At the risk of stating the obvious, Hurricane Irma, the most significant weather event to affect our emerald waters in many decades, mercilessly lashed the Florida Keys as a full-on Category 4 tropical cyclone on Sunday, September 10th, 2017. The island of Key West fared reasonably well due to being on the western side of the eyewall. But, just to the east of Key West, the areas of Sugarloaf up through Marathon received the full brunt of the storm, which included winds gusting over 170mph, numerous small tornadoes, and, in the worst places, a storm surge of 8 feet. Needless to say, these forces wreaked havoc with both man-made structures and the natural world where many of us fish, dive, work, and play. However, as you might suspect, Mother Nature knows how to handle these things, and the fishing has rebounded, along with our wonderful bird life, the diminutive Key Deer, and the assortment of mammals and reptiles with whom we share this island paradise. I’ve found that bonefish, tarpon, permit, shark, and barracuda have begun repopulating the flats, and snapper, grouper, and other food fish have reestablished themselves on the patch reefs and around the bridges.
Fishing on the flats in January and February can vary widely depending on water temps. Sight-fishing sharks and the biggest barracuda of the year is doable most days. And, if the water temps climb into the mid to upper 70s, permit, tarpon and bonefish will reappear in the shallows. However, fishing for them can be a bit different than in the warmer months. If you’re having trouble finding our fork-tailed friends, consider planning your trip for mid-afternoon, especially if it coincides with a falling tide. The shallow, sun-heated water falling off the flats in the afternoon is usually a few degrees warmer than seasonal norms, and this can set up explosive scenarios for tailing permit and bones along the edges of flats and channels. And, speaking of water temps, I highly recommend having a thermometer with you this time of year. A company called Fishpond makes a sturdy, aluminum-cased version that has served me well. Tie on a 4-foot length of line, attach it to your yak, and toss it overboard any time you want a temperature reading as you hunt for sight-fishing targets. Water temps this time of year can vary widely from spot to spot on any given day, and, more broadly, will usually swing between the upper 60s after a cool front, to the mid-70s after a period of mild weather. The upper part of this spectrum is most agreeable to the flats fish.
As is usually the case in our cooler months of January and February, the food fish will come within reach of us who use paddle power. Bridges, tidal creeks, and, most especially, the patch reefs will hold legal-sized snapper, mackerel, porgy, and yellow jacks, enough for the makings of a fine, Keys’-style fish feast. Live shrimp, cut ballyhoo, pilchards or live pinfish fished with enough weight to get it on the bottom, will generally get hot action and put fish in the cooler.
To close out this month’s column, I have a few last comments about Hurricane Irma. Those of us who choose to live and work on these isolated, weather-beaten rocks known as the Florida Keys have recently been through a sobering, life-changing catastrophe. Many lost their homes. Many lost their businesses or livelihoods. Some lost both. Everyone here was affected in some way. On behalf of all of us, I’d like to thank all of our guests and visitors for choosing to spend your time and money in the Keys. We can certainly use your help! I encourage you to book a charter or two, eat at our restaurants and visit our attractions, helping us to recover and rejuvenate our island community. Thank you for your patronage!
Kayak Fishing Guide
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