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.

Bait

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.

Florida Keys Bridge Fishing

Florida Keys Bridge Fishing Guide for Tourists

Probably the cheapest way to fish in the Florida Keys is from one of the many bridges. All along the keys on Highway One there are bridges, most of which are closed to traffic where one can fish. They are mostly part of the old Highway One , although there are some other small bridges off of Highway One from which fishing is allowed. To be honest most bridge fishing trips will not compare to a trip to the reef or many other places in a boat. It’s not that the bridges don’t have tons of fish around them, they do, it’s just that everywhere that’s accessible for free gets lots of traffic and angling pressure. So you have to work harder.

Fish commonly caught from the bridges include snapper, grouper, barracuda, grunts and pretty much at one time or another every other fish in the area. The bridges create breaks in the massive current that runs between the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay/ Gulf of Mexico. Around the base of many of the the old bridges, there are piles of old construction materials because back when they were built, workers would just throw any used material or junk into the water. All the this debris on the bottom creates a great fish habitat. If you take a snorkel mask and jump in at the base of one of these bridges you will see what I mean, thousands of small fish school around the pilings and rock walls around the base of the bridges, along with crabs and other small sea creatures. All these small fish attract larger fish and so on.

Seven Mile Bridge

For fishing tackle around the bridges you are most likely going to need 20 lbs test line or greater. You may have to dead lift a fish from 12-20 feet down, also it’s very easy to get snagged fishing from the bridges so, heavier line will be helpful. You may want some poles with lighter line for catching bait, and some bridges have areas around the base that you can walk to the water’s edge and cast from. More serious bridge fisherman bring a bridge landing net, which is sort of like a basket at the end of a rope, they lower to the water to scoop up larger fish they catch, fish that would break the line if hoisted from the water on fishing line alone.

For bait most anglers use dead cut bait, cut-up fish, squid or pieces of shrimp. This can be purchased at local tackle shops, but don’t buy frozen shrimp, frozen shrimp sucks, dead fresh shrimp is much better. As in any fishing, live bait will often work better then dead. Probably the ideal bait for fishing the bridges would be a small pilchard around 2-3 inches long, but pilchards can be a pain the neck to find even when you have a boat and know the area. Sometimes though sardines school up around the base of the bridges but that is only around the end of summer in September and August and even then it’s hit and miss. I would recommend buying a couple dozen fresh shrimp, then using small hooks to catch some non-game fish species like a grunt (there will be tons of them) then cut the grunt up for cut bait.

As for rigging your tackle I would suggest using jigs if you can reach the bottom with them in the current. Just a small 1/4-1/2 ounce jig head tipped with a piece of shrimp or cut fish will work well. The water at the base of the bridges is pretty shallow, less then 20 feet, usually around 10 feet, but the force of the current will be considerable. If your jigs won’t sink quickly enough due to the current, a slip sinker rig will work well. Tie your hook to a few feet of line (if you want to get fancy fluorocarbon leader), then to a swivel. Then run your line thru a 1-3 ounce egg sinker, and tie it to the swivel. You want to use as little weight as possible, just enough to hold the bottom. For hooks there are a ton of little fish at the base of bridges who will peck away at your baits. So you can either just enjoy having your bait stolen time after time, while you wait for a bigger fish or you can use smaller hooks. Now I would recommend mustad live bait hooks, in sizes 3-7. They are small but they have a heavy shank, so if you do hook that big fish, they won’t bend like most small hooks.

yellowtail snapper
Baby Yellowtail , good to eat but have to be over 12 inches

Now something most visitors don’t know about fishing the bridges: you can greatly increase the action by chumming from the bridge. Some hardcore bridge fishers think that this attracts too many junk little fish, but if you are reading this then most likely you are not one of them. Anyway’s what you do is buy a couple blocks of commercial chum (it’s sold all over the place in the Keys), get a chum sack, and some small diameter rope. Then just put the chum in the sack and tie the rop to it and lower it to the water. In 10 minutes you will have a big party behind the chum sack. Tons of small fish will be swarming the chum, and if you are lucky some larger fish too. The trick can be to get the baits past the tiny bait stealers that show up.

Which bridges to fish? Well in my opinion the farther you get from Miami the better. I have had much better luck fishing the bridges in the lower keys than bridges around Key Largo. The bigger bridges are going to have more chances at catching more types of fish. Like you could pretty much catch anything off the 7 mile bridge, but if you pick a small bridge without a huge amount of water flowing under it, you will more likely just catch snapper and grunts.

Catching Bait in the Florida Keys

Catching Bait in the Florida Keys

Buying Bait in the Florida Keys

Probably the most common way to get bait in the keys for visitors is buying it at the local store. They sell some sort of bait at all sorts of stores in the Keys, you can buy bait in the grocery store if you want to. Generally you have your frozen baits which will include frozen shrimp, ballyhoo, mullet, squid and pilchards. Frozen bait is generally considered the worst of baits, except for squid which is pretty much always frozen. I would avoid most frozen baits except for squid, usually if you have squid you can catch small fish and then in turn use them to catch smaller fish to use for live bait or cut bait.

The live baits for sale in the tackle shops are usually finger mullet, shrimp, blue crabs and pinfish, sometimes pilchards, blue runners or goggle eyes. The last 3 are pretty rare though, although I am sure there are some shops that have them consistently, and if you read this and know of some email me and I will list them on here. Generally live baits are going to cost at least a buck a piece, and definitely have aerator or oxygen tablets to keep those puppies alive till you get the boat.

Fresh dead baits are good to buy also, fresh dead pilchards and ballyhoo make great baits, cut up or whole, and you can get a lot more weight for your buck

Catching Bait

Well probably one of the most important parts of fishing is catching bait. In the Florida Keys there are serveral main fish that are used for baits. Essentially bait can be broken down by size, there are baits that tend to be used for for big fish and baits for smaller fish.

The Larger baits would include Blue Runners, Ballyhoo, Speedos and Bonito. Live bonito are general used for catching Marlin and are bitch to keep alive, and frankly catching Marlin is out of my league, so I won’t be writing much about them.

Smaller Baits would consist of Pilchards, Sardines, Pinfish and Pigfish and glass minnows.

Pretty much catching bait consist of chumming them up to get them near the back of the boat and then either cast netting or hooking them with small hooks. Most larger baits will out run a net and really the only larger bait you will catch with a cast net is Ballyhoo. You will die of exhaustion before you catch blue runner or speedos in a cast net. For small hooks to use for Ballyhoo and Blue runners I have found Gamaktsu Size six hooks blow cheaper mustad or eagle claw hooks. I can’t even begin to say what a difference those little hooks have made.

For chum just plain commercial menhaden chum works fine, really trick is to find the spot where the bait is. Pretty much the best places to catch most baits will be on the bay side, around creeks and grass beds. Just look for healthy thick sea grass in 3-7 feet of water. As long as there is a little current, put you chum sack in and usually within 10 minutes there will be a bunch of something behind the boat. Usually pinfish but possibly pilchards and/or blue runners. If a mass of small pilchards show up you will need to cast net them, if they are bigger you can hair hook them or net them. Pinfish can be cast netted if they are really balled up behind the boat or with a net that fall really fast but usually people catch them with a small hook and split shot. And when I say small I mean really tiny like tiny 12 hooks they use to catch brook trout up north.

On the ocean side it is much more hit and miss, and to catch ballyhoo and speedos you will have to explore the reef and find a spot. depending on the time of year the ballyhoo can be really easy to find. Speedos are always more work.

Another way to catch bait is with a pinfish trap. This is really actually pretty fun, you just fill this trap with some sort of bait, like fish carcass or even the remnants of chum sack, throw it in the water and wait a few hours or over night and next thing you have trap filled with crabs and pinfish. Sounds great doesn’t it? Well it is pretty fun to pull the trap and see what you got , the only problem is that people steal the traps. It’s a great feeling when you load trap full of dolphin carcasses and throw it out on a grass flat, get there early the next day ready to pull the trap and head offshore to fish for dolphin , and low and behold the trap is gone.

Florida Keys Reef and Wreck Fishing

Florida Keys Reef and Wreck Fishing

If you want lots of action, a variety of fish, in a variety of sizes and meat for the table, then reef and wreck fishing is for you. Personally it is my favorite type of fishing, I love bottom fishing and depending on the depth of water you you often have a shot at many different pelagics species also. Anchor up on a deep reef or wreck and you never know what type of fish you could catch, everything from grunts to sailfish and wahoo.

Really the key to this fishing is the spots, finding the spots and anchoring up and lining the boat up right. Some extra time dropping and re-dropping the anchor, is worth the effort, since you have to make sure you are either up current or right over the structure holding fish. As someone visiting the Keys and maybe fishing from a rental boat you may have to rely on published GPS coordinates to find spots, because it can take quite a bit time drifting around to run into the good spots but those are best ones, the ones not everyone knows about. Anyways get a copy of a top spot chart. They sell them at most bait and tackle stores in the Florida Keys. They will have enough stuff to get started on, and enough to last you through your vacation.

Depending on what you’re fishing for, you are going to want to fish in depths from 20-200 feet. Quite a range isn’t it. Really personally I try to target structures that are in 50 to 150 feet of water. If you fish shallower water you are going to tend to get a lot of small fish, which is great if you are new to fishing here, or if you are fishing with kids, or other people who just want a lot of action. Fishing the shallower water you are going to get a lot of grunts and short snapper and grouper, but you will often will get some barracuda and in the winter cero and spanish mackerel. A 20 pound barracuda will blow your mind on light spinning tackle, if you are used to fishing fresh water. For the first year I fished here I primarily fished the shallower rocks and patch reefs. It took me over a year to get sick of it, get a bigger boat and move out deeper. As you move out past the 50 foot mark, you will start to catch larger fish but not as many as you would on the patch reef. As you move out into water 80 feet and up you will tend to start getting larger pelagic fish along with bottom dwelling fish. In deeper waters depending on the time of year and location, it’s common to hook King Mackerel, Sailfish, wahoo, Cobia and Bonito while wreck fishing.

And that’s what I really like about wreck and reef fishing. You can fish a variety of baits a variety of ways and target a variety of fish. Lots of chances for action. Usually what I do depending on what type of baits I have, I try to keep a bait on the surface, and a large bait right on the bottom, and then usually a smaller bait usually free lined in the current. I use primarily ballyhoo, blue runners and if I can get them, pilchards. I try to keep them alive but dead ballyhoo or a blue runner works very well, cut open so it spreads a scent.

What fishing tackle to use would really kind of depend on which type of fishing you are doing and the depth. Mostly in the shallow water you can get away with using 30# test on the bottom and 12# for freelinning snapper baits, 12# spinning gear is also great for catching baracudas and cero and spainish mackerals and smaller jacks, all of which are common on the shallower reefs. When using mono for a bottom fishing rig, you can slide the line thru the sinker and to a swivel and the have your leader after that, but don’t use this rig on braided line. Once you move into deep water you will want to use heavier tackle for bottom. 50 pound test line is really the minimium test I would use once you get into waters over 75 feet, personally I use shimamo 6500 spooled with 50 pound test stren super braid or Penn senator spooled with 80 -100 pound test ande mono, I also use 80-120 pound test leader but don’t use a thru sinker rig to attach it. I have found that the thru sinker rig will cause break offs on braid ecspeically when using heavier weights. For a bottom rig with braid or heavier weights use one of these

Its called a 3way barrel swivel, you can order them by clicking the picture , you attach your main link to the top of the one swivel , then you take a small length of lighter line and attach your sinker beneath it, then run your leader and bait of the perpendicular swivel. This rig works great for big fish on braided line, and if you get your sinker caught on something you can break it off and not lose your rig.

Some of this tackle may seem over the top for the average grouper or snapper, but if you fish big baits or heck any baits around the deeper rocks and wreck, there is very good chance you will run into a monster and it will take gear like this to bring them up.

For hooks I have started using mostly circles, I use gamakatsu circle 4x 8/0 circles hooks and Rapala 8/0 circles (mostly because I got a deal on ebay) , gamakatsu octopus hooks are great too but when fishing the heavy gear they don’t seem to have a heavy enough shank, the regular mustad live bait hooks have a good shank but come dull out of the package, but they do make a more expensive sharper hook.

For fishing mid column and the surface I would use spinning rods with 12-20# pound test, you can use 12 pound for freelining baits back and its fun to catch trigger fish and snapper on light tackle but you will lose a fair number of fish, by either them breaking you off, or predator fish snatching your hooked fish. Also with the 20 pound test, if a fat tuna or bar jack grab the bait you will have chance of landing them.

Florida Keys Patch Reef Fishing Guide for Tourists

Well if you have made the leap to renting a boat for your vacation in the Florida Keys, or even if you are just renting it for a day and you want to catch a bunch of fish, the first stop should be the patch reefs. Along the Florida Keys barrier reef there are tons of spots to fish, usually with a few minutes drive from shore. Between the Main reef and shore there are smaller “patch” reefs, they are usually in water less the twenty feet and are easily spottable, as long as there is even a little sunlight.

The small reefs are essentially coral forests, often surrounded by grassy soft bottom. They are magnet for fish. Actually snorkeling them quick before you start fishing can be a blast and actually is pretty useful to see what’s hanging around them. I recommend the patch reefs to visiting vacationers because they are easy to find , visible to the eye, which is good because a lot rental boats don’t have gps. They tend to be protected by the barrier reef so the water around them tends not to be so rough when the wind is blowing, and they hold a ton of fish, mostly smaller fish but a ton nevertheless. They are perfect for taking kids fishing, or for first timers. The patches are full of snapper, grunts, grouper (but mostly undersized) and depending on the time of year ciro and spanish mackerel (fall/winter).

Mangrove Snapper

For fishing tackle I would say bring a couple of rods and reels spooled with line ranging from 12 – 20 pound test. Really 20 pound line is the best for this fishing all around. It’s fun to catch the smaller fish on smaller gear but you will end up losing a lot around the coral. Also the occasional grouper will bite, and you have very little chance of pulling even a small grouper up on light line.

For bait, use jigs tipped with cut fish or shrimp. When you go to the patch reefs bring some hair hooks, tiny tiny hooks. Usually you can catch small bait fish like Ballyhoo on the patch reefs. Ballyhoo are small beaked bait fish, ranging from about 7 – 14 inches long. They are very common on the patch reefs and make great bait live or dead. Ballyhoo can be netted but if you don’t know how to throw a net, a very small hook with a little piece of meat on it will catch them.

Now to really get the bite going on the shallow reefs it pays to chum them up, so bring a couple of boxes of commercial menhaden chump, or glass minnows. Honestly with a bunch of chum on the shallow reef you are almost guaranteed to catch something, if you chum enough, maybe not the fish of a lifetime but something.

Marathon Florida Fishing

Marathon Florida Fishing

Marathon, Florida is located right in the middle of the Florida Keys and is home to the seven mile birdge. Marathon has great access to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It also has a bunch of great wrecks and offshore fishing. It does not have the same access to the Everglades as Islamorada and Key Largo but there are still a ton of great fishing spots. The seven mile bridge is a favorite fishing spot for Tarpon in the spring and snapper year round. There are a bunch of structures out in the Florida Bay north of the 7 mile bridge which hold a ton of fish. In colder months that bay is packed with Mackerel and Bluefish, and it is a great place to fish when the wind is howling .