Flats Fishing Florida Keys: An Angler’s Guide
Jul 2, 2021 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

The Florida Keys are considered an anglers paradise for many reasons. The waters are warm, the beaches are beautiful, and the fishing is good year-round. There are plenty of experiences to be had here but if you choose to go Florida Keys flats fishing, we don’t blame you.

A view of the beach from the ocean in the Florida Keys

For experienced anglers, it’s the only place in the world to hook into a “Florida Keys Inshore Grand Slam.” Beginners, on the other hand, make the most of the sheltered and calm waters to learn techniques like sight casting and fly fishing.

The crystal clear waters in the flats are typically no deeper than 6 or 7 feet. This very much makes it a seasonal fishery. Legendary inshore fish come to feed and spawn in the warm waters, but when you come will play a big part in what you catch. We’ll dive further into that below, alongside where to go and how to fish – so keep reading!

What can I catch flats fishing in the Florida Keys?

The Florida Keys flats are home to some of the most treasured inshore fish in the world. There are three that stand out in particular, and hooking them all in one day gives you the bragging rights of a Florida Keys Inshore Grand Slam. There’s more to fishing here than Bonefish, Tarpon, and Permit though. Let’s take a look below.

Bonefish

A man holds a Bonefish in front of him with the water in the background

Bonefish are the favorite of Florida Keys fly fishing enthusiasts and you’ll need some serious skill to hook one. These fish are unpredictable and often hard to find, changing habitats frequently. And when you do find a school, you’ll need to act quickly. Bonefish can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour, making casting and presentation especially important.

Peak bonefishing season in the Florida Keys happens between March and October. The fish average around 3–5 pounds, though some measure in the 10-pound range. Bonefish are considered a very valuable asset to Florida’s game fishing industry. The FWC estimates that the monetary value of a single Bonefish in the Florida Keys is about $3,500 dollars per year! As such, this species is catch and release only.

Tarpon

A fisherman and his friend looking at a camera while holding a Tarpon half-raised from the water

Tarpon could easily be dubbed Florida’s signature fish. These much-loved prehistoric creatures have protected status in the Sunshine State, so your pursuit of one will have to result in you releasing it. You’ll hear them referred to as “Silver Kings” just as often as you will Tarpon, on account of their silvery color and impressive size. 

In the Keys, they can reach up to 200 pounds, so expect a ferocious battle. Of the three fish that make up the Inshore Slam, Tarpon are the hardest fighting. Artificial lures are best used over the flats, as well as lighter lines that will allow you to cast close enough to your spotted fish. Technically, they’re present in the Keys year-round, however, the peak time to fish for them is mid-March to mid-July.

Permit

An angler holding a large Permit fish caught in the Florida Keys flats

The last species you’ll need to catch to ensure that Florida Keys Inshore Grand Slam is Permit. Some argue that hooking one of these is the hardest of all. This is on account of their hawk-like vision, incredible hearing, and powerful sense of smell. They fight like bulldogs too, and average well over 20 pounds in the Florida Keys flats.

Late February through mid-April is peak season. This is the period before they spawn, meaning the fish are traveling in schools and eager to eat. But that’s not the only time to fish for them. You can also target Permit in the summer months of June and July, when the waters are clear and sight casting is at its best.

Barracuda

Two smiling anglers holding a large Barracuda aboard a charter boat

Believe it or not, but there are Barracuda patrolling these flats too. In fact, these are the fish that are going to keep you busy during the winter months. It’s when Barracuda gravitate to the shallow flats, seeking warm waters and dinner. Hunting Barracuda in the flats is a great opportunity to test your sight casting skills. 

These fish ferociously attack lures and topwater plugs, displaying some stunning acrobatics while they’re at it. Since their eyesight is poor, opt for shiny metals to catch their attention. ‘Cudas are among the biggest and most exciting predators to chase in the Florida Keys flats. Plus, those mouths full of sharp teeth make for an excellent photo-taking opportunity.

And more!

A male angler aboard a charter boat, holding a Jack Crevalle

The fish outlined above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fishing the flats. For example, Jack Crevalle are year-round residents you can always count on. Meanwhile, Spotted Seatrout, Redfish, and occasionally Snook show up in the winter to keep things interesting. 

From September through March, you can also add Mangrove Snapper to your fish list. And for those looking for a thrill, don’t miss out on inshore Shark fishing from December–March.

How can I go flats fishing in the Florida Keys?

The Florida Keys flats are relatively easy to access, giving you more than a few options for how to go about your trip. Below, we’ll dive into the most popular ways anglers take advantage of these waters.

Charter Boat Fishing

A boat set up on the water in the Florida Keys

The obvious choice – hopping aboard a charter boat allows you to take full advantage of these shallow waters. Not all boats are made equal here, though. If you can, you’ll want to opt specifically for a flats boat. These vessels are designed to navigate shallow and skinny waters as silently as possible. Since most of the fish here spook easily, staying quiet is of utmost importance.

At the helm of the vessel is your captain. He or she will be an expert in flats fishing and happy to share secret honey holes and local tricks with you. If you’re new to the area, this is an invaluable asset. What’s more, they’ll take care of your fishing licenses, gear, and in most cases lures and bait as well. You won’t have to worry about anything other than having a good time.

Kayak Fishing

Rental kayaks tethered at the dock

If you can’t quite swing a charter boat fishing trip, heading out on a kayak is a great alternative. We don’t recommend this for beginners, however, as it does require some pretty specific skills. You’ll need to be able to handle both your rod and a paddle, while maneuvering a pretty tight space. You’ll also be powering your own engine, so solid physical stamina is another requirement.

Just like a flats boat, a kayak allows you to stay as silent as possible. You’ll get right up close to your targets for a fully immersive experience. And if you’ve got the skills, you can hook into any of the fish we’ve listed above. Few fishing experiences are better if you’re looking to connect with yourself and nature.

Shore Fishing

An angler wading in the waters off Islamorada and casting a fly fishing rod

For those of you who’d like to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, try shore fishing in the Florida Keys flats. One of the best things about fishing the Keys is that you can find what looks like a good fishing spot, pull the car over, and start casting your lines. The shallow and clear waters are a real advantage for shore anglers, as increased visibility allows you to effectively sight cast.

If you don’t mind getting your feet wet, walk into the water and do some wade fishing. This way, you’ll get to cover more ground and cast into deeper waters. What’s more, getting into the water offers a welcome reprieve from the Florida heat – just make sure you’ve got your sun protection handy!

Where can I go flats fishing in the Florida Keys?

The Florida Keys span over 120 miles, and you’ll find plenty of flats to fish all along this thread of islands. While you’re likely to encounter many of the same species throughout the area, each part of the Keys has its specialty. Let’s take a look below.

Panoramic sunrise landscape view of  Sunset Key and Wisteria Island within the Island of Key West, Florida Keys
  • Upper Keys: This portion of the Keys is known for the biggest Bonefish in Florida, as well as the usual assortment of Redfish, Spotted Seatrout, and Permit. They also boast spectacular Tarpon fishing. Many guides in the upper Keys fish the same spots, so you can count on a stellar experience everywhere between Key Largo and Islamorada. 
  • Middle Keys: Fishing out of Marathon gives you the option to head up to Islamorada or down toward Big Pine Key. In essence, you get the best of both worlds. Head south to the Seven Mile and Bahia Honda bridges to get in on some of the best Tarpon action around. The Marathon flats are also a great place to target baby Tarpon in the fall.
  • Lower Keys: The home of Key West flats fishing a.k.a some of the best in the world! Set your sights on Key West and the Marquesas Keys and you’ll find more Permit than anywhere else, as well as a year-round Tarpon population and plenty of big Bonefish. Alternatively, check out the flats of Big Pine and Cudjoe Key for more opportunities to land a Florida Keys Inshore Grand Slam.

Anything else I need to know?

An infographic with the text "Florida Keys Flats Fishing Regulations" and the Florida state flag on a blue background

One reason fishing in the Florida Keys flats is so good is that most of these waters are protected in National Marine Sanctuary Zones. This means there’s both quality and quantity, but also some restrictions. Like we mentioned earlier, species like Bonefish and Tarpon are strictly catch-and-release and Permit are subject to special regulations. 

In general, anglers tend to treat the Florida Keys flats as a catch-and-release fishery. This has helped the fishery thrive over the years. Aside from that, you’ll need to have the usual documents with you. Unless fishing with a licensed captain, you’ll need to buy a license for all anglers of the age of 16. Also, keep an eye on the FWC website for any changes to size and bag limits to ensure you’re fishing lawfully.

Florida Keys Flats Fishing: Nothing Short of Spectacular

A typical Florida Keys landscape, with turquoise blue waters and a dock coming onto the water

By now, you should have a clear picture of what your Florida Keys flats fishing adventure will look like. It involves legendary inshore targets, a few unexpected visitors, and crystal clear shallow waters to satisfy all your fly fishing and sight casting needs. If you’re lucky enough to visit this renowned fishery, you’ll make memories for a lifetime.

Tell us about your Florida Keys flats fishing adventures. Can you claim a Florida Keys Inshore Slam? Let us know in the comments below – we love to hear from you!

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