The late, great writer of fishing tales and western Cowboy stories, the legendary Zane Grey once penned “There are always greater fish than you have caught, always the lure of greater task and achievement, always the inspiration to seek, to endure, to find.”
Nowhere is that truer than in the saltwater fishing world, a thought made more relevant by the fact that on a planet where 75 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, some 96.5 percent of that H2O is found in our world’s oceans!
Meaning that whether you’re seeking the thrill of a billfish or tuna in deep bluewater, a shark or red snapper just offshore, or a tarpon, snook, or redfish cruising the inshore flats, there is almost no limit to the variety of briny bucket list trips available to an adventure-seeking angler.
With that in mind, here are seven of the best saltwater trips to consider as you check the status of your bank account and make sure your passport is up to date:
Florida Keys Tarpon
How good is the fishing found in the tropical island chain that stretches 120 miles in length along U.S. Hwy 1, or the Overseas Highway, from south of Miami to Key West? Put simply, it’s the stuff of legends.
With Key West serving as the capital of the so-called Conch Republic, the tropical climate, food, culture, and turquoise blue water scattered through the Keys have all lured in a Who’s Who list of politicians (President Harry Truman made his “southern White House” in the Keys), sporting figures, Hollywood celebrities, artists, chefs, and many more over the years.
But the fishing found in the Keys, well, that’s lured in some of the modern world’s best writers, legends from Zane Grey to Ernest Hemingway to Thomas McGuane, scribes who spent many days fishing the Keys and then writing to the rest of the world about it.
That’s understandable since plenty of world-class fishing calls the Keys home, from the permit and bonefish of the flats to the baby tarpon, snook, and redfish in the Everglades backcountry to the sharks, sailfish, and dorado found just offshore. But there’s little doubt that for most anglers, it’s the annual migration of big tarpon that must be experienced to be believed.
How good is the tarpon fishing, especially for fly rod toting anglers intent on testing the outer limits of leaders, knots, and 12- to 14-weight fly rods? The best guides are often booked by repeat customers years in advance, guides who command a king’s ransom for their services leading anglers to the Keys’ triple-digit riches of silver kings.
In fact, Andy Mill, the former U.S. Olympic downhill skiing great turned tarpon fishing legend, recently quipped on a podcast that he might have spent close to a million dollars on tarpon guides in his years spent aboard poling skiffs while pursuing Megalops atlanticus. Mills, author of “A Passion for Tarpon” and perhaps the world’s top fly fishing expert on the species, might have only been half-kidding when you consider he’s won every tarpon tournament trophy there is to win, including five prestigious Gold Cups!
The bottom line is that while the big tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys might be a little tougher now than it was down through the years as anglers like Ted Williams, Billy Pate, Lefty Kreh, Flip Pallot, Sandy Moret, and Stu Apte helped introduce it to the world, it’s still the best on the planet.
And for those who experience it even once, it becomes a habitual “tug is the drug” fishing experience that keeps calendars blocked off in May and June every year!
On the opposite end of the North American continent is a totally different type of world-class saltwater angling experience in the chilly waters of the northern Pacific. With thousands of miles of coastline, five species of salmon, numerous types of rockfish, huge lingcod, and incredible tasting halibut, the angling for Alaska’s salty species is just as epic as it is in southern Florida.
One of the major differences here is that little Do-It-Yourself angling is encouraged since these frigid waters offer no mercy for anyone involved in a boating mishap. Find and hire trustworthy saltwater guides who know Alaska’s coastal waters like the back of their hands; use the best seaworthy gear; keep a careful watch out for winds, tides, and weather that can prove dangerous; and know when, where, and how to target and catch the state’s saltwater species.
Fortunately, the choices of quality lodges, charter boats, and guides are plentiful across Alaska’s vast saltwater habitat ranging from surf-pounded coastal regions out in the Aleutian Islands—think Deadliest Catch here—to protected inlets and coves in the southeastern Alaskan archipelago to tidal rivers that swarm with salmon migrating upstream every year to spawn and die.
From the giant King Salmon that begin running up legendary rivers like the Kenai in late spring to halibut and rockfish that can be pulled up from the deep on mild summer days to the riches of early autumn silver salmon running inland, the saltwater fishing is incredibly varied in Alaska. And since many of these fish are highly prized on the table, there isn’t much catch-and-release in the 49th State—expect to carry back a possession limit of fish on the airplane ride home, scrumptious ingredients that will bring many great meals in the months to come!
Mexico’s Sea of Cortez
Known as the "World's Aquarium," the Sea of Cortez between Mexico’s mainland and the Baja peninsula offers incredible scenery as desert mountain ranges, cactus-studded lands near the beach and amazing species from whales to sharks to game fish swim in its clear, blue waters.
From the crowded peninsula resort areas like Cabo San Lucas to the sleepier coastal villages on the mainland side, this part of Mexico’s coastline supports an amazing variety of saltwater fishing. If you want to target billfish out deep, expect to find striped marlin, blue marlin, and even giant black marlin closing in on 1,000 pounds. Sailfish are plentiful too, as are colorful dorado. And there are also good opportunities to catch yellowfin tuna, yellowtail, and wahoo as well.
But for all the offshore fishing available in the area—called the Gulf of California by some—the stunningly beautiful and hard fighting roosterfish might be the region’s most iconic catch.
While roosters—so-called for the comb of spiny dorsal fins coming off the top of the fish’s body—can be found in Pacific waters from Mexico to Costa Rica to Peru, it’s in the Sea of Cortez area where the idea of fly fishing for big roosters from the beach was popularized by Frank Smethurst’s iconic film, Running Down the Man. You walk the beach in likely areas looking for roosters feeding in the surf, run quickly to the area, cast a fly nearby, and hold on for dear life as the big predator shows you what the backing on your fly reel looks like!
Central Gulf’s Big Bull Reds
There’s no shortage of saltwater fishing opportunity in the central Gulf Coast waters of the U.S., from marlin and tuna species offshore to red snapper and cobia near oil rigs and artificial reefs to speckled sea trout and regular-sized redfish in the coastal marshes and jetty areas.
But in recent years, it’s the wintertime running of the bulls—some BIG redfish specimens that can weigh upwards of 40 pounds or more—in Gulf Coastal waters stretching from the New Orleans to Pensacola that now lures in a lot of anglers during a season when little else is cooperating in the North American saltwater world.
Found in marsh complexes and estuaries, wintertime fishing for big bull redfish has become increasingly popular as word has gotten out in the past couple of decades. Add in the culture of the Gulf Coast, the exquisite Cajun and seafood cuisine, and the nightlife and entertainment of New Orleans and this is a must-make trip on any angler’s bucket list agenda. Just be sure you don’t forget to start the day off right with powdered beignets and chicory coffee at the Big Easy’s famed Café du Mond!
New England’s Fall Blitz
Mention fall to many outdoors enthusiasts across North America, and thoughts turn to deer hunting, elk hunting, upland birds, and waterfowl. Mention the autumn season to a coastal New Englander though and you’re likely to get a discourse on fall fishing along the northeastern seaboard!
Given the famed striped bass migration from Maine to the Chesapeake Bay, that’s understandable. Nowhere is that striper blitz more well-known than the coastal waters surrounding Long Island, particularly in the Montauk area where sizable patches of water boiling from feeding linesiders spurred New York Times writer and well-known cooking specialist Peter Kaminsky to write his 2001 classic, “The Moon Pulled Up an Acre of Bass.”
While the autumn blitz is now delayed and diminished somewhat by warming conditions and commercial fishing politics, the Atlantic and its annual run of stripers still beckons from September to after Thanksgiving. Add in blitzing schools of bluefish and false albacore—albies, as some anglers call them—and there’s no shortage of fishing opportunity for fly rodders, surf casters, and those chartering a trip aboard a captain’s boat.
Costa Rica’s Coastal Smorgasbord
Put simply, there’s almost too much rich fishing action in the coastal waters of Costa Rica to adequately discuss here … and that’s on both sides of the country! From deep divers like yellowfin tuna to big blue marlin and sailfish making gravity-defying leaps to dorado and wahoo threatening to spool a reel, the offshore stuff is legendary in this spectacularly beautiful country of rainforest jungles, volcanic peaks, and striking beaches.
Add in the inshore possibilities of snook, roosterfish, and even tarpon swimming up coastal rivers, and the saltwater fishing action in Costa Rica is as good as it is anywhere else in the world!
It’s no lie that simply getting to the Seychelles—an archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean off the eastern African coastline—is a laborious chore for most North Americans. In short, plan on days of travel, not hours.
But when you do eventually get there, the beautiful saltwater environment and its spectacular fishing are often so off the charts, that you’ll immediately be planning a return trip.
With giant trevally—GT’s, as many call them—patrolling the rough water edges of deeper areas and saltwater flats, leave the trout-sized equipment at home if you want to visit this tackle busting adventure zone. Add in big barracuda and milkfish, colorful triggerfish, speedy bonefish, and persnickety Indo-Pacific permit, and you’ll remember a trip to this island fishing paradise for years to come!
And in the final analysis, that’s really the goal of most saltwater fishing trips, from those close to home to those in faraway, exotic lands – angling memories that fuel many late-night smiles for years to come.
Which brings the thought that maybe Zane Grey was right after all, there’s always more adventure waiting to be found around this salty fishing world!