Florida Keys Fishing Trip Planner: January

Sailfish and redfish take center stage this month in the Florida Keys.

January Fishing in the Florida Keys

Islamorada Florida Keys

The Florida Keys

Green and blue waters envelop Islamorada, signaling sandbars, flats and channels. All of the Florida Keys are a playground for sport fish and anglers alike.Courtesy Andy Newman / Florida Keys News Bureau

Driving south down U.S. 1 in Florida, it’s easy to become hypnotized by the green and blue waters surrounding top fishing destinations such as Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon and Key West. There are plenty of stretches along the main drive that allow car travelers to watch boaters catch tarpon or snapper. How distracting!

The Florida Keys is a coral archipelago stretching far into the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, providing numerous launch points to some of the most diverse and productive salt waters in North America. The coral shores lead to pristine flats and coral reefs, with the reef edges acting as the final step out to deep bluewater. Anglers in flats skiffs and bay boats explore the extensive grass-and-sand flats, deep channels and bridge structures. Light-tackle boats make hay along the wrecks and reefs. Offshore center-consoles and sport-fishers roam the open waters in search of pelagics. The Keys remain a saltwater angler’s paradise.

sailfish jump

Backflip to Bellyflop

Florida Keys feature some of the hottest sailfishing in the country from January into May.Doug Olander / sportfishingmag.com

You don't have to travel across the globe for great sailfish action. The Florida Keys winter sailfishery seems to be getting better and better. The fish run pretty small, and the seas can run pretty big (when north winds driven by frontal systems offer the rugged conditions that get sailfish packs tailing down-sea in numbers). From Stuart, Florida and farther north, anglers generally troll ballyhoo; to the south and into the Keys, live baits fished under kites or slow-trolled are the norm.

Why Should You Fish the Florida Keys?

Hot sailfishing from January into May. The run to fish is often within 10 miles; for some areas it might be just two or three. No shortage of charters, marinas, etc. At times, many exciting sight-casting/pitch-baiting opportunities. Most sails run 30 or 40 pounds, so fish light. Weekends might get a bit crowded in popular areas offshore.

January Offshore Fishing Events in the Keys

Key Largo Sailfish Challenege

Sailfish catch

Light-Tackle Action

Anglers must use tackle testing 20 pounds or less to wrestle the high-flying sailfish.Doug Olander / sportfishingmag.com

Beginner, amateur and veteran anglers can kick-start the new year with a healthy dose of light-tackle competition and camaraderie at the 21st annual Key Largo Sailfish Challenge, Friday through Sunday, Jan. 6-8.

New this year, up to six anglers can form a team to put their 20-pound line skills to task, competing for cash prizes and trophies for the top three finishers.

The winter subtropical fishing event kicks off Friday with a 6 p.m. registration, followed by cocktails at the tournament's headquarters, Sundowners on the Bay, located at mile marker 103.9 bayside.

Saturday, Jan. 7, lines-in begins at 8 a.m. through 4 p.m. Sunday anglers can fish 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. A final evening of cocktails, dinner buffet and awards ceremony starts at 6:30 p.m. Entry fee for a boat's first angler is $495 and each additional angler pays $450.

Cheeca Lodge's Presidential Sailfish Tournament

Cheeca Lodge Florida Keys

Cheeca Lodge

Located in the sport fishing capital of the world, Cheeca Lodge is a prime destination for tournament anglers.Courtesy Cheeca Lodge

The second leg of the three-event Florida Keys Gold Cup Championship series, the 27th annual Cheeca Lodge Presidential Sailfish Tournament, is scheduled Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 19-21, in Islamorada. Kickoff for "The Presidential" is set for Thursday, Jan. 19, at Cheeca Lodge, mile marker 82 oceanside, at 5:30 p.m. with a cocktail party and buffet dinner to follow.

Up to 25 boats can register. Entry fee is $695 for the first angler per boat. Additional anglers' entry fee is $645, up to four per boat, until Jan. 6, 2017. After Jan. 6, the entry fee for the first angler increases to $750 and each additional angler is $700.

Friday and Saturday, anglers combine their 20-pound or less line with light-tackle skills to wrestle the high-flying sailfish, known for their acrobatics and tail-walking the waves. Only circle hooks can be used. Fishing is from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

A courtyard-to-ballroom gala banquet is set for Saturday evening when trophies, created by Islamorada artist Pasta Pantaleo, are to be awarded the tournament's top anglers.

The Gold Cup Series traditionally concludes with the mid-week final leg, the Islamorada Fishing Club Sailfish Tournament, set for Jan. 25-26, 2017, when the overall Gold Cup Series champion is crowned.

January Inshore Fishing in the Keys

Key Largo redfish inshore fishing

Redfish

South Florida produces hefty redfish. Target them in the channels in winter.Adrian E. Gray

Keys redfish cooperate all year long, allowing captains such as Islamorada's Rick Stanczyk to take advantage during the cool months. Stanczyk runs a 22-foot SeaCraft bay boat and shies away from super-shallow fishing for reds, so his top months are the cooler ones, from December to February. He favors the creeks near the Northwest Cape on Florida's mainland, casting medium-light Shimano spinning outfits spooled with 20-pound braid, 30-pound leader and natural baits.

“During these months, redfish tend to push out of the very shallow flats into the channel runoffs, island moats and creeks of the mainland Everglades,” he says. “The areas may be anywhere from 2 to 10 feet deep. In many instances, we catch them over hard, rocky bottom.”

During a cold front with a hard north wind, reds school up heavily in areas like these channels. On a high, rising tide, redfish move out of the holes and find similar structure along the shorelines.

“My favorite technique is probably pitching live shrimp or pilchards around the shorelines, islands, and in the creeks of the mainland,” Stanczyk says. “You have a shot at catching redfish, snook or even little tarpon while doing this. You can also chum areas that look productive and attract fish away from structure.”