February Warm Spell Brings on Key West Tarpon Preview

February in Key West started off warm with a week-long string of temperatures in the lower 80’s. This warm spell and water temps in the upper 70’s had some of the local charter captains giving their guests a preview of the spring Key West Tarpon fishing season, with hook ups on the Silver Kings happening in the Key West Harbor and nearby channels. There was a large school of hungry fish hunting in the Harbor, and many Tarpon were being caught during the morning outgoing tides. The bite was a bit off on the incoming tide, but rolling fish were everywhere.

The channels were particularly productive at night with rolling Tarpon hitting almost any bait that landed in front of them. Winter Tarpon conditions stayed good until the end of last week when a passing cold front dropped temperatures for a couple of days. It is looking good to warm up again next week, so the Key West Tarpon off-season should be back in swing giving lucky anglers a taste of what is to come during the peak migration from April to July.

The warm weather, low winds, and clear water have also been adding up to some fine offshore fishing. The blue water of the Gulf Stream current is running up close to the reef, and that brings in the baitfish followed by open water hunters like Blackfin Tuna, Kingfish, Sailfish, Wahoo, and even some Mahi-Mahi. There are plenty of fish out there; in fact catching bait can be the biggest challenge of the day when it gets breezy and choppy. Wahoo were back on the menu the last couple weeks, not as many as in January and feeding farther east along the reef, but fast trolling with downriggers could turn up wolfpacks that would put 2 or 3 fish in the box in quick succession.

On the Gulf side, the good weather let boats get out to the numerous Kingfish that are still around, and the waters around Smith Shoal light were producing some big fish. For fast action, the shrimp boats have been working fairly close in lately, and the Bonita are there in force. Look for the Blackfin and nearly any other species to be joining them soon. When the weather permits, a shrimp boat fishing run is a guaranteed way to get on a lot of fish.

The Backcountry fishing goes up and down with the weather at this time of year. Permit are around but are moving from shallow back to deep water in response to water temperature and air pressure. The Permit fishing should improve steadily as March comes on, and with luck a lot of fish will be on hand for the March Merkin Permit Tournament in Key West from March 17-20. The big Barracuda are also around, and the Grouper, Jacks, Sea Trout, Sharks, and Snappers have been biting as well. As always this time of year, the Backcountry offers a place to shelter and keep the rods bent when the cold fronts move through and the winds are up.

Speaking of the Backcountry, Saturday February 1st marked the wrap-up of the Key West Cuda Bowl. The competition was hot this year with 27 boats and 41 fishermen bringing in 279 big Barracuda that were measured and released for a total of 4889.25 inches of toothy, hard-fighting fun. The biggest fish of the contest was recorded in the Spin Division by Dave Moloney of Summerland Key, who boated a 51.5″ Barracuda while fishing with Capt. Shane Smith of Big Pine Key. Another significant accomplishment was a 46” fish caught on a fly rod by Nathaniel Linville of Key West under the guidance of Capt. John Benvenuto, also of Key West. Top boat of the tournament went to Spin Division angler Paul Shultz of Salem, NH. Fishing with Capt. Connan Lehmkhul of Key West, Schultz released 19 Barracuda in two days and scored 271.25” with his 6 biggest fish, including one beast that ran 47.75 inches.