Courtesy Andy Newman (above); Doug Olander (below)
Imagine fishing the Florida Keys without the crowds. That's roughly the situation peripatetic anglers find in the Dry Tortugas. "It's this lack of pressure that makes the fishing so good here," says Capt. Steve Sanchez, fifthgeneration Keys native who charters for Andy Griffiths Charters (www.fishandy.com) out of Key West. While it isn't totally deserted, the 70 miles between Key West and the Dry Tortugas are an effective barrier against all but the most committed anglers. Factor in the complete lack of facilities, save for a few unimproved campsites at Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, and it becomes an exercise in self-sufficiency as well as a fantastic fishing destination.
Once you've made peace with the lack of facilities and creature comforts, the fishing around the Dry Tortugas offers just about anything you want, from shallow reefs to deep ledges and rock piles that hold snapper, grouper and mackerel, on out to offshore rips for dolphin, tuna, wahoo and billfish.
Summer is the traditional time for small-boat anglers, as the weather is suited to making the crossing and safely exploring in comfort. In the winter fishing is still good: Larger boats and charter vessels from Key West ply the Tortugas' blue water for the same run of sailfish that hunt for ballyhoo off the Keys. Good runs of blackfin tuna hang with mackerel schools that head south into these waters. A second run of mutton snapper in January and February produces some of the biggest fish of the year. But the weather demands more boat than a summer excursion.
Summertime offers yellowtail snapper to 5 pounds and mutton snapper to 20 pounds, especially during the May and June full moons; black grouper to 80 pounds often fall to a blue runner fished off a kite or downrigger. Dolphin, of course, are a favorite May through August, and at the same time, slow-trolling a live bait or lure a hundred feet down in the blue water is the ticket for wahoo.
As far as tackling up, it's simple. "Bring everything," says Humberto Garrido, tackle expert at Key West Marine Hardware (3052943519).
Spinning rods loaded with 12- to 20-pound mono will cover most reef fishing. For deep jigging, go heavier. "I like to use 50-pound," says Sanchez. "If I get something nice, I want to get it up and out of the water ahead of the predators."
Depending on how long you plan to fish, you probably can't carry enough chum and live bait. Charter captains routinely load their livewells with pilchards before leaving the dock to give themselves a head start. Carry live and frozen shrimp, ballyhoo and as much chum as you have room for.
"Load up on extra line and leader material, 30- to 80-pound, and a large selection of egg sinkers in all sizes," says Chris King at Key West Bait & Tackle (www.keywestbaitandtackle.com). "Carry plenty of jig heads in 1/2- to 3/4-ounce sizes to drift baits in the chum line over the reefs," he suggests, "and circle hooks from 1/0 to 4/0."
Trolling plugs in the heat of the summer when it is too hot to sit still is a winning strategy, says Sanchez. "Magnum Rapalas and Mann Stretch 25s work well in 30 to 60 feet of water for black grouper and muttons."
Getting to the Tortugas is straightforward. Launch and leave your trailer at City Marina at Garrison Bight (305-809-3981) in Key West or at Oceanside Marina on Stock Island (305-294-4676).
Dry Tortugas National Park (www.nps.gov/drto) has limited camping on Garden Key but no facilities other than a ranger station and toilets. Be sure your boat has enough fuel capacity to make the trip, fish and get home again. Big-boat anglers often choose to anchor up at Garden Key for the night and sleep aboard. Smaller boats and center-console fishing teams generally camp on Garden Key. You'll be fishing for more than 50 species for which limits and regulations apply, on both Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico jurisdictions, so visit www.myfwc.com and study up.