Cool Weather Turns on the Key West Offshore Fishing

The “cold” Key West winter weather finally rolled in during January, with temperatures getting right down into the 70’s and even the high 60’s for the last couple weeks of the month. Honestly, even though Key West is a far nicer place to be than anywhere else this time of year, for early morning trips and offshore runs on the windy, cloudy days, a light jacket, a cap, and a pair of light gloves are all nice to have around. But the cooler waters have been great for the fishing, as the baitfish are driven inshore in search of the warmer water that floods in on the incoming tide. Baitfish holding in that warmer water get swept onto the Flats and into the inshore channels, drawing predators from far and near. Sharks, Jacks, and big Barracuda have all been prowling the Flats, and the shallow water guides have been reporting some great days of sight fishing that produced Barracuda, Blacktip Sharks, Lemon Sharks, and even a couple of Tarpon during the warmer spells.

The last couple weeks of January saw some typical windy, rainy weather interspersed with sunny, calm days. The Key West offshore fishing remained good, with Gulfstream currents pushing in tight to the edge of the reef and keeping the blue water alive with Blackfin Tuna, Kingfish, Mahi-Mahi, Wahoo, and the always-plentiful Bonito, or Little Tunny. The Blackfin bite slowed down a bit in comparison to the beginning of the month, but fish anywhere from 5 to 30 lbs. were still showing up, especially in the low-light conditions of the afternoons and evenings. The Tuna were being found at depths from 120 to 300 feet, and hooked up by dropping live bait, jigging, and trolling. A few schoolie Mahi-Mahi were also hanging around the same areas as the Blackfin, and migrating Kingfish were arriving and being caught off the edge of the reef in 50 to 130 feet of water. Closer to home, Cero Mackerel were working the schools of Ballyhoo on the reef right out in front of Key West.

Farther afield, a lot of boats have been running to the End of the Bar, the fishing hole about 15 miles southwest of Key West where a submerged dead reef that lies just to the south of and parallel to the living Florida Reef ends in a steep drop-off from 60 to 100 feet of water. The bite has been on at the sunken submarine and a couple of other wrecks in the area, with big Wahoo running 50 to 70 pounds being taken, along with a lot of more typical specimens in the 30 to 40 pound range. These fish are some of the fastest and strongest in the sea, and many fishermen are left with nothing but a sore arm and an empty line after the blasting high speed run of a big Wahoo. Boating one is a real accomplishment, and many lucky fishermen got to taste victory as January came to a close.

Key West waters always hold some Sailfish, but the bite really gets good when the weather gets rough and the Ballyhoo flood the reef and surrounding waters. Sailfishing will hit its peak from now through April, and there are a couple of big tournaments scheduled to take advantage of the season. April 8-12, the World Sailfish Championship makes its 11th return to Key West with big boats, top fisherman, and big cash prizes – $75,000 for First Place. This is the richest Sailfish tournament in the world, with over $10,600,000 paid out in the past 11 years. Just a couple weeks later, the local Key West Sailfish Championship will have its second annual run April 23-27, with fishing on Thursday and Friday, a lay day on the 26th, and the final day of fishing on Sunday, April 27th. The Pro Division will pay $50,000 for First Place, $15,000 for Second, and $10,000 for Third Place. Either one of these tournaments would be an exciting reason to be in Key West to stop by the weigh-ins, check out the boats and fishermen, or maybe even join in the fun yourself.

The Southern Kingfish Association put on the 17th annual Key West Harbor King Mackerel Tournament on January 25th and 26th, and the results showed that there are some big Kingfish in the Gulf right now. The tournament kicked off on Saturday with 59 boats heading out of Key West on the hunt for the biggest King Mackerel of the weekend. At the end of the day, 6 fish in the over-50 lb. class were weighed in. One huge King that had been badly mutilated by sharks and was missing most of its tail still weighed in at nearly 56 pounds. The second day saw more examples of the big smoker Kings that can be found out in the Gulf, with the winning fish tipping the scales at 56.44 lbs. and bringing home the money for the Unreel Fishing Team led by Capt Billy Delph at the helm, with Capt Sam Shaw working the deck. It took a Kingfish over 50 lbs. just to make it into the money in the Open Class, which is as good a proof as any of the high quality of Key West offshore fishing.