Fishing Islamorada

Islamorada's backcountry provides a quality habitat for big redfish like this; while the nearby Gulf Stream offshore allows accses to a variety of big gamesters.

Islamorada in the Florida Keys is not a single landmass, but rather a village of five small islands comprised of Lower Matecumbre Key, Upper Matecumbre Key, Plantation Key, Tea Table Key and Windley Key.

This closely knit group of islets is also known worldwide as one of the premier saltwater fishing destinations on the planet. It is perfectly situated to offer convenient access to both the fish rich backcountry flats located on the Gulf side, and the outstanding offshore action for a myriad of popular gamefish species in the Atlantic Gulf Stream. There is also excellent reef and wreck fishing to be had, with deeper spots often yielding a wide variety of large groupers and snappers. No matter whether you prefer trolling, bottom fishing, drifting with live bait or fly casting, Islamorada offers you an excellent opportunity to enjoy great fishing on a virtually year round basis.

In addition to the famed coral reefs, Islamorada also enjoys a plethora of manmade reef structures that were created to offer supplementary habitat for numerous smaller marine organisms, which in turn further enhance the number and size of fish available to anglers. They are often constructed using everything from broken concrete rubble to old bride spans and concrete modules; in many cases they are also used to augment and enrich the sites of older sunken vessels that have become heavily deteriorated.

When it comes to live bait fishing for larger gamesters one of the best places to look for is a high spot that is surrounded by much deeper water. Nearby currents redirect schools of baitfish up toward the surface, where they then become easy prey for voracious predator fish coming from below and hungry seabirds descending from the sky above.

On the Pacific west coast, a high spot is often created by a volcanic pinnacle that juts up from the great depths and then peaks out before reaching the surface. On the other side of the continent in Islamorada, the same type of phenomenon is generated by what is referred to as a sea mound or hump. 

The Keys most productive humps adjacent to Islamorada are the Islamorada Hump, which is at a depth of 295’, the Key Largo Hump that ranges between 280’ and 330’ and the deepest of the three, the 409 Hump that reaches a depth of over 400’. Here are their respective GPS waypoints:

Islamorada Hump: 24-48.18' N; 80-26.67' W

Key Largo Hump: 25-00.66' N; 80-16.8'W

409 Hump: 24-35.5' N; 80-35.5' W

Depending upon prevailing conditions, these humps can be fished on the troll using either artificial or natural baits, but most skippers who know the area will tell you that the most productive way to fish them is with live bait. Mackerel, ballyhoo, pilchards and cigar minnows all work well; but the most important factor is that they be kept in good condition until you are ready to pin them on a hook.

Slowly trolling your live bait so that it darts around and attracts the attention of predators is perhaps the most common way to present a live baitfish closer to the surface. But if you want to fish a bit deeper, you can also provoke a strike by hooking it onto a shiny metal jig and allowing the rig to flutter down through the water column.

Fishing Tips

Another technique involves what is commonly referred to as chunking. Simple but effective, chunks of cut mackerel or pilchard are dispersed into the water behind the transom and allowed to slowly sink toward the bottom or be swept off by the currents; in either case, spreading the oily bits of chum toward the delicate olfactory sensors of cruising predator fish.

Once that has been accomplished, simply pin a similar sized chunk of the cut bait onto a 2/0 to 5/0 circle hook tied to a 20” to 25” fluorocarbon leader. If conditions make it necessary, you can also attach a medium to large split shot just above the hook to hasten your bait’s descent.

Chumming with chunks of fresh cut baitfish is also a great way to catch more fish around the humps while vertically jigging heavier metal jigs for big bottom fish.  

The vast variety of snappers available in the waters surrounding Islamodora include the vermillion snapper, dog snapper, mutton snapper, blackfin snapper, cubera snapper and mangrove snapper, just to name a few. Local grouper species include the popular gag grouper, Nassau grouper, red grouper, yellowfin grouper, Warsaw grouper and the goliath grouper, which is currently protected.

Gulf Stream

Beyond the sea mounds lies the edge of the continental shelf and the tepid waters of the Atlantic Gulf Stream. This swift current provides sustenance for an array of offshore gamefish like tuna, wahoo, dolphinfish, king mackerel, marlin and sailfish. The majority of these fish are taken by surface trolling rigged or artificial baits, using a downrigger or by kite fishing.

But first, you must find the fish. Unless you are lucky enough to happen upon a flock of working birds diving down on a school of frenzied baitfish, the most traditional method of doing this is by blind trolling a plug, feather or jet head lure. Once a fish is hooked, the boat is slowed and live baits or lures are cast out to catch any other fish that might be swimming in the same vicinity.

The one species that is particularly susceptible to this technique is the dolphinfish, which is also known as mahi-mahi or dorado. Allowing the troll fish to swim behind the transom for a few moments just before bringing it aboard will generally draw in others close enough to the boat to be within casting range; potentially making it a multi-fish stop before proceeding on.

State of the art GPS and sonar fish finding technology has given saltwater anglers an advantage that was unimaginable in past generations, and has definitely helped level the playing field. Nowhere is this truer than in the waters around Islamorada.

Fishing the Backcountry

Although the inshore and offshore fishing opportunities on Islamorada’s Atlantic side are extraordinary, it is the phenomenal backcountry flats fishing on the Gulf side that truly turns this region into a double barreled fishing bonanza.

The backcountry shallows of Florida Bay play host to a bevy of popular gamesters, which include redfish, snook, bonefish, permit, spotted trout and various snappers as well as the mighty tarpon. No matter what time of year you happen to be fishing these productive flats, there are always biting fish to catch. While snook, redfish and spotted trout are available year round, tarpon fishing is best between spring and fall.

Fly anglers have a field day fishing these skinny waters, but if you do not happen to be adept at properly presenting a fly or streamer there is little need for concern. The fact is, every fish that is pursued by fly anglers in Islamorada’s backcountry can be caught on some other type of bait or lure as well.

Tarpon will quickly inhale a small blue crab just as fast as it will a tarpon fly. In springtime when tarpon fishing is at its peak in the Florida Bay, it is not uncommon to also hook up with a trophy grade permit. These fish are also big fans of live blue crabs, and will often attack a large tarpon streamer that resembles one. And while the permit may not offer the entertaining aerial acrobatics of the famed silver king, their ability to muster up a challenging battle once hooked more than makes up for it.

As the warmer months of summer come into their own, the tarpon bite tends to decrease, while the fishing for permit goes off the charts. Bonefish action is also outstanding in summertime, and offers a delightful contrast to the other types of fishing opportunities that are available in this saltwater angling wonderland.

Charter Services

Unless you have an intimate knowledge of these waters and are fortunate enough dock up in Islamorada on your own sportfishing cruiser, you would be well advised to enlist the services of a reputable guide or charter service to literally help you hook you once you have arrived.

Other Options

For some, this may not be financially practical; but that is still no reason to leave your fishing gear behind when you visit Islamorada. Because of the unique positioning and makeup of the Florida Keys, you can technically fish offshore here without ever taking a single step off of dry land. Deep sea fishing can be enjoyed from any of the bridges and piers that are available in the area. Two of the most popular are the Channel Two Fishing Bridge on US-1 at Mile Marker 73 and the Channel Five Fishing Pier on US-1 at Mile Marker 71. 

Piers and bridges in the Keys offer you the decided advantage of casting your line into the type of seas that usually require a long boat ride to reach from the mainland. The species of fish that you are likely to catch from piers and bridges in this region can range from smaller snapper to big grouper on the bottom to cruising cobia or kingfish closer to the surface.  

But no matter whether you pay a visit to Islamorada to fish offshore, inshore, on the flats or even from a bridge, you are likely to become captivated, if not totally addicted to this unique and magical saltwater fishing venue.