Fishing in Key West
Although the waters surrounding Key West and the Lower Keys are best-known for their deep-sea catches of sailfish, wahoo and tuna, exciting fishing takes place anywhere from the shallowest flats and backcountry waters to wrecks and reefs to the deepest blue water beyond.
Key West’s most famous resident fisherman, Ernest Hemingway, spent a lifetime in search of blue marlin, but avid anglers flock here knowing that Key West and the Lower Keys offer a great variety of world-class fishing year-round.
Captain Mark Schmidt, who operates Sundancer Charters out of The Westin Key West Resort & Marina, has been a fishing guide in Key West and the Lower Keys since 1980, so he knows the local waters well. He says the reason the waters off Key West are such a fishing hotspot is because the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico co-mingle there, bringing kingfish, sailfish and cobia migrating down from both the Gulf and Atlantic sides.
The variety of fishing grounds include offshore, reef, channel and wreck, on both the Gulf and Atlantic sides, and at depths ranging from less than 20 feet to 240 feet, which makes fishing these waters ideal for everyone, from beginners to pros. And the miles of flats, which feature plenty of interconnecting channels and basins, are ripe with a variety of fish.
On a typical day fishing offshore, past the reef’s edge, captains will slow-troll live bait for sailfish, kingfish, blackfin tuna, small barracuda and dolphin. In shallower water, they anchor off the reef and, using chum, attract those fish as well as yellowtail, mutton or mangrove snapper, cero mackerel and various species of jacks and grouper.
Closer to shore, in Hawks Channel, the coral heads are home to all of these as well as sharks. Flats trips can produce bonefish, permit and tarpon; channels and basins often hold ladyfish, trout and pompano.
Although fishing in Key West is seasonal for such migratory species as tarpon, sailfish, kingfish and cobia, there are plenty of fish to catch year-round. Here’s a guide on what’s out there to catch when:
- Year-round: Grouper around the reef and wrecks; Permit around the reef, wrecks and flats; Sharks around the reef, wrecks, blue water and flats; Snapper in the backcountry, flats and on the reef; Snook in the backcountry and around wrecks; Barracuda in blue water and around the flats, reef and wrecks
- January-May: Amberjack around the reef and wrecks
- March-July: Tarpon in the flats and backcountry
- March-November: Dolphin (Mahi Mahi/Dorado) in blue water
- April-October: Bonefish around the flats
- April-December: Blue Marlin in blue water
- May-December: White Marlin in blue water
- July-December: Redfish in the backcountry
- September-May: King Mackerel around the reef and wrecks and in blue water
- October-May: Sailfish around the reef and in blue water
- October-August: Tuna in blue water
- October-July: Wahoo in blue water and around the reef
- November-April: Cobia around the reef, around wrecks and in the flats