handle most civilized winds and sea conditions. I fish almost exclu-
sively with Capt. R. T. Trosset and/or his son, Chris, who operate out
of Hurricane Hole Marina on Stock Island, but there are a number
of excellent light-tackle offshore and skiff guides between Marathon
and Key West (see sidebar). A typical day with R.T. begins with
chasing bait, pilchards to be exact. Once located on the edges of
the flats and captured, these three-inch minnows become the best
chum a cast net can provide. All the light-tackle boats have massive
live wells that will sustain thousands of baits that are casually thrown
over the side while anchored over the reef, bar, or wreck selected for
the day’s adventure. Incredibly, the disoriented pilchards stay close
to the boat and will attract most everything in the area that might
consider them a snack. It’s not unusual to have mackerel, bonito,
kingfish, wahoo, tuna, and sailfish crashing baits just off the stern,
in addition to amberjacks, grouper, snapper, bar jacks, and yellowtail
hovering below. If you enjoy live-bait fishing, the options are almost
unlimited, but fly-fishing also can be wildly rewarding. You’ll really
need a 12-weight rod and a large-capacity reel for offshore, spooled
with clear, intermediate-sinking line.
Key West also has a serious run of sailfish in December that work
their way up onto the reef to chase the newly arrived schools of
ballyhoo. These sails can be in extremely shallow water and can be
spotted by following the frigate birds that are waiting for the sails to
push the ‘hoos up to the surface. This is run-and-gun fishing with
live ballyhoo cast directly to the foraging sailfish on spinning rods.
The hook-ups are always heart-stoppingly close to the boat, and the
jumps are spectacular.
The tuna seem to slow down in January but the king mackerel
action increases. In addition, the Gulf wrecks fill up with cobia, barracuda, kingfish, and the occasional permit. Cobia’s one of my favorite fish, appearing in December on the wrecks west of the Marquesas
and on the deeper Gulf wrecks. They appear behind shrimp boats,
in Key West Harbor, and even in the Atlantic at times. A few decades
ago, Key West was infested with them but overfishing has reduced
their numbers and size considerably. In March of 1985, R. T. and I set
an IGFA (International Game Fish Association) world record when I
caught a 67-pound, 4-ounce cobia on a fly rod with an eight-pound
tippet. We were filming a TV show at the time and three huge cobia
swam up to the surface over a wreck we called the “Tug,” which is in
about 20 feet of water west of the Marquesas. Cobia are friendly and
curious by nature and respond readily to chumming. It took me two-and-a-half hours to land that beauty and my record still hasn’t been
beaten, probably because if anyone sees a 67-pound cobia, they’re
not going to cast a fly to it, especially with an eight-pound tippet.
Today, a 40-pound cobia is a prize catch; hopefully the size and catch
limits in place today will help restore their numbers.
In February, big schools of king mackerel appear in the Gulf and,
once located, they tend to hang out in the same area for several days.
The kings run from 15 to 50 pounds and will respond to artificial
lures and even flies when coaxed to the surface with live pilchards.
One day last winter, we caught more than 20 kingfish with Capt.
Trosset and none of them were less than 20 pounds. The largest was
36 pounds and that day just may have been the most spectacular day
of fishing I’ve ever had, anywhere. The kings were so aggressive that
they were repeatedly skyrocketing hookless plugs. I spent more time
taking photos of flying kings than I did fishing for them.
When the Gulf is hot, the best source of chum (other than live
pilchards) is the by-catch from the shrimp boats. Blackfin tuna and
big bonito school up right behind the boats while they’re cleaning
their catch. The fish follow the nets as they’re dragged over the sand
and when the catch is hauled up on deck, they hang around patiently
waiting for the fish parts to be dumped back into the sea. Recently,
gas prices have put a damper on running out to the shrimpers, but if
conditions are right, it can be a day you’ll never forget.
In February, tarpon move into Key West Harbor and the surrounding flats as do permit. The lower Keys seem to have the best
early-season tarpon fishing, and the fish are big and eager to suck in
a properly presented fly. All you need are a few days of calm, warm