Key West is known for its natural beauty and peaceful environment. With its beautiful sunsets, pristine beaches, and clear waters, it’s paradise for anyone who loves getting outdoors. Additionally, Key West boasts a rich maritime and fishing heritage. Situated at the southernmost point of the Florida Keys, it’s surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. These waters provide endless opportunities making Key West a top sport fishing destination. Its warm tropical waters and diverse marine life provide ample fishing opportunities for a range of fish species. Here are the ten most popular fish to catch in Key West.
Tarpon are found in tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. With the waters surrounding Key West fitting that description it’s no surprise that tarpon thrive here. They are powerful fish known to grow up to eight feet long and be formidable fighters making them a popular target for anglers around the world.
They feed on small fish and crustaceans and are often caught using flies, artificial lures, and live bait. Tarpon are prized for the challenge of catching such a large and finicky fish. Tarpon have good eyesight and are known for their ability to see well both in and out of the water. Their eyes are large and positioned on the sides of their head, providing them with a wide field of vision. In the water, tarpon are able to detect movement at distance and are known to be attracted to flashy lures and baits. Due to their strong eyesight, tarpon are wary of anything that is out of place like fishing line or hooks. The challenge of catching one of these shallow water giants goes beyond getting them to eat. Once a tarpon is hooked they are known for acrobatic jumps and violent head shakes that can easily throw the hook.
Key West is considered an excellent tarpon fishery due to their relative abundance in nearby waters. Tarpon fishing in Key West is usually best during the spring and summer months when the fish are most active. Catching a tarpon is a big achievement and Key West is the place to be when you decide to take your shot at the silver king.
Mahi Mahi, also known as dolphinfish or dorado, is a pleagic species found around the world. Their bright colors can range from a shimmering green to a brilliant gold which make them one of the most distinct and identifiable fish. Mahi are fast and strong which create a strong fighting fish. Mahi Mahi have a round, compact body, a large mouth, and a deep forked tail. They feed on small fish and squid and are often caught using trolling methods with lures or baits. The meat of a mahi mahi is delicious with a firm texture and mild, sweet flavor. It is often used in a variety of ways from grilled and baked dishes to ceviche.
Mahi Mahi fishing in Key West is top-notch thanks to a healthy population and favorable habitat. The fertile waters of the Gulf and Atlantic near Key West attract an array of food sources for Mahi Mahi, allowing them to thrive and grow exceptionally large. Fishing for Mahi Mahi in Key West is usually best during the spring and summer months, although they can be caught year-round.
Yellowtail Snapper are known for their distinctive yellow tail, as well as their streamlined body, forked tail, and red eyes. They feed on small fish and crustaceans and are often caught using live bait or artificial lures. Yellowtail are sought after for their firm and mild meat which often has a sweet flavor.
Yellowtail Snapper fishing in Key West is great thanks to a strong population and abundant reefs. Typically yellowtail reach up to 16 inches in length but some can grow to almost three feet. Fishing for Yellowtail Snapper in Key West is usually best during the spring and summer months in water between 30 and 200 feet deep. However, yellowtail snapper are year-round residents of Key West and anglers can catch them anytime.
Permit is a species of fish in the family Carangidae which includes jacks and mackerels. They are found around the world in warmer waters. They are known for their unique appearance, with a deep, oval-shaped body, long dorsal and anal fins, and a forked tail. Permit are known for their keen senses, elusive nature, and stout fighting ability, which makes them a challenging but rewarding catch. These fish are very selective feeders and can be difficult to catch. Permit primarily feed on crustaceans in the shallow inshore flats of Key West. The clear water is perfect for sight casting with light tackle or on the fly using crab or shrimp pattern flies or artificial lures. Even with the right bait anglers have to make accurate casts and possess good presentation skills to entice a bite.
Similar to tarpon, catching a permit on the flats is a considerable accomplishment due to difficulty. While permit are a challenging and elusive fish, Key West has plenty of spots to catch them.
The king mackerel or kingfish for short, are one of the largest members of the mackerel family. They are the big brother to the Spanish mackerel but smaller than wahoo. These fish are migratory and can be found along the Atlantic Coast and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Kingfish follow warm waters and baitfish during their annual migration. Kingfish have a sleek, streamlined body, a large mouth filled with sharp teeth, and a forked tail. They feed on smaller fish, squid, and crustaceans and are often caught while trolling.
However, Key West has both of these key factors year-round. While kingfish are always around, the most popular time to target them is in the summer and fall months. During these warmer seasons, schools of kingfish can be found in nearshore waters minutes away from the dock.
Kingfish are capable of reaching 100 pounds and more than 70 inches long. These giant kingfish have earned the nickname “smokers” because of their ability to peel line off so fast that the reel starts to smoke. That being said, kingfish are more commonly caught at weights between 10 and 30 pounds.
Barracuda is a species of predatory fish that is found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world. The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean near Key West provide ideal habitat for Barracuda, allowing them to thrive and grow to impressive sizes. They are known for their long, sleek body, mouth full of teeth, and voracious predatory behavior. Barracudas are popular sportfish due to their speed and explosive bite.
Barracudas feed primarily on smaller fish, squid, and crustaceans. Barracudas are often caught sight casting brightly colored surgical tubing with treble hooks but can also be caught trolling. While barracuda meat is edible, it is often avoided due to the potential presence of a toxic substance in their flesh called Ciguatera.
Groupers are large, bottom-dwelling fish that prefer to lie and wait rather than chase their prey. These fish are also opportunistic scavengers that wont pass up an easy meal. The large mouth and powerful gills of a grouper create a vacuum that sucks prey into their mouth in the blink of an eye. Each species of grouper has a distinctive but in general their appearance is a broad, rounded body, and largemouth. Groupers feed on a variety of smaller fish, squid, and crustaceans, and are typically caught using hooks and lines or bottom fishing gear. Bottom fishing and in some cases deep dropping are the most effective methods to catch grouper.
Grouper fishing in Key West is a popular sport fishing activity for anglers looking for a delicious and challenging catch. Grouper are known for their size, strength, and tasty flesh, making them a highly sought-after fish. Fishing for Groupers in Key West is usually best during the winter and early spring months, but like most fish in Key West, they can be caught year-round.
Wahoo are aerodynamic predators known for their razor sharp teeth, zebra-stripe pattern, and blistering speed. Wahoo are the larger cousin of kingfish and are a frequent target of anglers because they are both fun to catch and great to eat.
Wahoo are very long and slender with a pointed mouth, and small fins that help them reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Its coloring is unique, generally showing a silver color with vertical blue stripes running down its sides. They feed on smaller fish, squid, and crustaceans, and are often caught trolling methods with lures or bait.
Wahoo fishing in Key West is incredible with healthy populations in both Gulf and Atlantic waters. Wahoo are known for their speed, strength, which makes these fish a handful to reel in. While wahoo are long fish that typically range from three to five feet long and about 20 pounds, these fish are capable of reaching over eight feet long and more than 100 pounds. Fishing for Wahoo in Key West is usually best during the winter months, but with fairly consistent water temperatures, there are plenty of wahoo that never leave.
Sailfish are spectacular predators that can be found in tropical waters around the world from Cabo to Key West. They get their name from the huge sail-like dorsal fin that runs down their back. Sailfish also have a long spear-like bill on their upper jaw with a blue to black coloration across their silvery body. Every year anglers travel around the world to the Florida Keys for their shot at a trophy sailfish. While sailfish are found around the world, there are only two places that can boast a year round abundance of this trophy fish: Cabo San Lucas and the Florida Coast.
Catching sailfish in Florida typically involves a variety of techniques, including trolling, kite fishing, and live bait fishing. Trolling involves pulling lures behind a moving boat to simulate prey, attracting sailfish to bite. Kite fishing involves using kites to fly baits, such as ballyhoo or pilchards, along the surface of the water, which simulates fleeing prey.
Sailfish are impressive and challenging fish to catch which is largely due to their size. These fish commonly reach six feet long but can top out at more than ten feet long and well over 200 pounds. Additionally, sailfish are the fastest fish in the world capable of swimming at speeds of almost 70 miles per hour. Once hooked, sailfish are known to take to the air with amazing acrobatic jumps as they try to throw the hook. Add all of this together and it’s easy to see why catching a sailfish is so difficult but why so many anglers pursue them. Fishing for Sailfish in the Florida Keys is usually best during the early winter and early spring months.
Marlin are massive predators that patrol the open oceans of the world, and in many circles, are considered the ultimate sportfish. They are known for their long bills and unbelievable size, , and brute strength. These fish are typically found deep waters and feed on squid, crustaceans, and other fish.
Marlin are gorgeous fish known for their flash sides and blue/black color down their back. Their beauty has made them a popular symbol of marine life and the sportfishing industry.
Marlin fishing in the Florida Keys is great, with two species to target which are blue marlin and white marlin. The warm deep currents near the Florida Keys provide the ideal hunting grounds for these behemoths. Marlin are the largest sportfish in the world with white marlin being the smaller species and generally topping out around six feet long and 150 pounds. Blue marlin, on the other hand, reach a maximum length of about 12 feet and can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. Fighting a blue marlin can take hours and usually requires help from the captain and crew. Fishing for marlin in the Florida Keys is usually best during the summer and fall months, although they can be caught year-round. With the help of experienced fishing guides, anglers can increase their chances of catching a marlin and experience the thrill of fighting these powerful fish.
Whether you’re an experienced angler or just getting started, Key West provides a thrilling fishing experience. For everything from bucket list tarpon trips to nonstop action trolling for wahoo, check out our Key West Fishing Charters for your next adventure.
Updated on February 13, 2023
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