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FISHING OFF BIG PINE & THE LOWER KEYS

The waters off either side of Big Pine Key and the adjacent Lower Keys islands offer legendary fishing, whether you’re interested in sharks or snook. Prove your angling skills and endurance during a trip offshore, where charter captains can help you hook a tuna, swordfish, or even a mako shark. The Gulf of Mexico side of Big Pine draws thousands of bonefish and permit into its mangrove and sea grass shallows, and hundreds of eager anglers after them. Reserve your spot with a Big Pine fishing charter company—or rent a boat, or bring your own to any of the public launches or private marinas. Since Big Pine is already about 100 miles “offshore,” you won’t have to go far to find fish.

Though many species populate the Lower Keys water year-round, certain fish species do migrate, and some are more active or available during one season or another. Drawn by the warm waters, Marlin and Dolphin, a.k.a. Mahi Mahi, tempt anglers and diners between May and September. A larger variety of fish swarms through the islands when the temperatures cool off, however—particularly big game fish. Lightning-quick Wahoo prefer the span from March to May, while the numbers of Kingfish, Tuna, Cobia, and Sailfish swell between early November and late April. The prime months for a battle in the backcountry flats are February – May and again in September and October. During these periods, the number of Bonefish, Permit, and Snook in local waters all but guarantees an encounter. Barracuda are never difficult to find, and though they aren’t much of a meal, they’ll put up an admirable fight. Snappers, grunt, and grouper varieties stay pretty close to wrecks and reefs throughout the year, and are among the best choices for dinner, too.

Fishing tournaments run throughout the summer in Big Pine Key & the Lower Keys. After a Kingfish tournament in January, several summertime contests for Dolphin and Permit keep competitors busy. Directly north of Big Pine, many more tournaments are held off Marathon (primarily for tarpon and dolphin) and Islamorada (sailfish, and everything else—Islamorada reigns as “the sport fishing capital of the world”).

Dozens of fishing charter services operate out of Big Pine Key , most of them captained and manned by experienced Florida Keys natives who know exactly where to find the fish you want. The primary distinction between charter types is boat size; small boats offer personalized service, while larger “party boats” are great for novices, large groups. You can bring your own tackle, or many charters will provide it for you, along with bait (which you may net on your way offshore).

Often, charter outfits will advertise their suitability for anglers of all experience levels, while a select few cater only to near-professionals, or only to novices (e.g., the party fishing charters). As a general rule of thumb, the longer the trip, the higher the suggested experience level—overnight trips are for serious fishing. Offshore charter trips typically run half-day, day-long, night, and overnight schedules. Backcountry charters often launch before dawn, so it’s advisable to avoid the tiki bars the night before your trip. Always bring plenty of sunscreen, sandwiches, and water—and a camera to capture your catch for posterity.

An alternative to charters, indeed to boating at all, is bridge fishing. Big Pine Key offers what is possibly the best bridge fishing in the Florida Keys—the Old Seven Mile Bridge. Located at the north end of the new Seven Mile Bridge, the fishing pier can be reached via Bahia Honda State Park & Beach (MM 37). It’s a favorite spot for tarpon fishing, and the artificial reefs that have formed around the old pilings attract myriad other species. Look for rays and large sharks.

Bridge fishing can be a better option than boating when the water’s choppy, and it’s much less costly. Be sure to get your own fishing license (most charters include this is their price), and come prepared to withstand the sun without the cooling effect of splashing water—it gets awfully warm on the bridges.

If you’re visiting at the end of July, be prepared for the frenzied two days of the Florida Keys Lobster Mini-Season. Held annually on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July, the mini-season allows anyone with a permit (a saltwater fishing license with a lobster stamp, which is easily obtained from most tackle and dive shops) to bag these tasty crustaceans. Boil, broil, or grill the lobsters yourself, or take them to one of the many local restaurants that’ll cook your catch, whether fish or crustacean, to your specifications.

Regulations for the sport lobster season differ in different counties and in the protected waters of the marine national parks—bag limits range between 6 a day in Monroe County and 12 a day elsewhere—and no bagging is permitted within John Pennkamp Coral Reef State Park. For complete and up-to-date regulations, please contact the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission at 850-488-4676.

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