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Bill Horn weighed in this month with the following important report on fishing in the overlooked middle Florida Keys. Heads up! There are some important insights here that may change the way you think about this important fishing area.
The Florida Keys consist of more than 1,000 islands, or keys, stretching more than 150 miles. Yet when the tourist board advertises the islands, only Key West and the Florida Keys in general are singled out for mention. The only other individual community let into the act is Islamorada, the self-proclaimed “Sportfishing Capital of the World.” In between these two centers of attention are 80 miles of the Overseas Highway, dozens of keys, and the best, largely unsung fishing in the entire chain. Smack in the middle of this area is the town of Marathon, which anchors the overlooked Middle Keys stretching from Long Key in the east to Big Pine Key in the west. It is just too bad, in my view, that most visiting anglers, especially first timers, gravitate to well-advertised Islamorada and Key West, oblivious of the superb angling opportunities in between.
Not only is there a great angling menu available in this area, but the Middle Keys retain the flavor of the good old days before the tarpon runs and flats got overrun with dozens upon dozens of skiffs and guides, not to mention nonanglers. It’s a fact that the Islamorada area can disgorge 100 or more flats skiffs on any given day from multiple marinas. There is often fierce competition for key spots, some of which have earned ominous names like Confrontation Point. Down the road at Key West there are similar numbers of guides operating from Garrison Bight and other marinas. On top of that, many of the flats around Key West are now the subject of loving attention from those aboard Jet Skis and kite-boards, as well as assorted partiers. One previously outstanding Key West permit flat nicknamed “Big Boy” was rechristened “The Zoo” after a recreational operator set up a floating party boat with water slides, trampolines, Jet Skis, water jetpacks, and other noisy and intrusive forms of alcohol-lubricated recreation right next to the flat. In contrast, the Marathon/Big Pine area hosts no more than a couple dozen guides and a lot fewer partiers.
Another feature of the Middle Keys is that the guides there largely operate off trailers rather than from marinas. This provides guides the flexibility to move up and down the islands to follow the fish. I have personally had the experience of meeting up with a guide in Marathon in the morning to drive 30 miles down US 1 to launch at Sugarloaf and fish for permit west toward Key West. It would not be unusual after a day like that to find oneself departing from Conch Key the next day, 15 miles from Marathon, to probe Florida Bay for laid-up tarpon.
The Middle Keys cover a broad area. There are 50 miles of easily accessible oceanside shoreline along which tarpon migrate from April through June and where bonefish and permit can be found as well. The vast Gulf of Mexico backcountry from north of the Seven Mile Bridge all the way west to Key West is an incredible maze of islands, flats, banks, and channels, all of which is part of the federal National Wildlife Refuge system. The waters in this stretch hold bonefish, cobia, permit, redfish, tarpon, and lots of other species in season. And here is an underappreciated fact: the Florida Bay waters of Everglades National Park are only a 30- to 45-minute skiff run due north of Marathon’s Vaca Cut. This combination of fewer guides, launch flexibility, and a lot of territory means more solitude and enjoyable angling. Plus, many of the Marathon-area guides know and like each other and regularly share information. They routinely work together to find fish for their clients.
Quality flats angling can be available all year out of Marathon and Big Pine. To be sure, it is always dependent on the weather (and the whims of the fish), but each season can provide excellent opportunities. Winter is almost always the slow period for classic flats fishing, but a few days of light south to southeast wind and 80 degree days will see laid-up tarpon emerge in Florida Bay and the Gulf, as well as put permit and bones on the flats. However, the bread-and-butter winter action is provided by redfish, bluefish, jacks, ladyfish, pompano, sharks, Spanish mackerel, and sea trout. By late winter (late February and March), permit fishing is in high gear and cobia can be found on the flats. Spring months serve up the great tarpon bacchanal along with the bonefish. Summer offers opportunities for small and large tarpon, permit, and bones: Grand Slam time, to be precise. As fall approaches, the best tides of the year appear, and cooler water brings out big bones, more permit, and a few more tarpon, albeit mostly smaller ones.
Top-notch Middle Keys guides stay very busy, especially during the peak of tarpon season. I have found that a good tactic is to book trips during slower seasons (e.g., fall or mid-winter) to establish a relationship with a good guide. You’re then on the list if openings become available during peak periods such as mid-May to mid-June (for tarpon buffs). Friends of mine have used this tactic and now hold prime dates that will be theirs for years. I’ve included a list of Marathon and Big Pine area guides at the end of this article. I know all of these guides personally or have had them recommended to me by knowledgeable anglers.
Accommodations in the Middle Keys run the full gamut from five-star resorts to cheap dives. In Marathon, the unpretentious, modestly priced, but clean-as-awhistle Ranch House Motel (across from the airport) has been hosting flats anglers for decades. It is common for three or four guides to pull in each morning, pick up clients, and head out. In the evening, anglers can sip beer by the picnic tables and recount their days on the water. Presided over by the loquacious Diana, a long list of flats veterans, including the late Del Brown of permit fame, have been regulars. If tonier digs are what you like, Hawks Cay Resort, a few miles up the road from Marathon, will fit the bill. Down the road in Big Pine, Parmer’s Resort has been in business for years. And if none of these is to your liking, there are dozens of other choices.
Middle Keys restaurants may not boast the ratings found in Key West or Islamorada, but there are lots of good ones. The Square Grouper on Cudjoe Key (at mile marker 22.6) is one the Keys’ best restaurants. It’s a short drive down US 1 from Big Pine, about 40 minutes from Marathon and well worth the effort. Square Grouper does not take reservations. In Marathon, the choice you have to make is between atmosphere (on the water) and cuisine. For the former, Island, Lazy Days, and Sunset Grill all deliver. For fine eating along US 1, you’ll be delighted with Frank’s Grill and Barracuda Grill. As I noted in my book, Seasons on the Flats, Marathon’s real gustatory color is provided by three classic breakfast joints: the Stuffed Pig, Stout’s, and the Wooden Spoon. Nightlife is in short supply in Marathon and Big Pine, but you can always make the trip to Key West’s Duval Street. It will provide more than enough nightlife for most anglers. If you want to stay in Marathon and you are brave, try Brass Monkey bar. — Bill Horn.
Postscript: Here is the list of Middle Keys guides that Bill Horn knows well and recommends: Albert Ponzoa (305-743-4074), Bus Bergmann (352-495-6711), Chris Morrison (305-393-2353), Diego Cordova (305-395-1228), Richard Keating (305-743-6654), and Scott Collins (305-304-5965). Horn says Albert Ponzoa and Chris Morrison have big boats in addition to flats boats, so they can offer various offshore options. He says Diego Cordova caters more to spin and bait anglers, but all six handle fly anglers. Bill Horn is author of Seasons on the Flats, a new book on fishing in the Florida Keys.