Angling In The Conch Republic

The islands of the Florida Keys are surrounded by an abundance of fishing opportunities. Here's a look at several of the best for this year! (May 2007)

Schoolie-sized dolphin are fun to battle and a delight on the dinner table.
Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

On almost any given day of the year, an angler may have opportunity to catch a bonefish, tarpon, or dolphin in the Florida Keys. But those chances of success improve considerably with the arrival of early summer's weather conditions. At this time of year, these species congregate in peak numbers in the Keys' waters.

Given the wide availability of all these species, where you fish for them boils down to where you happen to be along the string of islands.

TARPON

Inshore

Sometimes as early as February, schools of migratory tarpon begin to show up in channels and basins on the Florida Bay side of the Keys. But as summer arrives, most of the fish move through the channels between islands, to linger on the Atlantic Ocean side until they migrate out of the Keys by late July.

Tarpon feed predominately around dawn and at dusk. They are very opportunistic feeders and tend to set up facing into moving water. When the tide is falling, tarpon often gather at the mouths of channels or in harbors to feast on the shrimp, crabs and baitfish washed along with the outgoing current. Broad channels where large volumes of water rush between the islands are spots where tarpon fishing can be productive.

Moving from the upper Keys toward Key West, examples of such spots are the Long Key Viaduct Channel, beneath the Channel Five Bridge at the east end of Long Key, the Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, Bahia Honda Channel and Key West Harbor.

Tactics

There are two general approaches to tarpon fishing in the Keys. One style is done aboard a small open boat. Such skiffs anchor in the channel to fish, but are also suitable for targeting shallower water of the flats and basins where anglers can sight-cast to their quarry. This approach is the most popular for fly fishermen.

The second style of tarpon fishing is aboard a larger vessel, typically 21 to 30 feet in length -- commonly referred to as a light tackle boat. These vessels anchor in the deeper water of channels, passes and harbors to drift live or dead baits to tarpon feeding into outgoing tides.

Gear

Needless to say, big tarpon are extremely strong, tenacious fish. You can use both spinning and bait-casting tackle, but their drag systems should be extremely sturdy and able to sustain extended periods of duress.

Another important feature is line capacity. Considering that a tarpon is capable of ripping off a hundred yards of line or more before you can begin to follow it with the boat, your reel should have more than 200 yards of capacity.

For the fly fisherman, an 11- or 12-weight outfit is appropriate for tarpon fishing. The fly reel's line capacity is also important here: Use a minimum of 300 to 400 yards of backing connected to the fly line.

Braid or monofilament lines of 15- to 20-pound-test are needed for conventional tackle. With heavier-test line, it's tough to cast the distances necessary to present a bait or lure to a tarpon without spooking the fish. Once a fish is hooked, if the strain is getting too great on these lines, it's possible to pull up anchor and follow the tarpon.

For light-tackle fishing where casting is not so important, monofilament should be at least 20-pound-test and braids of 30- to 50-pound test can be used.

Regardless of the tackle used, a shock leader or tippet of heavy monofilament or fluorocarbon should be tied to the main line. Tarpon have very rough, hard mouths and sharp gill plates that easily slice through lighter leaders. This problem can be overcome by using a 12- to 18-inch stretch of 80-pound-test at the terminal end of the rig's leader next to the bait or plug.

When using bait in either skiff or light-tackle fishing, circle hooks are very effective and eliminate the need to try to set the hook in a tarpon's tough mouth. The size of the hook is typically from 4/0 to 8/0. These hooks are designed to wedge themselves in the hinge of the jaw and are easier to remove when releasing the tarpon.

Bait

At this time of the season, anglers sight-casting to tarpon typically cast live blue crabs about the size of a half dollar. Or they use sinking plugs such as Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows, MirrOlure Salty Dogs or similar lures. For light-tackle fisherman, popular live baits are mullet, pinfish and blue crabs.

In Key West harbor, light-tackle boats often use dead "by catch" for bait -- the small fish, crabs and non-targeted shrimp that shrimp boats catch during trawls. This bait is peculiarly effective in that location because tarpon have become used to finding easy meals shoveled off the decks of the shrimp boats.

For flyfishermen, a proven tarpon fly is the Cockroach. This pattern actually resembles a shrimp in the water. Another fly that has been very successful is the Toad pattern in a color combination of lime green and black.

BONEFISH

Inshore

Bonefish are usually sought in the shallow flats areas surrounding the edges of the Keys. Though widespread, bonefish are not found on all flats, and a number of daily variables will determine if the fish are present even on a historically productive flat.

With their chameleonic ability to blend into the sea bottom, bones are ordinarily difficult to see under the best of conditions. Add wind or clouds to the mixture, and the degree of difficulty increases considerably.

The only time when they're easily spotted is when they are looking for food on the bottom. As they tilt nose down, their tails often protrude above the water surface, giving away their presence.

Just as with tarpon, bonefish's daily movements are closely connected to tidal movement. As the tide begins to rise, the bonefish generally move up onto the flats, looking for shrimp, small crabs, and other crustaceans.

But a rising tide alone is not the only factor. For example, the tide interval can be so long that it creates a sluggish current. The water level does not change much, and the fish may not feed when you might have expected.

Tactics

A quality pair of polarized sunglasses with amber- or rose-tint lens is a major asset to succeeding in the quest for bonefish.

There are two methods to use when targeting bones. The first is stalking the flat with the intent of intercepting the fish as they cruise the shallows. This requires some precision in casting, and overall, it's a rather difficult game to master.

The second approach is to tie the skiff to a push pole or stake in an area known to hold bonefish. Then chum with pieces of fresh shrimp cut up to about fingernail size.

Gear

When first hooked, bonefish typically make a blistering run. Spinning or conventional reels need to be spooled with at least a couple of hundred yards of 8- to 10-pound-test line.

A good drag system is also recommended. For this fishing, 7-foot, medium-light rods are about right.

The hook most frequently used is a 2/0 "baitkeeper" style. On windy days, a small amount of added weight is sometimes necessary to facilitate casting.

Seven- or 8-weight fly rod-and-reel outfits with weight forward floating lines are standard for bonefishing. Leader systems are usually 8 to 10 feet long.

Bait

Shrimp is the classic live bait for bonefish. Typically, the shrimp's tail fin is plucked off. The hook is then threaded up through the remaining tail section, exiting just behind the shrimp's thoracic section. This prevents damage to vital organs and keeps the bait alive longer.

Normally jigs also are tipped with shrimp to impart smell.

Variations of the Crazy Charlie and Gotcha fly patterns are widely used for bonefish.

DOLPHIN

Offshore

Known as dorado or mahi mahi in other parts of the world, the fish are called dolphin here in the Keys, and their arrival heralds the best offshore summer fishing. Among the most colorful of pelagic fish, they make excellent table fare, and their aggressiveness makes them willing combatants. Dolphin grow rapidly, sometimes gaining as much as 5 pounds per month.

In the juvenile phase of their lives, the fish congregate in large schools and hover under mats of Sargasso weed or floating debris. There they search for small baitfish and other critters. At this stage, dolphin may weigh 3 to 10 pounds and are referred to as "schoolies."

As they mature, dolphin form much smaller groups of two to five fish and become "breeders." Once the fish reach weights in the teens, they are referred to as "slammers." That's because they thrash around when tossed into a cooler of ice, creating a lot of commotion.

Finally, the largest specimens pair off in twosomes composed of a bull and cow. These fish can top the 50-pound mark and are highly prized trophy catches.

Tactics

The most widely used strategy for finding dolphin is to seek the floating masses of Sargasso weed that appear offshore of the islands. Baits are then trolled along the edges to draw strikes from mahi lurking below.

Sometimes sea birds also give away the location of the dolphin. The gulls will dive on the schools of bait that the fish drive to the top, even with no weeds present.

Solitary pieces of floating debris are often gold mines this time of year as well. Any such flotsam can attract a school of dolphin as it drifts along on the currents.

The place to begin looking for mahi is in water from 200 to 300 feet deep. But be prepared to range on out to depths of 2,000 feet if necessary. Some anglers choose to put out lures for "blind" trolling as they cruise in search of floating weeds, debris or diving birds. Since the lures can be trolled at relatively higher speeds, this allows for covering more water in the search. More than a few nice mahi have been caught in blue water with no apparent reason for them to be there.

Dolphin are notoriously aggressive, and having several lines out in the trolling spread can lead to an equal number of hookups when a school is encountered. Also, if you keep one of the hooked fish in the water alongside your boat, typically the school will continue to congregate near it -- thus presenting the opportunity to make more casts to them.

Under such circumstances, filling a 10-fish creel limit is not difficult. Just keep in mind that to be kept, a dolphin must be a minimum length of 20 inches from nose to fork of tail.

Gear

Most trolling outfits consist of medium-heavy conventional spinning rods and reels, spooled with 30- to 50-pound-test line. It's a good idea to have a minimum of 400 to 500 yards of line, since you never know when a big bully dolphin may turn up.

Spinning or baitcasting outfits for schoolie dolphin also should be medium-heavy, with a reel capacity of at least 200 yards of line.

Bait

The universal bait for dolphin in the Keys is ballyhoo. During this time of year, most anglers opt for frozen dead ballyhoo. They are available pre-rigged with wire leaders, or unrigged for anglers who prefer to do their own setups.

Some fishermen also prefer to place skirted lures on the leader in front of the baitfish. This helps keep the baits from fouling with weeds and allows them to be trolled at higher speeds. Some of the lures have hard heads designed to create turbulence and attract the attention of predators.

Lures with blue-and-white or blue-and-silver color patterns closely mimic the hues of the flying fish that dolphin are also eating this time of year.

Ballyhoo without lures -- referred to as "bare" -- obviously appear more natural when rigged properly. It's important to prepare the bait so that it "swims" or skips along the surface without spinning.

When conditions allow, the ideal trolling spread includes lure or lure/ballyhoo combinations along with bare baits.

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