Flats Fishing in Key West: An Angler's Guide for 2024

Jun 20, 2024 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Calling all anglers on the search for an ultimate, inshore adventure! You need to go flats fishing in Key West. A voyage to the shallows here is a thrill for a multitude of reasons. You’ll get to experience crystal clear waters, full of diverse marine life and beautiful features. It’s like fishing in a tropical oasis! Plus, you don’t have to travel far to get to the flats, and sometimes you can even fish them from land! 

Two anglers ride a boat across the flats as the sun rises over an island at Key West
Photo courtesy of 24/7 Sportfishing

In this guide, I’m going to let you into all the secrets of flats fishing in Key West. I’ll run through the target species, most effective techniques, bait, and more. Now let’s get started so you can discover all the fun the flats have to offer.

Key West Flats Fishing Targets

I already said that Key West contains tons of exciting marine life. From small to big species, you’re always going to run into something while fishing out there. But some fish stand out more than others. Here’s a list of some of the most popular game fish you could come across on your flats fishing journey at the southernmost point of the US:

  • Tarpon. The ultimate inshore game fish, Tarpon, are heavily sought after by local and traveling anglers. These tough fish reach very large sizes and produce intense battles. Key West is a hotspot for these guys because of its warm water temperatures, especially during the summer.
  • Bonefish. These fish might not be the biggest but – trust me – they put up a memorable fight. Slowly troll around the flats and you’ll find these guys almost camouflaging in the clear water.
  • Permit. Another species targeted by eager fishermen, these flat-bodied fish swim quickly through the flats and make an angler’s heart race when they see one.
  • Redfish. Flats fishing also provides a chance to catch Redfish. You can sightcast for them as they prowl around the flats in search of food and shelter. And they make for a tasty meal!
  • Snook. While Snook may not make a daily appearance on the flats, they occasionally stroll by in schools. You’ll be pumped if you see a school of large Snook swimming by, I guarantee it.
A female angler holds a large Permit on a boat on the flats in Key West with a trolling motor visible behind her on a sunny day
Photo courtesy of Capt. Kelso – All Water

Of course, these are only a few of the species you can run into while out on the flats. There are loads of other species that frequently patrol these waters, ranging from tiny bait fish to large predators. And if you’re lucky, you may run into a whole bunch of species in a single day!

How to Go Flats Fishing in Key West

But how to get your hands on the above-mentioned fish? Well, there are a couple of techniques you can utilize when flats fishing in Key West. Try wade fishing or sight fishing, or you can even hire a charter boat. Let’s take a closer look at what these entail…

Wade Fishing

A solitary male angler stands in shallow sea waters holding a bent fly rod and pulling a Bonefish towards him as a cloud of disturbed sand wafts to the left
Photo courtesy of Latitude 24 Fishing Charters

Wade fishing is when you stand in the water while you fish, usually up to your knees or higher. The flats of Key West are perfect for wade fishing, as the clear, warm water surrounds you while plenty of diverse marine life swim by. Try to cast near deeper points, structure, or schools of fish. This a great option for anglers who don’t have access to a boat.

Sight Fishing

A male angler stands on a platform at the front of a flats fishing skiff as he looks out across the shallow waters of Key West with his rod pointing downwards and his line stretching across the water
Photo courtesy of Flying Fish Charters

They say it’s exciting when you can creep up on a fish and watch them bite. I can’t disagree with that! You can sight fish on land or a boat, but most fishermen use a platform on their boat to stand up tall and overlook the surrounding water. Push poles are commonly used to help quietly push the boat as you try to sneak up on some fish. All of this will give you an additional advantage in getting them to bite!

Charter Fishing

A Key West captain helps a young boy catch a Blacktip Shark from a boat in the flats on a sunny day
Photo courtesy of Key West Fishing Connection

Making use of an experienced guide is an excellent idea for a few reasons. You don’t have to worry about how you’ll get on the water. You don’t have to buy any gear. You most likely don’t need to have a fishing license. And, best of all, you don’t need to find your own spot. This is especially ideal for new anglers or families looking to fish together.

While experienced anglers may already know where to go in Key West, having someone who fishes these waters on a daily basis can only enhance the experience. They’ll let you in on even more tips than I’ll share with you in this article!

Flats Fishing Gear

Let’s talk gear. Flats fishing in Key West is typically done with spinning and fly setups, so I’ll give a little breakdown for both.

For your spinning setup, a medium or medium-heavy action rod with a 4000 or 5000 reel is great to use. For your braid, 10–15 pounds is a good medium, and adding a fluorocarbon leader of 30 pounds or more is a good start. Circle hooks are effective, and you should focus on using 2/0 or higher. Of course, you have plenty of opportunities to run into some large fish on the flats, so you can always up your line and hook size to improve your chance of landing a big one.

An angler sits at the front of a flats fishing skiff fighting a Shark in shallow water with heavy weight spinning gear
Photo courtesy of Purple Heron Charters

As for fly fishing gear, start your setup off with a fast action 7 wt rod and go larger if you’re targeting bigger fish. Get a saltwater-friendly fly reel that can withstand strong and fast fish. You should be able to apply 20 pounds of test, backing, and your fly line, so make sure the reel is big enough.

A man stands in shallow water holding a fly fishing rod in his mouth and a Tarpon in the water ready to be released
Photo courtesy of 24/7 Sportfishing

You can use wet or dry flies. Dry flies will sit along the surface and will entice bait to come up to eat. Wet flies sink to the bottom so you can approach the bottom feeders. As you fish along the flats of Key West, you’ll come across a mixture of shallow areas and deeper points. It’s best to use dry flies in shallow regions and wet flies in deeper water.

Best Key West Flats Fishing Bait

A charter captain in Key West prepares to throw a cast net to catch live bait near some mangroves. An artificial lure is visible attached to a fishing rod to the left of the photo
Photo courtesy of Key West Backwater Fishing

Now that you know what gear to bust out, let’s discuss bait! When fishing the flats of Key West, you have plenty of options for bait. You have some that you can pull out of a tackle box, snag from a grocery store or bait shop, or ones you can even catch yourself. Let’s break it down between live and artificial:

Live Bait

Threadfin herring, mullet, pilchards, minnows, sardines, shrimp, and crab are great options for live bait. Plenty of hungry species along the Key West flats will easily be enticed by these. Freeline your bait – with a sinker, if needed – and watch them come to your bait.

Artificials

There are quite a few types of artificial baits you can use when flats fishing in Key West. Swimbaits with jig heads, flukes, spoons, jerk baits, and topwater lures are all common on the flats. Wet and dry flies are also popular when it comes to fly fishing.

When to Go Flats Fishing in Key West

A female angler casts into the shallow flats of Key West while fly fishing in the evening
Photo courtesy of Michael O’Brien Charters

Flats fishing in Key West is something you can participate in year-round. But if you’re looking for the most productive times, plan your trip in the spring and summer. During spring, the fish are preparing for spawning season and are very hungry and feisty. Summer is the hottest season, so the fish come out more as they enjoy the warm water.

You can spend all day on the flats and keep the action going, but the best times are dawn and dusk when tons of species are most active. You also want to make sure you can get out there during calm conditions. If it’s too windy or cloudy you’ll have a hard time finding fish. The same can happen if it’s extremely hot out and no clouds are present too.

One of the most important factors that affect flats fishing in Key West is the tide. Because flats are usually shallow in general, you need water to come over them so fish can pass through. Therefore, high tide is your best opportunity to go flats fishing in Key West. Another bonus is if you can fish on an outgoing or incoming tide, as the current will push bait around, firing up the fish.

Where to Go Flats Fishing in Key West

A charter captain stands atop a poling platform as he directs his skiff across the flats of Key West with a female angler standing at the front of the boat and fishing from a casting platform on a clear day
Photo courtesy of Fish Finder Adventures

Before you go flats fishing in Key West, you need to know what type of area to fish in. There are a couple of key habitats you should search for on the flats, such as grassy or sandy bottoms, any areas with structure, and locations like mangroves or bridges and piers. Fish may pass by in schools on sandy flats or they may be individually hiding within grassy bottoms, so keep your eyes peeled.

Just a little south of Key West there are some crystal clear flats you can fish on, as well as the nearby flats of Key West itself. You can also look at a satellite map and see where the water looks shallow or sandier on the map. These, most of the time, are productive fishing flats.

Key West Flats Fishing Rules and Regulations

An infographic featuring the flag of Florida, a vector of a boat, and the FishingBooker logo, along with text stating "Key West Flats Fishing Regulations: What You Need to Know" against a blue background

Before I wrap up, you need to learn some rules and regulations for flats fishing in Key West. In the state of Florida, all anglers fishing in saltwater regions must have a valid fishing license. Whether you’re a local or tourist, you can purchase yours online, in person, or by phone.

When it comes to species regulations and harvesting rules, these can vary depending on the species, season, length, bag limits, etc. The best way to be sure you’re fishing and harvesting appropriately is to check with the FWC. You can easily find the rules on a species by checking out their website.

It’s always a great adventure out on the Key West flats, but you should always go fishing wisely and legally. That way, you won’t get into any trouble or endanger any marine species.

Flats Fishing in Key West: An Angler’s Oasis

An angler stands aboard a skiff in Key West and a fishing guide stands at the back of the boat using a pole to steer and propel it across the flats on a sunny day
Photo courtesy of Flying Fish Charters

As we reach the end of this article, I hope that you’re itching to get out there! Turn your next solo or family vacation into a tropical one when you participate in hands-on fun in the outdoors as you go flats fishing in Key West. Get ready for tight lines when you can make your way to the flats!

Have you been flats fishing in Key West? What species did you catch? Share your experience with us in the comments below!

Author profile picture

Hi! My name is Caitlyn Gatrell and I'm an outdoor writer and inshore saltwater angler based in Naples, Florida. My fishing is typically done in the Ten Thousand Islands region, as well as the Estero, Naples, and Marco Island areas, along with some Florida Keys trips here and there. I typically target game fish such as Tarpon, Snook, and Redfish, as well as some Jack Crevalle, Seatrout, Goliath Grouper, and Sharks. I have been involved in the fishing field since I was a little girl, and my passion has only grown since I’ve gotten older.

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