The Key West fishing scene is so legendary that it barely needs introducing. This remote tropical island was made famous by Hemingway’s stories of giant Marlin and seas thick with Sailfish. And they’re no tall tales. Key West is surrounded by flats, reefs, and deep blue sea. Everywhere you look, there’s something to catch. Where do you even start?
That’s what we’re here to answer. We’ll break down Key West’s top fish species and how, where, and when to catch them. You can also learn about local tournaments, important fishing seasons, and much, much more. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s dive in!
Key West Fish Species
Key West enjoys the best of both worlds, with easy access to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. This brings all of Florida’s top names to town, plus a few fish you won’t find anywhere else in the US. We’ll cover the main targets, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Check out our fishing calendar for a full breakdown of what’s biting each month.
Tarpon and Bonefish
At first glance, you couldn’t get two more different fish than these. Tarpon are heavyweight champions – “Silver Kings” that can top 200 pounds and know how to throw their weight about. Bonefish are inshore ninjas,“Gray Ghosts” that rarely hit double digits but are almost impossible to spot. What do they have in common? Sight fishing.
Tarpon and Bonefish are fly fishing royalty. Along with Snook and Permit (which also live here), they make up the IGFA Inshore Gand Slam – the dream for many ambitious anglers. You’ve got plenty of chances to make that dream a reality in Key West, as all three species swarm the shallows from spring until fall.
Snapper and Grouper
“Sportfishing’s fun, but I want some food.” Snapper and Grouper to the rescue! These are some of the most common catches in Key West. They’re all-round favorites – as good on your line as they are on your plate. You can catch them around patch reefs, wrecks, bridges, and even from shore. It all depends on the species you’re after.
A day of Snapper fishing in Key West could land you Mangroves, Muttons, and Yellowtails, as well as the occasional Cubera. In the Grouper camp, you’ve got Gags, Blacks, and Reds, as well as deep-water Groupers and the ultimate rod-breaker: Goliath Grouper. As if that’s not enough, you can come across massive Permit on the reefs, too!
Tuna and Dolphin
Can’t decide between serious sportfishing and fine-dining fillets? Why not enjoy both? Head offshore to battle Blackfin Tuna and sashimi-worthy “Dolphin.” Don’t worry, we’re not talking about the lovable sea mammals – this is Mahi Mahi, some of the best eating out there, and a real show-stopper to boot!
Mahi Mahi and Blackfin Tuna peak in the spring, with another shot at Tuna in the second half of autumn. In summer, you’ll still have a good chance of both species, but you need to go farther out to find them. You get the added bonus of Wahoo to make up for it, though. Not to mention the Billfish bite.
Sailfish and Marlin
Key West’s deep sea fishing is a sight to behold. Picture a dozen angry Sails packing balls of ballyhoo so tight that they explode, showering the water with silver. The Marlin bite is less of a spectacle but just as exciting, with 300 lb Blues fighting for your bait in the deep waters offshore. This is what drew Hemingway here, and it still draws anglers from across the globe to this day.
You can take on Billfish no matter when you visit Key West. Sailfish are around in all but the warmest months, while Blue Marlin only leave in winter. They work in shifts to keep the bite strong year-round. Sprinkle on some Swordfish for good measure, and your arms will never be the same again.
Sharks and More!
With so many A-list game fish, it’s easy to forget the sea’s most iconic predators – Sharks. Warm waters and ample forage make Key West Shark fishing every bit as good as you’d expect. Reel in small Blacktips and Bonnetheads with the kids or test your strength against giant Bulls, Tigers, and Hammerheads.
There’s more? Of course there’s more! This is Key West, where you can hardly fill a bucket without catching fish. Barracuda stalk the flats. Spotted Seatrout hunt in the backcountry. Amberjack, Cobia, King Mackerel, and more patrol the wrecks. Then there’s Lobster, Hogfish, Pompano – we could keep going all day.
How to Fish in Key West
There are several ways to wet a line in Key West, depending on your preference. Every style has pros, cons, and that special something that may make it perfect for you. Here’s a run-down of each one.
This is the ultimate way to experience Key West. Pole across the flats chasing Tarpon and Bonefish. Drop lines over the reefs for Snapper and Grouper, or dive into the water to spearfish for them. Otherwise, speed offshore to battle Sailfish and fill up on Dolphin. Whatever you’re after, there’s a boat fueled and waiting for you.
Key West fishing charters offer much more than just the boat, mind you. You’ll get the best equipment for whatever fish you’re after and visit productive spots that only the locals know. Most importantly, you’ll have a seasoned captain at the helm, who will guide beginners towards their first fish or help seasoned anglers up their game.
Party Boat Fishing
If you want a taste of the ocean but can’t afford a private charter, party boats are the next best thing. These are large vessels that often hold 30 anglers or more. They don’t give you that VIP feeling of a charter but they are a good way to get out to the reefs and reel in something tasty.
Party boat fishing does have its limitations, though. The boats are too big to fish inshore, and they rarely target bluewater species like Sailfish. You’ll be sharing the boat – and the crew – with dozens of other anglers, so you get limited help and flexibility. Think of them as somewhere between a charter boat and a fishing pier.
Of course, there is another way to get onto the water in the Keys: kayak fishing. Kayaks are practically silent in the water, perfect for sneaking up on spooky Bones and Permit. You can rent them cheaply and launch from spots around Key West. The main downside to kayak fishing is, well, you’re fishing in a kayak.
You’ll be sitting down most of the time, making it tough to spot fish. Casting to and fighting fish also takes some practice. Just getting to the fish can be exhausting, limiting all but the most skilled ‘yakers to the shallows. It’s fun, but hard work. If you are planning on kayaking, check out this guy for a ton of inside tips.
“Why do I need a boat at all? Can’t I just fish from shore?” Of course you can! Wading across tropical flats is the ultimate dream of many fly fishing fanatics, and it’s probably the Keys that sparked that dream to begin with. You can also head to the pier or fish off bridges to catch a ton of different species.
Shore fishing comes with a lot of trial and error. Because of this, anglers often head out with a local first to learn the best spots and get the inside line on what works well here. Ask around fishing forums or hire a guide for a few hours – it can save you days of slack lines and untouched baits.
Key West Fishing Spots
You have an idea of what to catch. You know how you want to do it. Now you just need to decide where to go. To get you started, here are a few classic spots for each style of angling.
Shore Fishing Spots
- Smathers Beach: A public beach on the Key West’s Atlantic side with good wade and shore fishing. It gets busy in places and the water turns murky when the wind kicks up but it’s a solid spot, especially for Tarpon.
- White Street Pier: Key West’s fishing pier (officially Edward B. Knight Pier) is a tried-and-true place to find Tarpon, Jacks, Snapper, Snook, and even Redfish. The bite’s best at night, but you can catch incredible sunrises and sunsets here, too.
- Fort Zachary Taylor State Park: A nice place to escape the crowds and catch some dinner. Fish off the rocks in the west of the park for Snapper, Jacks, and even Tarpon. Sadly, you can’t fish from the beach.
Kayak Fishing Spots
- Shark Channel Bridge: Fishing on the bridge itself is banned, but you can launch from the public ramp nearby and explore underneath for Snapper, small Grouper, Mackerel, and Jack Crevalle, as well as Tarpon around the pipes at night.
- Cayo Agua: More a general marker than a specific spot. This whole area of flats is home to Permit, Bonefish, Jacks, and more. It’s ideal for kayaks. Flats boats also head here a lot, but you need to know the area.
- Vandenberg Reef: A huge artificial reef roughly 7 miles south of Key West. This is a fun spot for boaters or ambitious ‘yakers who want to fish deeper water. Snapper, Grouper, Mackerel, and Amberjack live here, as do big Sharks.
Boat Fishing Spots
- Marquesas Keys: A ring of small islands 20 miles west of town. This iconic flats fishery is home to big Bones, ‘Cudas, and Permit. The surrounding rock piles and patch reefs also hold a ton of Snapper and Grouper.
- The Wall: A legendary bluewater spot 20 miles south of Key West. The water here plummets to 2,000 feet deep, mixing nutrients from below with the warm Gulf currents above. This attracts Marlin, Sailfish, Tuna, Mahi Mahi, and even Swordfish.
- Dry Tortugas: You need a multi-day trip to fish here, but you won’t regret it if you go. Haul in huge Snappers and Groupers on the reefs, then troll for Sailfish and Dolphin or wade for Bonefish. It’s a real all-in-one fishery.
When To Visit Key West
You’re almost ready to hit the water. Before you set off, here are a few events that you might want to take part in. There are also some important fishing seasons to bear in mind if you want to take fish home.
Feel like battling other anglers as well as big fish? Hit the shallows in the Cuda Bowl Tournament or wrestle in Mackerel in the Key West Kingfish Mayhem, both usually held in January. Things really heat up in July, with serious sportfishing events like the Del Brown Permit Tournament and Key West Marlin Tournament.
The top event in local anglers’ calendars is the Key West Fishing Tournament. This family-friendly fish fest has been running for over half a century. It starts in December and runs all the way until July. During that time, you can weigh in or release any of 46 different species from Redfish to Blue Marlin for your chance of a prize!
Fishing Seasons and Regulations
The Florida Keys have access to both Gulf and Atlantic water. However, regulations-wise, they count as Atlantic. This means that most Groupers are protected until May 1 each year and Hogfish are only open May–October. Lobster have two seasons, a “sport season” on certain days in July and a regular season August–March.
The Keys also have special rules when it comes to Permit. Permit fishing is so good here that they’re protected April–July during their spawning season. Don’t worry, you can catch and release them year-round, which is what we’d recommend.
Key West Fishing: The Best in the World?
Key West is a town of beautiful contradictions – part island paradise, part old-school drinking hole. Over the years it’s been home to everyone from Harry S. Truman to Hunter S. Thompson, not to mention the great Ernest Hemingway.
What is it that draws people here? For some, it’s the weather, and that’s reason enough for sure. However, among those in the know, Key West is one of the greatest fishing spots on the entire planet, and the dream destination for an angling adventure.
Are you planning a Key West fishing trip? Have you fished here in the past? Tell us your stories or drop us a question in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!