If you're among the millions who plan summer vacations and you have a jones to fish the Florida Keys, you'll need to top your to-do list by choosing which species to target. And you do have some prime choices.
The editors at Sport Fishing, along with other Keys experts, offer this top five list of opportunities for July and August:
1. Stay inshore and target a flats slam by catching a bonefish, a permit and a tarpon in one day.
2. Head north into Florida Bay and fish for aggressive lemon and bull sharks.
3. Mosey into the Gulf of Mexico and anchor over wrecks to catch slab permit.
4. Speed offshore into the Atlantic Ocean to troll for the colorful and acrobatic mahimahi.
5. Drop deep to engage in bruising battles with swordfish - day or night.
To give you a taste of the action and an idea of how charter captains approach these fisheries, we asked some top guides to spell out their strategies.
1. Flats Slam
Talk about serious bragging rights: Catch the dynamic trio - bonefish, permit and tarpon - in one day, and you'll be eligible to join the prestigious Grand Slam Club of the International Game Fish Association (www.igfa.org/clubs.asp).
"In July and August, it's relatively easy," tempts Key Largo's Capt. Lain Goodwin (305-304-2212; www.dirtywaterscharters.com). "Tarpon are still plentiful; you can catch bones early in the morning, and the permit start coming back off the wrecks."
Choose a day that starts with a very low incoming tide. "The ocean water is a lot cooler," Goodwin says. "The incoming tide brings that cooler water onto the flat and puts bonefish in a feeding mode."
Goodwin outfits his anglers with spinning tackle, 10-pound braided line, 25-pound fluorocarbon leader and a circle hook or 1/8-ounce bucktail jig. As he works a flat, he looks for troughs that may only be three to six inches deep - bonefish highways. He expects five to 15 shots at bones that average about 8 pounds. Top baits: live shrimp or quarter-size blue crabs.
Make no mistake: Catching bonefish still requires accurate casts. But summer usually means lighter winds, and with multiple shots, you can rack up that first score.
Tarpon come next. Working the edges of flats and mangrove shorelines next to deeper water, Goodwin looks for targets in the 5- to 30-pound range. Smaller fish are more abundant and easier to land. Once 'poons top 70 pounds, catch rates sharply decline.
Using the same 7- to 7 1/2-foot medium-action bonefish rod with 10-pound braid, he ties on a 30- to 40-pound leader. Top baits: silver- dollar-size blue crabs, pinfish, pilchards or mullet. Expect 10 to 20 shots.
In a perfect world, you release a bonefish and a tarpon in the morning. As the tide turns, Goodwin looks for permit along the edges of flats and channels, where the bottom drops one to four feet.
"I look for sea fans too," he says. "Permit like to hang around those. I imagine they break the current while the fish waits for crabs and shrimp to flush past."
Again, with the same tackle, 25-pound fluoro leader and a circle hook, Goodwin baits up with a silver-dollar-size crab. The flats permit average 20 pounds; he expects three to five shots. With fewer opportunities, anglers need to make the most of their permit encounters.
Goodwin recommends casting the crab about five feet in front of the fish and letting it fall naturally. Open the reel's bail to make sure you don't put pressure on the bait.