round in the keys, unless the winter is mild, you’ll be hard pressed to locate them, as cool temperatures send them searching for warm water. A better choice is to head into Florida Bay for a chance to tangle with redfish. When conditions are right, snook are also possible, though they are indeed harder to find in the winter.
Barracuda and sharks can save a slow day; as these hard-fighting species are abundant and can provide a thrill when kids are aboard as they check out the teeth and unique colors of each. A variety of birdlife and the chance sighting of an alligator makes a trip to the backcountry special.
Near-shore wrecks offer a shot at amberjack, and one of the best spots to tangle with these muscle-aching brutes is The Hump off Islamorada, where AJs in excess of 75 pounds are not uncommon. Along the lumps and wrecks you’ll also find cobia, king mackerel and blackfin tuna while early winter trips yield catches of assorted species of grouper and snapper. Inshore reefs offer an excellent shot at tasty yellowtail and mangrove snappers and provide excellent sport on light spinning tackle while chumming, as schools of hundreds of fish can often be seen right behind the boat, where these fish can literally be hand fed.
Don’t let the cold of winter put a damper on your fishing plans. Like warmth from a cozy fireplace, the Florida
Keys offer a red-hot opportunity to enjoy exceptional fishing, beautiful scenery, excellent restaurants and top-notch marinas which are sure to make your stay a memorable one.
Charter Captain’s in the Keys
- The War Bird Key Largo Fishing Charters (warbirdsportfishing.com, 305-394-7420) Captain Dana
- Bamboo Charters (bamboocharters.com, 305-394-0000) Captain Matt
- Sea Squared Charters (seasquaredcharters.com, 305-743-5305) Captain Chris
- Scarlet Rose Charters (keywestsportfish.com, 305-304-3992) Captain Eric
- Key West Bait & Tackle (keywestbaitandtackle.com, 305-292-1961)