Susan Cocking, Miami Herald, September 6, 2011
Florida boldly bills itself as the "Fishing Capital of the World." Many weekend anglers, charter captains, and seafood lovers will tell you the Sunshine State's $5 billion recreational fishing industry is worthy of the title.
South Florida is the center of our state's bountiful salt- and freshwater fishing. Where else can you catch a tarpon, snook, largemouth, and peacock bass -- all in the same day and in the same lake? Or head out to the Atlantic for catch-and-release sailfish, followed by reeling in a 400-pound swordfish?
But even the residents of an angling paradise like ours feel the urge to explore new recreational fisheries occasionally. For those times, here are five of my favorite Sunshine State fishing destinations.
The Atlantic and Gulf waters surrounding the Island City at the end of the Overseas Highway may have some of the best fishing in the United States. Here, anglers have something to fish for -- and an excellent chance of catching it -- 365 days a year.
Highlights include year-round reef fishing for yellowtail snapper; sight-fishing in the shallows for tarpon, bonefish and permit; wintertime wreck fishing for cobia and springtime wreck fishing for blackfin tuna in the Gulf; bountiful dolphin (mahi) trolling from April through August; and wintertime fishing for wahoo, sailfish and the occasional blue marlin.
Nearly every marina in town has a fleet of charter boats, or you can rent a boat or bring your own. The largest charter fleets are at the City Marina at Garrison Bight and Key West Bight Marina.
Key West also is a launching point for expeditions to the Dry Tortugas, a remote cluster of islands about 70 miles west. Several light-tackle charter boats offer day trips to the Tortugas from Oceanside and Sunset marinas on Stock Island. A cheaper alternative is to buy a spot on a two- or three-day trip on the party boat Yankee Capts (www.yankeecapts.com), which targets grouper, snapper, kingfish and other species October through April.
You'll need a variety of tackle, depending on what kind of fishing you want to do -- anything from 12-pound spinning gear for yellowtails to stout conventional equipment for blue marlin.
For a complete list of charterboats, boat rentals and lodging in Key West, go to www.fla-keys.com.
Though only 80 miles distant, Islamorada offers angling enthusiasts a very different experience than Key West. While both destinations offer similar bountiful reef and offshore fishing in the Atlantic, Islamorada is the closest launching point for the vast, wild and fishy flats, rivers and creeks of backcountry Florida Bay in Everglades National Park.
A 45-minute skiff ride north from the Village of Islands into park waters near Flamingo puts the angler smack in the middle of some of the world's best sight-fishing for red drum, snook, shark, tarpon, and sea trout. You may also encounter some huge endangered sawfish up to 20 feet long, along with crocodiles and many species of birds.
Using 12- to 20-pound spinning tackle (depending on the target species) and live bait, plugs, jigs, jerkbaits or fly rod, anglers can expect to see and cast to fish all day long.
Something will bite most of the time; the exceptions are just before and after the passage of winter cold fronts. A general rule of thumb among experienced guides and anglers is "if the wind is west, stay home and rest."
If you have never fished Florida Bay, you are advised to hire a skiff guide for the first couple of outings before making the trip on your own. The area is very shallow and you can not always rely on tide charts for water depth because changes in wind direction can leave a flat that is supposed to have two feet of water covering it high and dry.
For lodging, you could skip Islamorada altogether and get a hotel room in either Homestead or Florida City, then trailer your boat or meet your guide an hour away at Flamingo Marina inside Everglades National Park. But it's more fun to soak up the laid-back ambience of the Upper Keys.
To learn more about navigating Florida Bay, go to www.ecomariner.org. To hire a skiff or offshore charter captain, or launch your own boat, go to www.budnmarys.com. For Islamorada lodging information, visit www.fla-keys.com.
Few outside the Space Coast knew about the bountiful fishing for giant red and black drum in the northern Indian River Lagoon until about 15 years ago. Traveling fishing writers and hosts of outdoors television shows who discovered this magnificent inshore fishery in the mid-1990s waxed poetic about hooking 30-pound redfish in the glow of the fireball from the launch of the space shuttle at nearby Cape Canaveral. Pretty soon, east-central Florida's best-kept secret became its recreational claim to fame.
These days, there are a lot more skiffs buzzing across the flats of the Indian River, Mosquito Lagoon, and Banana River. But despite the increased boat traffic, a gaggle of large, lumbering redfish locals call "the school" just keeps milling around the estuary all year long, and there are plenty of smaller reds, as well as big sea trout and flounder scattered throughout.
The giant black drum show up mainly in winter in the no-motor zone of the northern Banana River where they tail and make deep, bass-drumming noises while feeding in the waist-deep water.
Best drum baits are large blue crab carapaces (claws cut off) fished on the bottom; root-beer-colored jigs; shrimp; surface plugs and, for fly-fishers, Clouser minnows.
Offshore anglers may pursue cobia and tripletail in the Atlantic off Cape Canaveral or, for the truly adventurous, a dawn-to-dark expedition to the east side of the Gulf Stream to troll big lures for yellowfin tuna.
There are numerous locations to launch your boat in Titusville, Merritt Island and Port Canaveral. If you have a small boat and you are not familiar with the local waters, stick to the main part of the Indian River.
Sleepy Titusville is centrally located among these fisheries, which are close to the Kennedy Space Center, and about 45 minutes from Disney World. For more information about lodging and fishing charters on the Space Coast, visit www.space-coast.com.
Even anglers who consider themselves saltwater-exclusive should take a ride to the fresh side on central Florida's Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.
This network of 20 public lakes ranging from 200 to 44,000 acres and interconnected by rivers and canals provide some of the best fishing on the planet for largemouth bass, bluegill, shellcracker and black crappie.
The largest of the chain is 44,000-acre Lake Kissimmee, where in February a Tennessee angler caught, weighed and released a 14-pound, two-ounce 'hawg' using a spinnerbait. Nearby Lake Tohopekaliga, known as Lake Toho or "West Lake," is where Dean Rojas, a professional angler from Arizona, made BASS tournament history in 2001 with a one-day total of five largemouth weighing 45 pounds, two ounces.
A good central launching point is downtown Kissimmee's Lakefront Park on 18,000-acre Lake Toho, which has a large boat ramp and shore fishing. Bass anglers favor live shiners and artificial lures such as light-colored spinnerbaits; Texas- or Carolina-rigged plastic worms in colors of watermelon, black grape and junebug on bait-casting gear. Hot spots include Makinson and Little Grassy islands, Goblets Cove, North Steer Beach and Lanier Point.
The Kissimmee Chain is close to a private fishery like none other in Florida and perhaps the country. Barramundi, a snook-like fish native to Australia, is being cultivated for food and catch-and-release in a small network of freshwater ponds on a private ranch in the small town of Holopaw. Visit www.osceolaoutback.com for fees and availability.
This outstanding freshwater fishery is close to Disney World and features much cheaper lodging than can be found at the Mouse. Go to www.VisitKissimmee.com for lodging, fishing and other information.
Known as the "world's luckiest fishing village," this bustling Panhandle waterfront town boasts thriving saltwater fisheries, both near- and offshore.
For offshore enthusiasts, Destin's East Pass provides the speediest deepwater access in the region; the coastal shelf drops off to 100 feet within 10 miles. Anglers fish artificial reefs and natural structures for large gag grouper and red snapper. Harvest seasons change from year to year, so check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website at myFWC.com/fishing/ for dates and regulations. To obtain locations for artificial reefs, go to www.co.okaloosa.fl.us/dept_pw_resources_reefs_loran.html#2011.
Even farther offshore at the DeSoto Canyon, big-boat anglers pursue white and blue marlin, sailfish, dolphin and wahoo, primarily from April through October. First-time visitors are advised to charter a boat for one- or multi-day expeditions, as prime fishing may be found as far as 100 miles offshore.
From March through May each year, world-record-size cobia migrate along Panhandle beaches from Panama City to Pensacola.
Nearshore waters surrounding East Pass provide abundant tarpon and redfishing, and freshwater enthusiasts can fish for bass and catfish in the Blackwater, Shoal and Yellow rivers.
Destin's unofficial fishing headquarters is Harborwalk, with a large fleet of charterboats ranging from bay boats to large-capacity party boats. The complex also has shopping and restaurants.