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Question: Jeffrey, what kind of fly and light tackle angling can you do this time of year in Key West?

Answer: In Key West it’s important to make a distinction between flats fishing and light tackle fishing. Fishing on the flats is done with traditional skiffs, whereas light tackle boats are typically 25-foot center console craft that chum fish over the reefs and wrecks. Captains on both boats provide the tackle requested by anglers – either fly, spin or casting rods.

Winter fishing on the flats in Key West is completely dependent upon water temperature. When water temperature drops below 70, flats fish withdraw from their normal feeding ranges and group together in pockets of water that may only be a degree or two warmer. Furthermore, most of these flats fish become very reluctant to eat if the water temperature drops below 65 degrees. I remember a winter day when my water temperature gauge read 62 and the flats were covered with dead barracuda, snapper and jack crevalle.

Question: Yes, what about those cold fronts…. On average, how often do they interfere with fishing and what kind of fishing can you usually still enjoy even when there is a cold front?

Answer: We typically lose one day of fishing a week here in Key West due to cold fronts. That’s from about mid-December to mid-February. There are, of course, many other days when you need a guide who understands water temperature and knows where fish go when it’s cold. Normal winter water temperature is in the high 60’s to low 70’s. If it gets above the magic 70-degree threshold, bonefish and permit on the flats become active. Below that temperature, there are usually barracuda and sharks (blacktips, bulls and lemons) on the flats. What’s important to remember is, water temperature on the flats varies dramatically from day to day and from flat to flat. A good guide will be able to find you some fish on all but the very coldest of days.

As for Key West Harbor, tarpon begin migrating here in February. On a warm day (mid-70’s) you can sometimes see hundreds of rolling fish in 25 feet of water both in the harbor and Northwest Channel. Temperatures in the high 70’s bring those fish onto the flats. In fact, February 1996 had a 10-day period that many guides in Key West felt was the best shallow-water sightfishing of the entire year. Obviously, those are rare days and it’s best not to get your hopes up for tarpon in February.

There is usually excellent light tackle fishing offshore even during cold fronts, but you will have to be prepared for a bit of rock and roll and perhaps some rain. The best tuna fishing of the year usually occurs from late December to early January, with yellowfins in the 150-pound range blowing across the Key West Bar and blackfins mixing in with the bonito and swarming kingfish. They become exciting fly rod targets when chummed up with live pilchards or shrimp boat by-catch, which also attracts the occasional wahoo or sailfish.

Question: What is the price range of the various trips you mention above?

Answer: Here at my shop, The Saltwater Angler (*), I book flats fishing trips with a core group of high-quality guides at $385 per full day, or $275 for a half-day. Light tackle bookings cost $485 for a full day. Do-it-yourselfers who are willing to spend time on the phone shopping around can book some guides directly at lower rates. Keep in mind that a few light tackle guides charge extra for fuel on long trips to the Kingfish Hole west of the Marquesas and for trips to Dry Tortugas.

Question: What about the Marquesas? A lot of anglers have heard about that area. Can you find fish out that way in winter?

Answer: The Marquesas, of course, is that wonderful atoll-like group of islands some 25 miles west of Key West. Flats fishing guides do not charge extra for fuel on trips to the Marquesas. But fair warning: a trip out there in winter in a bonefishing skiff can be a nightmare. The problem is that seven-mile stretch of unprotected water called Boca Grande Channel. A north wind blowing against the tide there can produce six-foot wedding-cake waves that can be real boat busters. I have ripped several poling towers off my skiff and stuffed the bow into green water on more than one occasion.

Once you get there, however, the place is magic. There is always a lee no matter how hard the wind is blowing. Huge barracudas up to 20 or 30 pounds move into the Marquesas following cold fronts, and they are catchable on flies. The permit fishing can be spotty during the coldest months, but there are always a few (and sometimes many) permit inside Mooney Harbor once the sun heats up the flats. The outside edges often hold huge marauding packs of jack crevalle in the five to 10-pound range; look for muds. If there are jacks around, there are also going to be blacktips eating the jacks. An excited blacktip shark will eat a dirty sock on a hook if you throw it when he’s in a jack frenzy!

Question: And the Dry Tortugas? What’s really out there in the way of angling and what kind of angler would enjoy going there?

Answer: The Dry Tortugas is a National Monument situated 70 miles west of Key West. The offshore fishing can be sensational here even during the coldest months – if you can get there in rough seas. Key West light tackle guides are conditioned to running in difficult weather, but you need to be in good shape to keep from getting beaten up by the rough seas. Be sure you ask your guide for an honest appraisal of the conditions. Ask him if he’d take his own dad or his kid out if it looks like a marginal day. Conversely, guides usually get upset if their clients cancel trips because of choppy conditions. There are no accommodations in the Dry Tortugas, so expect at least a two-hour run out and a two-hour run back. Some light tackle guides can arrange an informal mothership rendezvous with enough advance notice.

The Dry Tortugas is not known as a flats fishing destination, but there is wadable fishing for permit and barracuda. Sightseers, who just want to see the Dry Tortugas, can fly out there with a company called Seaplanes of Key West (we book the company, or you can reach them directly *). A roundtrip flight costs $299 for adults, or $205 for children 12 and under. Flight time is 40 minutes each way, and passengers may only bring 40 pounds of equipment each. That becomes important if you want to go camping on the islands. There are charcoal grills and toilets on the islands, but no sinks or showers or stores where you can buy food and water. You can get more information on the Dry Tortugas, from the local tourism promotion group called "I Love Key West.".

Question: So, where should the interested angler plan to stay in Key West and what is it going to set him back?

Answer: Winter is the snowbird season in Key West, which means accommodations are expensive and they can be hard to find. We operate a unique guesthouse in the historic seaport district. Two suites are available at $139 and $169, or both can be combined to make a comfortable, private apartment with a full kitchen, living room and patio with Jacuzzi for $249 per night. The least expensive motel room in Key West during the winter season costs about $90 per night. If budget is no consideration, some Key West hotels have suites for $900 per night. Even at that price you need to make your reservation early. For up to date information on accommodations, call "I Love Key West."

Question: If a cold front completely knocks the fishing out, what else can you do in Key West?

Answer: There are worse places to be landbound than Key West. There are bars for every mood (and most of them are full on blustery days), some of the best Caribbean restaurants in the US and an historic district loaded with art galleries and museums. Some of my favorite spots include Pepe’s Cafe for breakfast; the Schooner Wharf bar; the Karumba Cafe; and Louie’s Backyard for fine dining. I also recommend visiting the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum (corner of Green and Whitehead St.).

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