FLORIDA KEYS - In the Florida Keys, anglers match the catch. Every month, there's a choice of targets, tackle and tactics that makes the Keys one of the world's truly unique saltwater sport-fishing locations.
Ideally situated between the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico, the Keys benefit from a subtropical climate that keeps temperatures moderate year-round. Gentle ocean breezes couple with clear blue skies to provide winter average temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and summer averages between 80 and 90 degrees F.
Conservation efforts designed to enhance fish stocks have been driving the fishing ethic in the Keys for decades. Keys guides pioneered catch-and-release fishing. Size and bag limits, and more recently bans on gill nets and fish traps in state waters, have enabled stocks to grow and stabilize.
Pelagic (migratory ocean fish), flats and reef species are plentiful throughout the Keys, and world records attest to healthy and productive fisheries. According to the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) in Dania Beach, Fla., the Keys are home to more sport fishing records than any other destination in the world.
During recent years, the waters surrounding the Keys have produced an annual average of nearly 15 percent of all IGFA saltwater world records. To date, 928 world-record fish have been caught in the Keys.
Off the Keys' "outer" curve lies the Atlantic Ocean. Warm and shallow near shore, the sea reaches depths of more than 600 feet just 11 miles offshore in the Upper Keys. Near Key West, 600-foot depths are just five miles from shore. Travel another 12 to 15 miles south and the depths begin to approach 2,000 feet.
Deep sea fishing, best accomplished with one of the Keys' many world-class charter captains, targets some of the greatest sport fish in the world: blue and white marlin, sailfish and swordfish. High-speed thrills are delivered by rocket-like wahoo and kingfish. Exceptional table fare comes from the Keys' most popular summer visitor, the dolphin, also called mahi-mahi or dorado.
Blue marlin fishing is generally best from April through July. Sailfish season runs November through February. Most wahoo race through Keys waters during April and May, and November through December. Kingfish are most active September to March. Dolphin fishing starts around April and continues through September.
Closer to the reef lines, grouper and a variety of snapper are caught with lighter gear. Visiting anglers quickly learn that moving a grouper out from under a rock takes arms of steel and tackle to match.
Yellowtail snapper, regarded by many as the Keys' tastiest fish, are year-round residents, but the hottest fishing tends to be April through June. Grouper, also year-round residents, are best fished November through March.
Charter fleets dot the Keys from Key Largo to Key West. Boats range from 26-foot outboard-powered center consoles to 65-foot air-conditioned long-range sport fishers.
There also are a number of party boats throughout the Keys. These large vessels are built to take 20 or 30 people fishing. The boat operator typically supplies all the fishing tackle that's needed, along with bait and lots of know-how - so anglers can simply walk aboard and fish.
Florida Bay, edged by the "inner" curve of the Keys and the Florida mainland, is referred to by locals as the backcountry. It is home to five of the most sought-after game fish in angling circles: bonefish, tarpon, permit, redfish (red drum) and snook.
The largest bonefish in the world, ranging from 8 to more than 14 pounds, are caught within earshot of "downtown" Islamorada. Tarpon from 60 to 150 pounds are challenged along the entire length of the Keys, on flats and in deeper channels. Permit, for years exclusive to the Lower Keys and far north Key Largo, have begun showing up on flats everywhere in between.
The redfish and snook of the Keys usually require some coaxing out from their mangrove hideaways. Once hooked, these backcountry brutes will test even the most experienced angler.
Backcountry species are year-round residents of the Keys. The temperature-sensitive bonefish is caught all year long, with the prime months being September through November. Tarpon come close to Keys bridges from April through July. Permit are on the flats in the greatest numbers from April through September. Redfish and snook fishing is best from December through July.
For visitors, hiring a backcountry guide makes for a successful and educational day. The shallow, unmarked waters of Florida Bay can be confusing and potentially treacherous for the inexperienced.
A saltwater fishing license is required to fish in the Keys. These can be purchased at many bait and tackle shops, on-line at www.floridaconservation.org, or by calling toll-free 1-888-FISH-FLORIDA (888-347-4356). Anglers fishing on a charterboat or backcounty boat do not need a license as they are covered by the captain’s documentation.
Visitors must also abide by Florida state fishing regulations, which define size and bag limits, and closed seasons. Current regulations can be found at most bait and tackle shops or on-line at www.marinefisheries.org/regulation.htm.
For more information about the Florida Keys or to find out about area accommodations, call toll-free 1-800-FLA-KEYS (800-352-5397) or visit the Florida Keys & Key West Web site at www.fla-keys.com.