Bonefish, permit and tarpon form the triad that attracts most anglers to the Florida Keys. If you want to try your hand at catching these fish without a boat or guide, here are some places for the effort.
Bonefish are present year 'round on the flats of the upper and middle Florida Keys. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs
By Jimmy Jacobs
Stretching to the southwest of Miami and Dade County, the Florida Keys dangle off the peninsula like a string of coral beads on a string. The easy pace of island life and sometimes-quirky nature of the folks who inhabit the area set the Keys apart from the rest of Florida. In a state that makes much of its living off attracting visitors, the Keys offer such a different world that even Floridians head to them for vacations. The entire island chain has much to offer in the way of natural beauty, great diving and water sports. There are also the historic sites and "Key Weird" nightlife of Key West, plus luxurious days of lolling in the sun by the pool in Islamorada or Marathon.
Still, especially for sportsmen, it is the fishing that issues the siren call to the isles. From Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas, the tropical waters around the islands attract a wide variety of inshore and open-water species of game fish. Whether you're big-game trolling on the Gulf Stream or wading secluded Florida Bay flats, there is a lifetime of angling awaiting adventurous fishermen.
Despite this plethora of opportunities, however, there are three fish that lie at the heart of the area's allure. Bonefish, tarpon and permit are the stuff of which Florida Keys memories are woven. Whether it is the chance to hook a rampaging 100-plus-pound silver king, feel the reel sizzle during the greased-lightning run of a bonefish or match wits with incredible wary and finicky permit, the Keys offer excellent shots at creating your dream trip.
If there is a downside to targeting these glamour species in the Keys, it is the expense. Usually, visiting anglers are caught between the need to hire a guide daily or lay out the money to acquire a boat suitable for those waters that you can trailer a boat to or dock a boat at. Either way, the bills can mount quickly.
Don't for a minute underestimate the advantage of having a boat or someone knowledgeable to guide you to the fish when you are after any of these three species. The very nature of the flats surrounding the Keys, which are invariably separated from each other by boat channels or other deep water, limits the water that boatless anglers can reach. On the other hand, there are places, particularly in the Middle to Lower Keys, that can be reached on foot that offer good chances for crossing paths with bonefish, permit and tarpon.
Before getting into the specific locations you may want to try, however, let's start with some basic fishing tips for each of the species. After all, if you do find the glamour three, you want to be prepared so you have the best odds of getting a hookup.
Though bonefish range throughout the Keys year 'round in all depths of water, they are most vulnerable to angling when they are feeding up on flats or cruising in channels just at the edge of those shallows. Thus, for a boatless angler to find them, locating flats that can be reached directly from shore is the key.
With regard to timing the arrival of bones on the flats, your best bet is when the tide is coming in. The fish move up as the water deepens. Just prior to the beginning of the incoming tide, the bonefish are likely to be staging or cruising the channel edges in preparation for the move up.
The most versatile bait to use for targeting bonefish is a live shrimp fished on spinning gear. The rig is simple, consisting of a hook with the shrimp on it and no weight. When a bonefish is sighted, toss the shrimp ahead of the direction the fish is moving and let the encounter between bait and predator do the rest.
When fishing with live shrimp, it is most convenient to have a floating minnow bucket along to hold fresh baits. Simply attach it to your belt with a piece of light rope and it follows you wherever you wade.
For artificial lures, it is hard to beat a 1/8-ounce leadhead jig dressed with a pearl, pink or brown 2- to 3-inch grub tail. Fly-casters are most successful with shrimp pattern flies in pink or tan.
Tarpon are probably the easiest of the big-three species to encounter in the Keys in the summer but the hardest to actually catch - particularly for an angler on foot. In the summer, these fish - some weighing more than 100 pounds - can be found cruising though channels between the islands or flats, especially on moving tides. Also, virtually any boat channel or dredge hole along the shore may attract some.
A good choice for bait when looking for tarpon is a live mullet in the 4-to 6-inch size range. When tarpon are present, you often see them breaking the surface to "gulp air." Casting the mullet in front of such a fish is a good prescription for a hookup. Just be aware that you need strong gear and line for battling such big fish from a stationary position.
Artificial lures that work for tarpon are any mullet-like baitfish imitations. Natural gray and white color patterns are good choices. Also, though it looks little like a mullet, the classic white body with red head pattern on a plug can be successful for tarpon. Fly-casters should try any of the wide range of brightly colored tarpon flies, but red-and-white or blue-and-white color schemes are good choices.
Of the members of this elite trio of fish, the permit is by far the toughest for anglers fishing on foot to find and catch in the Keys. Still, permit do show up in places where they can be targeted, particularly on flats. In fact, any flat that attracts bonefish may also on occasion hold permit, but hard marl or sand bottoms are often best for this species. Though permit will eat a shrimp, by far the better bait offering is a small- to medium-sized crab. When wading, carrying spare bait becomes a problem. Again, the solution is probably to utilize a floating bait bucket. Once a permit is spotted, cast the crab in front of the fish, allowing it to make a soft "plop" when it strikes the surface. This is to get the fish's attention. Then just let the bait sink with no added action. If the permit moves toward it but does not swallow the crab, give the bait a short 2- to 3-inch jerk when it strikes bottom.
Though good artificial spinning lures that imitate a crab may exist, I have never seen one. On the other hand, fly-casters have a number of crab patterns that work well. By adding a small split shot weight, an angler can toss many of these on spinning gear. Whether you're using spin or fly gear
, the casting and retrieving techniques are the same as used with a live crab.
There are a few bits of specialized gear that are worth mentioning for wade fishing in the Keys. First of all, footwear is important. When I first tried wading, an old pair of tennis shoes seemed like a good choice. After all, they were cheap, hassle-free and, at the end of the day, expendable. While all of those factors still hold true, they do have some disadvantages.
To begin with, their expendability means you probably want to simply throw them away after one or two wading trips. Unless you wear out a lot of sports shoes, your supply tends to run low.
Second, even on the hardest bottom flat, you sometimes step into soft spots where you sink ankle to mid-calf deep in sand or ooze. This fills your shoe with uncomfortable grit, assuming that the suction of trying to withdraw your foot does not pull the shoe off.
For these reasons, a wading boot, or for that matter a diving boot, is better. These have zippers on the side to produce a very cozy fit, keeping sand out and preventing problems with suction.
The next necessities have to do with vision. Polarized sunglasses that cut glare and allow you to see down into the water are vital. On the flats, sighting the fish before you spook them is a key to success. Along these same lines, a long-billed cap helps even more with the glare.
Another reason for the cap is to protect from overexposure to the sun. The tropical sun of the Keys can cause serious sunburn, not to mention cancer from long-term exposure. Cover as much skin with clothing as is comfortable, then coat the rest with plenty of sunscreen.
Now that we know what we are pursuing and have made our bait and gear choices, let's take a look at some places along the Keys where you can actually get to the fish without a boat. Of course, these sites mentioned are not a complete list. All along the island chain, many such places exist all that offer small expanses of wadeable water that game fish utilize for feeding. But many are so small that having several anglers show up on them at once can ruin the fishing for all. It is up to you to do some exploring to find these.
The ones you are looking for need to be connected to the shore and not cut off by boat channels or other deep water. Also, they need to have a bottom of sand or marl that is firm enough to wade. Some flats, particularly ones covered with grass, are simply too soft to wade. On them you may sink as far as knee-deep with each step.
On the other hand, there are sights from Islamorada down to the area just short of Key West that offer large-enough expanses of wadeable water to accommodate groups of anglers. These are the ones we will look at now.
The first site to mention is at Indian Key Fill, located at Mile Marker (MM) 79 between Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys. Though not actually a wading area, it does offer shots at tarpon in the spring through early summer. Especially on weekdays when boat traffic is not so heavy, the boat channels along either side of the roadway may have tarpon cruising them, and the fish can be reached with casts from the shore.
If you have a canoe or kayak available to you, a short paddle across the channels on the south (Atlantic) side of the highway puts you on some expansive bonefish flats around Indian Key.
Next, at the western end of Lower Matecumbe Key, on the Atlantic shore, lies Annes Beach. The Florida Keys have many attractions, but good beaches are not one of them. In fact, they are quite rare. Most shores are covered with hard coral rock, not sand dunes. In fact, Annes Beach is popular for swimmers, but it is more a shallow, hard-sand bonefish flat. Early and late in the day, when there are fewer swimmers, it can offer some good shots at bones.
Farther down the Overseas Highway at MM 70 lies Long Key State Recreation Area. This reserve lies on the site of Henry Flagler's Long Key Fishing Club, which was destroyed in the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. Prior to that, author/angler Zane Grey and his cronies in the "Bonefish Brigade" joined other renowned anglers in fishing the surrounding waters. Today the beach off the campground still offers the bonefish that so enthralled Grey almost a century ago. Most of the shoreline through here offers access to firm bottoms on grass flats.
Just east of Marathon, between MM 56 and 57 on Grassy Key, lies the entrance to Curry Hammock State Park. Again, the beach on the Atlantic side (which is actually on Little Crawl Key) is a good bonefish flat. Particularly on the portion between Little Crawl and Fat Deer Keys, the rising tide brings the bones within casting range of waders.
Also at this location, a boat channel cuts into the island at the eastern end of the beach. This is a stretch of water that tarpon use, often coming within a 30- to 40-foot cast of the shore.
At the western end of the Seven Mile Bridge lie Little Duck, Missouri and Ohio Keys. The shores of these three isles offer waders shots at all three of the glamour species of fish. On the Atlantic side of the islands, the bottom is hard sand or marl. It's easy to wade it, and it attracts bonefish. The portion at the western end of Missouri Key is hard marl and offers a possibility of encountering permit. These fish are sometimes found on the bay side of the Missouri Key on the hard sand flat at the western end. Wading through soft silt along the channel on the west end of the island is required, however, to reach this flat.
Wading out from any of the islands to the edge of the channels separating them can put you in casting reach of tarpon that move through the channels on changing tides in the spring and early summer.
Parking at roadside is plentiful on Missouri Key and the eastern end of Ohio. On Little Duck Key, Veterans Memorial Park has another of the beach/bonefish flat combos.
At MM 38 you come to Bahia Honda State Park on the key of the same name. This site has probably the best beach in the entire island chain on its Atlantic side, and it is also known for attracting bonefish and occasional permit. Just across the channel to the west on the shore of West Summerland (or Spanish Harbor) Key, the shore is made up of hard marl. Permit show up along here, as well as tarpon out in the channel. Parking is at roadside in this location.
As you enter the Lower Keys, there are a couple more places worth mentioning. On Park Key at MM 18.4 there is a short trail through mangroves on the Atlantic side that opens onto a dredge hole surrounded by wadeable flats. This is a site where bonefish show up on the flats, while tarpon put in occasional appearances in the dredged area. Since it is possible to wade all the way around the hole, all portions of it can be fished.
Closer to Key West, between MM 10 and 11 on Big Coppitt Key, you can turn south off U.S. 1 onto Old State Highway 4A. The road leads across Geiger Key onto Boca Chita Key, dead-e
nding at Boca Chita Beach. This shoreline is good for bonefish on a solid sand bottom. Just be aware that you are under the landing path for the runways at Boca Chita Naval Air Station. Military aircraft suddenly appearing very low and loud overhead may surprise you.
Finally, Boca Chita Channel, between its namesake key and Stock Island, is a thoroughfare for tarpon on moving tides in the early summer. Access to this fishing can be reached by parking at the west end of the bridge on Stock Island and walking down under the bridge. l
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jimmy Jacobs is the editor of Florida Game & Fish magazine. He is also the author of FLY-FISHING THE SOUTH ATLANTIC COAST, Where to Find Game Fish From North Carolina's Outer Banks to the Florida Keys.
The book, published by The Countryman Press of Woodstock, Vermont, offers more suggestions on fishing locations in the Keys and is available through bookstores or via the Internet from Amazon.com.
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