Winter Travel: Florida Keys Alive and Well - The Fisherman

Winter Travel: Florida Keys Alive and Well

2018 1 Florida Keys Alive And Well
The winter months are prime time for sailfish as passing cold fronts fire up the action. Photo courtesy of Capt. Bruce Andersen (Capt. Easy Charters).

The Florida Keys has long been a favorite destination of anglers from the Northeast, especially once the weather turns frigid here. The Key’s subtropical climate and wide range of fishing opportunities provide a welcome respite from the cold weather endured by us northerners from January through early spring. While escaping the cold is foremost in the minds of many people, and the fishing a welcome bonus, there are also many serious anglers who make the trek south during the prime fishing months of April, May and June, when the threat of cold fronts gives way to prime tarpon season and offshore waters are filled with mahi. So it is no surprise that we are receiving numerous requests concerning places to stay and even more inquiries about the fishing, following the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Irma back on September 10.

Concerns of the flats and patch reefs being damaged and having a negative effect on the fishing are unfounded, according to Capt. Steve Byrd of Bud & Mary’s Marina in Islamorada (1800-742-7945), who noted, “Irma had no lasting effects on the physical structure of the keys, including the ocean and bayside flats, patch reefs and bridges, and the fishing has not missed a beat.”

Flats fishing, especially for bonefish is as good as it has been in the last 10 years. The bonefishing was left crippled by the worst cold snap in Keys history some years back but has rebounded nicely the past couple of years. As recently as the afternoon of December 5, Capt. Richard Stanczyk Sr. of Bud & Mary’s was out with Capt. Vic Gaspeny on the Oceanside flats where they boated six bonefish to 8 pounds. A recent inshore tournament saw one angler tally 17 bones during the two-day event. Snook fishing has been good in the backcountry, and there has already been some good action with sailfish, which will only get better as winter cold fronts pass through the area.

While spring is considered prime time for fishing the Keys, bonefish, snook, tarpon and permit are viable targets during the January through March time frame, although cold fronts can affect the fishing for these species short term. Despite the negative comments you might read or be told by some folks concerning fishing for these species during the winter months, I will tell you that for more than 30 years we caught all of these species during February and March, doing most of our fishing from shore, bridges or wading the flats. The risk is if your visit, especially if it is just a few days, coincides with a strong cold front, it can impact the fishing. Worth noting is that when the flats become too cool for bonefish, barracuda take a liking to the cooler water and make great light tackle targets.

Cold fronts are a good thing if sailfish are your target. It seems the harder it blows, the better the sailfishing, and you can also count on good action with king mackerel and blackfin tuna beyond the reefs. For those who like their bottom fishing and a fresh fish dinner during their time in the Keys, reef fishing for mutton, mangrove and yellowtail snapper is always an option during the winter months.

The Upper Keys, and Key Largo in particular, were left pretty much unscathed by Irma. Hotels, restaurants, marinas and charter boats are all fully operational, with an abundance of accommodations available to anglers. Accommodations in the Middle Keys were compromised by Irma, with some of the bigger resorts on the ocean side of Islamorada, sustaining considerable damage. The Islander Resort was heavily damaged and is undergoing major repairs and renovations. The Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina (formerly Holiday Isle) is out of commission and undergoing major renovations. Chesapeake Bay Resort, Cheeca Lodge and La Siesta were both damaged but expect to be open by the end of January. Whale Harbor Marina and its fleet of charter boats, next door to the Chesapeake, is fully operational. Pines and Palms, and Amara Cay are open, as are most of the resorts and hotels on the bay side of the Middle Keys.

Capt. Bruce Anderson of Capt. Easy Charters out of Islamorada said, “Basically what I’ve been telling my customers is that all the places in Key Largo are open, it’s only a 15-minute ride if you have trouble booking in Islamorada.” He added that, “all the locally owned inns in Islamorada like OV, La Hoya and Coconut Grove are open,” but noted “the larger corporate owned resorts have been slower to get things in order.”  He suggested making calls to the locally owned establishments as the best opportunity to score a room during the normally busy winter season.

Bud n’ Mary’s, with its fleet of charter boats and backcountry guides, is fully operational. They also offer a variety of accommodations including an ocean front house, penthouse suite, Lucky Lady houseboat, Mama Linda houseboat, Aqua Lodge houseboat, Sailfish houseboat, hotel rooms and a condo.

I was happy to hear that two of my favorite eateries, Lazy Days Restaurant and Mangrove Mikes are open for business. Lazy Days dinners are tough to beat, and we have never had a bad meal there. Mangrove Mike’s is the place to go for breakfast. Its décor reeks of fishing, well distributed TVs feature all fishing shows, and it is the go-to place for local captains, guides and who’s-who in the fishing world.

2018 1 Florida Keys Alive And Well Permit
Don’t overlook the shore fishing opportunities during your stay in the Keys. Bridge shorelines can surrender snapper, snook, tarpon and even permit, like this one landed by Capt. John Paduano.

Other iconic places like Robbies, famous for the feeding of its resident tarpon, and World Wide Sportsman where you can fill any of your tackle needs, charter a boat, hook up with a backcountry guide, or get some good eats, are also in full swing.

Further south and west of Long Key, there was extensive damage. Hawk’s Cay Resort on Duck Key is undergoing repairs and renovations and is planning on reopening this summer. Hyatt Place, Bluegreen Vacations Hammocks and Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Marathon are already open or will be by the time you read this.

Down in Key West, Capt. Jamie Connell of Flying Fish Charters works with a couple of the concierge services. He suggests contacting Cindy 305-296-9915 at the Orchid Key Inn right off of Duval Street, which is in the center of everything. “She’s super helpful, with fishing or just about anything you need,” Jamie said, adding that “the Orchid Key Inn is a good fit for folks looking to come into town for fun and fishing.”

Key West was relatively unscathed by Irma in comparison to places like Big Pine, Ramrod and Marathon keys to the north and east. As a result, finding accommodations in Key West is less of an issue than in some other parts of the Keys as most places were back in business shortly after the storm. That includes the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton, Hilton Garden, Hyatt Residence Club, Crowne Plaza, La Concha, The Reach, Hyatt Centric and Casa Marina.

While there are still stretches of the Keys bearing the scars of Irma’s wrath, there are plenty of places where you should be able to secure accommodations. And, some of the larger ocean side resorts that were heavily damaged are using the down time to not only rebuild, but to make improvements to their properties, which could be completed by summer or fall of 2018.

The fishing throughout the Keys has not missed a beat since Irma, and as the winter season approaches, everything appears to be right on schedule, with plenty of action in the backcountry for snook, redfish and mangrove snappers. Fishing for reds should only get better with every passing cold front, and Spanish mackerel will provide great light tackle sport on the Gulf side of the Keys. If you are into shark fishing and accustomed to having to make treks offshore to catch quality sharks, think about giving shark fishing Florida Keys style a shot. The many channels that separate the Keys are well populated with big hammerheads, tigers and bulls a real possibility in these protected waters. As we noted earlier, if sailfish turn you on, the winter months are prime time in the Keys and the stronger the cold front, the better the fishing it seems. King mackerel, blackfin tuna and some mahi are all possibilities during any run beyond the reefs.

While targeting bonefish during the winter months can be frustrating due to fluctuating water temperatures on the flats, it is also prime time for catching one of those monster bones that the Islamorada flats are known for. Every winter, bones weighing into the teens come off of these flats. If I told you the size of some of the bones we have seen during February on these flats, I doubt you would believe me.

2018 1 Florida Keys Alive And Well Tarpon
Tarpon draw plenty of attention from anglers visiting from the Northeast. They are available during the winter months but the best fishing occurs between April and June. Photo courtesy Capt. Rich Stanczyk Jr. (Bud & Mary’s Marina).

And while no trip to the Keys is complete without a guided flats or backcountry trip, or booking one of the many fine charter boats, don’t overlook the many fine shorebound opportunities available throughout the island chain. Pay particular attention to the banks bordering bridges from Tavernier through Marathon where after dark forays can put you in touch with tarpon and snook.

Permit and eating size snappers are also part of this bridge fishing scene, and jacks are always a possibility. Anywhere you can find access to a flat from shore offers the potential to tangle with bonefish or barracuda. And if you are looking for some great therapy, nothing beats standing knee deep on a flat surrounded by boxfish, rays and baby sharks while anticipating the approach of a cruising bone. On most wade-able flats, your best opportunity to spot a tailing bone will come during the early stages of the incoming tide.

So, yes – the Florida Keys are alive and well, though the scars remain. Good fishing, its sub-tropical climate, the laid back atmosphere and ease of getting there, are just a few of the reasons to include the Keys in your winter travel plans.

BOOK A TRIP
Flying Fish Charters – Key West
Flats, Inshore, Offshore
Capt. Jamie Connell – 908-303-9873Capt. Easy Charters – Islamorada
Offshore and Reef Fishing
Capt. Bruce Andersen – 305-360-2120Capt. Ron Charters – Key West
Inshore Reef Fishing
Capt. Ron Onorato – 516-835-4910

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