AN IN­SIDER’S GUIDE TO SAILFISHING IN THE FLORIDA KEYS

RE­MARK­ABLE WIN­TER­TIME FISH­ING IS ONLY ONE REA­SON TO VISIT

Marlin - - CONTENTS FEATURES - By Capt. Jen Copeland

Re­mark­able win­ter­time fish­ing is only one rea­son to visit

HAV­ING MY BOTH SIGHTS BEEN IN THE AL­MOST FAB­U­LOUS BOSS NORTH FISH­ING WAY. UP WORKED AND AND AND 20 AND KEY FLORIDA YEARS, HIS TASTES DOWN AND WHEN LARGO AS GUESTS A SHOW­ING I CAP­TAIN ALONG THESE HAVE KEYS THIS FOR THE SAIL­FISH WAY WEEK’S AREA, FOR THERE COLD THE TO PUSH NEXT FRONT ARE INTO PLENTY WAVE MAKES THE OF OF BLOW­ING WHAT-TO AC­TIV­I­TIES -DO -WHEN-IT’S TO - PASS YOU THE WANT TIME. TO TAKE SO WHETHER YOUR OWN BOAT DOWN, CHAR­TER YOUR WAY THROUGH OR TOW A CEN­TER-CON­SOLE FOR A SE­RI­OUS ROAD TRIP, SPEND­ING A WIN­TER SEA­SON IN THE KEYS IS A GREAT WAY TO GAIN SOME MEM­O­RABLE EX­PE­RI­ENCES, ON AND OFF THE WA­TER.

NORTH KEY LARGO 25° 18' 42" N, 80° 16' 46" W

At 33 miles long, Key Largo is the largest sec­tion of the Keys ar­chi­pel­ago. Its claim to fame started in 1948, when the movie

Key Largo, star­ring Humphrey Bog­art and Lau­ren Ba­call, came to town to film set­ting and back­ground shots, even though the ac­tual movie was shot in Hol­ly­wood, Cal­i­for­nia. The hype caused the town, from the north­ern part of Rock Har­bor down to Tav­ernier, to change the name of the post of­fice in 1952 just to bear the words Key Largo in its post­mark. Fancy.

Key Largo starts the Keys’ south­west curve to­ward the Gulf of Mex­ico, from the Ever­glades Na­tional Park to the north­west and John Pen­nekamp Co­ral Reef State Park to the east, which marks the north­ern bound­ary of the only liv­ing bar­rier reef in the con­ti­nen­tal United States. Key Largo is also one of the first places south­bound sail­fish stop to feed — some­times for weeks.

A word of cau­tion: When nav­i­gat­ing in the Keys, re­mem­ber there are rocks and co­ral heads lurk­ing in the shal­lows, and these sur­prises don’t al­ways show up on the charts. Just bring your Ba­hamas nav­i­ga­tion skills with you and keep in mind the reef is not as for­giv­ing as sand or grass, and it’s also pro­tected.

WHERE TO STAY

The choices for big-boat mari­nas are slim in Key Largo. I would only sug­gest two places: Ocean Reef Club on the north­ern tip, and Ma­rina del Mar at mile marker 100 in town.

Ocean Reef is a pri­vate club, and yes, it does re­quire a mem­ber spon­sor­ship if you are vis­it­ing, but it’s well worth the has­sle. The ma­rina is world-class, as are the ac­com­mo­da­tions, and the chan­nel is deep (aside from one rock in the mid­dle, which is marked and best coasted over at low tide). Whether you want to stay in the newly ren­o­vated ho­tel, on your boat in the ma­rina, rent a house or condo of any size, or book any one of the nu­mer­ous in­shore or off­shore char­ters, Ocean Reef Club can ac­com­mo­date you. Just re­mem­ber that the club is 70 years old, steeped in tra­di­tion and is gen­er­ally a quiet com­mu­nity, so if you have a boat­load of up-all-nighters, you might want to stop in Mi­ami for the first leg of your jour­ney south, or just head straight to Key West.

Ma­rina del Mar Re­sort and Ma­rina pro­vides both rooms and suites, some over­look­ing the at­tached 77-slip deep­wa­ter ma­rina. A 60-footer should have no prob­lem get­ting in and out, most of the time.

WHERE TO FISH

Com­pared to the rest of the Keys, Key Largo re­ceives very lit­tle fish­ing pres­sure. The bait is plen­ti­ful, and the sail­fish shower bal­ly­hoo in the shal­low wa­ter in­side the reef line for most of the win­ter. Even on the week­ends, the most con­ges­tion to con­tend with is a line of boats fish­ing for yel­low­tail snap­per on the reef ’s edge.

Out in front of Ocean Reef Club, there are hun­dreds of reef patches to catch bait on, most of which are only 3 miles away. The club main­tains moor­ing buoys to min­i­mize an­chor dam­age

to the pro­tected bot­tom, and they are ori­ented mostly for bait-fish­ing in any­thing but a west wind. Bal­ly­hoo swarm these ar­eas be­gin­ning in the late fall and through the win­ter, usu­ally thin­ning out in Fe­bru­ary, and sar­dines can some­times be found in the sand on flat-calm days.

An­other 3 miles out, the deeper reef edge be­gins in 45 to 60 feet, and it is there that some of the best fish­ing in the Keys can be found. Sail­fish travel in and out of the cuts in the reef through­out the day, so the like­li­hood of an en­counter by sit­ting on the edge or look­ing around in the sand is good. A bonus: Black­fin tuna and mahi are prac­ti­cally a daily oc­cur­rence, even in the shal­low wa­ter.

IS­LAM­ORADA 24° 92’ 43” N, 80° 62’ 78” W

In 1513, Span­ish ex­plor­ers sighted the is­lands, nam­ing them Is­lam­orada: the Pur­ple Isle. The Vil­lage of Is­lam­orada con­sists of six Florida Keys — two are a part of the Florida State Parks sys­tem, and one, Tea Table Key, is com­pletely pri­vate — that are lo­cated just about a third of the way down the is­land chain.

A pop­u­lar tourism des­ti­na­tion, Is­lam­orada boasts one of the finest char­ter fleets in the United States. With char­ter op­er­a­tors and guides at al­most ev­ery ma­rina, you will have no prob­lem find­ing some­one to take you out for a great day on the wa­ter.

Dock­age through­out most of the Keys is al­ways a co­nun­drum. The wa­ter sur­round­ing these is­lands is shal­low and mostly rocky, so un­less you draw less than 4 feet, you will even­tu­ally have a prob­lem. If you are bring­ing your big boat, in­ves­ti­gate houses for rent with deep­wa­ter canal dock­age in­side Snake Creek or in the bay. I found sev­eral houses on­line, and they seem rea­son­ably priced for the ameni­ties they of­fer.

WHERE TO STAY

One place I’ve al­ways wanted to stay in Is­lam­orada is a for­mer co­conut plan­ta­tion called the Moor­ings Vil­lage. On the ocean side, the Moor­ings is home to 18 acres of beau­ti­ful palm-stud­ded beach­front prop­erty with 18 pri­vate vil­las nes­tled among the trees. If quiet and tran­quil is what you want, this is the place.

Just across the Over­seas High­way, on the bay side, is the sis­ter prop­erty of Mo­rada Bay — home of the best full-moon party in the Keys — and Pierre’s Res­tau­rant, which mir­rors the plan­ta­tion­style en­vi­rons and is known for its el­e­gant at­mos­phere, breath­tak­ing sun­sets and so­phis­ti­cated French-fu­sion cui­sine.

An­other 30 miles south, on Duck Key, is the Hawk’s Cay Re­sort and Ma­rina. The re­sort has been closed for a year due to havoc caused by Hur­ri­cane Irma, and is sched­uled to reopen by the time this is­sue goes to press. The ma­rina con­struc­tion is un­der­way, but an ex­act re­open­ing date could not be ver­i­fied.

WHERE TO FISH

Fish­ing any­where in the Keys is usu­ally within 10 miles of land. Just off­shore of Hawk Chan­nel — which runs close to shore from Key Bis­cayne down through the length of the is­lands — is a shal­low bar­rier reef line, dot­ted with co­ral spurs and sand grooves, grass patches and sandy ar­eas wor­thy of in­ves­ti­ga­tion when hunt­ing for live bait.

A friend of mine has what he calls the bait sweep, lo­ca­tions he makes a point to hit: in­side Davis Reef, south­west of the marker; Crocker Reef, which the lo­cals call E Marker, although there is no marker there; and just north of Al­li­ga­tor Light. Im­me­di­ately off­shore of these spots is also a good place to start sailfishing.

Sight-fish­ing for sail­fish is great in Is­lam­orada, with miles of shal­low-wa­ter sand chan­nels run­ning par­al­lel to the shore­line. When the edge is slow, I will sneak in there and wait for them to come to me. Since sails are al­most al­ways on the move, you can find a few good batches of fish that way. The Ea­gle wreck is also a good spot to fish, since the sails are al­most al­ways there, but whether they bite or not is an­other story.

KEY WEST 24° 33’ 33” N, 81° 47’ 03” W

As Juan Ponce de León made land­fall in 1521, Bone Cay, the lit­eral mean­ing of Cayo Hueso, was be­lieved to be the west­ern­most key with a re­li­able wa­ter source. Ru­mor is the is­land was used as a com­mu­nal grave­yard by na­tive in­hab­i­tants and per­haps is the ba­sis for the is­land’s di­rect link to the para­nor­mal, rank­ing the Conch Repub­lic as one of the most haunted cities in the con­ti­nen­tal United States.

For sail­fish en­thu­si­asts, Key West is mostly a spring­time fish­ing spot — one of the last big bites oc­curs here each spring, and the threadfin her­ring are plen­ti­ful. Many teams come here to catch the last of the South Florida sail­fish tour­na­ment cir­cuit be­fore peel­ing off to the Ba­hamas or Isla Mu­jeres, Mex­ico, af­ter­ward.

WHERE TO STAY

For a big-boat op­er­a­tion, you can’t get much bet­ter than Key West. At Key West Bight you’ll find dock­age and lodg­ing, but if you’d rather get out of the hus­tle and bus­tle of Key West’s Mal­lory Square shenani­gans, I sug­gest the Oceans Edge Re­sort and Ma­rina on Stock Is­land. With a ca­sual Keys vibe, Oceans Edge is close enough to take in the cul­ture of Du­val Street via one of the com­pli­men­tary shut­tles the re­sort pro­vides.

Ocean­side Ma­rina is widely con­sid­ered to be Key West’s finest, of­fer­ing dock­age for ves­sels up to 140 feet and 111 wet slips, with a controlling depth of 12 feet, mak­ing it per­fect for mother­ship op­er­a­tions.

WHERE TO FISH

The shal­low-edge fish­ing we nor­mally en­joy in the up­per and mid­dle Keys seems to some­what go by the way­side in Key West. While we en­joy a reef ledge, Key West ac­tu­ally has two ledges in a few places — an in­ner and outer reef line, with a deep gully run­ning be­tween them.

The choices of bait in Key West are the same as the rest of the Keys. Threadfin her­ring can be found on the range mark­ers — as can cigar min­nows — sur­round­ing Key West, specif­i­cally the Gulf side of the North­west Chan­nel, as well as the mark­ers in Hawk Chan­nel. Bal­ly­hoo are on the shal­low reefs and ledges on both the At­lantic and Gulf sides.

In Key Largo, we have what we call the Spot — a place in the reef where the sails seem to con­gre­gate when the bait is pushed up against it. In Key West, one of those spots is Sambo Reef.

Sambo — Eastern, Mid­dle and Western — has a dou­ble reef line ly­ing di­rectly south­east of Key West and a few miles east of the ship’s chan­nel. The bot­tom is mostly flat, with a well-de­fined 80- to 90-foot de­pres­sion run­ning off and on be­tween Mary­land Shoal to the east and past Sand Key to the west called the Bar. This gully is flanked on both sides by reef — a per­fect bait-trap­ping sce­nario. But as great as Sambo sounds, there are those days where clear wa­ter and an east cur­rent are the con­di­tions to find when try­ing to tackle Key West sail­fish.

There’s a rea­son why so many fish­er­men who come to the Florida Keys never leave: They don’t need to. In the span of one win­ter off­shore sea­son — gen­er­ally from Novem­ber through April — you can eas­ily have shots at hun­dreds of sail­fish, hordes of tu­nas, swarms of dol­phin, the oc­ca­sional pack of wa­hoo and some ridicu­lous deep- and patch-reef fish­ing on the side. It’s an easy place to love.

How­ever, the small-boat basin for ves­sels less than 32 feet is up and run­ning.

When the fish­ing off­shore is slow, you can some­times find trav­el­ing sails on clear days in the sandy chan­nels that lie be­tween the shal­low in­shore reef patches and the deeper drop-offs.

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