Captain Jason Peters stands at the helm of his airboat, sweeping the clear, shallow slough with the beam of his headlamp as his friend captain Bill Lepree wields a longbow from the bow. Suddenly, the light …
Fall: Prime Time for Flats Fishing in the Keys and Bahamas!
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer
Late summer/early autumn is prime time for flats fishing in the Keys and the Bahamas. With few visiting anglers and plenty of bonefish, you have the shallow, target-rich environment pretty much to yourself. And in the Keys, you’ll also get shots at tarpon and permit, raising hopes of a flats grand slam.
Fall brings higher tides and cooler waters, expanding the territory of feeding bonefish that spent less time foraging on the flats in the searing summer heat.
You can sight-fish for them from a poled skiff or you can simply stake out up current from a sand-and-grass-dotted flat and wait for them to feed into the tide. By far, the best bait is a live shrimp with the tail pinched off fished on light line with a split shot for added casting distance. To better your chances, carry dozens more live shrimp than you need for bait, cut them into pieces and toss them out as chum.
The islands of the Bahamas present your best chance of catching and releasing a bonefish on fly rod. With seemingly endless shallow-water habitat and abundant fish of all sizes unaccustomed to encountering most fly patterns, the islands allow the novice angler to make plenty of mistakes, learn from them quickly, and eventually capture the prize.
Bonefish are fun to catch on the flats on any kind of tackle because of their warp-speed, drag-screaming runs after you hook them. Keep your line tight and a bend in the rod, and eventually you’ll catch up to them.
Bonefishing is big business in the both the Keys and Bahamas, generating tens of millions of dollars in economic impact each year. In the Keys, anglers fishing the ocean sides of Islamorada and Key Largo can pretty much expect to encounter bonefish most days, but the fishery has suffered declines in the Florida Bay back country over the past decade. Anglers and guides want to know why and what can be done to reverse the trend. The non-profit Bonefish Tarpon Trust has commissioned a study by scientists from Florida International University to look into everything from water quality to prey availability to determine the causes and identify solutions. The researchers are also surveying and interviewing bonefish enthusiasts from Biscayne Bay through the Lower Keys to chronicle their experiences.
In the Bahamas, the government recently announced draft legislation that would impose licenses and fees on foreigners fishing for bonefish and require operators of fishing lodges to be citizens or permanent residents of the Bahamas. Bonefish Tarpon Trust– in collaboration with scores of anglers, guides, scientists, conservationists and lodge operators– countered with its own recommendations for a comprehensive conservation and management plan for the species. The government is mulling over those suggestions.
Completing the flats grand slam with tarpon and permit is more than doable in the Keys in early fall, especially if you use live bait.
The onset of cold fronts to the north pushes huge schools of forage fish such as mullet, pilchards, sardines and glass minnows south along ocean and bay waters in the Keys, with tarpon happily chasing and devouring them. These ‘silver kings’ are not as large as the monsters typically encountered in the spring and summer migrations, but they are sporty enough on 20-pound tackle. Your best bet for a spectacular experience is to use a live mullet hooked with a circle hook through the upper lip and rigged with a float along the edges of flats, in channels and around the U.S. 1 bridges.
Tarpon typically pile on the mullet, crashing, splashing and leaping while you hang on tight and let the fish have its way. The moment it lets up, you put the heat on it.
The experience is so addictive that a veteran Keys guide once said that if tarpon could only be found in the Himalayas, anglers and guides wouldn’t hesitate to follow them there.
Permit, with an oval-shaped silver and yellow body and black sickle tail, is more common in the Lower Keys than the Upper Keys, but you still stand a decent chance of catching one in the northern regions.
These bulldogs of the flats rarely hesitate to gulp a live crab cast in front of their noses. But accounts are rampant of anglers making bad casts to the fish’s tail only to have it whirl around and inhale the bait. For sight-fishing, the best locations are narrow strip banks along both the ocean and bay sides of the Keys with hard bottom and a strong current. Permit also can be found in channels and around bridges waiting to pounce on crabs sweeping by on the tide.
Trying to catch them on the flats with a fly rod can end up being a lifelong quest similar to the 100 Years War. Tame your bucket list to include live crabs, and you will not be disappointed.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling, camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.