Flats Fishing in Key West Florida

By: Richard Alves

On Thursday we met Captain Tony Murphy, owner of Key Limey Charters, for a day of fishing the flats on the Gulf side of the keys. The weather had changed to windy and overcast, the ocean was flat but there was some chop. Captain Tony told us that none of the local fishermen had seen a Bonefish since the hurricane but we would take a look. If that didn’t pan out, he had spotted some permit the day before and we would go looking for them.

The Gulf side of the Keys features large expanses of shallow water not deeper than eight feet. The game fish cruise the shallows, feeding on the plentiful crab and shrimp. At this time of year there should be Bonefish and Permit along with Shark and the occasional Tarpon.

We sped out to Snipes Point on Marvin Key in his 16′ Hewes Bonefisher and he demonstrated the double hawl cast and showed me how to manage 60′ of flyline while standing on the nose of the boat. Now I’m a flyfisherman, but I wasn’t close to being prepared for the demands of this technical type of fishing. Tony stands on a small platform on the rear of the boat and poles you around the flats. He yells out “bonefish at two o’clock, 50ft” and you are supposed to drop the fly on the nose of the fish in three snaps of the flyrod. When the wind wasn’t howling at 20 knots, I had a chance and could get it done maybe a third of the time. Another factor that complicates the casting is that the wind is coming from a different direction every time you cast. I practiced my casting while Tony searched for fish. After beaning myself with the Crazy Charlie, a bead-eyed shrimp imitation, a few times, I decided that spinning gear was the only chance I was going to have of getting anything in front of a fish. “It happens all the time.” Tony said, “Good trout fishermen come down here and think they are just going to hop on the boat and catch fish.” Adding “It takes experienced fly fishermen at least a couple of days to get it together if they haven’t fished the flats before.”

Frigate Bird in the Mangroves We poled around Marvin Key and Boca Grande Key without spotting a fish of any kind. Normally the water is crystal clear, but this day it was cloudy, making it harder to spot fish. The large amounts of sand are a great natural filter and it only took a couple of days for the water to clear after the hurricane. Evidently the large thunderstorm that blew through the day before had churned up the water again. We were fishing in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge and although we weren’t seeing fish, the bird life was incredible. We spotted heron, egret, frigate birds, cormorants, gulls and osprey. At least we were getting quite a boat ride!

Captain Tony noticed that the sun was coming out west of Key West and decided to head off to Woman Key, some twenty miles distant. The ride was a tour of the lower keys speeding through the narrow channels and skirting the Key West harbor. A half an hour later, we were again poling the flats.

Tony put a blue crab on the line and the search for permit began. A few minutes later Tony shouted “Permit 10 o’clock, 50 feet moving right, hit him on the head!” I was able to spot the fish but I missed the cast by at least 10 feet. I quickly retrieved the line and cast again. This time I got the bait where I should have, but the fish didn’t take it. I had begun to learn another lesson, when you are casting to a point on open water; there is no visual reference for depth so you just have to figure it out. This flats fishing was becoming a humbling experience. Tony spotted another fish but I couldn’t pick it up and didn’t cast. Tony chastised me, “If you can’t spot it, cast it anyway, you may get lucky.”

Steelhead vs. Shark in 2 foot of water As we motored to the other side of the key, a Tarpon rolled on the surface, Tony frowned because he knew the fish was spooked and there was no way we were going to be able to sneak back up on him. A few minutes later we were poling again. “Permit 9 o’clock 100ft!” This time I spotted the fish as it moved across an area of white sand. “Got ’em” I shouted as I waited for it to get into range. I cast and the crab landed a few feet in front of the fish. The reel screamed as I set the hook. The fish immediately turned and headed for the boat. I was winding in line as fast as I could, but there was a huge loop of loose string. The Permit went airborne and spit out the hook. The whole event lasted less than five seconds. Tony laughed, “You’re getting the hang of it, no one can reel as fast as a permit can swim, that was just bad luck.”

About ten minutes later Tony spotted another fish. Deborah, who was along for the ride as a photographer, also spotted a fish on the other side of the boat. I made the cast to the spot both fish were converging. The Shark took the bait as the Permit swam by. Again the reel screamed as the five foot fish made a beeline for shore. Captain Tony told me to keep the rod tip high and then to tighten down the drag. I saw the dorsal fin breaking the surface over 100 yards away; Captain Tony was poling as fast as he could in the direction of the fish. The line quit moving, the Shark had found a rock to swim around, another flats lesson.

Key West Castaway A swallow landed on the boat console, a refugee of hurricane Georges. We fed it breadcrumbs and it stayed with us for almost twenty minutes, even though we were within a couple hundred yards of land. Many birds were displaced by the hurricane; this was not a local, probably a native of Cuba.

As we headed back to port, Captain Tony said it wasn’t bad for my first day of flats fishing. He was apologetic about not being able to locate more fish. I might have been able to learn more if we had seen more fish, but he showed me seven and I only hooked two. So what I came away from the experience with was that flats fishing is a challenge. If you are planning to flyfish the flats, practice practice practice in the worst conditions you can find. If you can’t cast 50′ you haven’t got a chance. Then figure out how to keep all that line managed at your feet, because if it gets caught on the nose of the boat bad things happen. Spin fishermen need to learn depth perception and how to fight a fish with the rod tip up high. The only weight on the line is the bait. A crab may weigh a couple of ounces, a shrimp maybe a half, casting in high wind is a challenge. You also will have to lead the fish like a quarterback leading a receiver. Believe me it is easier said than done. Above all, remember you usually only get one shot at the fish, better make it count!

I was impressed with Captain Tony’s ability to coach/teach. If you haven’t fished the flats before, my advice is to give it at least two days. Flats fishing is both challenging and exciting and well worth the effort. I look forward to doing it again soon.