Angling Action in Florida’s Northernmost Keys
from the Fishing Wire
The Florida Keys are famous for many things, from pirates and sunken Spanish treasure galleons to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home with its pride of polydactyl cats. But for anglers, it’s best known for fishing. While the middle and southernmost Keys garner most of the good press, the upper Keys offer some of the most diverse fishing opportunities in the entire island chain. The winter sailfish season provides the opportunity to catch a billfish a scant few miles off shore, while the ocean reefs are home to tarpon, jacks, blackfin tuna and a variety of grouper and snapper species. On the other side, the backcountry of Florida Bay is a shallow water playground where bonefish and permit hunt the skinny water, and a variety of mackerel, snapper, grouper, jacks and ladyfish are found in the slightly deeper holes.
Whether you’re a diehard angler looking for hot action, or an occasional fisherman in the area on a family vacation, the often-bypassed upper Keys has a lot to offer in piscatorial pursuits. The region stretches from Key Largo, the northmost Key, to Islamorada. Team Yamaha spent a day and a half with Captain Tim Arce of Native Conch Charters exploring the area. To add to the fun, the team fished aboard Regulator Marine’s hot new 26 XO powered by a Yamaha F300 outboard. The model represents a new direction for a company renowned for building offshore center console fish boats. The difference is denoted by the “XO” branding in its name. It stands for crossover, and this nimble 26-footer combines the shallow water accessibility of a bay boat with a slightly deeper hull design and a bit more freeboard to make it flexible enough to fish the ocean beaches and reefs further offshore. For the purposes of this outing, the boat was a perfect fit.
During the first trip, Captain Tim loaded on some light tackle and bait, did a quick systems check. Once we were out of the marina, he ran the boat south paralleling the Overseas Highway, winding through several miles of narrow channels, through mangrove-lined cuts between small islands and across shallow flats headed toward Snake Cut, where we left Florida Bay and made our way out onto the Atlantic side of the island chain. Captain Tim is a fifth generation Keys native, and has been addicted to fishing since he was old enough to walk to the end of the street with a fishing rod in his hand. He was a deckhand on charter boats by the age of 14, working for some of the most famous Keys charter captains sailing out of the legendary Buddy & Mary’s Marina in Islamorada. He got his license at 18, and split his time between running charters and a commercial tow boat. He has run offshore and back country boats for more than 25 years, and knows the vast and varied waters of the Keys like most people know their commute to work every day.
Once through the Cut, he followed the channel markers to deeper water, the Regulator making quick and comfortable work of some rather large swells and waves, until the team reached Davis Reef about six miles offshore. Tim tied off to one of the mooring floats, and started a chum slick in hopes of catching some tasty yellowtail snappers for dinner.
“The fishing in the upper Keys varies with the seasons,” Tim explained, “So here’s a little of what a visiting angler can expect. The bluewater fishing is best in fall and winter when sailfish, wahoo, kingfish and blackfin tuna are available as close as the edge of the reefs – often right where we are sitting now.”
Just to punctuate his narrative, a large school of ballyhoo shot into the air roughly 150 feet away, with a sailfish in hot pursuit. Sailfish chased bait schools, the bait sheeting from the surface sounding like rain, their sides reflecting the bright sunlight like mirrors, only to disappear below the surface as fast as they appeared. Unfortunately the team had neither the right tackle nor the live bait to tempt a sail. They were after the bottom species.
“In the spring, the bluewater action moves a bit further offshore, where the Gulf Stream is filled with migrating gamefish,” Tim continued. “Early spring is the best time for limiting out on mahi, there are still good numbers of sailfish around, bluefin tuna are heading north, and you can catch swordfish deep dropping during the day or fishing shallower at night. Summer is the slowest offshore fishing, but there is a major spawning migration of yellowtail and mangrove snappers on the reefs along with a variety of other species.”
The team continued to fish, catching a few mangrove and yellowtail on light tackle but with so little current, the conditions were not conducive for a good bite, though they did manage to put together enough of a catch to make for a great dinner back at the dock. Along the way Tim took a sightseeing detour, which only reinforced that the Upper Keys is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
The next morning, the team met early at Yacht Works to set out on the second trip. This time Captain Tim brought along 23-year old college student and friend, Lexi Hang. A native of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Lexi was along on a family vacation. As luck would have it, the family rented the house next to Tim’s on Islamorada. Tim’s plan was to head west well out into Florida Bay to search out some shallow water spots to try some of the specialized equipment adorning the XO, specifically the remote control operated Minn-Kota® electric trolling motor on the bow and the Power Pole® shallow water anchoring system on the transom. Tim took an hour run through miles of shallow flats and winding channels, past small uninhabited islands and finally out into open expanses of the bay. He used the GPS to guide the boat to some spots where he had good fishing earlier in the week.
When we arrived, he deployed the trolling motor and quietly moved the boat up onto a bank in about five feet of water. Putting the motor into “auto anchor” mode, it used the GPS and a computer brain to keep the boat in position in the ten-knot breeze. We started casting live shrimp on light jig heads using seven-foot light actionspinning rods. Lexi was quick to hook up, the first fish taking line off the reel before it jumped several times revealing itself to be a bright silver ladyfish. Long, sleek and fast, ladyfish are common throughout the upper Keys, they fight well and jump like a baby tarpon. After a spirited battle, the fish was unhooked and released.
Tim pinned another live shrimp on the jig, and Lexi made a long cast back into the slick that was developing nicely from the chum bag Tim had secured from the springline cleat. Her offering didn’t hit the bottom before something grabbed it and headed toward the Marquesas at speeds faster than the ladyfish, but this scrapper didn’t jump or show itself until it was much closer to the boat. It turned out to be a bonnet shark, a small member of the hammerhead family that only grows to 15 pounds or so. Great fighters, Tim grabbed it behind the head and lifted it for a picture before gently releasing it.
As the chum slick continued to do its job, more species came looking for the source of the fishy smell and the team started to hook up with regularity. For the next few hours there was barely more than a few minutes lull between hook ups, frequently with two fish on at once. They caught a variety of snappers including mangroves, lanes and grays, some incredibly fast and hard fighting cero mackerel, a small king mackerel (the big ones are found on the ocean side) and a variety of jacks. The weather was typical Florida Keys, hot, sunny with beautiful fluffy clouds drifting by overhead to break up the blue of the water from the blue of the sky. Even though it was late winter, the temperature was hovering in the low 80s by midmorning.
Florida Bay is a huge expanse of shallow water, most rarely exceeding 10-feet deep, with areas of sandy flats that, at certain tide stages, have barely a foot of water on them. Those truly skinny spots are where bonefish and permit prowl, but the team was on a short leash and had to get back to the marina in time for Mike to show the new Regulator to a prospective buyer early that afternoon. The big Yamaha outboard quietly pushed the XO over the areas of sand and bay grass for the hour ride back to Yacht World and the marina. On the way back, Captain Tim explained he was sure the team could catch sailfish from the skiff with nothing more than some live bait and 20-pound class spinning rods. He also knew where some early tarpon would be held up that might be tempted by a well-placed live mullet. With a little more current out on the reef, he felt confident the team could also limit out on yellowtail snappers.
The Upper Keys are every bit as magical as the middle and lower Keys, and a whole lot closer to Miami or Fort Lauderdale airport. If you’ve got a day or two to kill and would like to get out on the water to fish, sightsee or just soak it all in, contact Captain Tim Arce. You can find him at www.nativeconch.com
or call (305) 395-1691.