Reef fishing is a type of bottom fishing that most commonly involves dropping live or dead bait down to catch the fish that live on or near a reef. Reef types can include rock reefs, coral reefs, or artificial reefs placed for the purpose of attracting and holding fish and other marine life. These artificial reefs can consist of any item that provides spaces for fish to live in: sunken ships and aircraft, piles of scrap concrete, or various specially-made structures.
Paralleling the Florida Keys to the southeast, lying about 6 miles offshore of Key West, the Florida Reef is the only living coral reef system in North America. Like every other coral reef, it is home to millions of marine creatures. The amount of food and shelter available means there are uncountable fish on the reef, both species that gather in large schools and solitary species. This abundance of fish is why a knowledgeable fisherman can almost guarantee good fishing action on a Key West reef fishing trip.
The Key West reef has varying topography and structure. There are depths and shallows, and areas where trolling and fishing with lures along the top of the reef are common tactics. On the outside edge of the reef, the bottom drops away, and the Gulf Stream current runs at various distances from the reef according to the season.
Inside the reef, from the shores the Keys outward, the shallow shoreline bottom gives way to a channel that runs from Key West north to Fort Lauderdale at anywhere from 30 to 60 feet deep – Hawk Channel. Across the channel, the water shallows up again as the bottom rises to the reef itself. These shallows on the inside of the reef include areas of coral bottom that local fishermen call “Patch Reefs”. Like the main reef, the Patch Reefs hold many species of fish and offer great fishing.
Fishing both inside and outside the main reef is productive for many popular sportfish species. A variety of Snappers, several Grouper species, Cero Mackerel, Kingfish, Tuna, Wahoo, and Sailfish can all be targeted with various strategies on reef fishing trips. Lots of fish and plenty of delicious fillets for the freezer are common outcomes when reef fishing.
If your goal is catching as many fish as possible, reef fishing is a good choice. It is also a simple style of fishing that is easy for children or beginner fishermen to handle. Reef fishing around Key West is quite interesting because there is so much shallow-water coral cover stretching north and south of the island. And about 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas islands offer a remote and nearly pristine reef ecosystem for adventurous fishermen to explore.