Key West Allure: Stellar Fishing at any Depth with a Dose of Artistic Attitude

Target reefs, wrecks, backcountry or blue water by day and stay for unique attractions and entertainment.

Key West, the island that bills itself as “Close to Perfect — Far from Normal,” delivers elite inshore and offshore fishing opportunities as well as unique experiences — from a treasure museum to a sunset circus of local talent.

Anglers netting bait
A good day of Florida Keys fishing often starts with netting live bait. Kevin Falvey

In fact, Key West fishing brought Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway to the island. His former home now serves as a popular historic attraction. Once Hemingway finished writing his self-imposed daily minimum of 1,000 words, he hopped aboard his boat Pilar to chase dolphin, blackfin and yellowfin tuna, sailfish, sharks and blue marlin, among other species.

Anglers who prefer to fish the reefs surrounding Key West can catch some of the biggest yellowtail, mangrove and mutton snapper in all of Florida, as well as grouper, cobia, king and cero mackerel. Shipwrecks on the Gulf of Mexico side of the island also offer outstanding bottomfishing. Several charter-fishing boats feature overnight, multiday trips to the Dry Tortugas islands, 70 miles west of Key West, where the pristine waters deliver grouper, snapper, kingfish, sailfish, dolphin and tuna.

Angler holding up red snapper
Bottomfishing the many reefs and wrecks in the Florida Keys gifts anglers with a multitude of tasty, hard-fighting species, such as this mutton snapper. Scott Salyers

Fishing on the shallow backcountry flats around Key West tops the bucket list for anglers hunting a grand slam — bonefish, tarpon and permit — on spin or fly tackle, from early spring through fall.

Visiting anglers easily schedule their trips to target favored species. King mackerel migrate to the region from December through March. Tournaments such as Key West’s Kingfish Mayhem in mid-January attract anglers from throughout the Southeast. On a broader scale, the Key West Fishing Tournament — December through July — awards certificates and prizes to anglers of all ages for more than 40 different fish species.

Fishing for dolphin and blue marlin peaks from mid-spring through mid-fall. Tournaments abound for both species and include the Stock Island Marina Village Key West Marlin Tournament, July 20-23. The event, which pays $25,000 to the top team, coincides with the island’s Hemingway Days festival, highlighted by an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest.

Billfish being released
Billfish, like this sailfish, are released to fight another day…and to ensure more angling opportunities. Scott Salyers

Given all its great fishing, Key West naturally presents prime snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities. Numerous charter services ferry visitors to coral reefs loaded with marine life and to submerged ships that were deliberately scuttled to create artificial reefs. In fact, the nearby Vandenberg, a 524-foot former missile-tracking ship, can claim title as the world’s second largest vessel ever purposely sunk to create a reef. Divers have documented more than 100 species of fish on the ship, including parrotfish, hogfish and barracuda.

Back on land, enhance your visit with family friendly attractions such as the Key West Aquarium and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which features treasure salvaged from shipwrecked Spanish galleons. The sunset celebrations at the waterfront Mallory Square — full of magicians, musicians and other performers — delight crowds every evening. Follow that up with dinner at one of the island’s award-winning restaurants and a good night’s sleep at a full-service resort or guest house in the older part of the town, and uncover renewed energy for the next day’s adventures.