A few winters back, long-time friend and legendary New York-based charter Capt. John McMurray called me to plan the fishing adventure of a lifetime. John’s wife, Danielle, was pregnant with their first children – twins – and she had given John the go-ahead to take a fishing trip of his choice, before feedings and diaper changes became daily affairs. John’s plan: Rent a motorcycle in Miami and ride it down through the Florida Keys while I follow, pulling my boat. We would hit the best fishing that the winter waters surrounding the Keys have to offer, with the best captains. It proved an epic road trip with superb fishing for dozens of species, including an incredible day of sailfish action, backcountry rod-bending for snook and redfish, and never to be forgotten, a 255-pound swordfish. If you’re up for a wintertime fishing adventure in the Keys, here’s your guide to following in our wakes.
Best Bet: Sailfish in the Stream
Hemingway would be stoked to see how strong the Atlantic sailfish population that migrates along the Gulf Stream is today. You’ll probably target this acrobatic fish using the excitingly visual method of dangling live baits beneath kites, but you can also sight-cast live baits to feeding schools. There’s great sailfishing from Key Largo to Big Pine Key to Key West, but I’ve done my best fishing out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada.
Florida Bay is a vast wilderness comprising thousands of miles of shallow seagrass meadows, mangrove islands and tributary creeks between the mainland and the Keys. Most of it is protected by Everglades National Park, but you can access Park waters from the northern Keys, including Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada.
And there’s no shortage of exciting species you can catch. Winter redfish appear in schools that number in the hundreds. A warm day finds snook sunning themselves, perfect for the sight-fishing angler. Spanish mackerel are a guaranteed catch. They school up literally by the millions.
On the Reef
The Florida reef tract is an extensive living coral barrier reef system in North American waters and the third largest system in the world. Florida's coral reef tract extends from Fowey Rocks near Miami to the Dry Tortugas off Key West. It parallels the emergent Keys for 356 kilometers. All but the northernmost extent of the reef tract lies within the boundaries of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. You can hire a charter or take a “party boat.” The trip is inexpensive and sure to produce a fresh fish dinner. An added bonus: Many Keys restaurants will cook your fresh catch.
Catches differ depending upon where you launch in the Keys, but the flats behind Big Pine Key and parts south tend to fish better for bonefish and permit during winter months, though that’s a generalization. The fishing for these prized species gets even better in the spring, along with tarpon fishing, throughout the Keys.
You can also stalk permit, bonefish and tarpon in upper Florida Bay. You’ll catch even more species, including snook and redfish, if you run into Everglades National Park out of the Islamorada area.
Your trip can be made even more epic by enlisting the help of the best in the business to guide you to fertile waters and exhilarating rod-n-reel battles.
- “Stanczyk” is the biggest name in Keys billfishing. The Catch 22 put me on the biggest fish of my life – a 255-pound swordfish. budnmarys.com
- Hawks Cay Resort is one of the nicest places to stay in the Keys. Capt. Lee Lucas of First Love Charters is one of the most hospitable captains, and he’s great with kids. marathonsportsfishing.com
- Capt. Tony Murphy of Key Limey Charters/The Saltwater Angler tackle shop in Key West is the man in terms of bluewater fly-fishing for tuna, dolphin and mackerel. keylimey.com
Flats/Backcountry/Fly-Fishing in Key Largo/Everglades National Park
- Capt. Jorge Valverde is THE bonefish hound. lowplacesguideservice.com
- Capt. Tad Burke is a tournament champion. Few guides know or care more about the backcountry. captaintadburke.com
- Hit the gym before fishing with Islamorada’s Capt. George Campbell of Snapshot Charters. You’re in for a brawl with big reef bruisers. shutupandreel.com
- The Miss Islamorada, a party boat, sails daily from Bud N’ Mary’s marina. It’s $65 for a full day of fast action. budnmarys.com/party_fishing_boat.html