Key West Fishing: A Mixed Bag of Summer Fun

As July winds down and the dog days of August loom ahead, the focus for Key West fishing is starting to shift from the offshore waters to near shore action. The Gulf Stream will be swinging farther out to sea, taking the green water zone with it, so boats hunting big Mahi-Mahi or searching the waters for Blue and White Marlin will have to run far to hit the good grounds. Key West charter captains are still reporting fair action on smaller schoolie Dolphins in the 10-12 pound range – enough to provide some fun and put some delicious meat on the table. But the bigger fish are going to take a longer run out than most people (and sport fishing boats) will be up for.

Speaking of big fish, the Tarpon migration is also over for the most part, as the Silver Kings wound up their yearly travels shortly after the July full moon. However, there are still plenty of fish around Key West Harbor for anglers who are ready to either get up and at them early or signup for a sunset trip. Tarpon can be found in the shallows too, and for those who are dedicated to one of sport fishing’s ultimate quests, Tarpon on the Flats and the dead calm days of August on the horizon mean that the Keys Grand Slam season is on. Given that the Permit fishing has been good this summer, and the Bonefish are turning up in solid numbers, the chances of scoring hook-ups on all three species on one trip out to the skinny waters of the Flats are as good as they will ever get. If you are after a Grand Slam, put together a trip with the right guide, on the right day, and with favorable tides and a big dose of luck combined with some patience and skill, you may find your dream come true.

In other action around the island, dropping baits on the Reef has been providing a good antidote for the slowing deep sea fishing, and for fisherman who would like to avoid the rougher water offshore. The Mangrove and Yellowtail Snapper spawns have been hot the past week, and many boats have been returning to dock with limits that include some big fish. The fish will hit chunk bait, but live bait is the key to hauling up the big ones. Drop baits on the Reef for Snappers in about 80-125 feet of water, throw in some hookups on Mackerel and a few Jacks, and you have a day of fun fishing and a batch of nice fillets to stock the freezer with.

As always at this time of summer, the big buzz around Key West is the two-day recreational sport Spiny Lobster Mini-Season, held each year on the last Wednesday and Thursday in July. While there are some downsides to the arrival of some 30,000 “lobster mobsters” in the Keys, there is no doubting the excitement it brings to town. If you want to go out for some of these delicious crustaceans, be sure to know your regulations: 6 lobsters per day per person, and you must have a measuring device with you in the water to make sure that each lobster measures 3 inches from the eyes to the start of the tail. Each fisherman needs a Florida Fishing License with a Lobster Stamp.

The Mini-Season begins at midnight the first day, but divers are not allowed in the water until sunrise. Nighttime lobstering is done with a net on a pole and a dive light that can be held underwater. In “Bully Netting”, lobsters are spotted by the glow of their eyes and the net is dropped over them, startling the lobster into swimming up into it. The net is then flipped over and hauled up, hopefully with a nice lobster aboard. It is far more fun and interesting to dive for lobsters during the day, going underwater with a snorkel or SCUBA gear and poking along ledges and under coral heads to spot and capture the creatures by hand. Divers usually use a “tickle stick” to reach in behind the lobster and startle it out of its den to where it can be grabbed with gloved hands. If you dive for lobsters, remember to play it safe (and legal) with a diver-down flag. Flags on vessels must be 20×24 inches; flags on towed bouys must be 12×12 inches. All flags must have stiffeners to keep them unfurled and visible. Stay within 300 feet of the dive flag in open water, 100 feet when diving in a river, inlet, or navigation channel.

In competition news, the Key West Del Brown Invitational Permit Tournament, held July 13 -16, met with great success this year. The tournament, dedicated to the memory of Del Brown, one of the original Permit fly-fishing geniuses and an international star of the sport, has been plagued with bad weather and poor fishing the past few years. This year, the weather and fishing conditions aligned to produce some of the best action in recent memory. Fifteen angler/guide teams caught and released 15 Permit over the 3 days of the event. The overall win was taken home by Key West local Nathaniel Linville, fishing with Captain Aaron Snell. Linville released 5 Permit to tally a total of 800 points. His biggest fish, boated on the third day of fishing, ran 32” long to the fork of its tail. First runner up honors went to Greg Vincent from Grand Bahama Island guided by Captain Justin Rea of Sugarloaf Key. Vincent, the 2013 Del Brown champion posted 300 points scored by 2 Permit released, including a 25.5-inch fish. This year’s tournament also marked a milestone as Key Wester Kat Vallilee, the first woman to fish the tournament, caught her first-ever permit on fly while fishing with Captain Drew Delashmit of Cudjoe Key. Proceeds from the tournament were contributed to the Jon Ain Memorial Fund at the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.