If you’ve read Hemmingway, then offshore fishing probably springs to mind when you think of Key West. While the deep sea offers thrilling adventures, you don’t have to go far at all to find incredible fishing. Key West inshore fishing attracts anglers from all over the world who are looking for the “grand slam” of shallow water fishing. Along the flats and backcountry, you can target numerous prized species. This guide will tell you everything you need to know before casting away.
Why Key West?
With good weather year round, the Florida Keys are a paradise for warm water fish. At the crossroads of the Gulf, Caribbean, and Atlantic, it’s a meeting point for migrating fish, as well as other year-round species.
But what makes Key West so special? Well, the southernmost tip of the US is overflowing with Tarpon, Permit, and Bonefish – the holy grail of Key West inshore fishing. Barely a stone’s throw from shore, the shallow waters play home to plenty of fish feed, such as shrimp and crab, making it a hotspot for the larger fish to prey. You’ll come into contact with prized monster inshore fish that call these waters home, or are passing through.
Where’s best for Key West inshore fishing?
The beauty of fishing inshore is that there’s something for everyone. Experienced anglers can land a trophy in the same waters where a beginner can get their first taste of success.
It’s said that flats fishing is like hunting the water. More experienced anglers will relish the opportunity to battle spooky Snook, Tarpon, and Sharks that hide in the flats. Patience is the name of the game. Creep up gently on your prey and spring into action when you feel the bite.
Aboard a purpose-built flats boat, you’ll crawl along the water tops. Your captain may steer with a push pole, making as little noise as possible, or the wireless trolling motor will help you navigate waters as shallow as 3 feet!
You’ll sight cast and bottom fish, using various live crustaceans as bait. The water is already full of these creatures, so head to the feeding grounds and take your pick of the predatory fish around you. All the information you need is here.
More crowded with fish, expect rod-bending action all day long when backwater fishing in Key West. And, you won’t have to be quite as quiet as on the flats. This is a paradise for beginners to land your first catch and the calm waters mean you won’t have to worry about sea sickness!
Along these shallow waters, you’ll most likely fish from a skiff. These light boats can also be powered by a push pole. You’ll drift across the waters at a leisurely pace, taking in the stunning, undisturbed nature around you.
You’ll work your way around thousands of mangroves, winding creeks, and uninhabited islands – all of which contain the fish you crave. Depending on the time of the year, you’ll fill the boat with delicious Trout and Snappers, as well as battling Tarpon, Permit, Bonefish, and more.
Which fish will I target inshore in Key West?
Fishing the Florida Keys is always a delight. Key West is no exception and provides some of the best year-round inshore fishing anywhere. Go after the “Grand Slam” and you’ll be the envy of anglers everywhere. Here are some of the prized fish you can catch:
Key West is one of the only places in the world where you can go after the “Silver King” year round. This pre-historic beast is a must for any angler worth their salt, putting up one of the most intense fights in the sea. These shining beauties will dazzle as they leap up to 10 feet out of the water to get off your line. Cast with medium-heavy tackle for the best chance of keeping them on your line, or try light tackle if you fancy yourself as a pro! But, beware – 63% of Tarpon will end up breaking your line!
Using live bait will increase your chances of hooking one of these monsters in the backcountry, while artificial lures are the weapon of choice on the flats. Use pilchards, mullet, and pinfish to entice their bite on spinning rods. Large flies will do the job if you’re fly fishing.
The second of the “holy trinity” is Permit. Just like Tarpon, expect an intense battle to get these beauties aboard. Growing up to 60 pounds, they’re also notoriously smart. The best place to target them is on the flats – and Key West has plenty of those! Here, they’ll be looking for crabs and other bottom-dwelling feed, ready to pounce for food.
While they’re receptive to crab, shrimp, squid, or lobster, they’ll also bolt at any hint of trouble. With the help of an experienced guide, you’ll creep up gently on them, ready to sight cast before they see you. Our comprehensive guide to catching Permit in Key West is here.
Bonefish completes the Grand Slam. Like Permit, they require plenty of skill to land and also react to the same bait. Hit the flats with lighter tackle and try to spot them tailing throughout the summer months.
Considerably smaller than Tarpon or Permit, they’re revered for their pound-for-pound fishing qualities. Take into account the tide and make sure not to scare these spooky fish. Your best bet is to sight cast from no closer than 6 feet away, and let your bait sink to the bottom of the shallows.
The excitement of battling it out with some of the ocean’s biggest predators is like nothing else. Go after Hammerhead, Lemon, Blacktip, and even Tiger Sharks, among more. They’ll eat pretty much anything, but will put up an almighty fight. Lure them with herring, mullet, mackerel, rays, squid, and even flies! Test your skills to land these monsters and head home with a real trophy to your name.
More commonly associated with reef and offshore fishing, you’ll also find Barracuda in the flats and mangroves. These fast predators are fun to catch all over. Much like Sharks, you can use a range of bait to go after them, including on the fly. They particularly like pilchards, so make sure to stock up on these as bait if catching with a conventional rod and reel. Target smaller Barracudas with light tackle, but you may need something heavier to land the bigger ones.
When’s the best time for fishing inshore in Key West?
The beauty of Key West fishing is that it’s good year-round. The tropical climate not only makes it the ideal place to escape for some winter sun, but also ensures warm water. Attracting plenty of fish all the time, it’s rightly one of the world’s premier fishing destinations!
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During the winter, the calm waters of the backcountry are the prime fishing grounds. Spend your time away from the crowds, making the most of the Trout and Redfish populations to take home for a warming treat.
If you’re looking for the “Grand Slam,” then spring is ideal to head to Key West. Tarpon and Permit arrive in March, to accompany some of the smaller Bonefish. These will join in swathes come May, giving you two months to make the most of the great triumvirate.
The fishing doesn’t let off in summer. Snappers make the most of the warm waters and take over the backcountry, while Permit and Bonefish reign supreme in the flats. Keep on going until the end of the year when Redfish replace Snappers, and Jack Crevalles take over from their lookalike cousin. And there’s always the chance to land a monster Shark!
Is there anything else I should know about Key West inshore fishing?
Tarpon and Snook are catch and release by law and Jack Crevalles and Bonefish are known only for their fight, so there’s no need to keep them. Sharks prove a very useful predator the ecosystem, so it’s always good to release them back to the water, too.
Speaking of the ecosystem, the inshore waters of Key West are full of some beautiful wildlife. Expect to spot manatees, dolphins, and a range of exotic birds as you head out on the water.
If you’re looking to go fly fishing in Key West, check with your guide whether they provide the appropriate equipment. Most guides provide a conventional spinning rod and reel, but may require you to bring your own fly gear.
Key West is rightfully one of the world’s top inshore fishing destinations. Whatever floats your boat, Key West is sure to have it! Why not check it out?
If you’ve ever been inshore fishing in Key West, or have any questions for us, please comment below.