Backcountry Fishing

The Florida Keys are a haven for thousands of different species of fish, large and small. This is because the shallow waters surrounding the chain of islands provide a safe habitat for young fish to mature safely before entering the predatorial ocean. These shallow waters are called the flats or the backcountry. Back there, there is a fish for everyone.

Key West Back country Fishing

The backcountry is a water wilderness of its own. Uninhabited mangrove islands provide a thriving ecosystem and the flats house species of fish not found in the open ocean. Surrounding Key West there are several National Wildlife Refuges: Great White Heron Wildlife Refuge, stretching from north of Marathon almost to Key West, Key Deer Wildlife Refuge, surrounding the flats of Big Pine, and Key West National Wildlife Refuge. These parks make for great backcountry fishing.

tarpon fishing 017What fish are back there?

There are upwards of 25 species of fish to be caught year round in the shallow waters of the backcountry. Bigger, predatory fish are not targeted back here, but they can be caught trying to sneak an easy meal of maturing fish, which always provides an extra thrill factor. Fishermen target bonefish, permit, tarpon, redfish, trout, snapper, snook, pompano, black drum, ladyfish, sheepshead, jacks, and barracuda.

While each fish requires a different technique, the element of surprise is key in the shallow waters. Anglers need to get the perfect distance from the fish; too close and the fish will flee, to far away and the fish won’t notice the bait. In the backcountry it’s all about looking for clues and sign a particular fish is in the area. A stir in the water, discoloration of the water due to stirred sediments and breaching are all things fishermen look for in the calm waters.

Backcountry Boats

Backcountry and flats fishermen have special boats called skiffs that draw very little water and are perfect for maneuvering in the shallows. Skiffs are typically between 16 and 20 feet long and can draw as little as 10-12 inches of water. On the stern of these boats is a platform so that fishermen have a higher vantage point to search for fish. Polarized sunglasses are also important to reduce the surface glare on the water. Flats fishermen also make use of a long pole allowing them to cut the engine and push the skiff into even shallower water allowing for an even more heightened element of surprise.


Fishermen use a variety of bait including live bait and lures. Pilchards are a more popular live bait, but shrimp seem to always do the trick. It’s important to have a good cast in these waters; placement is everything.

For a well-rounded fishing experience with a wide variety of fish, the backcountry really can offer a fish for everyone. It’s also incredibly beautiful, a sight not many get to enjoy, especially if it’s an early morning trip, the calm glassy waters of the backcountry can make anyone fall in love.

Key West Wreck Fishing

Throughout the turquoise waters of the Florida Keys there is a large diversity of saltwater fishing. Among the many types of fishing, one of the big draws is wreck fishing – particularly off the coast of Key West. Over the years upwards of 20 wrecks have gone down in the shallow waters surrounding the island creating artificial reefs that are a haven for fish large and small.

Where did the wrecks come from?

The wrecks surrounding Key West include ships dating back to the 1600’s – old slave ships lost to the perilous sea, ships from WWII era that were lost to mine fields and torpedos during target practice, several ships lost in the hurricane of 1919, and a collection of ships sunk intentionally to create artificial reefs. The ships sunk as artificial reefs provide a new habitat to promote reef growth as well as a structure to provide protection for those fish seeking safety from the open ocean.

What fish are on the wrecks?

In the Atlantic Ocean the wrecks range from all depths, but the better wreck fishing is typically in the 150-250 foot range. On these wrecks fishermen target yellowtail snapper, mutton snapper, grouper and pelagics like sailfish, tuna, mahi-mahi, king mackerel, cero mackerel, sharks and wahoo. In the Gulf the wrecks are in much shallower water ranging from 15-40 feet. On these shallower wrecks fisherman hope to catch cobia, king mackerel permit, gag grouper, red grouper, black grouper, mangrove snapper and sharks. For each species of fish there are different seasons, size requirements, and bait preferences.


For all wrecks live bait is preferable. Pilchards are great for snapper, grouper, and amberjack. They can be hooked and dropped as bait or more preferably hit against the boat to stun and thrown in the water to sink in a state of glitter and confusion thus attracting big, hungry, curious fish. Pinfish are also advantageous when targeting snapper, mutton, and grouper. They are hooked in the stomach or between the eyes and sent down as live bait. They are bigger and stronger than pilchards and tend to survive longer. Blue runners are good when fishing for pelagic fish, big grouper and sharks. Live blue crab is used when the objective is to snag a permit. Squid is candy to a cobia, but they will also readily go for live shrimp and crabs.


In the Gulf of Mexico there are numerous sunken steel barges, some in only 30 feet of water, that always produce good fishing. Cobia tend to hang around these barges and wrecks, and are great fun to catch as they put up a good, typically longer fight. Sometimes they are difficult to catch because of the large number of sharks also hanging around the barges looking for an easy meal. While it can be frustrating to get your catch stolen by a shark, it’s always fun to see!

Getting out to the wrecks is just one of the many ways to fish down here in Key West, but sure to produce a wide variety of fish, hopefully with fights to remember!