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Angling Options in Paradise

Angling Options in Paradise
The Florida Keys are a world apart when it comes to wetting a hook in the summer. Here's a look at a few of the many opportunities for fast action you can find there.

Mike Kreisberg displays an enormous 14-pound, 8-ounce bonefish taken in "downtown" Islamorada. Photo courtesy of Jill Zima Borski

By Jill Zima Borski

Planning a fishing trip to the Florida Keys is many an angler's idea of paradise. The Atlantic Ocean offers flats, reefs and offshore fishing, while Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico provide flats and backcountry fishing. This is a rare and bountiful feast that should be savored. Add to the variety a climate that provides the opportunity to fish nearly 365 days a year, and many wind-burned, sunburned fishermen are only too happy to go to bed early and wake up before sunrise to enjoy the action.

The question of whether to bring the family need not be given a second thought. There is something for everyone to enjoy, whether it is relaxing with a good book in a hammock or having a drink while watching the sunset, or more active and adventurous pastimes such as snorkeling in warm seawater, enjoying the nation's only natural reef, or learning about and swimming with dolphins, sea lions or stingrays in environmental programs. Birding, kayaking, bicycling, walking, visiting state parks, and exploring art galleries and unique shops are all options to please diverse family interests.

If fishing is to occupy a big chunk of vacation time, you need only decide what species to pursue and for how long. Dolphin, blackfin tuna, marlin, tarpon and permit are all good summer bets in the Florida Keys.

Dolphin is one of the most sought-after offshore fish during summer, and they can be found throughout the Florida Keys. Also known as mahi-mahi, the dolphin is a pelagic species, which means it roams offshore. Menus frequently refer to this species, which often goes straight from the charter boat to area restaurants, by its Hawaiian name to distinguish it from the marine mammal associated with the much-loved Flipper.

Once on a line, dolphin are fast, flashy and acrobatic, with beautiful blue, yellow, green and even red dots of color. Delicious on the table, they are a fast-growing species, so reasonable harvests of good-sized dolphin do not harm the fishery. Fresh dolphin sandwiches and entrees are a diner's mainstay in the Keys.

Fishermen start their quest for dolphin at the edge of the reef in about 110 feet of water but often go out to 1,000 feet. Generally, 300 to 500 feet deep is the best zone.

A key to this fishing is looking for floating debris. Debris may be floating boards, palm trees and fronds, pallets that may have fallen off of freighters, or Sargasso weed lines. These are stereotypical dolphin magnets that the fish love to hang under.

Sargasso is floating grass that many animals use as a nursery; for others, it is an eatery. It may contain the full food chain, from microscopic creatures to seahorses to baitfish, as well as dolphin, blue marlin or other billfish.

In search of dolphin, fishermen also look for frigate birds, which may lead the way to the tasty mahi-mahi. The distinctive birds dive for food accompanying the debris or weed lines. Other feeding offshore birds, such as petrels, may show the way to success with dolphin as well. However, they may signify skipjack and other tuna rather than dolphin. Experienced captains and veteran anglers determine what species likely lies beneath them by the birds' behavior.

Anglers aboard their own boats can start the quest for dolphin at the edge of the reef where it drops into cobalt blue water. Head south or southeast from the reef, looking for debris and birds. That way, you are running into the flow of the Gulf Stream, which flows in a northerly direction heading up toward West Palm Beach. By heading south, you negate the push of the stream and lessen the length of the ride on the way home.

You want to slow down at places where you see a color change, a current rip, frigate birds or the debris.

High-speed lures, such as "feathers," are a good choice. Thirty- to 50-pound gear is more than adequate for trolling for dolphin.

Fly-casters may especially seek frigate birds to find big dolphin and then use a bait-and-switch technique. Ballyhoo or a net full of live pilchards tossed into the water can excite the dolphin into a feeding frenzy. Hookless teaser lures can also be employed in the same manner. After tossing the teasers or live chum, throw the fly to the feeding dolphin.

The simplest way to catch a dolphin on fly-fishing gear is to simply always have a fly rod ready to seize the opportunity when it occurs.

Also, another a time-honored trick is to keep the first dolphin that has been hooked in the water to thrash about. This helps to attract and hold the attention of his schoolmates, and this in turn presents a hungry horde for the angler.


A census of the bonefish population from the Biscayne Bay area of Miami to southwest of Key West was conducted in October of 2003 by the staff at the University of Miami Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.


Sponsored by the nonprofit research foundation Bonefish & Tarpon Unlimited, the survey asked captains and fishermen to record every bonefish they saw in an assigned area. The scientists then did mathematical analyses to estimate the overall bonefish population to be 317,730 in the 160-mile stretch of coastal waters.


The bonefish census is expected to be an ongoing annual project.


In late summer, there's more than dolphin to create a feeding frenzy. During the two-day sport season for the spiny lobster, also known as the mini-season, which falls on July 28-29, or during the regular lobster season, Aug. 6 through March 31, you may want to

book a dive trip and bring a tickle stick and net. Or you might find a backcountry guide with whom to go bully-netting after dark.

Numerous rules surround the taking of lobster regarding measurement and harvest limits, as well as a relatively new Keys law prohibiting diving and snorkeling within 300 feet of shorelines. Check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Web site, at, for detailed regulations. Once you're on the home page, follow the prompts for Fishing-Saltwater, then Recreational Lobster Season Information.

Tarpon - non-edible, athletic and strong fish - attract many anglers to the Florida Keys. That might be because anglers such as fly-fishing world record holders Stu Apte and Billy Pate - both residents of Islamorada who have traveled extensively to fish different waters and to fish for different species - have stated that tarpon are their favorite fish.

You can find this species throughout the Florida Keys. While spring is historically the best time to target the largest tarpon and the most tarpon, these fish abound in summer, fall and winter, too.

In summer, tarpon range from babies of 5 to 25 pounds up to an average size of 30 to 60 pounds.

Baby tarpon may be found in residential canals, moats that surround mangrove islands, and corners of basins where fish are steered by currents. For the most part, these tarpon live in the Keys and don't roam far. This contrasts with the larger, migrating tarpon of spring, which reach 150 pounds or more.

At times, Florida Bay has an enormous population of medium to large fish - a population that is readily accessible by small craft. Also, any of the 42 bridges in the Keys that allow movement of a substantial amount of water between the bay and the ocean also harbor these fish. Channel Two Bridge and Channel Five Bridge, both just south of Islamorada, are notorious tarpon spots.

Anglers should look for calm conditions early and late in the day; such conditions keep fish "rolling" on the surface of the water and gulping air - a delight to the eye and the ear.

In the evenings, you may be treated to a simultaneous sunset and moonrise while readying for action. As dark creeps in, if you are not already hooked up to a jumping tarpon, gulping and popping sounds will still let you know that you are right in the area. Tarpon can be heard on all but the windiest of nights.

A curious thing about tarpon is that they hate the north wind and don't like a west wind much better. But fortunately, prevailing winds are southeast in the Keys. That said, when there is a north or west wind, you still can position yourself near the bridges at night. Bridge fish are a captive audience because they find stable water conditions in even the worst weather.

Match your tackle to the size of tarpon you are hoping to catch and use live mullet or pilchards under corks. Other options are mullet heads dropped to the bottom, shrimp and live crabs on small circle hooks, or a nearly endless variety of spinning lures and plastic grubs.

Flies also can be very effective on even the largest tarpon. Any can work at times - from the retro red-and-white choices of 30 years ago to slinky, dark-hued flies at night. On the whole, flyfishermen can't go wrong with a pattern having a bit of chartreuse mixed with natural earth tones.


For help in planning an angling adventure in the Florida Keys, you can consult the Web site or call 1-800-FLA-Keys. The site has an extensive fishing section covering species, types of fishing, tournaments, world records set in the Keys, and more.


Summer bonefishing is good throughout the Florida Keys. Because you have to choose a place to stay in the 112-mile-long island chain and potentially pre-book a captain with whom to fish, the final selection may have more to do with what other amenities you want.

First-time Keys visitors can't go wrong with a fishing trip headquartered in the Sportfishing Capital of the World, which is Islamorada. Islamorada is located about 80 miles south of Miami and 80 miles north or west of Key West. While flats can be very productive in areas both north and south, Islamorada is arguably the epicenter of bonefishing.

In the summer, air and water temperatures may be uncomfortable for most fish and fishermen in the Keys. But water temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees are delightful to bonefish. Pursuing bonefish early and late in the day, however, likely will be more comfortable. If it's any consolation, Keys temperatures are considerably more tolerable than those in land-locked locales that don't enjoy sea breezes cooling the air.

Regarding the breeze, a west wind is not the angler's friend, but it rarely blows from that direction in the Keys in the summer. Though still conditions are also rare, winds ordinarily are light and variable - that is as close as it comes to calm in the islands.

Flat seas and calm conditions offer the opportunity to spot tailing bonefish. A bonefish with its head down nosing around for food in shallow water often leaves its tail and dorsal finning above the surface.

Spinning rod users can cast a weighted or unweighted shrimp several feet in front of the fish's head and reel until the bait is on an intercept path, then drop it and wait. Bonefish rarely refuse live bait. The cast-reel-and-drop technique trumps a great accurate cast that beans the wary fish on the head and scoots him off at lightning speed to Timbuktu.

Because flies are so light, generally a fly angler can try a more aggressive approach. Bonefish are great sportfish because of the challenge and stealth involved in fooling them. Voices become hushed as line slices through the air in a graceful dance between man and beast.

Crab fly patterns with or without rubber legs, like Del Brown's Merkin Fly, or toadfish imitations, such as Borski's Bonefish Slider, rule in the Florida Keys. When in doubt, choose natural colors.

Bonefishing is a shallow-water pursuit done in depths ranging from 8 inches to 8 feet. Flats sporting currents; dropoffs along the edges; clean, healthy seagrass that promotes rooting around for food; and cruising st

ingrays that do the rooting for the smart but freeloading bonefish are all things to look for.

A broad-sided fish with yellow highlights, permit are sought from Key Largo at the top of the island necklace to the species' mecca in the Lower Keys around Key West. In fact, Key West hosts a permit-only tournament. It is named after the legendary Del Brown, who caught more than 500 permit on fly-casting gear in his angling career.

Permit make a great summer target, since air and water temperatures can't get too hot for these fish. Of course, you may feel like you're melting while looking for them. There are two locales for permit fishing - shallow water of 2 to 8 feet for feeding or traveling fish, and depths from 10 to 100-plus feet, where fish are at home on the wrecks or other deep-water structure.

Key West captains suggest the Atlantic flats of the Lakes area and out to the Marquesas as good battlegrounds, especially during incoming tides. Reaching the fish around the Marquesas, however, may entail a bumpy ride across Boca Grande Channel. Those islands lie roughly 20 miles west of the harbor at Key West.

A live crab on light spinning tackle makes the perfect setup. The size of the crab is important, and you don't want one that is too big. If they're no larger than a silver dollar, the smaller fish are able to inhale them.

Once hooked up, permit, like all members of the jack family, are hard fighters that are fun to battle.

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