Fishing in the Florida Keys

By: Doug Kelly

Pack up your gear and set sail for the Florida Keys, where fishing is a way of life.

Lying on a couch in the air-conditioned cabin of a 52-foot charter boat off The Florida Keys - my lunch still a warm glow in my tummy - I reflected on a morning trip that day to the flats. Mark Krowka, my guide, had quietly maneuvered the small skiff to intercept a squadron of bonefish that were merrily rooting small crabs and shrimp out of the muck in less than a foot of water.

Casting a live shrimp just ahead of the throng, a bonefish in the 10-pound class bolted forth in an effort to beat his comrades to it. The fish gobbled my spiked hors d'oeuvre with considerable pleasure, and as the line went tight Mark yelled, "Reel! Reel as fast as the speed of light times a thousand!"

After Mark's eloquent dictum momentarily startled me, my hand turned to a blur as I furiously wound the handle of the reel until I felt the weight of the bonefish. The bewildered animal blasted across the shallow water like an F-16, a rooster-tail of water in its wake. After it made an amazing 100-yard run and several frantic around-the-boat circles - during which time I pirouetted about the boat like an overweight ballerina - I finally coaxed the spent bonefish to the boat. Mark gently dislodged the hook and the fish waved its tail goodbye as it blasted away to rejoin its friends. We went on to catch and release two more spunky bones before returning to the dock by 11 a.m., allowing me time to hop aboard the charter boat for an afternoon of big-game fishing.

The couch felt really comfy by this time and my eyes grew heavy as the rhythm of the waves gently rocked the boat. As our trolled baits skipped across the cobalt-blue Gulf Stream, I did nothing to dispel the notion of a nap. But the frantic voice of Capt. Skip Bradeen on the bridge slapped the sleepiness right out of me.

"Sailfish on!" he yelled, and everyone sprang to action like a mound of assaulted ants. I ran out to the boat's cockpit and witnessed a magnificent sailfish arching through the air, returning to the water only long enough to gain momentum for another jump. That fish turned out to be the first of two sails caught and released that afternoon, along with several blackfin tuna.

While you can't always expect that kind of luck in a day's outing, you seldom end up empty-handed when fishing off Islamorada (pronounced "I'll-uh-muh-RAH-duh"), which bills itself as the "Sport Fishing Capital Of The World" - a claim not easily disputed. Located about 50 miles south of Miami along the 110-mile chain of islands known as the Florida Keys, Islamorada-style fishing runs the gamut of hunting for bonefish and permit on flats, heading offshore to spar with snapper and grouper on the reef, or battling billfish, wahoo, kingfish and sharks in deeper water. And after nightfall - if you're still up for it - a visit to a bridge usually results in skirmishes with silvery tarpon and elusive snook.

The shorelines, bays, reefs and Gulf Stream waters off Miami and the Florida Keys pulsate with black grouper, yellowtail and mutton snapper, sailfish, pompano, kingfish, amberjack, mangrove snapper and wahoo, with tarpon blasting shrimp runs in the cuts. As spring and summer slips upon us, look for tarpon, bonefish, permit and snook, as well as mutton snapper, cubera snapper, African pompano and dolphin.

My love for Islamorada transcends fishing. I enjoy staying at the swank Cheeca Lodge & Spa, where I like to work in a thrilling view of sunset while high above the water in a parasail ride from Caribbean Watersports & Enviro-Tours. It's fun swilling a cool one and rubbing elbows with locals and tourists alike at Holiday Isle Beach Resorts & Marina's famous Tiki Bar. It's amazing to hand-feed wild tarpon at Robbie's Marina. Islamorada simply rocks, and even after many years of globe-trotting, it's still my all-around favorite place to go on a fishing trip.

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