Fishing Key West's Deserted Flats

Don't give up in the dog days of summer -- just be on the flats before the sun rises above the horizon!



Look for tailing permit, as well as bonefish, early.Drew Townes

While some flats-fishing enthusiasts might tell you that summer’s the wrong time to fish skinny water in the lower Keys, don’t believe it.

True, it may not be a peak period, but you can find fast fishing if you make it out on the water very early in the morning, a magical hour when the waters of Florida Bay seem to be an infinite mirror, broken only by small islands — and perhaps tailing fish.

“I prefer to start early and not fish much past noon,” says Capt. Mark Schmidt, one of Key West’s most experienced and respected flats guides. Besides the air getting uncomfortable, the water heats up over the shallow, sandy bottom. “I’ve seen water temps on the flats get into the 90s in August,” too warm for game fish.

In general, permit and sharks are less bothered by hot water than other species, but even they**** will stay in deeper, cooler waters during the heat of the day, Schmidt advises.

Realistically, most species — certainly including bonefish — will average a bit smaller size in very hot weather. Sharks, however — a very popular target for many shallow-water anglers — run every bit as large as any time of the year.

Tarpon are harder to come by in the shallow water at this time of year, but some will be around, particularly early in the channels or around mangroves (smaller fish), Schmidt says. That's particularly relevant since, given the prevalence of bonefish and permit in lower Keys shallows, it offers a very real chance at a slam — tarpon, bone and permit, all in one day.

Tides also are important — “crucial, in fact, to summer success,” says the guide. “An early morning low incoming is great, but I also like a falling tide, as it concentrates where the fish are likely to be.” He explains that a big low tide in the morning means working the edges of the flats, where fish will probably be cruising as they hunt for food washing off the shallows.

Another concession may be the use of frozen rather than live shrimp. Schmidt says live shrimp can be, well ... real shrimps, as far as size goes, in summer. When they’re just too small, he’ll switch to (larger) frozen shrimp, along with live crabs. And certainly frozen shrimp will work as chum; chumming the flats has made for some exciting action on many a summer morning.

Of course fly fishing can be effective anytime. For permit, Schmidt favors the Merkin, Avalon and Simon’s hovercrab. “For bonefish,” he says, “I like larger flies that imitate crabs or shrimp, since on many of the flats we fish, you’ll have shots at both bonefish and permit. The Avalon has proven very effectie for bones.”

For non-fly-fishers, artificials (beyond a shrimp-tipped jig) may be a harder sell than bait or flies for permit and bones. However, anglers can enjoy some excitement throwing topwaters like a Rapala X-Rap to tarpon and jacks. Barracuda may hit these as well, though Schmidt favors a Rapala Skitter Walk for jacks as well as barracuda. Soft plastics often work well, he adds.

Schmidt reiterates just how much sport sharks on the flats can offer anglers in the summer (and throughout the year). “We have lemons, blacktips, bulls and occasionally hammerheads on the flats during the summer, he says.

As for where the Key West skipper fishes during the heat of summer, he says the direction is wide open, depending on many variables. “We can start fishing after a five-minute run or spend 40 minutes running to the Marquesas. As a general rule, when targeting bonefish, I head east toward Sugarloaf and Big Pine keys. But I’ve been finding more bonefish west of Key West, also.” Schmidt says he’s found some good bonefishing in the Marquesas (about 20 miles west).

So don’t shrink from venturing onto the flats during the dog days. But go with a guide who goes early. And enjoy the solitude. Yeah, that’s another benefit of fishing this time of year: “During the summer, it’s easy to have the flats all to yourself,” Schmidt says.

About the guide: Mark Schmidt, who's been fishing Key West and the lower Keys since 1980, runs a new Dragonfly Boatworks Grand Slam 17 for his flats fishing (and a Conch 27 center console for fishing reefs, wrecks and offshore).




For information or to book a trip, visit his website__ or call 305-797-4032.

For more information on fishing Florida, go to Visit Florida.