Bonefishing in Florida’s Lower Keys
Lay of the Land
The Florida Keys start at the southeastern tip of the Florida peninsula about 15 miles from Miami. Most consider Key Largo to be the start of the Keys which extend south and then head westward to Key West. The islands lie along the Florida Straits neatly dividing the Atlantic Ocean to the east from the Gulf of Mexico to the west. More than stunning coral reefs, you’ll find wide expanses of sea grass beds, mangrove forests, lush tropical hardwood hammocks (closed canopy forests), rocky pinelands and a variety of freshwater and saltwater wetlands.
In 1512 Juan Ponce de Leon, former governor of Puerto Rico, received royal permission from the King of Spain to search for land north of Cuba. He “discovered” The Keys in 1513, meeting members of the Native American Calusa and Tequesta tribes, the region’s first inhabitants. He named the islands Los Martires “The Martyrs” as they looked like suffering men from a distance. The Spanish brought Christianity, cattle, horses, sheep and the Spanish language to this area. The Spainiards were indifferent to colonization of the rocky, mosquito infested islands; instead they enslaved or killed many of the Indians, leaving most of Florida untouched for hundreds of years.
The total Keys land area is 137 square miles with a current population just over 73,000, down 8% from 10 years ago. As the rest of Florida grew by 15% in the same period, the Key’s resident numbers were kept in check in an environment of strict building regulation, the high cost of living and few lucrative jobs. Located in the sub-tropics, the climate is considered closer to that of the Caribbean than the rest of Florida. It is the only frost-free place in Florida; it is hot, wet and humid from June to October, but a little drier and cooler the rest of the year.
The Overseas Railway constructed in the 1910’s to connect the islands, stopped service as a result of damage incurred during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Today US 1 a 110 miles long two-lane highway, built parallel to the Overseas Railway running the length of the Keys, services transportation. Though there are over 1700 islands, very few are populated and most are quite small. Bridges connect 43 of the Islands, with the 7 Mile Bridge the longest. It is really 6.8 miles – but lets give it to them. For discussion purposes, they are divided into 4 main groups, The Upper Keys, Middle Keys, Lower Keys and those accessible only by boat, the Outlying Islands. Addresses are noted by mile markers or MM, starting at MM 126 in Florida City, counting down to MM 0 in Key West, sometimes indicating Oceanside, the south side of the highway or bayside which is north.
Key Largo, is the first port of call in the Paradise we collectively call The Keys. An hour’s drive from the Miami International Airport it is a world away from the big city, with 2 state parks, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, a National marine sanctuary. It is sandwiched between the watery wilderness of the Everglades National Park to the west and fish-covered coral formations to the east.
Half an hour down the road is the village of Islamorada, Spanish for “Purple Island”, referring to a purple-shelled snail that once lived here and to the brilliant colored orchids and bougainvilleas of the area. Incorporated in 1997, it has a total population of 6,119 and though it bills itself as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, it truly has the feel of a village. The 36-mile stretch encompassing the Middle to Lower Keys start with Marathon, a 10-mile long family oriented community reflecting the old-Keys lifestyle. The name Marathon dates back to the origin of the Florida East Coast Railroad. The workers, who were laboring day and night to complete the project said, “this is getting to be a real marathon.” Key West is the southernmost location in the Continental United States, offering Southern charm and Caribbean flavor in a laid back island nation called the Conch Republic. Banking, medical services, supplies, Internet and phone coverage (check with your cell provider to see what’s best) can be found up and down the Keys.
Where to Fish
I love the Florida Keys and it is one of my favorite fishing locations. The fishing can be tough and any self-guided caught bonefish here is a trophy. The habitat is spectacular and the variety of species available means you can always catch something.
This is one destination where a kayak or watercraft really helps to expand the fishing territory and I wouldn’t visit the Keys without access to one.
The bottom tends to be firmer on the oceanside flats and a SUP kayak or canoe is pretty much mandatory for most of the bayside areas.
During the winter months the temperature of the water on the bayside can be too cold for bonefish so focus on the oceanside flats and keys. Around the middle of March the water begins to warm and the bayside becomes the place to target bones.
Little Duck Key – Located at the eastern end of the Seven Mile Bridge at mile marker 39.9. This small flat in front of the Veteran’s Memorial Park on the oceanside is worth trying.
Missouri Key – Nice oceanside flat to walk at mile marker 39.5
Ohio Key – Another section of oceanside flats at mile marker 39, that can be waded at low tide.
Bahia Honda State Park – This is a large, well-known park located on the oceanside at mile marker 38. It has an excellent stretch of walk and wade flats along the entire oceanside beach. I prefer fishing the northern end of Bahia Honda Park watching for bones coming out of the channel and onto the flat with the incoming tide.
Coupon Bight – This extensive interior flat is reached off Big Pine Key, an easy paddle in protected water off Long Beach Drive. At the end of the road is a path leading to the flats.
Sugar Loaf Key – Great oceanside shoreline flat along Sugarloaf Beach. Fish both north and south along the shoreline. There are a lot of great areas to explore within Lower Sugarloaf sound.
Saddle Bunch Key – This area is best accessed by following Old State Road 4a, as there are some wonderful interior flats for the kayaker and SUP.
Geiger Key Beach – To reach the beach at mile marker 12.5, turn at the Circle K and follow the road approximately three miles to the end. There is plenty of parking roadside, and good fishing from the end of the road south.
The Keys separate the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean so the east side is called “oceanside” and west is “bayside”.
For the self-guided angler to find bonefish, the best tactic is to concentrate on the oceanside flats from December – March, then as the bayside water temperature heats up around the middle of March begin to shift over to the bayside. I have identified a number of places where you can simply park the car and walk the roadside flats, but most of the productive areas need to be fished from a standup kayak, canoe or SUP. My suggestion is to go online and book your watercraft in advance, so that you have it when you arrive. There are many places to rent boats and it makes for a great trip to rent a boat to get to the flats you want and take a couple of standup kayaks or SUP’s along to launch once you are there.
Remember these are big fish so the flies are some of the largest you will use anywhere in the world. The typical sizes are #0 to #4 with enough weight to get down three feet quickly into swift tidal currents. I like lots of moving parts like bunny fur and rubber legs with a fair amount of flash. I’ve done well with larger Clousers and use more crab patterns in the Keys then most places. I like the Raghead crab and some of the E.P. crab patterns.
To have your best shot at catching a Keys bonefish, budget to go out with a guide for two days out of the week. There are lots of guides in the Keys but I recommend Captain Rich Smith out of Marathon.
Key Largo Rentals
Florida Bay Outfitters www.floridabayoutfitters.com
Key Largo Florida Boat Rentals www.flkeysboatrentals.com
Islamorada Watersports Company www.islamoradawatersports.com
Robbie’s of Islamorada www.robbies.com
Captain Hook’s www.captainhooks.com
Marathon Florida Keys Rental Boats www.vacationboatrentals.com
(Kayak Rentals) Marathon Kayak www.marathonkayak.com
Kayak Rentals Marathon Florida www.kayakrentalsmarathonflorida.com
Key West Rentals
Lazy Dog www.lazydog.com
Blue Planet Kayak www.blue-planet-kayak.com
Key West Boat Rentals www.boatrentalsofkeywest.com
Where to Stay
This area is bursting with an abundance of Hotels, Motels, Resorts, Guest Houses, Inns, Cottages and Condos – you get the picture! Take a little time to determine the vibe you want, because everything is available! VRBO and HomeAway Vacation Rentals are good places to start. With choices like these plus supplies and restaurants readily available, meal planning is a piece of cake!
The Pine and Palms Resort is a great choice and we have stayed there several times. It is located in Islamorada at MM 80.4 where owner Jim Bernardin, an experienced fisherman has created accommodation to fit any family or group, offering oceanfront cottages and one, two and three bedroom suites, all featuring full kitchens.
Flying into Ft. Lauderdale, Miami or any other major Florida city will provide enough options to fit any schedule. You can also choose to fly into Key West International Airport via connecting or direct flights and charter companies service the Marathon Airport.
All the “Big” car rental agencies can be found at the airport. While having a car is ideal, there is good ground transportation available from the Miami International and Ft. Lauderdale International Airports.
Greyhound Lines make scheduled stops along the route between Miami International and down the Florida Keys to Key West.
Services such as Keys Shuttle and the Florida Keys Express Shuttle provide door-to-door service between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale International Airports and the Keys.
Cars, mopeds and bicycle rentals are available at most destinations in the Keys. Make sure to ask if bikes or watercraft are included through your accommodation. Kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and other watercraft rentals are also easy find.
Spousal Rating – 8
The Keys are special, lots to do, tons of restaurants, a smorgasbord of places to stay from high end to budget accommodation and a laid back lifestyle, just like a tropical vacation is supposed to be.
Key Largo locals consider their home to be the diving capital of the world, but proximity to the Everglades makes this a premier destination for kayakers, birders and all nature lovers as well.
In Islamorada you can take an eco-tour, go to Founders Park on the waterfront, complete with an Olympic sized pool, shallow water beach, water sports rentals, tennis and basketball courts or go to Robbie’s and buy a bucket of bait to feed the tarpon off the dock.
Snorkeling heaven exists at Sombrero Reef of Marathon, a federally protected area of the U.S.’s only living coral barrier reef. Explore the many trails found on the 63-acre property at Crane Point Museum and Nature Center, or go to the Dolphin Research Centre and Turtle Hospital, that has the ability to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured sea turtles.
Key West can be anything you want it to be and everything is within walking distance. You can choose shopping, theatre, fine dining or one of the many entertainment options found on Duval Street to fill your day. View treasures from shipwrecks, discover the haunts of your literary heroes and bask in the midst of Victoria architecture. End the day watching a world-class sunset from Mallory Square where performers, vendors and artists are on hand to make it a complete Key West experience.