I’m sure that our recent run of frigid weather has had more than just a few folks seriously contemplating a trip south for a chance to thaw out under a palm tree, where the water isn’t solid and dressing for cold weather means putting on a T-shirt. Florida has always been a popular winter getaway for a lot of anglers.

But if you think you know Florida but have never been to the Keys then you don’t know the half of it. Miami, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Daytona and so many of the other big coastal cities of the state have their share of fishing and a whole lot more to keep folks busy. But for some of us, it’s the “whole lot more” part of the big cities that has us bypassing them altogether as we beeline our way straight for the Keys.

You know you’re in a place that caters to fishermen when you can buy ballyhoo and chum in grocery stores or get a mixed drink in bait and tackle shop! Yea, leave the glamour and the glitz up in Miami, the Keys is all about fishing. And when it comes to fishing, the opportunities are about endless.

The Keys are a chain of Islands that stretch about 120 miles from Florida’s mainland to Key West with the Overseas Highway linking island to island and allowing travelers to drive across some of the most beautiful waters in the world. Headed south the ocean is on the left side of the highway and the Gulf of Mexico on the right.

On the ocean side, it’s about a 5-6 mile run to the main reef which is a great place to fish the bottom for snapper, grouper, yellowtail and countless other structure oriented species. Just beyond the reef, the water drops down to a few hundred feet and has anglers in the zone for catching sailfish, marlin, dolphin, tuna, wahoo, king mackerel and even Swordfish.

On the Gulf side of the highway, the water stays relatively shallow, like 1-12 feet, until you get 6-12 miles out and then it starts to slope down to 30 or more feet. The shallow water zone is where anglers do the “flats fishing” and target bonefish, tarpon, redfish, permit, sharks, barracuda, jacks and other fish that frequent the shallow water.

Much of this is “sight fishing” whereby the angler stands on the bow of the boat as someone else stands on a platform at the stern and quietly pushes the boat ahead with a long pole. Lines don’t go into the water until a fish is spotted and the boat is moved to within casting range.

Anglers also find that the channels between the Gulf-side flats hold a variety of fish including snapper, grouper, yellowtail, tarpon, cobia, sharks, speckled trout, jacks and mackerel. Since many of these channels are somewhat sheltered from the wind by surrounding mangrove Islands, they are particularly attractive to anglers on windy days when the oceanside reefs are too rough to fish.

While the waters of the Keys offer opportunities that attract and challenge some of the best fishermen in the world, they also provide simplistic fishing where even the most novice angler can sit on a dock with nothing but a hand-line, a hook, and a little bait and catch fish after fish, and perhaps even bring home dinner.

In fact, there are so many bridges, piers and shorelines to fish in the Keys that some folks successfully fish for years down there without ever stepping into a boat.

So if you’re looking for a place to thaw out for a while — head to south Florida. But if you also want to enjoy some exceptional fishing in a naturally beautiful environment rather than being surrounded by tall buildings and neon lights — be sure to make it all way down to the Florida Keys. By the way, I’ll be guiding down there in March and April and I’m always happy to answer calls or emails from folks who are new to the Keys and looking for local fishing information.

Contact me through my BigSharks.com website.

Written by Mark Sampson