No matter what season you fish, Key West offers solid shots at some of the best bottom fishing in the state of Florida. The reef, the wrecks, the deepwaters, and the shallow patch reefs around Key West are the stuff of saltwater fishing legend. Common bottom catches off Key West include black grouper and mutton snapper (two fish synonymous with Keys fishing), gag, scamp and red grouper, yellowtail snapper, porgies, kingfish, amberjack, and quite a list of others.
The Lower Keys sees relatively less fishing pressure than many other areas of Florida, so that even public numbers listed on fishing charts still produce good snapper and grouper fishing. Eastern Dry Rocks, Eyeglass Light, Middle Sambo, Pelican Shoal, American Shoal, the Rubble Pile, and Western Dry Rocks are all popular spots. Additionally, there a good number of wrecks in the vicinity south of the reef and in the Gulf that are great for bottom fishing.
Two caveats: Be aware that it is treacherous navigation around the reef, so proceed with caution if the waters are unfamiliar to you. Also, always consult recently published charts to be aware of no-fishing zones, as these zones are often changing and fishing illegally can result in a hefty fine.
Yellowtail snapper fishing just off the reef is a great introduction to bottom fishing off Key West. In 70 to 110 foot depths off the reef, anchor and set up a solid chumline. You might see the yellowtail snapper begin to school behind your boat in the chum slick. These fish are very wary, so use the lightest line and smallest hooks you would prefer, and drift back your baits in the current until you feel a yellowtail's slamming hit. Good baits to use are live shrimp, live or dead pilchards, or even strips of bonito or other fresh-dead fish.
As you get the yellowtail bite going, you can rig up some bottom baits on heavier outfits for big mutton snapper and black grouper. As for baits, few anglers would expect a big mutton snapper or a black grouper to refuse a live threadfin or sardine on a weighted bottom rig. You can also use cut bait such as ballyhoo plugs, whole squid, and bonito strips. Bring a few kinds of baits to be able to change up your offerings.
The main rig used for bottom fishing around the reef is the Carolina rig. The traditional and still popular method is to connect a fluorocarbon leader to the mainline with a swivel and place the egg sinker above the swivel, threaded onto the doubled mainline. Many Keys anglers put the weight below the connection between the mainline and the leader and let the weight slide all the way down to the hook, which allows for easier boat-side handling of a hooked fish. This variation is called a knocker rig.
If you're fishing wrecks or spots for smaller snapper like vermilion or lanes, you can use chicken rigs or three-way rigs with dropper weights. The key is to match the right rig to the size and power of the fish you're expecting to catch at your location.
If you want to go completely artificial, speed jigs, also known as butterfly jigs, are very popular, especially at wrecks. The energetic style of speed jigging pulls a lot of amberjack, grouper and big snapper off the bottom for anglers.
Different depths are associated with different species. You'll find a lot of mutton snapper and grouper in the 150 to 250 foot depths and at wrecks. A bit deeper, you'll start catching delicious scamp grouper and perhaps yellowedge grouper. Deeper than 300 feet, you're into the super-deep zone, an exotic and exciting bottom fishery for snowy grouper, barrel fish, queen snapper, rosefish and a whole mix of other species.
Key West's deep waters offer an exotic-sounding list of species to most people who fish Florida. The truth is, these species also live in many other deep waters off the state's coastlines. It's only that the Continental Shelf drops so rapidly off the Keys that these depths and their species are closer to shore and therefore more accessible to anglers in the Keys.
The deep water bottom grounds are most often fished in the summer months when the bite at the reef slows down due to warmer waters. There is a variety of terrain in the deep water, from rock-hard outcroppings, to rocky structures, and muddy areas where blue and gold tilefish live. It takes some knowledge of spots where the fish hold to be successful, as is the case with all bottom fishing.
Anglers in the Keys can reach these depths with conventional gear and even spinning gear on days when the current isn't running too strong. A heavy-duty spinning reel like the PENN Slammer III 5500 with a heavy jig, up to 9 ounces, can do the trick. Conventional gear like PENN International VI reels also make a great choice, especially for water deeper than 350 feet where line capacity becomes an issue. In either case, spinning or conventional, you'll want to use braided line to get your baits down faster.
For bottom fishing in waters over 300 feet deep, anglers often use deep water multi-hook rigs, which are essentially high-strength chicken rigs. These are dropped with heavy sash weights, commonly up to five pounds. You'll need plenty of cranking power to get that rig up with a fish on it or not, so anglers often employ electric reels or big conventionals with power-assist attachments for this style of bottom fishing.
On the much shallower side of the fishery is the patch reef fishing that turns red hot in the cooler months. Rock piles and small reef structures dot the shallow waters of Hawk Channel south of the island chain. Such patch reefs also can be found in the Gulf and west of Key West.
It's not so much different than reef fishing, and you'll catch many of the same species including yellowtail snapper, mutton snapper, and a variety of groupers. Bring chum, live shrimp and other baits. Patch reefs are often found in waters less than 30 feet deep. If conditions are good with clear, clean waters, you can actually find these reefs by slowly motoring and spotting them below. Carolina rigs and knocker rigs are good to use at the patch reefs.
West of Key West, around the Marquesas, many rock piles dot the shallows in 12 to 50 foot depths that don't see near as much fishing pressure as those closer to Key West. These locations will be made of small patches of live coral heads and rubble strewn over live bottom with associated coral. You can search on charts for these rock piles and reefs.
For the great game, the quick access, and the wide range of locations to fish, bottom fishing around Key West is one of a kind and not to be missed.