Florida is a major destination for Northeast anglers looking to bend a rod on a host of inshore and offshore species from March through May.
Northeast anglers have lots of time to kill before their favorite target species return to local waters, and you can spend that time sharpening your skills for the upcoming season while enjoying some of the best fishing of the year in Florida.
While there’s a lot to be said for fishing in Florida during the height of winter, the only thing guaranteed at that time is wind! While there can actually be some very good sailfishing when our northwesters howl down south, the crazy action of years gone by doesn’t seem to happen any longer, but those cool north winds still provide the best sailfish bite off the Gold Coast for those willing to take a beating in the Gulf Stream just a few miles offshore. When the wind shifts to the southeast, and seas become more comfortable, sailfishing usually gets a lot tougher.
Just about everything else improves in March as many species begin spring runs, and there are more days with moderate winds. There’s even a good shot of sailfish under nice conditions by kite fishing with live baits. Mark Roy, who runs his Release Me back home in New Jersey, fished several times with Capt. Jon Cooper on his Miami based Diversion. I was aboard on April 5 when we released eight sailfish up to an impressive 80 pounds. During other trips when the sailfish bite wasn’t as good, Cooper dropped live baits along the reef edges in search of mutton snapper. That rig also produced a yellowfin tuna, a rainbow runner and a 20 1/2-inch slippery dick (a colorful but usually tiny fish of the reefs) plus a couple of mystery fish that tied up Mark on full drag for some time before breaking off.
Possibly the best fishing I ever had in Florida was on a March day some years back, when the late Lefty Kreh arranged for me to fish with Capt. Bob Montgomery during my first visit to Key West. Montgomery ran his center console to a wreck far out into the Gulf of Mexico during one of those rare calm days. When he stopped, I hooked up a blue runner and held it on the surface. Large brown shapes appeared within moments, and the anchor was dropped. I kept the bait splashing on the top right at the stern to act as live bait chum, and we were soon surrounded by big cobia that hit anything I threw at them. I wound up catching 15 of them up to a 46-pounder that fell for a pink soft plastic.
Many good captains and guides regularly run to wrecks and blue holes from Key West and Marathon. Big barracuda are usually waiting when boats first arrive, and I always have a tube lure rigged on my spinning rod to draw a spectacular strike. My largest cuda, a 42-pounder, was released at a blue hole 53 miles offshore of Marathon after it hit a very long Sekora 52 striped bass tube. On another occasion, I was casting that tube at what I thought were cuda over a wreck, but they turned out to be cobia. Rather than spooking them, the cobia exploded on that huge tube.
Guides fishing the Gulf wrecks often run through Northwest Channel to swap beer for shrimp boat “trash” (by-catch of small fish and crabs) that will turn on whatever is on the wreck. There are always snappers and groupers near bottom if you can reel them in fast enough before a Goliath grouper nails them first. Schools of permit are common on the surface, and these aren’t the wary permit of the flats. They’ll usually hit live crabs and small jigs and sometimes dead crabs. I once cast a Hopkins to what I thought was a school of amberjack and ended up catching and releasing a permit on the metal.
As good as the wreck fishing in the Gulf can be, there is also fine sport available with the trash in Northwest Channel when the wind and tide are together. Small mojarra and crabs are drifted back with a tiny sliding sinker into the chum line for everything from snappers and groupers to permit and 100-pound tarpon. If the weather isn’t favorable for that area, guides can anchor right in the protected harbor to catch tarpon and permit around the anchored sailboats. When the weather is right, there’s also the ocean side reef chumming for yellowtail and mutton snapper, plus grouper – while live baits fished on the surface at the same time may produce king mackerel, amberjack, barracuda, wahoo or even a sailfish. Large yellowfin tuna may also be encountered along the reef in March, and sailfishing often turns on further offshore for those trolling live baits. Though flats fishing in the Keys isn’t at its best until later in the spring, March is actually a good month for permit on the flats from Key West out to the Dry Tortugas. Flats fishing steadily improves through April and May.
Further up the Keys, there’s a unique opportunity to catch a swordfish in the daytime not too far offshore. Richard Stanczyk developed that fishery out of his Bud ‘N Mary’s Marina in Islamorada, and his son Nick has become the most consistent producer of that great gamefish. Though baits are dropped to great depths, the fight isn’t the ordeal you might expect as breakaway weights are used and swordfish come up when hooked. It’s just a matter of cranking in a lot of line before the real fight begins in the last few hundred feet. You may be able to catch mahi while waiting for a sword to find your bait.
Richard said winter flats fishing in the middle Keys was very good as the red tide that was a problem further up the Gulf seemed to push more fish to them. The hurricane two years ago almost wiped out Bud ‘N Mary’s, but it’s been rebuilt bigger and better than ever. Richard’s other son, Rick, is a great flats guide for everything from bonefish to snook, redfish and black drum. March will produce some tarpon prior to the popular spring run that produces big tarpon on live mullet and crabs at the bridges. Most of those fish range from 50 to 125 pounds, but I released one while fishing just minutes from the dock with Richard two years ago that had a massive girth and was estimated at 140 to 150 pounds on 20-pound tackle.
I’ve caught smaller tarpon fishing the bridges from shore at night by casting on the uptide side during the outgoing tide when shrimp and small fish are swept past the waiting tarpon at the pilings. The tarpon reached from the sides are usually 15 to 50 pounds, and can often be pulled away from the bridge with a heavy drag as they jump wildly when hooked. With bigger tarpon you’ve got to get lucky and hope they respond to the pressure by running into the tide and away from the bridge to tire them out before inevitably moving back with the strong current. A couple of years ago I got lucky and managed to release a tarpon of about 80 pounds. My favorite lures are the single hook DOA Bait Busters, Tsunami Shads and 2-ounce bucktail jigs. Bridge tarpon wise up after a few are jumped, and it’s best to then move on to the many other bridges that stretch along the Middle Keys.
There’s also a party boat at Bud ‘N Mary’s, and the Miss Islamorada is a first class operation. I fished aboard that boat during a calm spring day, which usually isn’t good for yellowtail snappers in crystal clear waters. Yet, that day there was a good bite of delicious yellowtails that were all over the 12-inch minimum–and I only fell one short of the 10-yellowtail bag limit while adding a 20-1/2-pound king mackerel before Capt. T.J. moved the boat to deeper water for a shot at groupers. Though the target species didn’t cooperate, there was more variety and I was surprised by a 4-pound jolthead porgy that ate a half-ballyhoo bait.
Capt. Rick Killgore who fishes out of Tavernier, just above Islamorada, was one of the first bonefish guides I ever fished with, right after earning his marine biology degree. I’ll never forget the sight of big bonefish tails flashing in the last rays of evening light off Lignum Vitae Key as he poled so quietly to get within casting range of those ever-wary fish. Rick now runs a big private boat, but still has time for a few guided flats, bridge tarpon or offshore trips on his smaller boats.
Capt. Jay York has employed his expertise gained in fishing on Long Island to drift the reefs off Jupiter with baits targeting snappers and groupers, while also providing a good shot at larger gamefish such as amberjack, dolphin and king mackerel. Some sailfish and even an occasional wahoo are also caught every year from the six-passenger Mystic Rose, which sails morning and afternoon trips throughout the year.
A good source of information further up the coast is Capt. Bruce Hrobak at his Billy Bones Bait n Tackle shops in Stuart and Port St. Lucie. He can also fill you in on the great freshwater opportunities for big largemouth bass plus the exotic peacock bass and clown knifefish, and even a new opportunity for the Australian barramundi in St. Cloud, near Orlando.
Fine inshore fishing is available further up the coast in the Sebastian area where ex-Belmar striper pro Capt. Charlie Fornabio has been chartering for many years. He has inshore action in protected waters for everything from pompano and sea trout to snook, redfish and small tarpon, to bigger redfish outside the inlet when conditions permit. Capt. Ron Mallet, who first introduced me to kite fishing many years ago at Fort Lauderdale, is moving his operation up to Sebastian later this year.
Capt. Jeff Pfister has a reputation for having produced big night tarpon under the bridges around Islamorada, but he’s also moved to the Sebastian area and will be doing some chartering there. His Keys operation has been turned over to his former partner, Capt. Chuck Tripp who’s also an expert with the night tarpon at the Keys bridges when the boat traffic is minimal and the silver kings less fussy.
The biggest problem with fishing in Florida during March and April is that the fishing keeps getting better, and it may be hard to tear yourself away from 100-pound tarpon and 50-pound cobia to get back up north for the first stripers.
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