Fishing in Dry Tortugas: Everything You Should Know
Sep 9, 2020 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Rich history, amazing natural life, incredible weather – what more can a person ask for? Fishing in Dry Tortugas is an experience of a lifetime, and if you embark on this adventure, it’ll surely change you. The feeling of being one with nature will awaken as you experience these stunning views. You’ll never be the same again!

An aerial view of Garden Key on Dry Tortugas showing the Jefferson Fort

Heading 68 miles west of Key West will see you on the route of Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador who first discovered this natural gem in 1513. He named it “Las Tortugas” (turtles) due to the abundance of sea turtles in the area. However, the name was later changed to “Dry Tortugas” to refer to the absence of surface fresh water on the islands.

What’s so interesting about Dry Tortugas? Well, today it’s a 47,125-acre national park comprising of seven islands. But one thing’s unique – apart from the wildlife, it preserves Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the West, composed of more than 16 million bricks!

During and after the Civil War, it was used as a prison. You might have heard of Dr. Samuel Mudd, imprisoned for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, who is one of the most famous prisoners of Fort Jefferson.

An aerial view of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas

This is why Dry Tortugas is the perfect mix of history, tourism, and natural wonder! You can spend your morning learning about fun facts, only to visit one of the fishing spots in the afternoon and have a blast. The abundance of natural life in this pretty isolated area is incredible, and your line won’t be lonely for too long. Read on to find out everything about fishing in Dry Tortugas.

Top Catches

“What can I catch?” is probably what you’re wondering by now. Rest assured, these waters are so rich that your bait won’t be hooked for long. The Tortugas reef complex is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and it holds some amazing reef fish, among other marine life. We have a list of species coming right up!

An infographic showing the top fish catches in Dry Tortugas

Grouper

Black, Gag, Red, and the iconic Goliath Grouper are all inhabitants of these waters. With plenty of reefs and wrecks, you’ll find fishing for Grouper in Dry Tortugas a fun experience. And you’ll get an astonishing fight out of it, with some trophy rewards at the end of your line. All you need to do is find structure, and then you can just watch them bite left and right.

A man holding a big Gag Group on the waters of Dry Tortugas

Fishing for Grouper is very rewarding, and the waters around Garden Key can get pretty deep. Sink a line from one of the docks and expect to be wooed by the sheer force of these prized species.

Snapper

This one’s a no-brainer! Dry Tortugas is one of the most reliable places in the world for Mutton Snapper fishing. There’s enough to go around, and you’ll be able to catch some trophy specimens of this bright-colored species. You can easily hook it using light tackle, but fishing for Muttons on the fly here is an experience you should definitely try out.

Three boys holding Mutton Snappers on a boat

And speaking of Snapper, is there a more sought-after one than the Red variety? You’ll be happy to know that the Tortugas reefs hold great numbers of this beautiful bright-red fish. So expect to have a lot of work on your hands, as they get big in these waters. Lure them out of the depths and break some records!

Amberjack

Another reef fish that’s fun to target. These predatory fish are opportunistic feeders, and they’ll chug any sort of bait, making it easy to get their attention. With some skills in presenting the bait, they’re fairly easy to catch. With their nice, mild meat, you’ll get to reap the rewards back at home with a nice family meal.

A man holding an Amberjack on a boat

If you’re looking to hook Amberjack as quickly as possible, using live bait yields some great results. Try out vertical jigging as well, as this tends to lure them out of the depths, making it easier for you to reel them onto the boat.

Snook

This is one you can’t really avoid in Florida. And yes, we’re still in Florida! Even though Dry Tortugas is the most remote national park in the US, fishing yields all of those Florida favorites, including the beloved Snook. You’ll find them around the docks, as well as the boat pier, or you can try your luck from the beaches. 

A boy holding a big Snook on a boat

This recognizable creature will give you a run for your money, as reeling Snook in requires some skill. The prize you’ll get for your efforts is very much worth it though – you’ll get back home with a delicious meal on the table!

Mahi Mahi

Dry Tortugas makes for some astonishing photos, and the memories that go with them are invaluable. Take your camera to snap the coral reefs, the Jefferson Fort, but also – to get a selfie with the most photogenic fish there is. The beautiful Mahi Mahi can be found circling the national park, so if you’re gonna be fishing offshore, don’t miss it!

Two men holding a big Mahi Mahi on a boat

Reaching some great sizes, it’s the game fish everyone’s talking about. This green and yellow monster will have you fighting ‘til you drop, but getting it on board is an experience you have to live to believe. And don’t be camera-shy, a photo is worth a thousand words anyway!

Tarpon

Ah, the mighty Tarpon. The Silver King has long been hailed as the most prized game fish in all of Florida. Yes, including the secluded Dry Tortugas! Sink a line from the finger piers by the main dock at the right time, and you’ll be able to call yourself a real Florida angler. Tarpon tend to pass by these waters in the summer, so don’t hesitate to put it on your list.

A man and a little boy holding a big Tarpon on a boat in Dry Tortugas

While they can be ferocious when you’re reeling them in, the joy of getting that game fish everyone’s talking about is stronger. Feel the soreness in your arms after all the leaps this beast will make trying to defeat you. That’s the pain every angler loves – and it’s worth it! This majestic creature will stay in your memory long after you’ve released it back into the water.

And the fun doesn’t end here – Barracuda, Permit, Sharks, Mackerel, Jacks, Sailfish, Tuna… just take your pick!

How to Fish

As Dry Tortugas is pretty isolated, the only way to reach it is on a ferry, a charter, or by seaplane. This is an adventure you should prepare for, as it takes around 2 hours to get there from Key West by boat. Once you’re there, there’s a variety of ways to explore the water, so keep reading to find out more about them.

Charter Fishing

Depending on your ambitions, this might be the perfect way to head out and fill the bags. You can find Key West charters that can take you fishing in Dry Tortugas, but you should be ready for a long day. If you want to visit the open waters and reel in some big pelagics, this is your best chance.

A view of a boat on the waters of Dry Tortugas from the Jefferson Fort

One advantage of hiring a charter vessel is that you’ll have the captain on board, so you won’t have to worry about anything besides the actual fishing. The captain will make sure to plan your journey, and you’ll be able to cover a lot of ground as the waters around Dry Tortugas are as prolific as they get.

Kayak Fishing

Once you step foot on these islands, you’ll fall in love with some of the most beautiful natural views in the world. What better way to explore these than hopping in a kayak and getting really up close and personal with the wildlife? Why not paddle out and make some amazing memories?

A kayak on the shore of Dry Tortugas

You can take your kayak with you, or you can rent one in Key West if you’re coming via the ferry. Make sure you make a reservation for it, as the number of kayaks allowed on the ferry is limited. Note that kayak fishing will limit you to a one-mile circle of the campgrounds on Garden Key. However, this is enough to catch some trophy Snapper, Permit, Tarpon, Grouper, Snook, and Jacks. 

Shore Fishing

When it comes to fishing from shore, there are pretty strict regulations in Dry Tortugas. It’s a remote national park committed to really preserving the unique ecosystem of the area. So once you’re there, there are a few places you can sink a line at and just turn off the background noise, relaxing in isolation from the real world. Sounds pretty sweet, right?

The docks (finger piers) in Dry Tortugas

So how is it? What you need to know is that fishing from the shore in Dry Tortugas is very prolific. While you will be able to unwind, don’t expect long stretches of time without the fish biting. They bite! This part of the world isn’t often fished, so the fish numbers are high.

Where to Go

When it comes to fishing in dry Tortugas, this one’s a piece of cake! Fishing is forbidden within the Research National Area, which encompasses all the keys. However, you can fish from a boat within one nautical mile from the Historic Use Area (marked by yellow buoys). In the infographic below, we’ve outlined all relevant parts of Garden Key. Keep scrolling for a list of scenic fishing spots!

An infographic showing the layout of Garden Key in Dry Tortugas, including fishing spots – Seaplane Beach, Dinghy Beach, The Main Dock, and Finger Piers
  • Seaplane Beach: You can do some nice surf fishing here. It’s located east of the main dock, and you’ll have no issues reeling in some nice catches. Just note that you can fish here only when there’s no seaplane present.
  • The Main Dock: The main dock is where the ferry from Key West will drop you off, and it’s one of the best fishing spots on Garden Key. You can sink a line right then and there and enjoy a day of hassle-free fishing. Note that if the Yankee Freedom ferry is docked, you should not be fishing.
  • The Finger Piers: You’ll see the finger piers right next to the main pier, and these are mostly available for public use. However, you can fish from the two westernmost finger piers. Cast your bait from these and enjoy the view, but do it only when they’re unoccupied.
  • Dinghy Beach: Enjoy a fun day in the sun, soaking in the natural views, as well as all the history right behind you. You can fish on either Dinghy Beach as long as you don’t do it within 50 feet of the concrete wall of the historic coal dock ruins.
  • Offshore: We know, this isn’t exactly a spot – but hear us out. As fishing is not allowed inside the RNA, if you’re boating, there’s nothing stopping you from fishing outside of it. And the waters are rich! Grouper, Snapper, Amberjack, Mackerel, Tuna, Wahoo, Mahi Mahi, Sailfish… you name it, it’s there!

Rules and Regulations

So what’s the deal when it comes to fishing regulations? Dry Tortugas is a designated national park. A very remote one, but a national park nonetheless, and as we said, fishing is prohibited throughout the Research Natural Area. However, there are some fishing spots inside the area, so check out the infographic in the paragraph above for more information.

Signage at local Oceanside tackle shop, advertising bait and fishing licenses.

Spearfishing and lobster collecting is prohibited, and private boaters are required to file a boat permit at Garden Key before fishing (which is allowed one mile outside of the Historic Use Area marked by yellow buoys). And as the park is technically in Florida, you’ll need a Florida saltwater fishing license. 

You can visit the FWC website to get the most up-to-date information on the current rules and regulations. Also, visit our guide for valuable catch-and-release information.

Why Dry Tortugas? It’s a remote tropical paradise!

There’s nothing more to say, really. Rich history, a tropical climate, complete isolation – it has all the makings of a must-visit bucket list destination. It’s a fishing paradise, with abundant marine life held together by stunning coral reefs and a lack of human touch. Visiting Dry Tortugas is like visiting the past – it’s a unique experience and a real natural gem. And it’s sure to steal your heart!

An aerial view of the Dry Tortugas National Park

Have you ever visited Dry Tortugas? Was it a once-in-a-lifetime adventure? Don’t hesitate to tell us all about it in the comments below. And feel free to ask any questions you might have, we’re happy to hear from you!

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