Late Spring Key West Fishing: Full Moons and High Tides

The Tarpon fishing stayed fast and furious through the first two weeks of what is shaping up to be a very windy May for Key West fishing. Hookups were near-guaranteed for those dedicated enough to brave the winds and get out there with a guide who could find and stay on the fish in blows that at times hit the 30 knot range. The unusually windy May weather had some captains quipping that May is the new March. Meanwhile, the Tarpon did not seem to mind as around Key West and along the bridges to points north, reports coming in had multiple Silver King hookups on each charter being fairly common. Many fish have been running around 100 pounds, with a few monsters up to 170 pounds coming alongside for those lucky enough to hook and hold onto one of those super-size prehistoric fighting machines.

Although they are real tough to spot, cast to, and fight in high winds, the Flats Tarpon seem to be responding to the windy weather by chomping on baits with less caution than usual. A good Flats technique for windy conditions is to use a soft artificial bait and adjust the weight to keep it high or low depending on what the fish are doing at the time. Keep in mind that windblown water will hide a lot of fish, so though there may appear to be no Tarpon around, they may very well be down a little deeper riding out the blow. Whether on the Flats or in the harbor or channels, with the winds forecast to hold through at least the next week, far better to adjust your technique and temperament to a bit of sporty water than to go home empty-handed.

The deep seas off Key West have also been productive for those with the constitution to fish through 6 to 9 foot seas stacking up on a very fast east-bound current. The full moon turned the open water game fish on, and the Mahi-Mahi fishing in particular has been red-hot. A lot of bull Mahi-Mahi into the 50-pound range have been caught, along with boxes full of schoolie fish. This bodes well for the Mercury/Seahunter Boats Florida Keys Dolphin Championship that kicks off today, May 16th, and runs through the 18th. With the competition on from Key West up to Key Largo, someone is very likely to grab a big 55-pound plus bull and take home the bonus prize of a $75,000 Mercury/Seahunter boat package.

Other notable early May fishing phenomena are happening closer inshore to Key West on the reefs, rocks, and wrecks. With the May full moon this week, the reefs turned on at sunset with the Mutton Snapper spawn, and early reports show that many charter parties had success filling the fish boxes with these fun-fighting, good-eating fish. The Muttons can be expected to keep hitting through the next couple of days as the moon wanes, then show up again around the June full moon on the 12th and 13th.

Another full-moon event of interest, particularly to Tarpon fishermen, is the May/June Palolo Worm Hatch. On the full or new moon, with a falling tide and flat calm conditions at sunset, these earth-worm like sea worms will emerge from their holes in the hard coral rock, mostly on the Atlantic-side coral rock flats, and swim for the reef 6 miles offshore to spawn. The Tarpon love these worms and wait for the hatch, at which point they will follow the swimming worms and gulp as many as they can off the surface. It is common to look out over the flat water and spot thousands of rolling fish taking worms as far as the eye can see. Use a fly with an olive or greenish head and a trailing red body, or a similar artificial, and a fast, steady stripping or reeling retrieve that imitates the straight-line swimming motion of the worms. While hook-ups with these well-fed Tarpon are not guaranteed, the right lure and a realistic retrieve will give you a pretty good shot at a battle with a Palolo-crazed Sliver King.

Then of course we had the Atlantic Grouper opening on May 1st, and Key West fishing charters filled with folks down to hit the patch reefs and wrecks and pit their arm strength against these bottom-hugging power packs. There are so many varieties of Grouper in Key West waters that it is hard to list them all, but some of the most common are the Black and Red Groupers. All Groupers are fished with much the same tactics, and all will run for their holes when hooked and make you feel like your are pulling the bottom out of the ocean trying to get them up.

Guides and other local Grouper fans jealously guard their secret spots, but you can expect to find these ambush feeders anywhere they can find solitary shelter. Wrecks and reefs are favorites, but any kind of rocky ledges or cracks, at a wide range of depths from 10 to 800 feet, are likely to hold big fish. Live, dead, or cut bait, and even jigs and plugs can work on these voracious predators. The heaviest tackle will be required to drag one up before the sharks get to it, and braided line is recommended for its ability to resist the abuse that a fighting Grouper can dish out as it drags your line across jagged rocks, abrasive coral, and the sharp edges of wrecks.

Overall, we are looking at a lot of good Key West fishing action for the rest of the month and into June, especially if the weather cooperates and knocks the wind down to its normal summer breeze levels. The key is to watch the lunar and tidal tables and maximize the seasonal fishing phenomena to your advantage. On a final note, captains need to be aware that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission enforcement officers will be conducting operation “Wave the Flag” on Saturday and Sunday, May 19 and 20, with the goal of raising divers-down dive-flag awareness on the part of boaters and divers. Divers must properly display a 20 x 24 inch unfurled dive flag and attempt to remain within 300 feet of the flag. Boaters must make a reasonable effort to stay at least 300 feet from divers-down flags in open water, and at least 100 feet from flags on rivers, inlets or navigation channels. If a vessel must approach closer than 300 feet in open water and 100 feet in a river, inlet, or navigation channel, the captain must slow to idle speed. Officers will be using laser radar units to measure the distance between boaters and divers, pursuing violators, and issuing written warnings and citations.