A Little on the Trashy Side If You’re Lucky a Little More
All anyone has to do is look at the weather map to see what’s going on this time of the year. Most of you guys and gals are strapping ten layers of clothing on just to waddle out to the mailbox much less what you have to put on to wade the local stream. I, however, am still enjoying my cut-offs, flip flops and sunscreen. The temperatures in the Keys this time of year for most is absolutely perfect: highs in the mid to upper 70s and lows in the upper 60s. Not only are the temperatures great, the fishing can be just as perfect. Ok… is it mid-tarpon season? No, it’s not, but that doesn’t mean you should write the fishing off altogether. In fact, some days it can actually be better than mid-spring fishing. Yes, I said better. Imagine going to your favorite spot on your local waters to stretch out a loop and there are no cars or even footprints to acknowledge anyone is there or even been there in days. What a wonderful world it would be. Welcome to the Keys in the wintertime. Enough rubbing it in your face about the weather and lack of pressure from other anglers, lets talk about what matters—the fishing.
As a cold front rolls across the lower 48, leaving a winter wonderland in its path, it also drops the water temperatures along the east coast and the northern parts of the Gulf of Mexico. Just as this starts, the massive migrations of snowbirds from New England to the Southeast starts, coinciding with the annual migration of the baitfish from the northern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico south as well. It is my good fortune that these masses of baitfish are dumped right at my back door. This in turn brings the predators knocking. Thanks to this annual migration, the backcountry gets flooded with jacks, barracudas and sharks. I know, I know, a lot of you are saying, “Why in the world would I want to fish the Keys for the ‘trash can slam?’” Well I have to ask, have you ever really fished for one of these fish? Or are you drawing your conclusions based on your local fly shop troll, who turns his nose up to these “trash” and pretends to have done it all? Well, let me correct the common misconception about these fish. These “trash fish” fight just as hard if not harder than tarpon, bonefish or permit.
Hook a 20-lb. jack on a 10-weight, and 20 minutes later when you still are in your backing with no fly line in sight and you’re crying about your forearms burning, talk to me about these “trash fish” then. Talk to me about these “trash fish” when a 30-plus-lb. barracuda violently crushes your baitfish pattern and proceeds to peel off 100-plus yards of line before you can say, “WTF was that?” Please, please talk to me when you hook a black tip shark and he jumps six-plus feet in the air like a tarpon, and then bulldogs you until you cry uncle. In short, I guide for these fish every day during this time of year, and I have seen some extraordinary battles take place on the bow of my boat. The next time you’re in the Keys and a school of jack crevalles cruise by, or you see a large barracuda positioning himself for ambush in the middle of a flat, do yourself a favor—make the cast. I promise the epic battle that follows will be one you will remember for a long time.
Now the, “if you’re lucky” scenario… Along with the masses of baitfish and the predatory fish that follow them, there is another fish that kicks off its migration to the Keys. You might have heard of it. It’s called Megalops Atlanticus or as most know it, tarpon. It’s the fish that changed my guiding career. These fish make their way south during the winter months and start to gather offshore. Now the cool thing that can happen, is if the Keys have a mild winter (like this year and last), with less wind…pure magic happens. The tarpon that have already made their way down, flood the flats as well. Now, it’s game on! Not only do they roll up on the flats, they come hungry, and most importantly, they are not pressured! If you book a guide worth his weight, he will know when to look for these early fish when the conditions are suitable. You will also find bonefish and permit during these periods. They, too, take advantage of the warmer temps to pillage the flats of their bountiful crabs and shrimp. Like I said, before there is nobody here and the fishing will go off the charts!
If or when you come to the Keys in the winter, come with an open mind, because let’s be honest. It is not March-August by any means. It can be, however, a great experience, especially if this is your first trip in salt. The fish most commonly found during this time are predator fish and can be extremely aggressive and therefore very forgiving for an angler that has never experienced this type of fishing. Let’s not forget those lucky souls who schedule their trip and hit the weather just perfectly. They get the first shots at migrating tarpon just as they arrive to the Keys. More than likely these lucky bastards will never have see another boat, not to mention having to compete with a half dozen of them for just a few shots. So the next time cabin fever hits and the hot toddies have lost the ability to get you through the cold, pick up the phone, pack your shorts, flip flops and your favorite saltwater rod and head down to warm up a bit.