One lazy night a few friends and I made a spontaneous decision to drive to the Florida Keys. Our quest to cure boredom has since turned into frequent trips in search of tarpon, snapper, grouper and other great fish. What sounded crazy then—to drive about three hours to the Keys for one night to fish for tarpon and grab breakfast at “The Lazy Tarpon” in Islamorada — doesn’t seem so crazy now. In fact, after a few trips we began to wonder why we didn’t make these kinds of getaways before.
The Florida Keys offers a world-class atmosphere that even the most diehard angler can never completely absorb. It is a paradise for fishermen, yet many Floridians forget that it’s right out our backdoor. No matter how many times we make our way over the first span of bridges leading into Key Largo, we always marvel at the clear blue water of the Atlantic and greener hues of the Gulf stretching as far as the eye can see. The view makes us chatter with anticipation of what lies ahead. The possibilities are endless. With over 40 bridges and hundreds of miles of coastline, a trip to the Keys gives you plenty of options. Gather up your best fishing buddies (the more the merrier), load up the gear, crank up the good tunes and hit the road. Split up the bill and you have yourself a mini-vacation that won’t break the bank, no matter where you’re coming from.
This past fall, a few fishing buddies and I piled into a truck with a bed full of tackle boxes, coolers, rods and reels, castnets, along with whatever else we could comfortably cram and headed southbound. We departed Stuart around noon, hoping to make it to Key West in time for dinner.
After treating ourselves to fish po’boys at the famous Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street in Key West, the sun had already set and tarpon were the only thing on our minds.
Only a stone’s throw from Key West, the Boca Chica Channel Bridge has long been a favorite of ours. Offering deep water, excellent current flow, and access to the lower portion of the bridge with no hassle, it’s productive and easy to fish. Most importantly, because we are mainly fishing by nightfall, this particular bridge casts a shadow line from the street lights that always reveals a tarpon waiting for an easy meal to come sweeping by in the current. Of course, if you can’t see the fish, you will certainly hear them crashing on unsuspecting late night snacks.
After setting up at the Boca Chica, it was time to start catching. Conditions were optimal; the tide was cruising, a three-quarter moon was high in the sky, and a light breeze blew. As far as baits are concerned, trying to catch and maintain live baits can be a hassle; tossing artificials will usually be the most convenient way to entice a bite. If the current is flowing, you can bet that small shrimp and minnows are getting pushed around, so match the hatch and you’ll be good to go. Within the first few casts tossing minnow-like crankbaits, tarpon were already becoming airborne, shaking trebles as if they were all-too familiar with the routine. Shallower grassy bottom on the gulf side of Boca Chica offered mangrove snapper for the taking. We’ve found that stink baits such as Berkley Gulp! shrimp handle the finicky nibbling of the snappers much better than live shrimp or cut sardines, which are usually nabbed before you have chance to set a hook. Tonight, as on many nights, tossing a jig with a Gulp! shrimp upcurrent and letting it drift back landed many snapper worthy of icing. Closer to the bridge pilings and around the rocks surrounding the seawall, juvenile groupers and snappers of all sorts came out to see what all the fuss was about. Small baited hooks will bring out the masses hiding in the structure. Catching species like mutton snapper, gag grouper, rock hind and many more is rewarding when fishing from a concrete seawall.
When we had our fill of tug-o-war with the snapper, the tarpon were still will strike plugs, but if you really want to land one, bring along a box of stinky sardines and chum. Our first tarpon of the night was taken on a Gulp! shrimp, but would be considered a juvenile among the silver kings. After chunking and tossing a few handfuls of sardines, it was a whole sardine that did the trick for the big fish of the night, soaking on the bottom beyond the shadow line of the bridge. When an offshore-sized spinning reel loaded with 40-pound braid can’t put the brakes on a fish, you know you’re in for a serious battle. As the monofilament backing began to show, those searing runs became jaw clenching. The moonlight reflected scales of silver as we “bowed to the king.” Every jump was as terrifying as the first. It was a game of give and take that seemed to last forever. Sure enough, a couple more questionable right-hand turns of the drag turned the fish our way. Being low to the water, the goal was to hop in and take some photos with the king, but things don’t always go as planned. We all managed a good look into the eye of the tarpon as it came up to the seawall beneath the bridge, just as its serrated teeth finally cut through the badly abraded 80-pound fluorocarbon leader. We estimated the fish at well over 100 pounds.
We fished through the night, the tarpon continued to play their games and we went back and forth to critter fishing. When the sun finally began peeking over the horizon, we packed up the gear and began our trek back north on US 1. We stopped at a handful of bridges that looked fishy and gave each stop a just a bit of time. Each bridge yielded some different type of life, from frisky ladyfish and jacks, to lobsters crawling in the seagrass. Every now and then a tarpon would roll in the distance or chase a mullet across a flat, giving everyone a kick-start of excitement. But after a long night of fishing, our main priority was breakfast.
We couldn’t call it a Keys trip without stopping at Robbie’s Place in Islamorada. Robbie’s has another claim to fame—you can walk out on the dock and feed the resident tarpon. No matter how many times we go and feed the tarpon, it never grows old. Talk about fantastic photo opportunities every trip; everyone wants a picture of a tarpon slam-dunking a sardine right out of their hand. Best part, if the tarpon have eluded you elsewhere on hook and line, at least at Robbie’s you have the opportunity to get a handshake from one before you leave.
The drive north had our eyes roving east and west, never stopping the search for promising places to fish, until the water’s edge could be seen no more.
It’s Your Turn
One of the most difficult things we’ve run into is something that sounds just a bit crazy. There are just too many places to fish! The opportunities are truly never ending, and that’s only on foot. Between the non-stop stretch of bridges, random pathways to the crystal clear waters, and shorelines of sandy beaches, it all looks so promising. The best thing to do in this situation is manage your time wisely and don’t put too much effort into one spot. If a spot isn’t producing, simply head down the road a ways and try another. If the conditions are not ideal or the weather stinks, get a bite to eat and wait until the tide turns or the skies clear.
One thing is for sure, come prepared with a good variety of tackle. Bring a little bit of something from your whole arsenal. Channels under Keys bridges act as highways back and forth between the Atlantic and the Gulf. Anything and everything could come passing through at anytime. Not only that, each fishing location has its own unique approaches and tactics. In the Upper Keys, many bridges, such as the popular Channel 2 and Channel 5 bridges, offer fishing access from catwalks and piers, but little access to fishing at water level. Fishing higher up off the water makes spotting fish much easier, the water will generally be deeper, and bait will sometimes be more plentiful, but sometimes these “designated” fishing areas can occasionally become more social than some anglers like.
On the other hand, you’ll also find a lot of smaller, more ‘”rural” bridges farther north, where fishing the snapper laden mangrove shorelines is possible. In the Lower Keys, many of the bridges have easier access to the rock and seawall shorelines beneath them, some being easier to navigate than others. The Boca Chica is a great example; you’ll need to be low to successfully release a big tarpon. Whichever location you stumble upon, make sure your box has the right tackle to target anything that grabs your interest.
You never know, you could be snapper fishing one minute, then franticly rigging up for a curious cobia the next. FS
First published Florida Sportsman February 2013