Fishing Florida’s Lower Keys: Get the Line on Great Catches

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December 26, 2019

Photo: Florida Memory An angler stands at water's edge at sunset.

When we think of “The Keys,” our minds always wander towards Key West, Key Largo and Marathon. What we don’t realize is we’re missing an abundance of incredible fishing opportunities on the islands located in between. Fishing the Lower Keys in Florida is an experience you can’t miss.

The Lower Keys is a quiet section of islands that connects Key West to Marathon. These islands encompass some of the best fishing in the country, owing to their relation to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

A fishing charter boat leaves very early in the morning from the Florida Keys.

Photo: Lisa5201/Getty Images

In this blog post, our goal is to act as your personal travel guide to show you everything you need to know about fishing Florida’s Lower Keys. Let’s get to it!

What Are Florida’s Lower Keys?

Many people overlook this section of the keys because they’re not the famous names you always hear about. The lower keys connect via the Overseas Highway (U.S. Route 1) between Marathon Key and Key West.

Some of the islands that make up the Lower Keys include Sugarloaf Key, Cudjoe Key, Summerland Key, Ramrod Key, Big Pine Key, Saddlebunch Keys and Boca Chica. That’s a long list of islands — with a lot of fishing opportunities.

Man holding a grouper caught in the ocean.

Photo: Beautiful Key West

Why Fish the Lower Keys?

So what brings people from all over the country to the Lower Keys? Their location between the Gulf of Mexico in the north and the Atlantic Ocean in the south is excellent. Fish from both the Atlantic and Gulf are funneled into the long channels between the islands. Sealife thrives in the well-protected bays, flats and mangroves. Strong currents flow through the island chain, bringing rich bounty for fishing enthusiasts.

The end result is a diverse range of gamefish that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.

Tarpon Swimming in the ocean.

Photo: Albert Kok

Locals recommend checking out shallow water flats to find tarpon, permit and bonefish. The time of year will determine what type of fish you catch, but they say coming in the spring and fall will allow you to enjoy the broadest range of fish.

Where Should You Fish?

If you’re smitten with a trip to the Lower Keys, it’s difficult to know where to start. We spoke with Captain Jim Sharpe of Sea Boots Charters in Summerland Key to get more information about some of the hottest fishing spots along the Lower Keys.

Gulf of Mexico

Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico is where things take an interesting turn because you’ll find unique fishing opportunities here that you can’t find anywhere else. If you have wreck fishing on your bucket list, you can check it off with a trip to the Lower Keys. This is why fishing with a guided charter is such a great experience. These pros can show you a lot of the secret (or semi-secret) areas they’ve kept tucked under the rug for their charter anglers.

Massive Goliath Grouper

Photo: Images Source

Wreck fishing in the Lower Keys grants you the opportunity to fish for the Goliath Grouper, which is known to be very aggressive. If that sounds like a stretch for you, you’ll still find plenty of mangrove snapper, cobia and permit throughout the wreckage in the Gulf.

Along with shipwrecks, there is an abundance of dumped cars that make a perfect sanctuary for the fish. Captain Sharpe says you can expect to find this type of wreckage 350 to 700 feet from the shore.

American Shoal Light

Southeast of the Saddlebunch Keys is where you’ll find the American Shoal Light. This lighthouse sits off the shore in the Atlantic ocean at latitude 24.52500 N; longitude -81.52000 W. Captain Sharpe says if you find American Shoal Light, you know you’ve found great fishing in the Lower Keys.

An angler holds up a silver fish with mouth wide open.

A bonito or “Little Tunny” caught in the Florida Keys. Photo: Negaprion

Here, you can expect to catch tuna, sailfish and yellowtail. While the local experts do put a bit of emphasis on this location, they say there is no shortage of fishing up and down the entire coast.

Big Pine Key

This island sits at the west end of the iconic Seven Mile Bridge. Big Pine Key draws anglers all year because it offers some of the best fishing in the country, and it’s easy to get to. You can drive about 135 miles to Big Pine from Miami via the Overseas Highway.

The most popular fish here are tarpon, bonefish and permit. If you’re traveling in the spring, you can expect to catch tarpon. Local experts also say that the bonefish have made a strong comeback after falling out in the past.

Man holding a big silver fish.

Photo: Pixabay

Big Pine Key is also home to some incredible permit in the 30- to 40-pound range. If fly fishing is your game, then you’ll want to give that a shot off the coast of Big Pine Key.

The inside scoop says Bahia Honda State Park is the place to go on the big island. If you’re trying to wade, locals can guide you to a path through the mangroves that comes out on a sandy beach and holds an abundance of bonefish and permit. You’ll stand a better chance of catching permit when the tide is high.

Sugarloaf Key

Captain Tim Carlile of Sugarloaf Key Marina says that Sugarloaf Key is the spot if you’re looking to fish in the spring for tarpon. He says they are found on the flats from January through November, with the spring being the time to really hit the water. Peak tarpon season runs from March through June here.

He also says that winter fishing is excellent in this area, as well. When the water temperature cools a bit, you can expect to catch barracuda, jacks, shark, ladyfish and seatrout. Snapper fishing is also great during the winter because they move into shallow water closer to the flats, which makes it easier for you to catch them.

A fisherman casts a net over the side of a boat.

Photo: Beautiful Key West

Best Fishing Charters in the Lower Keys

By this point, you should be salivating by the amazing fishing opportunities that the Lower Keys offer. Let’s seal the deal by offering up some great recommendations for fishing charters in this area.

Sea Boots Charters — Summerland Key

We spoke directly with Captain Sharpe earlier in this post, and the first thing that stood out is his experience. He’s logged more than 50 years of big game fishing through the Keys, and he has lived and breathed this his entire life.

He was also a bit reluctant to reveal some of his best-kept spots, so you’ll have to contact him and find out what he has hidden in his decades of experience.

Sugarloaf Key Flats Fishing Charters — Sugarloaf Key

A little west of Summerland Key, you’ll find Captain Tim Carlile on Sugarloaf Key. He’s fished these waters since he was 18, and he also participates in many fishing tournaments here.

He says he spends the majority of his time fishing the flats surrounding the Lower Keys for Bonefish. He specializes in finding and catching bonefish, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll want to check out this charter.

Tight Lines Charters — Big Pine Key

If tarpon is your game, then you’ll want to check out this charter on Big Pine Key. Captain Jeff Zellers has fished these waters for over 14 years for tarpon. These tough catches blast out of the water, which makes them some of the most enjoyable fish the catch.

A silver tarpon bursting out of the water.

A tarpon bursting out of the water. Photo: Redmahta

Captain Jeff offers tarpon trips through April and May, and they are available every day, twice per day. He says that catching a tarpon should be on your bucket list because they provide an unforgettable experience.

Stock Island Adventures

Located 26 miles west of Big Pine Key, Stock Island is home to several fishing charters that transport anglers to big-catch nirvana. A great place to start is Stock Island Marina Village, the largest deep-water marina in the Florida Keys. For hefty catches of mackerel, tuna or kingfish, sign up with Y Knot charters, which takes trips far into the region’s fabled blue water. The charter also takes passengers westward for yellowtail, snapper, grouper and bluefish.

A man proudly holds a hefty fish in his hands on a boat.

Holding a hefty catch. Photo: Eddie Griffith’s Charters.

For long excursions, Eddie Griffith’s Charters takes guests on two- to three-day trips to Dry Tortugas National Park, more than 50 miles westward into the ocean. Anglers can cast on patch coral reefs and shipwrecks, catching snapper, grouper, cobia and other fish. Two Fish Charters, likewise, takes guests to Dry Tortugas for trophy fish that includes tuna, wahoo, sailfish and more.

For trips closer to home base, Captain Kyle takes visitors to backcountry waterways, inshore flats, reef and mangrove islands. For offshore and bottom fishing, What’s Kraken? Keys Fishing Adventures transports guests to prime offshore and bottom-fishing spots. Also offered are diving and cruising trips.

Ready to Plan Your Trip?

If you’re ready to make a trip to the Lower Keys, just know disappointment won’t be a part of your vocabulary. To help plan your trip, why not check out some of our Good Sam parks like the Sunshine Key RV Resort and Marina in Big Pine Key. This resort offers RV enthusiasts incomparable access to the tropical island life. It’s the perfect getaway to pair with your fishing trip.

We hope you found this guide useful and that you’ll look in between the lines when planning a trip to The Lower Keys. Sometimes the path less traveled by offers the most rewards!