Key West Deep Sea Fishing – Big Fish, Big Fun
January is a month of anticipation in America’s Caribbean paradise. Town gradually quiets a little after the booming holiday season and a new year of Key West fishing heaves into sight off the bow.
It’s the depths of winter here in the Lower Keys. The distinct shifts between cool frontal weather and days that can still push up near 80 degrees combine with the night/day temperature differentials to give us the widest average air and water temp variations of the year. This breaks up the routine for gamefish and fisherman alike, expanding the hunting grounds as bait and fish move in response to environmental conditions.
You never know what’s in store at this time of year, and there are many variables at play that can bring exciting surprises. The extreme and often record-setting winter conditions that have been hitting up north in recent years can trigger similar unusual fishing phenomenon in the Keys. One thing is for sure – The only way to find out what’s going to happen is to get out and get a line in the water.
A Happy New Year of Flats Fishing on the Way
When we get the breaks of mild weather between cold fronts, the Flats fishing can be a lot of fun. By mid-month the crowds are down and a lot of the pressure is off the fish. Warming water activates the non-migrating resident adult Tarpon that lay up in the basins and channels on the Key West Flats. They go after the baitfish that are crowding in to escape the cold offshore currents, and every year a few lucky fishermen with the necessary timing and skill get the unusual privilege of fighting Tarpon in January.
There are also numerous big Barracuda to be found on the Backcountry Flats. When the baitfish seek out the warmer waters of the Flats during the winter, the Barracuda follow. Fish between 4 and 5 feet long leave their haunts around the deep water wrecks and move in to hunt the Flats. These toothy, dramatic predators provide some hot fishing with high-speed runs and big jumps.
Stalking these silver torpedoes as they lie on the surface sunning in the mornings and lurk along the Flats edges in ambush during the day is some of the most heart-pounding angling you will ever do. It is simple fishing – One of the most common baits for Barracuda is a plain piece of brightly-colored surgical tubing threaded over a piece of wire leader with two hooks on it. The fish are hungry, and all it takes is an accurate cast and a high-speed retrieve to get into some of the most exciting Key West Flats fishing there is.
Sight-fishing Barracuda is a good way for new Flats fishermen to hone their casting skills while having a great time. Once you get dialed in, you can find plenty of the more tricky Permit around to throw live crabs or even crab-pattern wet flies to. Be careful or the shallow-water fishing addiction will take hold and you may find yourself staying down in the Keys through spring into the summer Bonefishing season!
The Crevalle Jack is another rowdy and aggressive fish found on the Flats in winter. When you get on these ocean gangsters, they are even easier to fish than Barracuda. Massive schools work the inshore waters, churning the surface as they blast panicked baitfish along the Flats edges. When a big school of Jacks is in a feeding frenzy, they act like Piranha, slamming top-water lures so rabidly that multiple fish are sometimes caught on the same lure.
Jacks are muscular, powerful fish that run hard enough to get the drag smoking. Luckily you often get shots at close range to the boat with not much line out at first because arm cramps can come on long before you get one of these beasts wound back in off its run.
Great Winter Fishing on the Wrecks and Reefs
On calm days, the deep waters of the Atlantic are a great place to ring in the New Year with the sound of screaming drags. Multiple hook-ups on Black Tip and Spinner Sharks over the wrecks are a highlight of the January/February offshore scene. You can go out for Sharks to begin with, or you might just find these 100lb monsters grabbing every Amberjack or Snapper you try to reel up, forcing a switch to the heavy gear. Either way, long fights and awesome photo ops are in store.
A little closer in over the Florida Reef, you may encounter a bit of chop but the light tackle action makes it worth getting your sea legs on. As January winds down, the closest thing there is to winter in the Keys comes in. The winds pick up from the north-northeast and bring in cooler, drier air. As temperatures drop, the offshore baitfish schools head south toward warmer waters and congregate around the reef.
The schools of game fish follow, and Crevalle Jacks, Kingfish, and Cero Mackerel join their prey on the reef and feed actively. Cobia, Grouper, Mutton Snapper and Yellowtail Snapper also come in from the cold deep water to the warmer shallows, where the reef offers protection from the stronger currents and wave action of winter. All of these good-eating fish species go for jigs, plugs or live bait depending on how they are feeding at the time. You end up with a nice mix in the fish boxes and a tasty selection of fillets for the freezer.
Goliath Grouper – The Monster of The Deeps
Here is a recipe for finding extreme January Key West fishing thrills on days when brisk southeast breezes shut the Atlantic side down. What you do is head out to one of the shallow Gulf wrecks and bring in a good-sized Cero Mackerel to start with, or a Bonito will work too. In fact, just about anything works as long as it is big.
Your deck hand will use this 10-12lb fish to bait up a large circle hook on the boat’s heaviest gear. Drop it on down to the bottom and feel one of the most incredible hits in fishing as a Goliath Grouper anywhere up to 500 pounds or so sucks the big bait in whole.
Hopefully you have been putting in your gym time and can get the thing winched up in less than an hour or so. You absolutely need a photo of this trophy, but these amazing fish are strictly protected. What most successful Goliath fisherman do is jump in the water alongside a fish bigger than they are for the fishing pictures of a lifetime.
January Key West Fishing – It’s All About Choices
January is a really good month for fishermen who like to catch a variety of different species in large numbers. Even the shorter half-day trips generate some big catches and a lot of satisfied anglers this time of year. And don’t forget two highlights of Key West winter fishing that are on tap for the month: Kingfish and Sailfish. These are both migrating species and each has two distinct populations that meet in the waters around Key West each year, making for huge numbers of hungry fish on the prowl.
King Mackerel or Kingfish are big, fast open-water game fish that pack a lot of sport fishing excitement when they show up. Kings look similar to Wahoo, are nearly as fast, and the Key West Kingfish commonly run around 40 to 50 pounds. They are so popular that an entire series of tournaments target them along the southern Atlantic coastline from the Carolinas down the Keys.
The spectacular Sailfish needs no introduction as it is one of the most famous and numerous billfish in Key West waters. The winter migration has these open-ocean hunters arriving in packs and drawing anglers from around the world to troll the reef edges off Key West, one of the few spots in the world that can routinely produce multiple Sailfish hook-ups per day for a single boat.
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