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key west tuna

Key West is a rare place where you can burn through a bucket list or catch a personal record with just a short trip. Being the furthest west of all the Florida Keys puts it in the perfect position to take advantage of the best fishing grounds in all directions. The deep sea fishing in Key West was first made famous by Ernest Hemingway who spent a lot of time fishing the waters between Key West and Cuba which he referred to as “the great blue river.” The tropical weather, over 125 miles of islands, and seemingly endless ocean make Key West a bucket list fishing spot for every angler.

The north shore of Key West has been used by anglers since the 1700s as a meeting place for seasonal fishing. Key West transformed over the years to meet the needs of the turtling, shrimping, and fishing industries that thrived here. While the shrimp and turtle harvests have stopped, the incredible fishing is still going strong.

Landscape of Key West

The Keys are a string of coral islands off the southern point of Florida and are in the perfect location for world-class sport fishing in all directions. Easy access to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean makes Key West a great spot to catch a wide variety of fish. Key West is far enough south that the weather is always warm and the coral sand beaches make it a tropical island paradise year-round.

The Keys include other popular fishing destinations like Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key, Key Largo, and many more. Over time these islands have earned a reputation for having some of the best fishing in the world and adopted the title of the “Fishing Capital of the World.”

The Keys also happen to be located near the edge of the Florida platform which is an underwater plateau that supports the state’s landmass. Where the plateau ends, the seafloor drops off quickly giving Key West easy access to deep water and the giant fish that live there.

key west snapper

Key West Deep Sea Fishing Target Species

Reef Fish in Key West

There is an array of offshore reefs close to Key West where you can catch species including mahi-mahi, grouper, and various snapper species. Other popular and sometimes deeper reef-dwelling species like cobia and amberjack are on patrol in these waters and hit like a train when they bite.

Open Water Fish in Key West

Wahoo and kingfish are popular open water fish that tend to spend most of their time on the outer edge of deep ocean reefs. These fish are distant cousins but still share a long lean build and blistering top speeds. These fish can make your reel smoke on a good run and will definitely be the fastest fish you ever catch.

Tuna prefer to hang around deep water drop-offs found along the edge of the Florida Platform and other deep structures. The most common tuna species caught in Key West is the blackfin tuna but occasionally yellowfin are brought in as well.

Marlin and sailfish are found in deep water wherever they can find baitfish to feed on. Deepwater ledges, wrecks, and other structures will usually hold one of these giant predators, and trolling is a great way to catch them. With the incredible size, speed, and stamina that marlin and sail have, fights generally last a long time sometimes up to several hours.

Popular Key West Offshore Fishing Spots

Dry Tortugas

Located 75 miles West of Key West, Dry Tortugas is home to amazing sportfishing, gorgeous coral reefs, and a ton of ocean research. Sometimes to find the biggest fish you have to head to remote areas and this is one of the best places to do that. Dry Tortugas are home to a variety of fish, some of which are fun to catch and others are food for the big pelagic species.

The Marathon Humps

Only 20 miles south from Marathon Key but still accessible from Key West, the Marathon humps are a series of peaks and valleys ranging from about 1100 ft to 450ft below the surface. This underwater formation is almost in the middle of the Gulfstream and has some of the best tuna fishing in the Keys. Jigging and trolling are the two most popular techniques for catching tuna at the humps.

The Wall

If you are after a giant blue marlin then head 20 miles south of Key West to the wall. You will know you are there when the depth drops from around 900ft to 2000ft. This deep water on the edge of the continental shelf is some of the most famous marlin fishing grounds in the world. Competitive anglers come here every year to try and catch the biggest blue marlin which is easier said than done.

When to Go Deep Sea Fishing in Key West

People frequently say that the Florida Keys have no seasons, and while that may be more accurate on land or in shallow waters, deep sea fishing certainly has seasons. These fish are in tune with ocean currents and not air temps so our environments have very little in common.

The winter deep sea fishing in Key West has a strong bite for kingfish, cobia, grouper, and amberjack. While wahoo are still present in some areas, they are generally slowing down. Heading into spring almost every species is fired up with marlin, cobia, amberjack, blackfin, and sailfish all crushing bait. As spring leads to summer mahi-mahi, marlin, snapper, and grouper come on strong and are feeding heavily until the beginning of fall.

Wahoo are explosive in the middle of summer then disappear again until winter. Cooling down going into fall marlin, blackfin, and kingfish are still going strong. Also during the fall grouper, snapper, mahi-mahi, and sailfish are around but are either cooling down or heating up but not quite at their peak bite.

Other Types of Fishing in Key West:

Inshore and Nearshore Fishing Key West

The line between inshore nearshore and offshore fishing is usually more clear but with so many special circumstances it gets tricky. Inshore and nearshore have been fused into one category because some of the big offshore species can be found close to shore.

key west flats fishing

While there are a ton of deep sea fishing options, Key West has a lot more to offer. Tarpon or “the Silver King” seems to be on almost every angler’s bucket list and for good reason. These picky eaters grow to be massive and fight hard with long leaping runs. Permit and bonefish are also popular in shallow waters and all three are popular with fly fishing enthusiasts as well as those that prefer traditional tackle.

In only slightly deeper water, a variety of snapper species, grouper, sharks, and even barracuda can be found. For snapper, grouper, and sharks bottom fishing is the most effective and is also a great way to spend a day on the water. Barracuda, on the other hand, are usually targeted with barracuda rigs made of surgical tubing and treble hooks fished near the surface. The diversity of fish here is hard to beat and makes for some of the best fishing in the world.

Key West Sunset

Things to Do in Key West

Just as much of a tourist destination as a prime fishing spot, Key West is full of activities for your time spent on land. Ernest Hemingway lived in at least in part in Key West and spent much of his time out fishing. Now his old house has been turned into a museum and is an interesting stop for everyone, whether they have read his work or not.

The cannery was once a central industrial center for the island, but now it’s quiet. This old processing facility has served many purposes over the years. Today, it is also a museum that shows the unique history of the industries that used to operate here.

As you would expect, this tourist hotspot has an abundance of places to eat and drink. At the very least, you will not go to sleep hungry—the opposite is more likely to be true. One of the best places to check out for some good eats is Seaside Cafe at the Maison, where they are famous for their fresh seafood. With so many options to choose from, a great meal or beverage is always just around the corner no matter where you are in Key West.