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Vol 47 | Num 21 | Sep 21, 2022

Offshore Report Ocean City Report Delaware Report Virginia Report Chum Lines Ship to Shore The Galley Issue Photos
Chum Lines

Article by Capt. Mark Sampson

As you’re flipping around this - the last issue of the Coastal Fisherman for the 2022 season, you might notice that the “Shark School” ad I run for my Ocean City charter boat “Fish Finder” has been replaced with a promotion for the fishing trips we run down in the Lower Florida Keys in the late winter and early spring. You’ll also notice that at 17-feet, the boat I run down there is substantially smaller than the 40-foot boat I drive up here.

Yeah, it’s a very different deal down there from what we do here on Delmarva. Different type of boat, techniques, different tackle, different waters, different scenery and of course a whole lot of different fish than what we have up here. In fact, people who have never done it are always asking me about what that type of fishing is like and how it compares to what we have up here. But fishing in the backcountry of the Florida Keys is so dramatically different from anything that’s done here on Delmarva that there’s really nothing to compare it to, so let me run through some highlights of a typical trip to give interested parties an idea about what a flats fishing trip can be like.

The backcountry waters of the Lower Keys is a maze of uninhabited mangrove islands many of which have no solid ground but are simply mangroves trees growing out of the water. Some of the larger islands will have solid ground in their interior portions but much of that is only exposed during low tides. Solid ground or not, the nice thing about having so many islands is that they provide a lot of sheltered water to fish over when the wind is blowing hard. And we certainly get our share of windy days down there! But because of all the islands, we can just about always find protected places to fish, and it’s pretty rare that we get “blown out” from fishing altogether.

Besides the mangrove islands, the backcountry waters are one huge chunk of shallow water flats that are broken up by a spider web of relatively shallow (5-12 foot deep) channels. The composition of the bottom might be soft mud, hard mud, hard sand, soft white sand, hard rock-like limestone, or coral reef. The bottom might be covered with sponges, grass, hard and soft corals, rocks, shells, or any combination of all. On an average low tide, parts of some flats will be out of the water while others areas might be up to three feet deep.

So when we're actually up on a flat we will usually be in 1-3 feet of water, which is plenty deep enough to float the boat and shallow enough to be able to see our quarry.

Prior to a trip I'll be in touch with the clients to get an idea about who and how many will be coming. Since the boat is small I can only take two anglers and it's helpful to have an idea about the experience and skill levels of any men, women, or children who will be coming along. Have they done this type of file before? Do they wish to use spinning or fly tackle? Will they be bringing any of their own tackle? How much casting experience do they have? What hand do they prefer to cast with and crank the reel with? Is there a specific type of fish they would really like to catch? Knowing those kinds of details allows me to meet the specific needs of the anglers and ensure that the boat will be equipped with the proper bait and tackle to target the fish we hope to catch.

By keeping the boat on its trailer every night we have the flexibility of launching each day at whatever boat ramp will put us closest to the areas we wish to fish. Therefore, after looking at the latest weather predictions and tide schedules we can put together a plan of where and when to meet the anglers. We'll usually launch somewhere between Big Pine Key and Key West, and meet up at the boat ramp.

Because most of what we do is "sight fishing" and we need the sun to be up high enough that we can see into the water without the glare, there's seldom an advantage to heading out at first light, so we usually depart somewhere between 8am and 10am depending upon how the tides are working that day.

After departing from the ramp, we'll typically run 2-6 miles to where we start fishing. The trip out will probably have us weaving around and between islands, through cuts in the flats and across various channels. The backcountry is vast so we won't likely see a lot of other boats along the way, and as we approach a flat we're going to fish, we'll shut down well before it so as not to spook fish that might be on it. We'll also try to approach from a direction that will have the sun, and hopefully the wind, at our backs. I'll shut the engine off, tilt the motor, grab the 22-foot push-pole and hop up on the poling platform as the anglers step up on the casting platform at the bow. Then the hunt begins!

The boat has storage for eight rods, and if we're spin-fishing we'll have that many aboard, all rigged and ready for just about any size and type of fish we might encounter. The lightest rods will be set up for bonefish and small barracuda. Slightly heavier rods will be rigged for permit and very small sharks. The next rod size up will be rigged with poppers for jacks and big barracuda and something to throw to medium size tarpon. Finally, two heavy spinners will be rigged for large sharks and big tarpon.
As we hunt a flat, the anglers up on the bow will be scanning the water ahead for any signs of life as I do so from the elevated platform behind them. If I spot the fish first I'll call out the direction (2-o'clock, 10-o'clock etc.) distance from the boat (in yards) and probably the direction the fish is facing so the angler will know just where to place the cast. As I start maneuvering the boat to have us in the best position for the cast, I'll also make sure the angler has selected the right rod to cast to that particular fish so no one makes the mistake of casting a tarpon bait to a bonefish or a shark bait to a barracuda!
Depending upon where we are, what type of fish we expect might be in the area and the state of the tide, we might sometimes anchor or stake-out the boat for a little while so that we can hold in one area and let the fish come to us. But we seldom stay on one flat for very long before it's time to pick up and run for another that might be more favorable with the changing tide. Such a move might take us a few hundred yards or a few miles away.

Besides the beauty of the clear waters and the many islands they surround, the most intriguing attribute of fishing the backcountry is witnessing and sometimes hooking into the incredible diversity of size and type of fish that can be encountered in less than 3-feet of water. From 6-pound bonefish to 100-pound tarpon, hefty jack's that will readily attack a surface popper to sharks so big you might seriously start to think that we might "need a bigger boat", 4-foot barracuda, permit, redfish, snapper - some or all of these fish (and more) might be encountered on any given trip.

Of course, standing for hours on the bow of a boat under a hot Florida sun is not for everyone, and like most other types of fishing, patience is a necessity ingredient. His type of fishing also requires a lot of preparation (my job) and a level of constant vigilance by the anglers, so that when they hear "Three bonefish, 11 o'clock, 20-yards, moving left!" They can react quickly to spot the fish, fire off a cast, and seal the deal. It's so dramatically different from any type of fishing we do up here on Delmarva that I would encourage anyone who might find themselves in the Florida Keys this winter to hire a flats fishing guide and give it a try. This may be the last issue of the year for the Coastal Fisherman but the season is far from over, and I hope that all Delmarva anglers are able to finish strong and end up with more than just a few fillets in their freezer. And if you find yourself needing a break from shoveling snow this winter, keep in mind that there's a very unique experience waiting in the shallow waters of the Florida Keys. §

Coastal Fisherman Merch
CF Merch



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