Islamorada Fishing: The Complete Guide
Jun 10, 2020 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Islamorada is known as the “Sportfishing Capital of the World.” These are mighty big words, but the town sure does back them up. With the Everglades on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, the sky’s the limit on an Islamorada fishing trip. If anything, the main problem is that there’s too much water to explore.

That’s where we come in. In this article, we’ll break down the area’s top fish species and explain how, where, and when to catch them. You can learn about local tournaments, fishing spots, regulations, and more. By the time you’re finished, you’ll be ready to get the most out of this incredible fishery.

Islamorada Fish Species

There are so many fish on offer in Islamorada that it’s impossible to cover them all in detail. Here’s a quick rundown of the town’s top targets. Check out our fishing calendar for a complete monthly breakdown of what you can catch.

Tarpon

A large Tarpon held next to a boat before being released

If you’re into flats fishing, you’ve got to tip your rod to the Silver King. Islamorada’s Tarpon bite is the stuff of legends, with huge fish crowding the shallows in spring and a decent bite all year round. Tarpon are the ultimate challenge for sight anglers and fly fishing fanatics. They spook easily and put up an incredible fight once hooked.

If Tarpon are the tanks of the flats, Bonefish are the area’s assassins. Known as “the Grey Ghost of the Flats,” Bonefish are almost invisible and incredibly quick. They dart over the sands in search of food and speed away at the first sign of danger. Again, they’re a real fly fishing favorite, and you can catch them here in all but the coldest months.

Permit

A woman holding a large Permit on a charter fishing boat

Permit are a little unusual – and we don’t just mean their looks. They spend spring and early summer out at the wrecks, then move straight to the flats after they spawn. Wherever they go, crowds of anglers follow, wanting to take on one of sportfishing’s toughest challenges.

What makes Permit fishing so difficult? Simply put, they have the stealth and speed of a Bonefish with the raw power of a Tarpon. The easiest way to target Permit is to sight fish from a boat tower then cast towards them at just the right moment. This takes a lot of practice, but it’s incredibly rewarding when you pull it off.

Snook

An angler holding a Snook near a bridge in the Florida Keys

As you move from the flats into the backcountry, you come across a whole new cast of characters. Chief among them is Snook, who roam the mangroves in big packs. Again, fly fishers will have a blast here, but light spinning gear is also fun. Snook aren’t fussy, and will happily inhale any well-placed lure or tasty bait.

There are a few more species that you might come across while backcountry fishing. Trout and Redfish are the most important. These are the Gulf’s dynamic duo, loved for their fighting spirit and delicious meat. Smaller ones make a great meal, but most anglers release bigger fish. They more than earn it after the fight they put up!

Snapper

A woman holding a large Mutton Snapper on an Islamorada fishing charter

If it’s a meal you’re after, you’ve got to try bottom fishing. The local reefs and wrecks are home to a wide mix of big, tasty Snappers. Yellowtail Snapper are the Keys’ signature species, but Mutton Snapper grow bigger and taste even better. You can also find Mangrove Snapper inshore and heavyweight brutes like Cubera Snapper farther out.

The exciting thing about bottom fishing is that you never know what will take your bait. Red, Gag, and Black Groupers are a common catch here, as are Hogfish, Amberjack, and much more. The thing they all have in common is that they’re delicious, so make sure you bring a big cooler if you’re heading to the reefs.

Mahi Mahi

A group of anglers holding Mahi Mahi fish at the dock after a fishing trip

Mahi Mahi tick all the boxes for the perfect offshore catch. Known locally as “Dolphin,” they’re big, tough, and look absolutely wild. To top it all off, they’re delicious – producing firm fillets of sashimi-grade meat. What’s not to love?

You can catch Mahi Mahi throughout late spring and summer. Either side of that season, you have Blackfin Tuna to keep you full. Both these guys are normally caught by trolling around bluewater structures. It takes a while to get to the best spots, but it’s well worth it.

Sailfish

Two men holding a large Sailfish on a charter boat

No trip to the Keys is really complete without at least trying to take on Billfish. Throughout winter, you’ll find a feeding frenzy offshore, as big Sails drive balls of ballyhoo to the surface and shower the sea with silver. It’s a real spectacle, and that’s before you even hook any fish!

Around in summer? As always, Islamorada’s got you covered. The warmer months are prime season for Blue Marlin, and this is also the best time to take on Swordfish. Islamorada’s Billfish bite is outstanding even by Floridian standards.

How to Fish in Islamorada

There are plenty of different fish around Islamorada, that much is clear. But how should you target them? Short answer: however you want. You can enjoy these waters in a variety of ways, each with its pros and cons. Here’s a short intro to the most popular types of fishing.

Charter Fishing

A sportfishing boat cruising through the bay in Key West, FL

If you only go on one fishing charter in your life, Islamorada is the place to do it. Head into the Everglades to explore endless flats and mangroves. Sail the Atlantic in search of busy reefs, deep dropoffs, and warm ocean currents. No spot is too remote and every species is within reach. And that’s just the boat. The most important thing is the person piloting it.

Local guides know all the best spots and how to fish them, cutting down days of trial and error. They can teach beginners the basics or help experienced anglers up their game. By the time you climb aboard, they’ll have quality tackle rigged and ready for your target species. It’s the ultimate way to fish!

Party Boat Fishing

A party fishing boat in Key West, FL

Party boats are perfect for people who just want to catch some fish. Head out to the reefs and reel in great table fare like Snappers and Groupers. Inshore spots are off-limits for these larger boats, and they don’t normally target bluewater species. However, you can expect lots of fun and some tasty fillets at the end of the day.

Party boats are somewhere between a private charter and a fishing pier. You’ll be sharing the deck with lots of other anglers, while the crew does rounds and helps where they can. This can mean a lot of waiting around for first-timers who don’t know how to untangle their lines or bait hooks, but It’s a good budget option for more capable anglers.

Kayak Fishing

An angler kayak fishing in the Florida Keys

Kayak fishing seems to get more and more popular each year, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a cheap and simple way to escape the crowds and explore the local waters. Stalk the shallows in total silence, sneaking up on spooky Snook and Permit. Experienced ‘yakers can even venture out to the reefs, although it’s not recommended for beginners.

One thing to remember about kayak fishing is that it’s hard work. Paddling out to the fishing grounds is easy enough, as long as you’re in decent shape. However, spotting fish while seated takes a bit of practice, and fighting them can be a real workout.

Bridge Fishing

Long Key Bridge in Florida

Not big on boats? No worries! You can find plenty of action without ever leaving land. The Keys are basically one long series of bridges, many of which are closed to traffic and perfect for fishing. Just drop your lines, take in the view, and wait for something to bite. It doesn’t get much more relaxing than this.

Islamorada’s main bridge fishing targets are inshore species like Mangrove Snapper, Snook, and Jacks. You can also find Tarpon, although you should make a plan of how to release them safely if you do hook one. The problem with bridge fishing is that it can be very hit and miss, so be ready to try several spots on the look for a good bite.

Islamorada Fishing Spots

A boat cruising through the backcountry in the Florida Keys

You’ve chosen your targets and decided how to catch them, but where should you go? Here are a few spots around Islamorada to get you started. After that, it’s best to ask locally or head out with a guide to find more secret honey holes.

  • Channel #2 Bridge: An iconic fishing bridge just west of Islamorada, home to Mangrove and Yellowtail Snapper, Gag Grouper, Barracuda, Snook, Tarpon, and more. It gets pretty busy, so fish early or at night. You can also launch a kayak from the beach nearby.
  • Long Key Bridge: This bridge is over two miles long, so it rarely gets as busy as Channel #2. It’s a little further west, but still easy to reach on a bike or by car. Again, you can find plenty of Snapper, small Grouper, Snook, and Tarpon. 
  • Florida Bay: A dream spot for kayaks and flats boats. Snook, Redfish, and Trout hunt among the mangroves, while Tarpon hold along the banks and Tripletail and Cobia patrol deeper structure. This is part of the Everglades, so you need a pass to fish here.
  • Pickles Reef: Most of the reefs around Islamorada are Sanctuary Preservation Areas where fishing is restricted. Not here! Reel in Barracuda, Snapper, Grouper, and Hogfish, as well as Tuna, Mahi Mahi, and even Sailfish on the outer edge.
  • Islamorada Hump: A large seamount around 15 miles offshore. It rises several hundred feet above the surrounding water, drawing in Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, Tuna, Sailfish, and Marlin, as well as Snowy Grouper, Yelloweye Snapper, and much more.

When to Visit Islamorada

If there’s one thing that’s clear by now, it’s that fishing in Islamorada is great whenever you visit. However, you can take part in some exciting events if you time your trip right. There are also some important seasons to bear in mind if you want to keep what you catch.

Islamorada Fishing Tournaments

Three boats speeding offshore in the Florida Keys

There are literally dozens of tournaments held in Islamorada. From prestigious offshore events like the Islamorada Sailfish Tournament to historic inshore challenges like the Gold Cup Tarpon Tournament, the town draws some of the biggest names in sportfishing each year. This is the sport’s capital, after all.

Sound a bit extreme? Don’t worry. There are plenty of fun-focused tournaments here, too. Join charity challenges like the Holly, Al Flutie, and Poor Girls Sailfish tournaments. You can also find competitions aimed at kids, ladies, and everyone who likes some friendly rivalry.

Fishing Seasons and Regulations

A boy releasing a Permit fish back into the water after catching it

Many of Islamorada’s tastiest fish have seasonal closures to keep their numbers healthy. You can only catch Hogfish May–October, while Grouper season runs May through the end of the year. Permit are protected April–July, but you can still catch and release them if you’re in it for the fun. 

As well as specific closed seasons, there are some general rules to bear in mind. Spearfishing is banned in Monroe County north of Long Key. Regardless of the technique, you need a license to fish unless you’re on a charter. 

Islamorada: A True Sportfishing Capital

A man feeding a Tarpon from a dock in Islamorada, FL

Islamorada isn’t afraid to tell it like it is when it comes to fishing. These waters are truly legendary, home to every habitat you could hope for and all of the Sunshine State’s signature species. Throw in a huge charter fleet and several miles of bridges, and you get nothing short of the perfect fishery. That’s what makes it the Sportfishing Capital of the World.

Are you planning an Islamorada fishing trip? Ever fished here before? Drop us your stories or ask us a question in the comments below. We’re always happy to hear from you!

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