"The Fivefold Path For Finer Fishing"
Part of the Fishing the Florida Keys Series

Tips for Florida Keys Summertime Fishing

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Summertime in the Florida Keys...somehow that leisurely pace for which the Keys is so famous seems to slow down even more so at this time of the year.   Yet, summer fishing in the Keys is anything but slow. Great fishing opportunities exist at this time, as evidenced by the number of Floridians who do their summer vacation thing in the Keys.

Are the anglers who consistently do well down here in the summer just luckier than the rest?  While chance does have it's place in fishing, there are some general fishing principles which, if followed, can definitely tip the odds in one's favor.  So without further fanfare I present to you, "The Fivefold Path For Finer Summer Fishing."

 
1. BE PREPARED - Semper paratus (always prepared) is the motto of the U.S Coast Guard, and should be the motto of every serious angler as well.  For example, reef fishermen can save themselves a lot of downtime spent rerigging, by making up bottom rigs (for grouper, muttons, mangroves) and flatline rigs (for yellowtail) well before the trip.  This is especially important during the summer because so much fishing takes place at night.  Trying to hastily tie up rigs in the dark with wet, slimy hands during a hot bite of fish can be a nightmare.


Dolphin fishermen can take a lesson here too.  There are those summer days offshore when fishing is somewhat slow (especially on the July and August full moon).  During times like these, a day can be saved in one flurry of activity if the crew is prepared.    There should be plenty of prerigged baits and spare rigs (for both trolling and casting).  In addition, the bait for chumming and casting to dolphin should be cut up before the action starts. 


Summer flats fishing down here is much like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates...you never know what your going to get.  When working some of the deeper flats, I'll often have a 10 lb. outfit baited with a small shrimp-tipped jig for bonefish, a 12 lb. outfit with a silver dollar-size crab for permit, another 12 lb. outfit with a live pinfish for shark and barracuda, and a 20 lb. outfit with a heavy mono shock leader and a crab for tarpon.    My anglers often look like whirling dervishes up on the casting platform as they hastily switch from one rod to the next.

2. BE OPPORTUNISTIC - Florida Keys fishing is full of surprises.    Quite often a large fish will suddenly appear within casting range, offering a brief moment (a window of opportunity) in which they can be caught.  For example, large dolphin sometimes show up right behind the boat while anglers are in the middle of bailing schoolie dolphin with casting tackle.  The big guys may not eat the cut bait or even a whole ballyhoo, but they're usually a sucker for a livebait.  By having an extra rod (we'll call it your "opportunity rod") prerigged with a casting leader and a small live pinfish or grunt kept in a bucket, you can react instantly to the opportunity and fire out a "livey" to that fish. 

Each summer, a good number of blue marlin are caught during a schoolie bailing session because someone in the boat had the presence of mind to prerig a fifty pound outfit with a heavy duty live bait rig so a schoolie dolphin could be slapped on the hook and fired out immediately to the marlin.

Pesky barracudas can be "removed" from a chumline meant for yellowtail and mangroves by having a light wire leader on the opportunity rod.  No need to kill that 'cuda that's been chomping on your snappers; once caught and released, he'll have had enough excitement for one day and will leave your chumline.


The two most important elements to the opportunity rod are:

Speed...Your window of opportunity may be small at best so get the bait to the fish fast before it leaves.

Presentation... Shy fish need shy gear.    Keep the leaders as light as possible and the hooks and swivels small and dark colored.


Also remember, it's impossible to be opportunistic without first being prepared.  The best description of success I've ever heard is that it's when preparation collides with opportunity.

3. BE FLEXIBLE- Too many fishermen are caught up in the angling version of the "one trick pony." That is, they've got one type of fishing in mind when they leave the dock, and by golly that's what they're going to do.  Successful fishermen know that a given tactic won't work every day, so they adjust their tactics in order to catch fish.  Dolphin aren't biting?  Ever think of targeting those tasty tripletails laying up under floating debris?  A light (8-10 lb.) spinning rod, a few small hooks or jigs, and some shrimp or squid should do the trick.  Or maybe try some deep dropping for snowy grouper and tilefish.  Or try some light-tackle casting at those schools of skipjacks that are busting the surface.
Yellowtail aren't biting?  Try some deep water (100-200 ft. ) bottom fishing with livebait.  Or some deep jigging on the drift.  Or trolling plugs deep on the patch reefs.  The point is, don't be afraid to change gears.


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4. BE EXPERIMENTAL- One of the most successful tournament flats guides in the Florida Keys once told me that he spends a portion of each trip trying new flats on varying tides and weather conditions.  Believe me, it has paid off for him and it will for you too.  Not only will this put a few more pages into your "piscatorial playbook," but it will keep you from beating your "pet spots" to a pulp by hammering them day after day.  Get out of the rut!

Other applications of this principle might include varying your trolling or retrieve speed and depths, or varying your baits or lures, etc.

Let me share two applications whereby experimenting has worked for me.  Years ago, I used to think night fishing for snappers was only done on the reef.  Then one evening I tried it out in Florida Bay; we beat our daytime catches of mangrove snapper by nearly a 2 to 1 margin...and the average size of the night-caught mangos was considerably larger as well.

While running from spot to spot in the bay or out on the reef, I seldom run a direct compass course.  Instead,  I will run off course as much as a mile just to cover new ground.  By doing this, I occasionally run over a ledge or wreck that I would have otherwise missed by following the same straightline course day after day.  The bottom line is that being experimental is what opens us up to new discoveries.

5. BE OBSERVANT- Did you know that fish talk?  They do.    Whether it's that yellowtail snapper trying to tell you that your leader is too visible, or those blackfin tuna calling for you to change the colors of those feathers to more closely match the squid they're spitting out into your fishbox.  Maybe it's those tarpon at the bridge telling you they're feeling a little too sluggish to eat that mullet, but that a deep drifted crab would really hit the spot.

Be sensitive to what the fish are trying to "tell" you, and be sensitive to the conditions around you as well.  Perhaps the best piece of advice ever handed down to me was from the late Capt. Elmo Capo who said, "Always fish your conditions." Simply stated, that means fish for the species for which the conditions are best suited.

6. BE PATIENT- I know...there were only supposed to be five points. This one's free!

Sometimes you have to set all the techniques and fancy tricks aside... and just "wait 'em out."  Wish I had a quarter for every time I got ants in my pants and gave up on a fishing spot...only to find out later from a buddy that the fish "ate it up" shortly after I left.  Sometimes you have to go with your gut feelings about a spot, and frankly, sometimes your gut is going to be wrong!   So be patient with yourself too.  It's a bit ironic that the most fascinating aspect of the entire sportfishing process may be the amount of value we place on our ignorance of the outcome (you may want to read that again to let it sink in).    Your not going to "crush 'em" every day so cut yourself a little slack and have some fun.  But by following the principles outlined above, you should start turning some of those summer "dog day" busts into blasts.


MORE FREEBIES...Here are a few other diddies that anglers should find helpful.  Those who wish to do battle out on the water during the summer months must possess a healthy respect for the effects of the sun and heat.  Some vital items that no angler can afford to be without are a powerful sunscreen, a wide brimmed hat, polarized sunglasses, and plenty of water (soda and beer aren't going to cut it out here gang).    The light, loose fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long-legged pants that have become so popular with the flats fishing crowd are actually excellent for all types of summer fishing down here. You'll stay far cooler in these than in shorts and a tee shirt (though your laundry bill may escalate if you find yourself in regular "bailing sessions" with schoolie dolphin.)

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