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.
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.
What 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 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.