Inshore Fishing in Key West


Key West is known for vacations and good times. Tourists travel throughout the year to the Florida Keys and explore the most southern part of the United States. But did you know that there’s a whole other group traveling to Key West? Fishermen and women dreaming of bent rods and reeling in monster-sized fish for some of the best fishing in the world. And while there are a ton of different types of fishing found here: reef fishing, wreck fishing and offshore fishing to name a few, don’t overlook the inshore possibilities of Key West.

Key West Inshore Fishing

To the west and north of are some of the most unique fish habitats ever discovered. It’s known simply as the “backcountry” to anglers, but they are actually two National Wildlife Refuges: Key West & Great White Heron. Here the mangrove islands grow and provide shallow waters that inshore species thrive in.

There are also channels with various depths throughout the backcountry that offer great fishing. And two nearby harbors, Man of War Harbor and Key West Harbor, are 26 and 34 feet deep respecitvely. So whether you’re looking for shallow or deeper waters, you’ll find what you’re looking for in just a short drive from the dock.

Some popular inshore species around Florida include redfish, spotted seatrout, snook, trout, permit, bonefish, tarpon, and snook. There are regulations protecting the populations of these species, so we recommend whatever you do find at the end of your line, gently release it back into the water. The backcountry is basically a grocery store of options when looking to hook an inshore species. You could catch a variety in just one trip by moving around to various spots; or anchor yourself and try your hand at catching one particular species. Either way, you’re sure to have a great day of fishing!

One of the best parts about fishing in Key West is the weather. The subtropical climate allows anglers to go fishing twelve months of the year (storms and hurricanes permitting). Although winter months may shut down fishing in the midwest and northern states, it’s just getting hot for Key West anglers. The redfish, in particular, show up in great numbers from October to March. As the weather warms up, anglers get ready to target the silver king (aka tarpon).

Fishing for Redfish in Key West

As the tides move in and out around the mangrove islands, the redfish population follows. When the waters are shallow enough, anglers are able to “tail” redfish. This simply means sight fishing and watching the waters as the fish’s back and tail break the surface of the water. When they are schooling and showing up in good numbers, there’s even a chance that the water has a slight red tint.

Fish with a shrimp or crab as bait (cut or live) and the redfish can’t resist. Redfish are a bronze/gold colored fish with a distinct black dot (or dots) near the tail. They can grow over 40”, but around Key West the average size is about 22”. The species is protected, so catch-and-release is required for any landed fish. Just take a quick photo of your achievement, then safely release for another day’s fight.

Lighter tackle can be used for a more sporting fight. Anglers looking to target reds on artificials will typically be tying on a gold spoon or paddletail softbait on a jighead. 

Fishing for Tarpon in Key West

Key West Juvenile Tarpon

Another popular inshore species found in Key West is tarpon, or the silver king. This species is silver and fast, and keeps anglers coming back for more and more. Many anglers will attempt fly fishing for tarpon in Key West waters. This technique takes a lot of practice, and your presentation is key. If the fly lands too close to the school of tarpon, you’ll scare them away; too far and they won’t see the opportunity. Fish the channels and tidal pools of Key West for tarpon, and get ready for an exciting day of bent rods.

The tarpon's tendency to "roll" on the water's surface makes sightfishing a popular technique. Anglers looking to use conventional tackle over a fly setup will bait up with live crab, pinfish, or a big swimbait if going the artifical route. If using live bait, a 6/0-7/0 circle hook is recommended. A 4500 spinning reel is typically the smallest size you can get away with (5000-6000 is recommended), spooled up with 40# braid with a heavy fluorocarbon leader. 

The silver king is easily spooked, difficult to hook, and even harder to land. What’s not to love about tarpon fishing?! Tarpon are also known for their acrobatics, jumping and thrashing to throw the hook. This is often when an angler will lose a fish and talk for days (years?) about “the one that got away.”

Derived from the tarpon's nickname, Silver King, anglers have a saying to keep a leaping tarpon hooked; "Bow to the king." As the tarpon takes flight, slightly bend forward and point the rod tip towards the fish. This releases tension on the line, and reduces the likelihood of the angler inadvertently pulling a loose hook out of the fish's mouth while it thrashes, or breaking the line. 

If you do manage to land a tarpon, and it’s over 40”, keep it in the water for your photo opportunity and then gently unhook and release (per Florida’s regulations). At least you’ll have photographic proof of your conquest, and your fish story lives on.

Your Next Key West Inshore Fishing Trip

If you’re heading to Key West for vacation, consider adding an inshore excursion to the itinerary. There are local guides that have everything ready for you, and this is a great trip for families with young or inexperienced anglers. Trips are typically four or eight hours long, and you’ll see a lot more casting and reeling on an inshore trip (compared to a deep sea, offshore trip).

You can search and book online, and reserve your trip with a deposit to save the date. And you’ll want to reserve early, Key West guides have their schedules book up fast, especially those summer dates. So book now, and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime!

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