The weather channel is dishing out reports that look like a meteorological Armageddon. Some reporter has climbed out of a warm van and is standing for effect in blowing snow, describing scenes that are repeated like a mantra year after year—phrases like icy roads, marooned motorists, and power lines down. It’s winter, and in these parts, fishing (other than praying over a hole in the ice) becomes a distant memory.
Less than a day’s flight away from much of the US is a world-class alternative: the Florida Keys. Granted, the Keys are not the virginal fishing grounds of travel brochures, but for a lot less trouble, they’re a reliable place to catch a variety of species and do it safely and comfortably in most weather.
Last year, for instance. we went down in December with my friend Shaw Grigsby to chase bonefish. Fronts had slapped most of the east coast with winds just short of hurricane strength. Even in the Keys, our prospects looked bleak. We called Steve Thomas, our guide, expecting to be talked out of a day on the water. Instead, we were handed a handsome list of alternatives.
One of the wonders of the Keys is that you can easily fish two different bodies of water. If the Atlantic side is rough or the tide is not to your liking, just slip between islands to Florida Bay. That’s what we did.
Within fifteen minutes, bare-footed and in shirt sleeves, we were catching jacks, barracuda, and blue runners—all for bait. With the water roiled by winds on the outside flats, sight fishing was out, shark fishing was in. With plenty of bait onboard, we cranked up and headed out. Thomas’ flats boat planed easily over anorexic shallows as we glided down mangrove halls. Wading birds flashed by and schools of mullet wrinkled the glossy surface of the water just ahead of the boat.
Thomas knew all the places to get out of the wind, but when fishing for sharks his plan was to use the wind to help the sharks find us. He chose a pass where the wind and tide were punching through in unison. This doubled our chances of attracting sharks. We started a chum line with bloody hunks of barracuda, a favorite entree on the shark menu. Shaw hooked up first with a lively five-footer on heavy bass tackle that tore long scars in the bay’s skin.
Catching a shark in shallow water requires a bit of description. Not to disparage the strength of freshwater fish, but a shark, even a common one like the lemon shark that Shaw had on, will run the length of a football field faster than Deion Sanders, before jumping out of it’s home waters, often spinning while airborne.
After splashdown, it races back at you faster than you can reel, white water bulging around its shoulders and dorsal fin. It then repeats the process until your strength is zapped. For a change of pace, he may do tumble turns at boatside—which, in this case, involved wrapping his rough denticle-covered hide around the part of Shaw’s rig unprotected by leader.
At the last minute, Shaw made some impressive high-speed maneuvers to unwrap his line from his adversary. The shark retaliated by biting the boat, leaving a series of four-inch slashes.
Thomas brought out a rope and went cowboy on us. He looped the cord around Shaw’s line, then was able to slide the loop over the shark’s arching carcass and pull the line tight on the tail.
After bringing the boatbiter onboard for a closer look and a few snapshots, we released him. When Shaw’s reel screamed again, he handed it to me. His look said he didn’t want to repeat the past performance. Forty minutes later, a six-footer came onboard. A day that could have been written off as a bad-weather day at most any saltwater destination in the US became a day we would long remember.
Destination Key West
The winter and early-spring star of the Keys has to be Key West, the southern most island. In winter, it’s a world away from the rest of the United States, with fishing just part of the big show. If this is a family trip, you’ll find plenty of shops, a saltwater aquarium with pettable sharks, Hemingway’s house complete with six-toed cats, and plenty of fine dining at local conch watering holes.
Duval street by day is a Mecca for shoppers in search of the unusual, but late at night, Duval can raise the eyebrow of even the most jaded city slicker. One perfumed gentleman who smiled at me in passing was dressed in a black leather cowboy outfit complete with spangles and chaps. As he strode on past, it became evident that he wore no pants beneath the chaps. I doubt he would have been so at home in an old west scene, but trolling down Duval he seemed to be doing just fine.
Fishing during winter in the Keys provides wonderful options. If bringing home a cooler of fillets is what you want, offshore fishing features party-boat trips for snapper and grouper. Trollers will find wahoo, hard-fighting blackfin tuna, king mackerel, and even high-flying sailfish. For those who like to cast at their quarry, inshore offers permit, bonefish, barracudas, and tarpon in March. While fishing for permit with Shaw in Key West, our guide Tom Rowland told us of a winter cuda phenomenon. Large barracudas spend most of the year offshore. But in winter, according to Rowland, they move into the thin, slick water of the flats to chase redfin needlefish.
If you think barracudas are like muskies, think again. First of all, barracudas usually are not hesitant to strike, the big ones are plentiful, and for short distances are arguably the fastest fish in the world. A forty-inch barracuda hitting a topwater bait in two feet of glassy water will give you muskie amnesia. After the initial detonation, the fish is likely to zip around so fast you have to follow it by watching the path of the line ripping through the water.
One day, we broke off from stalking permit and went after these missiles with teeth. At times, they came completely out of the water, attacking from above and destroying our plugs. When a big cuda follows your lure, you can twitch to elicit a strike, but never stop it. Barracudas like things lively. As for technique, you’re required to make long casts and retrieve faster than possible. Zara Spooks and shallow-running diving plugs are the baits du jour, but be careful because cudas love to follow a bait.
Your guide may instruct you to lift the lure out of the water away from your body, and you would be wise to follow this dictum. On occasion, cudas have pursued a plug out of the water, landing in the lap of the terrified angler. Lots of stitches and newspaper articles follow an incident like this, but likely the spark to chase barracudas will have dimmed.
Extensive flats near Key West and the nearby Marquesas attract a strong winter population of permit. Though cold fronts can move permit to deep water for a while, Rowland finds winter a prime time to pursue this elusive gamefish. Permit have received a good bit of attention as a fly-fisherman’s quarry, and it is possible—barely—to catch these powerhouse members of the crevalle family on a fly.
Rowland assures me that improved techniques in recent years have increased your chances of success. Still, you should ask yourself a few questions. Are you capable of casting an 8- or 9-weight fly-line 70 to 90 feet? With exceptional accuracy? Into the wind? Do you mind waiting, often all day, for a couple good shots at a permit? Can you stand by after all you’ve spent on rods, reels, lines, flies, guide fees, and hotel costs only to have this elitist fish sniff briefly at your offering and dump you for a crummy crab?
While I have fly-fished all over the world and enjoy the challenge of permit on a fly, I have to say that after a day or two without success, I wilt and pick up a spinning rod and admire what permit can do. Even on spinning tackle, catching a permit in the crystal atmosphere of the flats requires an excellent guide and, at times, a long accurate cast. But this time with a small crab.
Tension is the single word that best defines this type of fishing. At high tide, large permit glide into ridiculously shallow water. They’re spooky. A bird’s shadow passing over may cause them to bolt off the flat. An extra clank in the boat, and the guide’s look would melt an iceberg.
But when everything is right, you may see the silvery sides of the permit marbled in prismatic light. While its face is down, bemired in the alluvial ooze searching for a hard-shelled snack, you may have a shot. Your crab hooked in the side of the carapace is slung like a Frisbee ahead of this flats neurotic. You hope the splat will attract rather than spook him; and you hope he will slip over, tilt down, and crunch your crab.
Part of the attraction of permit fishing is the thrill of the stalk; the other is the fight. A permit’s wide body and sharp-forked tail give it a sprinter’s speed and a marathoner’s endurance. Whether you fish with a fly-rod or light spinning tackle, keep your rod tip high, maybe even raising it over your head. The speed at which permit move can cause any turtlegrass thicket or barnacle-encrusted debris to slice your line. Don’t bring cheap rods, old line, or reels with wimpy drags. A large permit—say a 30- or 40-pounder—may require a chase of over a mile. Use your guide’s tackle, or bring the best you can afford.
If you’re lucky, after a series of sizzling runs, this perfectly adapted flats predator will swim near enough for your guide to grab it. All the stress of winter will disappear. Everything else in the world but that moment will seem far away. Unless I miss my guess, one permit or a day of maniac sharks and barracudas, and you’ll be sold, as I am, on the Keys as a winter destination.
Winter fishing in saltwater may be the easiest time to find concentrated fish. In Virginia, large schools of stripers leave their summer haunts off the coast of New England as water temperatures drop. These are the Schwarzeneggers of the species—30- to 50-pound brutes that strain tackle and melt hearts. They start slipping in off the coast from the tenth to the fifteenth of December and stay much of the winter.
Look for bait boiling and diving birds. Not just any bird will do, though. The bait necessary to attract a thirty-pound striper is a pound and a half menhaden. Gannets, a large, long-winged bird are one of the few birds large enough to swallow the stripers favorite prey. So big bird and big bait equal big fish.
Stripers in the Chesapeake Bay may be a bit smaller, but in December, they can be caught on jigs, eels, and even flies. On our trip, we caught numbers of small stripers on jigs on almost every structure and rock pile we fished. The bay striper fishing season closes December 31. Coastal areas of Virginia and North Carolina are open to three miles offshore. Check regulations.
At times, the larger coastal stripers chase bait right up into the surf. At such times, surf-casting can produce trophy fishing right from the beach. Later in the season, fish hold in deeper water, so trolling offshore is more productive. Trolling with Mann’s stretch thirty and big spoons like #23 Pet spoons are established modes of catching deep-feeding rockfish.
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