Though the residents of the Florida Keys have a reputation as being hardy stock, weathering everything from natural disasters like Hurricane Irma to the worst hangovers known to man — Fireball is not your friend — there are two little words that typically strike crippling, ocean-avoidant fear into the hearts of any local worth their Florida Keys sea salt: Lobster Season. The time of year when hordes of lobster hunters descend on our island, invade our pristine waters and jet home with their coolers full of Key West’s crustacean aquatic bounty.
Although we fully support the hunt (and we won’t lie — we’ve certainly tickled our fair share of lobsters out of their hidey holes), if you want to avoid the crustacean-crazy crowds, there are millions of other creatures that call Key West’s oceanic ecosphere home. Thankfully, there are infinite fishing options to please every pescatarian sportsman looking to catch their supper.
It’s the perfect time for amateurs and angling pros alike to try their luck in the famously fertile waters surrounding our island. We reached out to some of the Keys’ best charter companies to find out what you should be trying to catch this summer and the best way to do it.
In the dozen years Captain Chris Mendola, owner of Far Out Charters, has been taking his clients out fishing, he’s developed a niche for himself: Captain Chris is the person you call when you want to catch a swordfish. The notoriously difficult-to-land billfish is known for its magnificent appearance, its flaky white flesh and for being one of the best fights in the ocean — that is, if you can get hold of one in the first place.
There’s a common misconception that the best way to catch one is by going out at night, says Captain Chris. That can deter some anglers who aren’t keen on skipping an evening at Sloppy Joe’s in favor of waiting in the dark while being tossed around by the choppy waters of the Gulf. But far less important is the time of day one puts a line into the water than the depth a line is dropped to — up to 2,000 feet, to be specific. It’s a tricky, technical kind of fishing, requiring heavy lead weights, particular types of belly bait, special permits, tiny strobe lights and a precise method of drift catching which utilizes the natural current to avoid tangled lines.
Captain Chris outfits his boat with top-of-the-line electric-assist rigs, giving his customers the option to battle their prey manually toward the end of what can sometimes be a long fight. But the work is well worth the fight. The bite of a swordfish is subtle, not drastic; it takes a trained eye to spot it, which is where going out with a qualified guide comes in handy. Since it can take a few hours, it’s a great fit for anglers who have been out on the water enough that the shock of pulling something — anything! — off the reef has worn off, and who are looking for something more challenging.
It’s the same thirst for adventure that drew Captain Justin Jennings Annarino to start his own charter business, Keys Custom Fishing Charters, in 2016. Although he has his hands full with his Stock Island-based automotive business, Keys Custom Automotive, he now spends many of his days focusing on the fun, casual side of living in the Florida Keys, mixing activities like snorkeling, eco-tours, sand bar hopping and dolphin sighting into his fishing charters.
For Keys Custom Fishing Charters, the summertime is a great time to explore the vastly different underwater worlds that surround Key West. It’s the diversity of both species of fish and types of ecosystems that sets Keys fishing apart from the rest of the world, with access to shallow patch reefs, inshore channels and deepwater Atlantic fishing never more than a few miles away from one another.
Captain Justin’s team is small and tight-knit, with a decidedly boutique approach compared to the cattle call type charters that many tourists find themselves stuck on during their vacation. Keys Custom Fishing Charters doesn’t have a booth on Duval; their business is based on word-of-mouth referrals and repeat clients looking for a deeply personalized fishing experience.
Much like Captain Justin, Captain Mike Weinhofer takes an exceptionally individualized approach to his charters on his shiny vessel, the Compass Rose. A lifelong fisherman with angling in his blood, Mike moved to Key West in 1990 and has become one of the foremost experts in local light tackle fishing. Whether you’re an experienced angler or a novice looking to impress your Instagram followers, Captain Mike can customize a trip out to the myriad reefs and wrecks both offshore and inshore.
And although Compass Rose Charters is named after the flagship craft, Captain Mike has five more boats for whatever type of fishing suits your fancy — from the serenity of the flats to high-intensity tarpon and everything in between. Looking for a trip that will make your heart race? On the Compass Rose’s Sunset Shark trips, you’ll have the opportunity to hook lemons, bulls, black tips, hammerheads and more.
If it’s a long day of sport fishing you’re after, look no further than Wild Bill Sport Fishing. Captain Art Duplessis has 23 years of experience fishing the waters of both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico for just about every species of fish out there, including sailfish, marlin, king mackerel, grouper, tarpon, barracuda and wahoo — in fact, one of Captain Art’s mottos is, “If it swims in more than four feet of water, we’ll find it!”
A self-described fishing fanatic, Captain Art is relentless in his mission to ensure that his guests are comfortable, have fun and catch fish. Every excursion on the Wild Bill is customized to the group’s fishing desires, so rest assured that your trip will deliver on all of your aquatic expectations.
For those new to the sport, summertime is the ideal time to engage in reef and wreck fishing, as the rewards — in both excitement and the diversity of catches — can be impressive. Throw in a guided tour of the backcountry wilderness and you’ve got a recipe for a uniquely memorable day.
And while the well-stocked flats around Key West offer practically guaranteed success year-round, it’s during the summer when flats fishing reaches its explosive peak, with great opportunities for anglers of all levels to fight bonefish, permit and tarpon.
For those more experienced sport anglers, summer in the Keys is the best time to try for those famously fun-to-fight (and delicious) pelagic species, such as mahi-mahi and wahoo. And if it’s a drawn-out battle you’re after (and you’ve already snagged a swordfish or two), now’s the time to get out onto the water and try your luck at hooking a blue marlin, whose tremendous strength offers an awesome fight for anyone lucky enough to snare one.
Load up on the SPF, pack twice as much water as you need (no, beer does not count as water, no matter what your frat brothers say) and get some lines in the water.