For live and premium content, sign up for our email newsletter and we'll send reports directly to your inbox
The prime tarpon fishing in Key West typically begins around the middle of April and concludes in late July. Although tarpon can be found before and after this period, periodic cold fronts limit opportunities before mid-April and a general lack of guides or guide energy/enthusiasm limit quality tarpon fishing after July. By August, most guides in this area have not had a day off in months, are tired and cranky from the many early mornings and long days on the poling platform and are looking to leave town for cooler climes and some rest and relaxation.
Most of the tarpon in the Key West area range in size from 40 to 100 pounds, with opportunities to tangle with fish over the century mark. The opportunities for hooking these fish are numerous in the waters both east and west of Key West. Most guides fish as far west as the Marquesas, a magical atoll made up of a dozen mangrove islands approximately 25 miles west of Key West; and as far east as you have the patience and the guide has the gas to travel. Though I am talking only about tarpon here, I should mention in passing that Key West also offers some of the best permit fishing in North America. Bonefish can also be found in good numbers on the flats east of Key West.
Guides throughout the Florida Keys have a reputation for being an abusive and abrasive lot – some deserved – but a new breed has emerged and has taken the sport of saltwater fly fishing to a higher level. These new guides love what they do and respect the environment and the fish they pursue. Most of my time in Key West, which is considerable, has been spent fishing with Capt. Simon Becker (*) and Capt. Tom Tripp (*). There are certainly other guides who are as personable, knowledgeable and hard-working as Becker and Tripp, and I would suggest calling The Saltwater Angler (*), a fly shop in Key West for names and guide availability.
The Saltwater Angler is owned and operated by Capt. Jeffrey Cardenas, a noted guide, fly fishing expert and writer. His book entitled Marquesas ($50, call or fax the shop for details on how to obtain) is a classic of its kind. Reading it will go a long way toward explaining the hold this island chain has on anglers who have had the pleasure of fishing it. His shop is not only a superb fly shop, incidentally, but it also offers a unique place to stay while in Key West. This 19th Century rare hip-roofed structure is located in the Historic Seaport District of Key West. The building has been through many incarnations ranging from a tobacco factory to a whorehouse. Cardenas completely restored the building in 1994 and it now houses his fly shop downstairs and an upstairs guest house, featuring the Bonefish Suite ($139 per night) and the Tarpon Suite ($169 per night). Guests wanting total privacy can arrange for the entire upstairs – the "Grand Slam" – for $249 per night. This is an ideal location for the traveling tarponeer and his or her non-angling spouse. The accommodations are clean and comfortable with a full kitchen, living room and patio at a reasonable price and are within walking distance of everything.
Lodging elsewhere in Key West is abundant and is available in all price ranges. For the serious angler I would suggest Pelican Landing (*) and The Harborside (*), both on Garrison Bight. The Harborside is inexpensive and all rooms have kitchens. Rooms run as low as $69 after May 1. Recommendable restaurants range from the high-priced taste treats offered up at Louis’ Back Yard (*) to the not-so-secret for-locals-only Pepe’s (*), to the chickens and cats scurrying under your table at Blue Heaven (*).
The coral rock that is Key West is approximately 150 miles southwest of Miami via US Highway 1 and can be reached by car in about three hours. Numerous direct flights from Miami to Key West are available on American Airlines (*). Although I am a world-wide traveler who is always in search of new and exciting angling experiences, I frequently return to Key West for some of the best saltwater fly fishing available anywhere. – Edwin R. Stroh, III.
(Don Causey Note: A contact in Key West that Stroh doesn’t mention is Sport Fishing World Headquarters (*), owned and operated by local artist/guide Vaughn Cochran. Cochran stays in touch with all sorts of guides in and around Key West, both fly and spin, as well as those who offer somewhat helter-skelter outings he calls "Gonzo Fishing Trips." See the May, 1992 issue for more details on these trips, or ask for the report through our Trip-Planning Database Service.)