Cooling Temps Heat Up the Key West Winter Fishing

People tend to think that sub-tropical Key West has no distinct seasons. To some extent, they are correct – you see no colorful leaves or frosted windows, and there is a definite lack of spring mud under bare trees that will later bud young green leaves as crocus and daffodils push up around the edges of melting snow banks. However, we do have something on the island that is even better, especially if you are a true lover of fishing. Key West has very definite fishing seasons, and Key West Winter Fishing is probably the best of them.

While you will see more blustery days and rough water in winter, the number and variety of fish that move into Key West waters in the winter more than make up for the bad weather. As the water cools and migrating baitfish begin to stack up on the reef, predatory game fish gather for the feast. On the bottom, the Grouper, Mackerel, and Snapper are numerous and easy to catch. On the top of the reef, thick schools of ballyhoo and cooler winds from the north draw the Sailfish in to the shallow water. The Sailfish attack on the surface, spraying the baitfish as thousands of the small fish leap and churn the water in a frenzy to escape the Sailfish slashing into their schools. When a captain can find this condition, it makes for exciting angling, as it is possible to cast directly into the feeding Sails.

The waters further off shore of Key West on the Atlantic side have also been producing good numbers of Sailfish the last couple of weeks, with live threadfin herring working well to bring the bites at depths from 130 to 180 feet. When the winds switch to the south, boats have been hitting the Mahi-Mahi that are feeding in the 150 to 200 foot depth range about 6 miles offshore in the Gulfstream. The southeast winds have been dominant this year, and we have been having an unusually warm winter season thus far. Offshore water temperatures have averaged about 79 degrees the past few weeks, and conditions have been summer-like.

With the warm water, abundant weed lines have offered consistent action on Mahi-Mahi, mostly in the smaller sizes, but some captains have been boating the occasional nice bull or cow as well. Hurricane season and stormy fall weather in Central America will produce loads of organic flotsam like tree trunks, branches, and root balls. This debris drifts into the weed lines and draws a lot of baitfish, which in turn bring in large numbers of Blackfin Tuna, Skipjacks, and Wahoo, along with the Dolphins. One Key West captain even reported a Blue Marlin coming into the bait spread while he was fishing along the weed lines. This hot offshore action has been more like summer fishing this year.On the deep water wrecks, the Amberjacks, Tuna, and Sharks are in feeding in large numbers, and have been providing plenty of hard-pulling action. There are also a lot of big Permit on the wrecks, and these sizeable fish have the strength to put up a monumental fight when they are hooked. Wreck fishing will also produce Cobia this time of year, and these are big, good-eating fish if you are looking to fill the freezer with some winter meat. The same goes for Mackerel because all three species (King, Cero, and Spanish) are in and ready to eat anything that resembles a baitfish.

The cooling water in the Backcountry and Flats has thinned the Tarpon numbers as they pull back into the channels, but they are being replaced by a lot of large Sharks and incoming Barracuda, Redfish, and Seatrout. During the windows of good weather, the water has been calming down enough to make for some very beautiful and enjoyable days on the Flats. The winter Backcountry offers the table fisherman a great opportunity to build up a nice stock of filets, with the Pompano, Redfish, Trout, and Mangrove Snapper all plentiful and easy to catch. This type of fishing makes for a good option on the many days when the offshore waters are too rough for comfort. The reef is also a fish buffet, with nice filleting species like Grouper, Mutton Snapper, and Yellowtail all thick in the water.

Key West winter fishing is great, and the town is filling up with seasonal visitors and getting lively. Whether you want to combine some warm weather holiday festivities with a bit of fishing, or come in the quieter days after New Years for a relaxed time on the water, it’s all good in Key West. Just come on down – the water is warm and the fishing is hot.