Easy Fishing Florida Keys
Published Jul 2nd 2011
Seven of us from various cities across the U.S. got together for a family vacation this spring in Key Largo, Florida.
By John Schmittroth
During the week, we had several pleasant outings at ocean-shore parks where we combined picnics, fishing, beachcombing, hiking, and swimming. A few of us also went out on an inexpensive "party boat" fishing trip for the open ocean experience.
Fishing was not red-hot though we managed to come across at least some action most of the time. The only interruption to this laid-back Florida Keys fun was - yikes! - a close encounter with a large shark.
Our primary quarry was barracuda, which are in the two to three-foot length in this area. I'd fished for them a few times previously and became fascinated with them. Barracuda are ferocious fighters and seem to be a bundle of contradictions: stupid yet cunning, aggressive yet coy, and prehistoric yet post-modern (in an apocalyptic sci-fi way).
A vicious strike by one of these beasts a few yards away as you are finishing your retrieve is high drama. They are very fast swimmers - nearing 40 mph by some estimates - and can appear out of nowhere in an instant. They also disappear as quickly if they are not interested. At times, and this can be frustrating, they seem to leisurely follow your lure just for fun before vanishing.
Shore fishing for barracuda is especially enjoyable given the scenic setting. My approach is to continue moving (wading or onshore) to seek out fish that are in the strike mode. The fish seem to prefer "ambush" locales, such as the edges of weed beds, piers, and boulders in the water, and these are good areas to probe. But simply casting your lure straight out as far as you can and retrieving it quickly also can produce fish.
To update my barracuda gear for this trip, we acquired a simple selection of lures at the Yellow Bait House in Key Largo (many general stores in the Keys also have good tackle selections). These included two types of lures for spinning gear and one for flyfishing:
Classic plugs. Six-inch silver plugs imitating baitfish. In my experience, these are a close second to tubes for barracuda and have the added benefit of appealing to a variety of other fish that aren't interested in the tubes.
Large streamers. These attract barracuda and other species, though I myself find flyfishing in the surf a challenging production.
Where and When -- Locations, Tides, Weather
Our shore fishing outings were to two area parks on the Atlantic Ocean. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a large bustling place with a variety of attractions such as an aquarium, boat rentals, full-facility campsites, boat tours, beach, etc. Some 30 miles down the road toward Key West, the much quieter and idyllic Long Key State Park
(http://www.floridastateparks.org/longkey/) provides a long stretch of ocean shore and lovely nature trails, including a canoe trail.
Having lived inland my entire life, I constantly need to remind myself on the importance of the TIDES when ocean shore fishing. The state of the tides can be the single most important factor affecting success, outside of weather extremes.
High tides in this area and season occur about 12 hours apart, for example at 8:31 am and 8:59 pm. In my experience, the best luck is on an active incoming tide during the two or three hours before high tide is reached. This window is especially good if it's happening near dusk, but any other such incoming tide is productive too. The water appears lively and just seems to be full of fish, like a good-looking stretch of a trout stream. The entire food chain becomes active with the inflowing water.
It's a different story during low tide, which occurs about 6 hours after high tide (such as 2:39 pm or 2:16 am in this example). The diminished water appears tepid and fishless, like that in a roadside ditch, and it's several hours before things begin to stir again. In the transition from high tide to low tide, there is a period of active outgoing flow couple of hours after the high point that also can be productive as the entire food chain is again on the move.
Prior to a trip, I try to plan specific fishing outings around the tide schedules using sites such as www.saltwatertides.com. Given the example tides above, I would rank the fishing opportunities for that day as follow:
1) 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm - incoming build-up to the 8:59 pm high tide, near dusk
2) 6:00 am to 8:00 am - incoming build-up to 8:31 am high tide
3) 10:30 am to 12:30 pm - active outgoing flow leading to the 2:39 pm low tide
These windows are approximate and can vary according to the nature of the water (e.g. deep or shallow), even given the same high and low times. Also, with experience, it may be possible to narrow the opportunity to the single most productive hour in each case.
Along with tides, the weather - particularly a winter or springtime cold spell - can have a major impact on fishing success. It's my understanding that the inshore waters chill quickly and fish flee to the deeper, more stable ocean waters during such periods. Then it can take many days for them to drift back into the shallows. The entire joint is on serious lock-down during this time with little or no activity.
Shore Fishing Results
Our shore fishing outings during the week produced 10-15 barracuda sightings, a couple of strikes, but no catches. Fortunately, various other fish species were more cooperative.
The barracuda seemed to be in "hide and seek" mode, popping in for a quick look at an offering and then fading away. Sara had the most action. She reported a hard jolt in the middle of one retrieve and asked if that was what a barracuda strike feels like (yes). Later a large barracuda charged her tube lure three times amidst large rocks near shore, yet somehow managed to avoid hooking himself. Otherwise, the barracuda were just window shoppers.
Needlefish were everywhere in these waters and provided most of the action. These are like small (12-15 inches), skinny versions of barracuda, and perhaps were what the barracuda were targeting for dinner. Matt had three needlefish hit his plug at the same time, swarming almost like piranha. Steve has his first fishing action after a 40-year layoff thanks to the eager needlefish.
Also in the shore-fishing mix were puffer fish (aka blowfish), which strike weakly and fight like a wet sock on the way in. More lively were a couple of jack of some kind that went for the plugs. Snapper, like the barracuda, looked at our offerings but did not buy. Having better luck on snappers were a few local anglers using a simple bait rig: a shrimp on a hook with just enough weight to cast it out and let it settle to the bottom.
We ran late on our second trip to Long Key State Park due to sightseeing stops and a long lunch. By the time we got there, the outgoing tide flow was winding down and low tide was near. Fishing this would involve hiking over the exposed muddy flats to get to water, then wading out a fair distance to get in any kind of depth. The rest of the family opted for the park's nature trail through the mangroves, while I was determined to fish.
When I got out past the flats to the water, it was shallower than I expected. I waded out a good 60 or 70 yards to find water maybe three feet deep. I made several casts as far as I could out into deeper water. To my surprise, barracuda were active. Just about every cast was followed in by an interested fish in the 18-30 inch range. These fish seemed to be on the prowl, and I felt I just needed to figure out a tweak in my retrieve to trigger strikes.
As I began the next cast, a six-foot long, torpedo-shaped shadow glided past along the bottom not 10 feet away from me.
First I thought: that is a shark.
Second I thought: I want to be on shore.
Third I thought: do not splash or do anything that might trigger an attack.
I turned and waded as slowly as one can wade toward shore, while wanting to yell and run as fast as I could. What seemed like hours later, I got to water that was less than knee deep and felt safe enough to race the rest of the way to shore.
I sat at a picnic table to pull myself together. Gradually my hands stopped shaking and my heartbeat slowed. I began thinking of the good fishing action I was having before the interruption. I wondered if the large fish perhaps was just a friendly dolphin. It would be a shame to pass on this good fishing opportunity because of a playful dolphin. But I wasn't eager to test this theory.
I decided to go to the park's ranger station and ask the ranger about my experience. After hearing the story, the ranger concluded the fish was probably a bull shark attracted by the barracuda activity that I'd stirred up. He said I should consider myself lucky to have seen one up close like that. Lucky! He added that there have been something like only 3 shark attacks in the Florida Keys over the past 100 years.
Those were pretty good odds in my favor. But just the same, I headed off to find the rest of the family hiking in the mangroves (hoping there were no jaguars lurking in there).
On our final afternoon in Key Largo, three of us went on a half-day trip on a party boat with about a dozen others. This is an inexpensive way to get several miles out on the ocean and, we hoped, into some fish.
The fishing is basic. After 45 minutes or so of motoring out to sea, the boat anchors in 60 to 80 feet of water. Anglers are given a bait-casting rods and buckets of bait consisting of strips of fish and squid. The rig includes a fairly heavy sinker to bring the bait to the bottom. The angler baits the hook and slowly (to avoid backlash) lowers the offering to the ocean floor. The angler then cranks the reel one time to raise the bait a few inches off the bottom and waits for a bite.
Out here, the fishing also was slow, with few fish coming into the boat despite all of the lines in the water. Crew members were apologetic about this and twice moved the boat (which is something of a production) in the hopes of finding more fish. Somehow it was reassuring to know the experts weren't faring much better than we'd been doing on shore.
I got a little lucky in the final hour, bringing in a couple of yellowtail snapper, a truly delicious fish. Another chap also gave us his yellowtail. This unfortunate soul caught his fish early on, then fell victim to seasickness and remained in the cabin the rest of the trip.
Back at the dock, the crew filleted our catch for us. We wanted to test the "we'll cook your catch" offer that many Keys restaurants advertise. For a set price, they'll prepare the fish you bring to your specifications and add side dishes. We walked over to a nearby restaurant, and soon were enjoying an outstanding meal of the freshly caught snapper, a highlight of the vacation.
Other Area Fishing Opportunities
The Florida Keys is a saltwater fishing paradise for many types of gamefish including marlin, sailfish, tarpon, snook, grouper, and others. Key Largo and the nearby town of Islamorada are popular departure points for guided deep sea or "backcountry" fishing charters. The chamber of commerce web sites for both towns describe many fishing opportunities that are available.
P.S. -- The African Queen
A popular Key Largo attraction is the boat used in the 1951 movie "The African Queen," directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. The boat is docked at the Holiday Inn (mile marker 100) and on display for no charge; also, cruises can be booked for a fee. This is not a specially made movie prop. The steam-powered British craft was used to get around in Africa for several decades before becoming a Hollywood star.