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The Florida Keys remain an attractive place to go fishing, particularly for tarpon and bonefish. But it takes a certain kind of angler to put up with the fishing pressure thats developed there of late, not to mention the jet skis that seem to dart about everywhere. On top of that, its a fact that catches of all sorts are not what they used to be.
Enter a group of guides in Key West who are still regularly guiding anglers to record-class fish, and plent-y of them, in water that receives negligible pressure. These guides are taking anglers out to the Dry Tortugas and beyond, into waters that are 50 to 150 miles from the nearest fuel pump. Many of these fishing trips are multiple day affairs with nights spent at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park.
But what are the Dry Tortugas, you ask? They are a cluster of waterless (hence “dry”) islands located 75 miles west of Key West. They are surrounded by the last pristine, undamaged coral reef in the United States. The reasons the fishing remains so good here are the lack of any facilities in the Tortugas, as well as the areas proximity to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. This may well be the last place in the United States where you dont have to compete with any other boats in the area. It is, in fact, rare to see a single boat during an entire day.
There is an enormous diversity of fly and light tackle opportunities off the Tortugas from November all the way to July. On a two-day fishing trip here, you can reasonably expect to catch 10 to 15 different species of fish. Likely species include permit, tarpon, kingfish, blackfin tuna, jack crevalles, African pompano, amberjack, horse-eyed jack, dolphin, cobia, jewfish, sailfish, groupers (red, black, gag, yellowfin, warsaw, scamp, Nassau, and snowy) and snappers (mutton, yellowtail, red, yellow-eye, cubera and mangrove). Even more alluring is the fact that almost all of these species attain world record proportions in this area. Look at the IGFA record book, and you will see there are more records set out of Key West than anywhere in the world. This is the area from which these records have been coming.
Bait is the key to good fishing, and the Tortugas are loaded. The two primary baits used for fishing and for chumming fish up where they can be cast to are pilchards and shrimp-boat bycatch. The pilchards are usually in huge schools around the park and can be castnetted easily. The shrimp-boat bycatch can be bought from the shrimpers that trawl in the Gulf north of the park.
Many of the sportfishing boats used around the Tortugas have specially modified livewells to handle huge quantities of live bait. It is not uncommon to keep 1,500 pilchards alive for a single days fishing and/or chumming. Live chumming with pilchards produces wild surface action that makes the fish extremely aggressive and susceptible to artificials and flies. It is common to actually pick out the fish you want to catch, make the cast and hook the fish. This is sight fishing at its best.
Depending on the area you are fishing, the pilchards draw kingfish, wahoo, tunas, all species of jacks, sailfish and even snappers and groupers to the area. On a recent trip in the Gulf using live pilchards, I caught several kings over 40 pounds, blackfin tuna to 30 pounds, gags, reds and black grouper, mangrove snapper to 10 pounds and yellowtail snapper to seven pounds. All this was on a one-day trip using only spinning rods and line between eight and 20-pound test. The following week we fished on the Atlantic side and caught two wahoos to 45 pounds, groupers to 63 pounds, kings to 38 pounds, snappers over 20 pounds, cobia to 41 pounds, a few sailfish and as many blackfin tunas as we wanted. Using a combination of block chum and pilchards, we were able to draw the wahoos, kings and tunas to within 10 yards of the boat. It was also during this feeding frenzy that a few sailfish showed up, dorsal fins out of the water crashing and chasing