The toughest decision you might face in a day's fishing in Key West is which way to turn leaving the marina. Whether you're interested in permit and tarpon on the flats, or dolphin, wahoo,and other pelagics offshore, knowing a few key techniques will help you decide how best to target your chosen game.
The main reefline runs parallel to the island chain about seven miles offshore, marked by Sand Key Light. The reef is the backbone of the Key West fishery—and a great destination for pelagics and bottom fish.
Anchoring and chumming off the reef is the most popular technique to catch a variety of snapper, including yellowtail and muttons, as well as black, red and gag grouper. One of the features that makes Key West reef fishing so good is that in many locations, just beyond the reef the sea floor rises again to the outer bar, which is another, ancient reef structure. That deep trough between reefs makes the area very attractive habitat for a long list of species. Favorite fishing spots are Western Sambo, Western Dry Rocks and the End of the Bar.
Good general depths to look for fish off the reef are in 70 to 90 feet. A bit deeper, beginning where the outer bar drops off, there’s live bottom in depths from 110 to 220 feet—sandy, rocky and live growth—that is great terrain for drifting and jigging or for dropping baits down on Carolina rigs. These depths are marked by productive wrecks and are also prime trolling grounds for sailfish, dolphin and wahoo off Key West.
"For reef fishing I like the PENN Slammer III," says longtime Key West captain Pepe Gonzalez. "I use the 4500, as this size reel is great for large yellowtails, but has plenty of drag in case large mutton snapper come up on the chum slick. I use 30-pound braid with a 10-foot Vanish fluorocarbon leader."
Key West waters hold a long list of fishy wrecks in close distance to the reefline. The Sub wreck, close to the End of the Bar to the west of Key West, holds bottom fish and amberjack and is known for blackfin tuna and wahoo. Wrecks such as the Barge, the Curb, and the Plane are all within a few minutes' ride of each other south of the outer bar.
"For wreck fishing the PENN Fathom 2-Speed Lever Drag is my go-to reel," says Capt. Pepe. "This light reel has a super strong drag that will put the brakes on the bottom dwellers before they rock you up. And if you need more torque, just shift the gears and crank it up. PENN Carnage II rods are my favorite over wrecks, but if you want something heavier, the PENN International rods will pair up just fine. ProSpec 80-pound braid is my line of choice for this fishing."
Just beyond Sand Key Light on the reef, blue water and the Gulf Stream attract pelagics, including billfish. For wahoo, dolphin and cobia, troll live baits and lures along the edge of the outer bar out to 200 to 500 foot depths. Generally, 1200 foot depths are the outer limits of the trolling grounds for most anglers. As you troll, always keep your eye out for the indicators that pelagics might be near: birds diving to feed on prey fish, solid weedlines where pelagics hunt, rips in the water, and any floating structure you might encounter where fish will take cover.
"For trolling I use the PENN International 30 VISW. This 2-speed reel gives you the strength and the line capacity in case the marlin or yellowfin tuna make an appearance in your spread," says Gonzalez. "I pair this reel with the PENN 6' 6" International rod, 20 to 30 pound class. This rod gives you the backbone you need to put on plenty of pressure while allowing you to have some sensitivity. I like to use high visibility mono for this application, so ProSpec fluorescent yellow is my choice."
Another productive technique that will catch you sailfish, dolphin, wahoo, tuna and just about any other pelagic that's in the vicinity is live-baiting. Whether you drift over bottom structure or anchor at a dropoff, when you throw a few live baits like pilchards into the water the pelagics zoom in and attack them. The bites on live baits are some of the most explosive you'll see.
Critical to this technique is getting a livewell full of fresh baits. Most of the year and especially in the winter, pilchards are available in the shallow waters around Key West. Though it takes some time and know-how to get up to 1,000 live pilchards and even more to make the technique work, getting good baits will make all the difference in your day's fishing.
"For live-baiting," says Gonzalez, "my outfits of choice are the PENN 6500 SSVI with a 7 foot Carnage II medium action rod lined with 50 pound ProSpec braid. I also use the PENN Torque 30 2-Speed Lever Drag. The lever drag allows me to gradually set the drag according to the weight and strength of the live bait. The 30pound ProSpec mono or 60 pound ProSpec braid does a great job."
The flats and backcountry channels around Key West are an intricate maze of fishy waterways, and only the local anglers and captains know them and their tidal flows well enough to reliably produce tarpon, permit and bonefish. Nonetheless, if you're fishing on your own, simply being out there in good conditions is a fantastic experience.
In addition to the big three species already mentioned, plenty of other species inhabit the flats at times throughout the year, including sharks, snapper, and cobia. The truth is, you never know what you'll see out on the flats. For a truly incredible angling experience, whether by charter or your own boat, try to visit the remote Marquesas flats about 20 miles west of Key West.
"For the flats, it’s all about being lightweight, so I use the PENN Clash 2500 paired with a PENN Battalion 7 foot rod in the 10 to 17 pound class," says Capt. Gonzalez. "This outfit allows you to cast all day and put the brakes on bonefish, 'cudas and permit. The 20 pound ProSpec braided line will let you get the long casts to reach out to that fish of a lifetime."
Whichever way you turn on the water in Key West, you'll be getting closer to making some great fishing memories.