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June 11, 2007

Bountiful Biscayne Bay

Pros share secrets for fishing South Florida's famed lagoon

Bay by the City
The fact that bonefish and other inshore species still thrive in Biscayne Bay comes as a surprise to many anglers who've heard that the bay's proximity to Miami has severely damaged its productivity. The elongated lagoon, which lies along a 40-mile stretch from Miami to the northernmost portion of the Florida Keys, suffers from human activities such as dredging and bulkheading at its north end and regular pulses of freshwater drainage from the Everglades to the south.

Despite the inevitable effects of Florida's development, state and federal officials monitor the bay and take steps to protect it through the Biscayne National Park and the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, among other agencies. Anglers still find thriving fisheries for bonefish, snook, permit, tarpon, snapper and even redfish and trout.

Prime months for bonefish include March through May, though the fish may be successfully targeted most of the year. Winter months prove best for snook, while permit and tarpon show more prominently from April through August.

Anglers mostly fish the central and southern portions of the bay, which harbor less development and more sea-grass beds and mangroves. Bay depths range from about 3 feet on the flooded flats to 40 feet in dredged channels to the north.

Permit on the Flats
Bonefish aren't the only prized ghosts on these flats. Permit carry a similar reputation for being spooky, and most captains view bagging a permit on a Biscayne flat as a greater feat than taking one from a Gulf wreck.

First, an angler usually must target one fish, not a school. Then, he must present an offering - either a silver-dollar-size crab or a hand-picked (large) shrimp - without startling that big-eyed quarry.

Flats permit can top 40 pounds. Bigger fish may swim in water so shallow that their backs break the surface. Smith says they're "sunning themselves."

"They're much spookier on the flat," Valverde says. Plus, once the water cools, permit numbers drop.

"They like it hot, like bath water," Sutton adds.

Yet, while summer temperatures attract more permit, many fish stick around in fall and spring. Some even appear in winter, as our trip proved.

Captains generally agree on using braided line, such as PowerPro, and stepping up tackle from the 6- to 10-pound gear used for bones to at least 12 for permit. Spinning gear and live bait - shrimp or crabs - create the most common scenario, though fly tackle certainly works well for talented casters. "The best part of fishing Biscayne is that you might have a deck full of rods loaded and ready for any number of different species that might appear on the flat," Valverde says.

As Smith poled the Maverick, he spotted a school of "black-eyed peas," as he calls smaller permit. Sutton's cast flew true. The permit turned on his shrimp, but suddenly beelined east toward Elliott Key without taking the hook. Although we missed our shot, we certainly felt encouraged just to see them.