Key West Billfish Report

Key West offers up excellent fishing action in a unique setting

fishing for sailfish in Key West

key west sailfish

Key West is known as one of the best locations for chasing sailfish.File Photo

Key West sits at the terminus of the Florida Keys — Mile Marker 0 on State Highway A1A — the end of the road in more ways than one. It’s long been home to those who march to the beat of a different drummer, and thanks to its geographic location, it’s also home to some of North America’s best billfishing action and one of the sport’s richest tournaments.

The Florida Keys stretch south and west for more than 100 miles from mainland Florida — a string of rocky jewels strewn throughout the southern Atlantic Ocean. At only about six miles square and less than 20 feet above sea level, Key West boasts an active and exciting history for such a small outpost — poets and presidents alike have called Key West home. The island draws hundreds of thousands of annual visitors each year, and fishing remains one of its most popular attractions.

Both the winter and spring seasons offer excellent sailfish action as these acrobatic speedsters make their way down the Keys. It’s not uncommon to release double-digit numbers when the weather conditions push the bait and the sails to the surface. Keys sailfish frequently tail down-sea as they chase balls of pilchards or other baitfish, making for an adrenaline-rushing experience as you sight-cast live baits into a frenzy of feeding sails. At times, schools of ballyhoo hug the reef, spurring a run-and-gun fishery where crews look for the showering ’hoos as the sails move in for the kill. The captain can see these showers from a good distance away, so when he spots the baits taking flight, he hauls butt to the spot and the anglers cast out live ballyhoo. Almost all the Keys’ sailfishing methods entail the use of live bait, and you see quite a bit of bait dangled from kites these days as well.

Although better known for its abundance of sails, Key West also offers up a late-spring and summer blue marlin bite. Roughly 20 miles south of Key West, in an area where the water depth drops sharply — more than 2,000 feet — into the Florida Straits, blue marlin prowl the local hot spot known as Wood’s Wall. This underwater cliff has been a productive part of the blue-water scene since the pioneering Key West charter captain Norman Wood discovered the drop-off in the late 1970s. Here, anglers and skippers have the option of fishing a spread of artificial lures to cover ground or slow-trolling big live baits — usually bonito, skipjack or small blackfin tunas — along the drop-off. Both are proven tournament-winning strategies. Most of the marlin here run less than 250 pounds, making them perfect adversaries for light stand-up tackle.

Another species that’s making a strong comeback in the lower Keys in general, and Key West in particular, is the swordfish. No more than a few years ago, it would have been virtually unthinkable to catch swordfish recreationally off Key West, but thanks to strict regulations on longlining in the Florida Straits, these fish have made a remarkable recovery. Most of the action happens in deep water at night, with boats deploying a spread of dead squid and live baits at various depths from the surface to about 400 feet.

Billfishing aside, one of the greatest things about the Key West fishery is that there’s almost always something ready to put a bend in the rod at any time of the year. Offshore trips usually see excellent catches of dolphin, blackfin tuna and wahoo, with the wahoo especially fond of bait or lures fished deep, either behind a trolling lead or heavy downrigger ball. Closer inshore, big king mackerel invade Key West in the winter and early spring, with 40-pound kingfish quite common and tournament-winning fish usually topping the 50- to 60-pound mark. The coral reefs that ring the island teem with bottomfish like yellowtail snapper and groupers, while the wrecks hold permit, cobia, amberjack and a host of other species.

But the fun doesn’t end back at the dock in Key West! There’s no shortage of food and drink establishments downtown, with most of them lining the world-famous Duval Street. Indeed, no trip would be complete without a stop at Sloppy Joe’s or the original Hog’s Breath Saloon, where even teetotalers will find a good time. The restaurants are numerous, with most menus featuring the famed Key West pink shrimp in all variations. Once darkness falls, the streets come alive with music from nearly every corner.

Whether you’re a hard-core tournament angler, chasing your first blue marlin or just out for a good time, Key West certainly offers up something for every taste.

traveling to Key West
Key West is at te end of a long stretch of highway, one with small towns and low speed limits.File Photo

Travel Guide

Key West, Florida, lies at the end of the Florida Keys island chain, 130 miles southwest of Miami. The Key West International Airport is small but is served by a number of regional carriers. Rental cars are available at the airport but are limited, so reservations are strongly recommended. For visitors staying in downtown Key West, a taxi to the hotel is also a good option, as most attractions are within walking distance from almost any point downtown.

Key West is also visited by dozens of cruise ships each year, whose passengers disembark from the ship for a day of shopping and bar-hopping on Duval Street. The cruise ship docks are conveniently located in the heart of downtown Key West, easily within walking distance of the most popular attractions. One of the most spectacular ones occurs each afternoon near sunset, as dozens of street performers gather near the docks to put on their popular (and often bizarre) displays for the crowds.

Traveling by car to Key West is a third popular option. The island lies at the end of State Highway A1A, and the trip down through the Florida Keys is among the most scenic in North America. Drivers should keep in mind, however, as they pass through the numerous small towns and villages on the way to Key West, that the speed limits are quite strictly enforced in the Keys.