It’s getting to be that time of year again – “High Season” – i.e., that time of year when the “snowbirds” and tourists show up at our doorstep to crowd our hotels, inns, bars, restaurants and, thankfully, our harbors and charter vessels as well. This year will hopefully be no different and it could be one of greatest ever for our Key West economy. After all, last February, Forbes Magazine ran a headline article titled “Key West: America's Hottest New Luxury Destination for 2015,” and nothing has changed for the worse since then. With severe weather up north, our warm temps, cool bars and great fishing should bring us the normal deluge of vacationers again through the late summer.
If you are one of those visitors, you may want to try a fishing charter to give you something to fill your day between breakfast and Happy Hour. Your first question to yourself may be “What does it involve?” The second one may be “How do I find the right boat for me?”
What is involved can vary depending on what you want/need; how much time you want to invest; how much you’re willing to pay; and what type of fishing you want to do. The plethora of charter boats available here gives you a myriad of options. The smaller “flats boats” can be a great alternative for someone who wants to fish economically, stay close to shore in calmer waters, and feel the unique thrill of a “light tackle” fight with the great variety of species that inhabit our shallower and more protected waters, such as tarpon, bonefish, permit, barracudas and sharks. That is best done in a small boat with minimal conveniences (think no shade/no bathroom), and may involve more “hands on” activity casting for fish. Numerous such boats can be found just by walking the Key West Bight waterfront or locations such as “Charter Boat Row” off Roosevelt Boulevard or Hurricane Hole in Stock Island You can also find such boats on the internet or through on-street booking booths or hotel concierges. While the latter way may be the most convenient for the neophyte, it doesn’t allow you to get a feel for the captain with whom you’ll spend several hours – something that could make or break your good time on a small, cramped boat. Also, keep in mind that a booking booth/concierge may be referring you to someone who pays them the highest commission, which might not necessarily be the best boat for you.
Our marina, the A&B, has a great flats guide and boat – Capt. John Smouse and the “Shadowcaster.” If you think that’s your style, give him a call for info and pricing at 305-587-7669. I’ve referred many of my customers/friends to him for that type of fishing and have received nothing but rave reviews.
Offshore, there are also multiple options for what you want, how to go, and what you’ll pay. The offshore fleet here ranges from small to large center console vessels all the way up to fully-rigged luxury sportfishers in the 40’ plus range. Those vessels can take you as far out in the Atlantic (or more properly, the Straits of Florida) as you want or need to go to find that mahi-mahi, blackfin tuna, wahoo, sailfish, marlin or even swordfish you’ve always wanted to catch. They can also take you to our nearby reef area, multiple wrecks, or to the Gulf of Mexico (again, more appropriately, the Bay of Florida) to fish for snappers, groupers, mackerels, amberjacks and sharks. The Gulf can be a great alternative on days when you really want to be on the water but strong south winds make the Atlantic rough/problematical for those with sensitive constitutions.
Center consoles are normally faster and more versatile – shallow drafts allow them to get into “skinnier water” - than the larger sportfishers. The main drawbacks are that they are not as stable in rough seas, offer minimal protection from the elements, and have far less comforts. e.g., think cramped quarters/heads. On a nice day, they can get you further faster and cheaper, but on days where the conditions are less than ideal, you might miss the creature comforts of a larger boat with a cabin and air conditioning. For a hardy bunch of guys, the center console may be the ideal way to go. That may not be the case for a first-time fishing family with old folks or young kids.
The A&B Marina also offers a sturdy center console – Capt. Scott Gordon’s “Too Lethal” – and he can be reached at 305-304-1614.
The larger sportfishing boats, which range from about 30’ to the 40’ plus range with cabins are the “queens” of the Key West fleet, though they vary widely in price range/creature comfort. Smaller, single engine ones with no air conditioning and a semi-open cabin are normally the least expensive of their ilk. That doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t catch you the same quantity/quality of fish as the larger, fancier ones. Actually, depending on the crew on board, they can easily match or exceed the catch of their bigger, more comfortable rivals. Again, it comes down to a matter of needs/taste. The larger, nicer boats with A/C can just make you much more comfortable while you’re waiting for that next big bite. You can also expect to see more top-of-the-line fishing gear on the fancier boats than you might see on some of their more cut-rate rivals. That’s not necessarily good or bad. You can still catch big offshore fish on old outdated tackle - as long as you have a captain who can find them and a mate who knows how to hook and land them. Our marina has 5 of the nicest larger boats in Key West – our own “High Class Hooker” (305-849-0581); Fishmonster’s “Premium Time” (305-432-0047); “Triple Time” (305-296-8210); as well as “Outer Limits” and “Mr. Z” (both 305-923-1043).
Another factor to consider is the size of your party. Flats boats, just due to their limited space, most often accommodate no more that 2-3 passengers. The other larger “for-hire” fishing boats mentioned above are almost always “6 pack” vessels, which means they are limited to 6 passengers, irrespective of age or whether they fish or not, even if the boat arguably could hold more people space-wise. Our boat may be 47’ but we can’t take more than the same 6 a 25’ boat may carry if it has the room.
Finally, if price is a major problem, you may want to try to save money by sharing a charter with others as opposed to renting by yourself. Some boats will do such “split charters,” some won’t. You can probably expect to pay between $500 to $800 – depending again on the style of boat/fishing - for a 4 hour half day and up to $1,200 or more for an 8 hour full day on a “private” charter. If you want to join others on a “6-pack” boat, you can probably get away with paying around $165 or so per person for a 4 hour trip. You can also always just get on the water to go bottom fishing inexpensively. There are several “party charter” boats that will sell you a seat in the $50 range to go on what is basically a large motorized fishing platform with up to 20 people or more for a 4 hour trip in the local inshore waters.
I guess the best advice I can give you when you’re trying to decide if you want to give our Key West fishing charters a shot is to ask yourself what you can afford time and money-wise, as well as what kind of fish and/or experience you want. Then, shop around. Remember, you’ll be spending several hours of your valuable vacation time on that boat. The people you are going to spend it with – especially the captain and mate, but also the other passengers on a split charter - can make or break the day for you. For instance, an owner/operator captain may be more willing to give you extra time on a slow day to try to make you a repeat customer than one who is just a paid subcontractor with no real stake in your return. Likewise, a rude drunk stranger can make 4 hours seem like an eternity! Choose wisely, and have a great day on the water. Choose poorly, and you may wish you had stayed home!
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