Casting Call: Keys Fishing, From Licenses to Charters

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.

WHAT TO BRING: Florida requires a recreational saltwater license to fish in the Keys, with numerous conditions and exceptions -- chiefly that on guided trips, the guide's charter license should suffice. If you do need a license, it costs a nonresident $6.50 for three days, $16.50 for seven and $31.50 for a year. Add $2.50 for a snook permit and $51.50 for a tarpon tag.

On guided and chartered trips, bait, tackle, ice and coolers will be provided. You'll need to pack food and drinks. Guides generally prefer you use their tackle, but you may be able to bring a favorite rod and reel.

You're mainly responsible for being prepared for the elements. Dress in light-colored layers, a hat and good deck shoes (no open toes, no flip-flops), use sunscreen and wear polarized sunglasses -- brown in shallow water, where a lot of fishing is sight casting, and gray for offshore.

If you want to look at species besides fish, bring binoculars. Fishing the Keys can be "quite a nature walk," says Susan Ellis, who with her husband, shallow-water guide Gary Ellis, owns Islamorada-based Redbone, a nonprofit guide service and tournament organizer.

CHARTERS: It is a sign of what fishing means in the Keys that there are dozens more charter outfits than there are tackle shops. Both categories, as well as marinas, are listed by location on the Monroe County tourist council's Web site (see Info below). For offshore fishing, chartering a boat for an all-day trip (maximum four to six people) runs $750 to $1,000 a day. A day of fishing the backcountry or flats (maximum two people) will cost about $500.

Knowing what you want to fish for will help you choose a guide. There may be only two or three, for example, who can help you catch a permit on a fly rod. Beyond that, it's a matter of finding one with whom you want to spend eight hours straight on a boat. The abundance of charter services doesn't necessarily mean availability; captains in Key Largo, Islamorada and Key West often are booked a year in advance, sometimes two, especially between mid-January and mid-June.

A cheaper option is to go bottom-fishing (mackerel, grunt, snapper, etc.) on a party boat, which usually targets two or three species. A full-day trip runs about $50 each.

INFO: For details on seasons, catch limits and license requirements, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (850-488-4676, ). To purchase a license: 888-347-4356, .

For general tourism with links to accommodations and fishing, Monroe County Tourist Development Council (800-352-5397, ).

For fishing reports, try ( ), the Weekly Fisherman ( ) or one of the tackle shops: in Key Largo, the Yellow Bait House (Mile Marker 101.7, 305-451-0921); in Islamorada, Worldwide Sportsman (Mile Marker 82.5, 305-664-4615, ); and in Marathon, World Class Angler (Mile Marker 49, 305-743-6139, ).

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