The Complete Guide to Flats Fishing in Key West

With its crystal blue waters, abundant marine life, and laidback island vibe, Key West is a flats fishing paradise. The shallow “flats” surrounding the islands provide prime habitat for a variety of inshore sport fish, including bonefish, permit, tarpon, redfish, and more. This flats fishing guide will walk you through everything you need to know to experience the thrill of Key West flats fishing.

Getting There

Key West International Airport offers direct flights from several major US cities, making getting to the island easy. Many fishing charters provide transportation from the airport direct to the marina, so you can get out on the water quickly. Driving down is also popular, with the Keys Overseas Highway providing a scenic road trip.

Another option is flying into Miami International Airport, which has a huge volume of flights, then driving the roughly 3.5 hours to Key West. Just be sure to leave early to avoid traffic delays.

Choosing a Charter

Hiring an experienced local charter captain is highly recommended for visitors who want to maximize their chances of hooking fish on the flats. Reputable charters have extensive experience navigating the expansive backcountry waters, spotting fish, positioning the boat, and putting you on the bite. This local know-how is invaluable.

Charters come in different boat sizes and offer a range of amenities. Smaller boats can access shallower areas but may ride rougher in open water. Larger boats typically provide more fishing room and creature comforts. Shop around and ask questions before booking to find the right fit.

Most charters provide all necessary tackle, bait, gear, drinks and food. You simply show up ready to fish. Opting for a shared charter trip can also lower costs by splitting among a group. Private charters provide exclusive access for more serious anglers.

Types of Fish

Bonefish: Considered one of the premiere inshore sport fish, bonefish are the primary target for most flats anglers. Pound for pound, bonefish provide one of the hardest, longest fights around. Spotting their silvery flashes as they cruise shallow waters is exhilarating. Catching these speedy fish on light tackle is even more so.

Permit: Compared to bonefish, permit offer an even tougher fight when hooked on the flats. They use their broad tails to power deep runs peeling off line against tight drags. But permit are finicky eaters, requiring precise presentations to entice them to bite. Around Key West, they average 15-20 pounds but can grow up to 40+ pounds.

Tarpon: The silver king. Monster tarpon over 100 pounds cruise the Keys waters feeding on crabs, mullet and more. When hooked in shallow water they launch aerial shows breaching completely out of the water trying to throw the hook. Tarpon fishing takes strength, stamina and patience.

Redfish: Less spooky than bonefish, redfish provide great action and eating. They prowl flats, mangroves and grass beds with their large copper bodies and signature spots. Key West offers excellent sight fishing for slot-sized reds in the 18 – 27 inch range.

Trout: Lagoons, mangrove shorelines and patch reefs hold plenty of sea trout willing to pounce on shrimp imitations and live bait. Mix in jacks, snappers, groupers and sharks for a hard fighting mixed bag.

Flats Fishing Techniques

Sight Fishing: Flats fishing at its finest involves scanning the shallows for fish cruising with their dorsal fins and tails protruding. You then cast precisely to the spotted fish and deliver the fly, lure or bait delicately without spooking them. The visual hunt first for the fish adds adrenaline.

Live Bait: Many guides prefer dangling live shrimp, crabs or baitfish under a float rig in front of cruising fish. This livie is delicately lowered into the fish’s path to get their attention and trigger a strike. The slight movement imparted by the tide makes the bait look vulnerable.

Fly Fishing: The traditional flats experience features an angler armed with an 8 or 9 weight fly rod. False casting to deliver the fly requires dexterity and touch to avoid spooking the target. Common patterns include bonefish flies like Gotchas or Epoxy Shrimp imitations. Purists prefer fly fishing only.

Spin Fishing: Spin tackle like 10-15 lb spinning rods allows using both artificial lures and live baits when targeting flats species. Lures like soft plastic paddle tails elicit bone-jarring strikes. Spin gear opens flats fishing to all skill levels.

Best Flats Fishing Spots Around Key West

Marquesas Keys: This uninhabited island group 20 miles west of Key West offers miles of undisturbed flats hosting huge bonefish up to 10 lbs in skinny water. The remote fishery sees limited pressure for exceptional sight fishing.

7 Mile Bridge: The longest oversea bridge in the world creates plenty of fish-holding structure. Tarpon congregate around the piling channels. Shark fishing yields bull, lemon and hammerhead sharks underneath.

Bahia Honda Flats: The State Park’s coastline contains beaches, grassy flats, cuts and mangrove islands, creating diverse fish habitat. Wade fishing is a great way to explore here.

Newfound Harbor: Near Big Pine Key, this harbor contains a web of mangrove channels and flats that flood on the high tide. It holds redfish, snapper, jack crevalle, and sea trout.

Atlantic Side: The ocean side flats stretch from Boca Grande Key to the Marquesas. Shallow grass beds hold bonefish and permit, while tarpon roam sandy potholes and channels.

Tips for Success

Hire a guide: As mentioned above, a guide does everything from spotting fish, positioning the boat, baiting hooks and untangling lines, to providing local knowledge, cold drinks and lunch. Let them handle the work to maximize your fun.

Book a full day: Don’t limit yourself to a half-day fishing charter, as you’ll spend more time running to spots and feeling rushed. A full 8+ hour trip allows for plenty of fishing, even during slow periods.

Time it right: Try to fish around the high tide when flats and lagoons flood, causing fish to spread out in search of food. Higher water also allows boats to access shallower areas.

Wear polarized lenses: Cutting glare with polarization allows seeing fish cruising the flats much better. Quality lenses are a flats fishing essential.

Keep sun protection handy: The sun beats down intensely, so reapply sunscreen frequently. Buffs, long sleeve shirts and a wide-brim hat help avoid overexposure.

Relax and enjoy: Flats fishing offers a peaceful escape and connection with nature. Don’t stress about catching limits. Savor the amazing scenery and time on the water.

With its laid back atmosphere and amazing coastal fishery, Key West is a flats fishing gem. Shallow flats surround the island chain, holding bonefish, permit, tarpon and more than will test your skills and thrill you with their power. Hiring a knowledgeable local guide, having the right gear and tactics, and fishing optimal areas will help you make the most of this world-class destination. Just be sure to take time to soak up Key West’s tropical vibe in between battling fish.

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