It’s that time of year again. Flocks of birds are heading south, and many fish are doing the same. The Florida Keys fishery has something to offer the entire 12 months of the year, even in “winter”. With the incredible diversity of species (around 250), and the influence of warm Gulfstream water flowing up from the Caribbean Sea, the fishing here merely changes; it very rarely shuts down.
From catching grunts off a dock to targeting kings and sailfish in deeper water, the Keys offer myriad choices for the fishing enthusiast, no matter the season. Of course my favorite method of piscatorial pursuit is from a kayak in shallow water. This month I thought I’d lay out a general fishing calendar for the inshore kayak angler covering the winter time period, also known around here as the “dry” season - meaning almost no rain. Keep in mind that fish don’t read calendars! Water temps, tides, wind direction and available food are the primary factors affecting shallow water fishing no matter what month it is. But these guidelines will give you an idea of what you can expect.
The big variable for a kayak angler during these months will be the frequency and severity of the cool fronts that start to push in from the northwest. Early in November, these fronts may not make it here at all, meaning the bonefishing, tarpon fishing and permit fishing will stay very good. As we get closer to Thanksgiving, however, a weak front or two will probably hold together and sweep through the Keys, bringing north winds for a few days that gradually clock around to the east and back off. In December, the frequency and severity of these fronts will increase. But usually these fronts are infrequent enough to leave several great weather days in between. As to flats fishing, the main thing to keep an eye on is the water temperature. You can look at weather buoy data for a general idea, but locally, temps can vary considerably from one spot to the next and from one day to the next as well. Carrying a pool thermometer is a cheap way to get a local reading. If you can find water in the mid 70s and up, the “big three” (bonefish, tarpon, and permit) should still be cooperative, especially a few days after a front passes and the weather stabilizes. But as the days get shorter and water temps continue to trend downward, these three sport fish will thin out, and it’s time to change targets. Snapper fishing picks up nicely. Grouper on the patches and around structure make great targets. And some new players emerge. Speckled sea trout, pompano, BIG barracuda, cero mackerel, redfish, ladyfish, blacktip sharks, spinner sharks, and marauding schools of large jack crevalles (sometimes well over 10 pounds) are all pushed south into the Keys’ warmer water.
These are the potentially the toughest months of the year for kayakers as stiffer winds become a factor, and the wise kayak angler will take time to plan their route with this in mind. But all is not lost! One tried and true method is to start your day paddling into the wind, so you can use the breeze to help push you back to the launch after you’re tired. Another option is to get a friend with a boat to taxi you and your yak out back (Gulf side) and drop you off. Then you can fish your way back with the wind helping. Another idea is to fish out front (ocean side). Due to the general east/west orientation of the Lower Keys and the prevailing north to northeast winds, the south side of the islands will have a lot of days quite fishable in a kayak, even when the backcountry is blown out. Drifting the channels and throwing a gold spoon can yield some cero macks for the smoker and jack crevalles for fun. Most days are bright and sunny, making it easier to spot fish. Seriously large barracuda are terrific sight casting targets as they sit over sandy potholes to warm themselves. And the bright Florida sun will heat the water enough to make permit fishing quite doable during the warmup days between cool fronts. You can often find permit if you can find some afternoon water temps in the mid 70s. And these permit are almost always feeding aggressively. Fishing for snapper, porgy, and yellow jacks (delicious fish!) around the bridge pilings and patch reefs is still good and provides the makings of a nice fish cookout for your friends, while you brag about how you did it all in your little plastic human-powered boat!
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