Summertime Fun with Key West Fishing

Summer is here in Key West, with high temperatures, low crowding, and a few showers to keep things cool. All in all, a June recipe for fantastic Key West fishing. Everywhere has been pretty good, with a few sailfish still on the reef edges, the Flats alive with Permit, Bonefish, and Tarpon, tons of Mahi-Mahi offshore, and the Wreck Fishing heating up with the summer spawning season.

One perennial June fishing highlight always worth keeping an eye on in Key West is classic tournament action on the forbidden (for Americans) waters off our neighbor island Cuba. This week marked the 64th annual Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament, hosted out of Marina Hemingway, 9 miles west of Havana, Cuba. The competition took place June 9th to the 14th, with 4 days of fishing beginning on the 10th, a lay-day June 12th, and the final day of fishing, award ceremony, and farewell party on the 14th.

This legendary fishing contest is one of the oldest saltwater big-game fishing contests in the world. The Hemingway International was inaugurated on May 26, 1950 when 36 of Havana’s best fishing boats left Havana harbor on the hunt for big fish out in the Gulf Stream. One of those boats was the Pilar, built and owned by author Ernest Hemingway, an early legend of the Key West fishing scene. Hemingway fished that first tournament representing the International Yacht Club de La Habana. In recognition of the writer’s dedication to big game fishing, a group of fisherman proposed naming the tournament after him. Hemingway agreed and sealed the deal by winning the first 3 editions of the contest, much to the dismay of the locals who had decades of experience fishing the Cuban waters.

This year, the catch-and-release tournament drew 22 teams of fishermen from around the world ready pit their sport fishing skills and spools of 50-pound test line against Dolphin, Marlin, Tuna, and Wahoo. Four days of fishing saw 20 Blue Marlin and 6 White Marlin tagged and released, while 48 Mahi-Mahi (Dorado in the Spanish-speaking waters.) and 1 Tuna were also boated. The tournament win was claimed by a Cuban team from the fishing village of Jaimanitas, adjacent to Marina Hemingway. The winning anglers fished aboard the vessel Santi, helmed by Captain Juan A. Díaz Castañeda and crewed by mate Rafael García Salazar. Besides tagging and releasing three blue Marlin, a White Marlin, and 5 Dorado including the 40.5 pound winner of the Dolphin category, anglers Felix L. Alvarez Trujillo, Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, and Jose L. Conde Alvarez of team Santi made history by being the first Cuban team to represent one of the small villages outside of Havana in the competition.

Another notable first for this event was the participation of 4 American anglers representing the Lighthouse Point Saltwater Sportsman Association. With support from the Florida-Cuba Environmental Coalition and the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba, the American fishermen received permission from the Treasury Department to travel to Cuba by air for the tournament. Efforts are now underway to make it possible for U.S. sport fisherman to cruise to Cuba in their own boats to participate in the 65th running of the Hemingway Tournament next year. In September, a group of U.S. citizens will join the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded for “The Old Man and the Sea”, and the 80th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s first voyage between Key West and Havana. We congratulate the angler-diplomats of the Hemingway International and hope that the sporting spirit and love for big, beautiful game fish shared by fishermen of all nations will keep the fishing and friendship growing until the excellent fishing waters between the Keys and Cuba are once again fully open to our Key West fishing boats.

Key West Flats Fishing has been good the last few days, benefiting from the full moon and big morning high tides, very low water in the afternoons, and the cooling effect of late-evening incoming high water. A lack of crowds is another plus factor, with fishing pressure reduced by the low visitor numbers of the Keys’ offseason and the absence of guides who take the summer off to fish northern climes. Bonefish and Permit are both present in good numbers on the Flats east of Key West, although the dead calm water of the past week often made it hard to get close to the fish. Permit in particular are much easier to cast to when there is a breeze driving a little chop on the water. In calm water, it is much more important to be able to place the bait or fly in front of the fish with as little disturbance as possible. With any luck, the fish will stick around and breezy conditions will turn up for the Del Brown Permit Tournament, kicking off in less than a month.

There is also some great Tarpon fishing happening on the Flats and in Key West Harbor. Large numbers of fish and reduced fishing pressure have been adding up to good results for Key West captains and their guests. Soft artificials and crabs have both been working well on the Flats for fishermen who get out on the water with the sunrise. The bite really turned on the day of the full moon, with the morning bite lasting most of the day. The harbor has also been producing well, and drifting baits on the slack tide or anchoring and chumming have both been good for near-guaranteed hook-ups with the Silver Kings. Plenty of shrimp boat by-catch for chum and live pinfish and crabs for bait have been the way to go, with lots of fast action happening aboard the charters and Tarpon up to 125 pounds along with good catches of Snapper and Grouper being reported on the docks.