Transition Time in the Keys

I love March; it is the time of transition that brings great changes to the fishing in the Keys.  March offers an overlap of the best of both the winter fishery and the start of the summer fishery.  You may ask, “What about the spring?”  Well, that is just how I interpret spring – as a transition where the overlap is a great bounty.

I can’t think of a single species of fish that can be found in Keys waters that is not available to Keys anglers in March.  For someone like me, with a terminal case of fishing ADD, it is just overwhelming.  I am often asked by clients when is it windiest and when is the fishing best?  They are often surprised by my answer.  This is both the windiest and best fishing.  I am always reminded of the phrase Elephant March.  That is when the east winds are blowing for days at a time against the east bound Gulf Stream.  The horizon from shore can resemble a line of elephants marching head to tail along in the distance.

Most of the decisions of what to target will be guided by the whim of the winds.  Fortunately the Lower Keys offer plenty of protected channels and flats upon which to conduct your search when that whim is working against you.

Normally by March the Keys have seen all of the strong cold fronts that are likely to invade the Southern states.  That leaves high pressure to settle in and create a predominantly easterly breeze.   While there are likely to be calm days spread through the month, you will want to have a windy weather plan in place so as to not miss out on too many fishing days.  On the days that you can venture offshore, there is enough variety to target to make even the most fishing ADD afflicted angler go into shock.

I often start the morning by trolling or drifting live bait along the reef line in search of sailfish, tuna, and dolphin.  We follow that up with some trolling of dead baits at a faster clip in hope of encountering a few wahoo on our way to finish up the day.  Lastly, we will drop live pinfish and vertical jigs on the deeper wrecks for amberjack, almaco, African pompano, mutton snapper and blackfin tuna.   As for the days between lulls, you will be able to stay neatly tucked between the Gulf and Atlantic coast lines.  Whether you are fishing a larger boat or a flats skiff, there are plenty of places to find both shelter and action inshore.

For the flats angler, the whole gamut of inshore game fish is available to target.  Starting along the edges of the deeper channels in the back country will give you opportunities to target the larger migrating tarpon as the vanguard of their yearly invasion arrive.  As the sun warms the flats, the bonefish and permit will follow the flooding tides to the shallow flats where they are a wary target for both spin and fly anglers.  In between the tides there are the invasion of both sharks and barracuda.

The anglers who are looking for something for the dinner table will have mangrove and mutton snapper as well as mackerel and cobia to target around the channels and coral heads in the back country.  Bring chum, and if you are fortunate the ballyhoo will show up in your chum line.  Catching a few to present as live bait will open the possibility for great surprise.  Some of the largest mackerel that I have caught in my career have been taken on live bait in the channels around the Harbor Key Bank.   Even though we usually think of king mackerel as being an offshore fish, they are encountered in the inshore areas more than you might think.  I have even taken one on the flats once.

A few years ago I was directing an angler to throw a plug at a school of small jacks feeding along the top edge of the content Keys.  The plug immediately connected with a small jack crevalle.  The crevalle was immediately consumed by what I thought was a large barracuda.   After a fifteen minute battle we brought in a fifty four inch king mackerel.  It just goes to show that fish will be found where the food is.

Other fish that frequent the back country are cero mackerel, trout and lady fish.  These can be caught simply by drifting live shrimp or more conveniently, Gulp artificial shrimp on a light weight jig head as you drift over the grass flats in six to nine feet of water.  Do not hesitate to drift one of your live ballyhoo behind the boat to sweeten the pot.

Even when the forecaster’s ”ten to fifteen knot” forecasts seem to really mean ten plus fifteen knots, there is still plenty to do in the Lower Keys.

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