Casting Call: Keys Fishing, From Licenses to Charters

Captain Josh releases an Islamorada bonefish caught by a guest on a Redbone fishing trip.
Captain Josh releases an Islamorada bonefish caught by a guest on a Redbone fishing trip. (
By Margaret Roth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

In the Florida Keys, it's not a question of what's out there to catch but which fish to go after. From the warm waters of the Gulf Stream a few miles offshore to the rich backcountry of Florida Bay and "the flats" in between, the choices are legion, and legendary.

Spreading over this ichthyological richness is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, 2,800 square nautical miles encompassing the entire archipelago and containing North America's only living coral barrier reef as well as mangrove islands and meadows of sea grass.

You don't have to have marlin tournament ambitions or be stalking a "grand slam" (to catch permit, tarpon and bonefish all in the same day). Unless you're after a mega-fish for the wall of your den, you can float your own boat or go out with a guide, cast a fly or spinning rod, fish from a boat or stand on a bridge.

But you do need a Plan -- preferably a Plan B, too -- or you might end up with no fish for fish tales. Here's what to consider.

WHEN TO FISH: Because of migratory patterns, every species has its high season, and some have official seasons, set by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (see Info below).

January into March and October through December are prime time for sailfish; June through September for mahi-mahi; April through July for big tarpon; and November through April for blackfin tuna. Bonefish, a mainstay of inshore waters, are a year-round attraction; so are small tarpon, permit, redfish and snapper. Snook, a backcountry favorite, has a season from February through April and September until mid-December; sea trout may be caught anytime but November and December. If your sights are set on shallow waters and a cold front moves in, consider Plan B, because the fish will head for the depths.

WHERE TO FISH: There are three well-defined types of fishing in the Keys:

· Offshore -- for sailfish, tuna, dolphinfish and marlin, if you're exceptionally lucky.

· The flats -- the continental shelf where tarpon, bonefish, permit and barracuda congregate, with some species ranging farther south than others.

· The backcountry -- Florida Bay west of the Upper Keys, home to snook, redfish, snapper, tarpon and sea trout.

If you don't have a boat, there are several bridges inshore dedicated to fishing, with free access and parking. The take includes tarpon, permit, snapper, grouper and snook.

The prevailing philosophy throughout the Keys is catch-and-release. You'll have photos to keep.

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