Each fall, a tranquil vibe settles over the Keys, fresh as a cool sea breeze. Keys folks in the fishing and diving businesses catch their collective breaths after a frenetic summer season. Locals take advantage of a plethora of great fall fisheries. Visitors can cash in on the fun while scoring discounts on lodging, meals and charters.
Here’s what’s running, and some of the best places for anglers and divers to access the fall’s abundance in the Keys.
Divers flock to the Keys for lobster mini-season, which takes place at the end of July, and for the regular season opener, a few weeks later in early August. But spiny lobster season remains open continuously through the end of March. Fall weather patterns put lobsters on the move and they can be found from the shallow waters surrounding mangroves all the way out to the deepest reefs. Grab your tickle stick. And by the way, “bugging” is a great reason to get dive certified. Also, history buffs and divers who like to see big creatures, including goliath groupers, should check out the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail.
Mahi, or “dolphin” as we call them locally, are abundant year-round in the Keys, but the biggest fish and largest schools pass through in the late spring and in the fall. This stunningly beautiful species takes a wide variety of baits, lures and flies, it fights acrobatically and the flesh seems designed for the grill. A day of dolphin fishing makes for a great family adventure, and a better night of family dining.
Tarpon fishing peaks in May and June, but you can still catch plenty of fish in September, especially in the Islamorada area. Some of the big migratory fish seem hesitant to leave the Keys, and I can’t blame them. Also, there are local tarpon populations that like the place so much they never seem to leave. Can’t blame them, either. These fish range from small juveniles to the biggest fish caught all year.
Bonefish & Permit
Yes, early fall is one of the best times of the year to catch a flats slam, which includes a bonefish, tarpon and a permit. Water temperatures in the shallows cool off and the fish stay up on the flats for longer periods. The fish just seem more relaxed. They wag their tails happily out of the water as they feed face down in the seagrass on shrimp, crabs and other critters. Enjoy sight fishing at its most exciting and challenging, while you might be the only boat on the flats. Hint: permit fishing tends to be better in the middle and lower Keys, with plenty of bonefish in the mix. Check out the flats around Big Pine Key, Marathon and Key West.
Everglades National Park encompasses much of the vast, teeming, wilderness shallows of Florida Bay, where anglers target a plethora of species. It’s easily accessed from Key Largo and other areas in the upper Keys. Fishing in this glorious labyrinth you could land spotted seatrout, snook, red drum, black drum, tarpon and many others. Your only competition will include roseate spoonbills, ospreys and eagles, amongst many other magnificent wading and diving birds. Also, check out the sharks!
Florida’s coral reef tract is the most extensive living coral barrier reef system in North American waters and the third largest system in the world. It lies just offshore the length of the Keys. Whether you jump on a party boat, hire a charter or trailer down your own boat, the reef is easily accessed. Yellowtail snappers are so thick they’re just about jumping in the boat. Grouper season is open, so come test your muscles against a jumbo black, red or gag grouper. If you’re really up for a tussle, target an amberjack. One thing’s for sure; you’ll come home with mess of tasty reef critters.
Check out the Florida Keys Fishing Directory’s Party Boat Page.
Divers, the Sanctuary certifies responsible dive operators that take extra care to steward our reefs. Here’s a list of certified operators.