April Fishing in the Florida Keys
Shark Fishing is Hot
With blacktip, spinner, bull and hammerhead sharks readily available from February to April, guides such as Capt. Nate Wheeler target the different species for their sporting qualities. When casting a live crab for permit, don’t be surprised if an oversize bonnethead shark finds it first — the mini hammerheads go nuts for sand-dollar-size crustaceans.
“Fun blacktips and spinners trail schools of baitfish such as mullet and ladyfish that invade the Keys in the winter months,” says Wheeler. “As soon as the tarpon start pushing through in March and April, many ‘capital’ sharks like bulls and hammerheads follow them in.”
The large channels running between Keys flats and islands, measuring anywhere from 5 to 25 feet deep, provide plenty of food and good habitat for sharks. “I really prefer to fish for sharks on the edges of channel flats in shallow water, so you can watch them track and eat your bait,” says Wheeler.
Wheeler prefers to use light-tackle spinning gear, 25 pounds or less, for maximum sport when fishing the flats near Big Pine and Sugarloaf keys. Much larger conventional tackle is necessary for the bigger sharks, he says.
Bonefish on Artificial Lures
Different fish stories persist in South Florida of bonefish attacking bait schools intended for different species, but none ignite any degree of confidence. Still, options do exist for spin anglers who want to trick bonefish without relying on live baits like shrimp and crabs.
Most captains I spoke with agreed that the simplest lure to tempt a bonefish is the skimmer jig. Sometimes called a bonefish jig or flats jig, it’s flat with a tip shaped like a diamond or a circle. The hook and jig eye always point toward the surface to deter snags with grassy or rocky bottom where bonefish live. The hook is dressed with bucktail, fly or synthetic material to mimic shrimp and crabs. Different than traditional boxing-glove jig heads, the slender skimmer wobbles in the water and falls at a slower rate.
“Lightly twitch the rod so the jig hops off the bottom like a shrimp,” says Capt. Mo Estevez, who fishes South Florida regularly. “With a pure jig — which has no smell — you’re appealing to bonefishes’ keen eyesight. The jig’s productivity is dependent on the ability and skill of the angler. It’s tough to get the right action.”
Many captains tip the jig with fresh shrimp to appeal to a bonefish’s olfactory senses, but that’s no longer a true artificial. Instead, use artificial-shrimp scent (like Berkley Gulp! Alive, Pro-Cure or Carolina Lunker Sauce) on your jigs. Color combos are wide ranging for the jigs, but browns, oranges, whites and pinks are top picks. In general, choose colors that mimic the same color as the bottom substrate or the colors of the local crustaceous fauna. Pick ⅛-, ¹⁄₁₆- or ³⁄₁₆-ounce jigs based on how shallow the flat is.
“Skimmer jigs work for anglers who don’t fly-fish,” says Estevez. “With the higher tide, bonefish feel and act safer with more water over their back. Still, I prefer low water on an incoming tide to spot them as they ‘pop’ onto the flats from deeper water.”
Popular jig brands include Hookup Lures Weedless Bucktails or Capt. Harry’s Flats Jigs, but many lure makers offer their own patterns.
The Tarpon Season Begins
Weather. It’s the word that one of the Keys’ best-known veteran inshore guides, Capt. Tom Rowland, comes back to over and over. That’s because it’s a critical factor for success and because “if the conditions are good, I can catch tarpon out of Key West almost any day of the year.” The Key West area hasn’t developed a reputation as one the world’s premier tarpon spots without good reason. “It’s a unique and awesome tarpon fishery,” Rowland says. “We can catch tarpon by just about every imaginable method and every situation in the Keys.”
For example, an angler fishing right in Key West harbor with an expert like R.T. Trosset, who chums them up, may hook as many as 50 tarpon in one tide. Impressive — if less dramatic — numbers are likely for anglers fishing popular tarpon lures or casting flies. If you want beaucoup light-tackle action, you can find lots of aggressive 5- to 40-pounders throughout the year. But for the big bruisers, those averaging in the vicinity of 80 pounds, plan to fish February and March, and some years right into June.
You certainly don’t have to travel to Africa for huge fish. “I’ve guided anglers to many tarpon over 200 pounds, and some of those on fly,” says Rowland. Also, unlike west Africa, Key West does offer opportunities to sight-cast flies to tarpon in clear, shallow water. If the heat of summer gets oppressive, try tarpon fishing at night; it’s cool and often extremely productive. Several major airlines fly directly into Key West from southeastern cities. Places to stay and eat and world-class guides with top-shelf boats abound.