off Marathon Key, FL 30th June 2019

Wed Jul 10, 2019 1:57 pm


Shore Options on or near Marathon Key

You don't need a boat to fish here, but it definitely helps. For fish, all we had to do was cross the road... or head down to Vaca Cut Bridge. More on this later.

The docks were unsurprisingly out of bounds. My yellow 6-gram metal spoons were a serious hit with local small Barracuda. Small grilled ‘cuda is excellent and became so popular for breakfast that we ended up firing lures at every dusk – but wading was tricky. Don’t eat the big ones – they will have ciguatera poisoning (which they acquire over time from eating venomous fish off the reefs). Ciguatera can make you extremely sick (and even kill) - to be avoided. All Barracudas are covered with a layer of smile, very similar to mackerel. Remove the slime and you are killing the fish… so don’t handle them at all but if you must, wet your hands first. And watch the teeth!

Back to the fish: - the area is shallow and the rocks viciously sharp. That said, the boots were dry by morning. You have to crank the lures in at top speed to get hit by ’cudas. The best lures for cudas are tubular yellow and green things on a wire mount with a single treble. You have to absolutely rip them in to get their attention.

A nice alternative is the Sunset Park, a public beach that gives anglers access to the deep (busy) Vaca Cut channel. The Vaca Cut bridge is a teenage Tarpon hangout after dark, with fish mostly in the 10-15 kilo mark. Juveniles by local standards. :shock: If you don’t fancy trying for them with soft plastics on a jig head, take the Sadowski causeway and head south west to the corner at Sandy Point. This is best done again after sundown when the boat traffic and people on the beach are both in decline or gone altogether. Another daytime option is the superb Curry Hammock State Park just east on Little Crawl Key. This offers access to a far quieter cut, deep lagoon and tons of wade-able oceanic flats. I think I have covered this already in one of the other posts?

Wind is key, no pun intended. The good news is that it’s at its slackest in the summer, rarely above 10 knots, the bad news is that the air temperature goes over 30 C every day. If you are hitting the keys outside the high summer, pay very careful attention to the wind on It has superb forecasting and historical data for everywhere... and most of the reports are free.

Renting a Boat

On ‘our’ morning the boat ramp had bats whipping around in the pink dawn. Stunning. Our 18’ angler boat had flat decks and a 100 HP engine. My eldest son slapped down his dollars but owing to those Pleasure Water Craft rules, I had to drive my ‘birthday present’. Day rates are barely more than half day rates due to potential for afternoon squalls. We splashed out on proper live bait – pinfish and shrimp – and hired heavy duty rods and reels, which we didn’t use, to our great regret.

100 HP is lots of power but (a) fuel is expensive (which is odd since gasoline for the car was 50 cent a litre!) (b) the Keys are littered with boat killing shoals and (c) it is heavily policed. Excellent instruction had us primed on the engines, controls, bait wells, VHF sounder, air horn and life jackets. I coached the boys on the way out - both are qualified lifeguards but you always needa plan B. Behind the Keys lies the famed ‘backcountry’, a shallow feast of flats, akin to the Indian Lagoon, where anyone in a flat bottomed boat would happily wander for days… if only your crew knew where to go fishing. I am told that the area around Sugarloaf Key is one of the best general areas to visit, but it is quite… vast! We didn’t have a clue so we hit the northern / Gulf / backcountry side of the Channel Five bridge. Our boat coast USD 170.

The tides in the Florida Keys are lethal; - they can have multiple tides competing or loading up on each other. Whilst the tides are generally very small, if these multiple tides pile up on each other, these “king” tides not surprisingly very productive for shore and boat anglers. The intention was to target species like Tripletails on the run back. If the weather obliged, we had seaward marks ready, where there was hope of finding really big Snapper. Muttons.

Permit Tactics:

Permit and Bonefish are the two species you hear mentioned when people are talking about the skinny water – what we call low tide. The thing is, they are happy to move into the shallowest of waters (with their fins sticking out) even in full daylight. If you are wading, they are the only species you will find, beyond an odd small barracuda.

A big solitary Permit will cruise the shallow flats seeking out crabs and crustaceans – you can spot their dorsal fins and tails sticking out. In this mode Permit can be ultra-suspicious and will rip away from you. Locating them and then casting to them in ultra-clear shallow water is no mean feat. Even then, Permit will ignore lures and flies, even when dropped daintily on their noses. They only move in on account of all the food in the form of crabs, shrimps and other crustaceans. Sand fleas are an important food item on surf beaches and will often see Permit shoal in shallow water inside bars. Free lining live baits ahead of their patrol is your best option. Stay out of the water if possible. The shoals can attract big predators including barracudas and sharks. In a school Permit can become ultra-aggressive and are known to have attacked wading anglers and inflicted nasty bites with those crushing teeth – a fact rarely acknowledged but apparently true. Either way, Permit will put up a long, stubborn fight, always running deep. Most schools fish are small, up to a few kilos, but the loners can be genuine monsters.

Q: How do you know you have hooked a Permit?
A: If it were anything else, you would have it landed by now!

Ok, so, back to the fishing…

Permit have excellent eyesight so look to use fluorocarbon, the absolute minimum of tackle such as swivels and ideally dark hooks hidden as completely as possible in your crab bait. Knowing that they love crab, we forget to buy any at all! Feck me. And we only realized this when 30 minutes motoring out from the tackle shop beside the quay! Did we see a rafts of sargassum where swimming crabs hide and can be gathered… but all was not lost. Shrimp are a great all-rounder.

Fishing under the Bridges

You can head or tail hook shrimp. Tail hooked shrimp cast better (and stay alive longer). Three shrimp, tail hooked on small Gamakatsu bronzed circle hooks and hooped in with biodegradable thread were cast into the deeper scours near the pilings. Boom! Boom! Boom! Triple hook up!

Advice - keep the fish off the pilings. I got whipped around one with a lightning fast unstoppable run. Was that a Permit? The boys laughed; Mangroves and Schoolteacher Snapper came aboard with the boys unable to resist naming them - who’d be a teacher! When it died, we shifted a span left and we were into fish, albeit not many keepers. Snappers are superb bait thieves, better even than Wrasse, so it’s not shooting fish in a barrel.

There were some Grunts and a few other odds and ends in there too – photos to follow. Again we found Atlantic Spadefish, never heard of them before but they shoal and are damn aggressive. Fight like small Permit too, great fun on light tackle.

The bridges’ shadows are critical. Free line a whole live bait, cast ahead of the current to let it drift back into those shadows. The less weight the better but if you want to target Snook get it down faster. Again we were using the local ‘knocker’ rig – a single heavy drilled bullet lead (up to 125 grams) above a circle hook, free to run up the leader, in essence the same as the Texas rig used for Bass but bulked up for saltwater and the currents here. This casts well, drops the bait fast but leaves the live bait free to panic. Top of the water, behind a float rather than a bullet, is Tarpon country, as fickle as our Mullet… and just the twenty times larger. Fickle as ....

You really do need to know what species you have hooked. The bottom especially around the bridges can be really filthy, full of snags and debris and worse, so keep that rod upright, keep the fish up off that bottom or you’re in trouble. The possible exception is the Tarpon, but more on that later… If you want to have a crack at Tarpon locally buy a red nosed Zara Spook from Heddon (X925). You will do better in low or artificial light conditions (docks and bridges) but I’m told they work in daylight too.
We waved to anglers high up on the bridge and agreed to try sighting fish. A nice tip for the heat: - anchor in one bridge’s shade to fish down tide into the next. We swung quietly into Long Key Bight. The bridges can get really busy and fouled up with sports boat hunting Tarpon. Frankly we saw more than a few ‘skippers’ who, given the adrenaline of a Tarpon on the line, slammed their boats around like lunatics, screaming around the bridge pilings, engines roaring. This is showing my age, isn't it?

A really nice Mutton Snapper fell to Eoin’s shrimp, prized but sadly short of the 18-inch minimum size. This is a beautifully coloured fish, just glorious, running to almost every shade in the rainbow. We had a bad day on the snappers, landed tons of them, the vast majority below the slot sizes.

Cathal’s pinfish, hooked in the nose on a 2/0 bronzed circle, brings in a spectacularly ugly thing, a devil spawn cross between an anglerfish and a scorpionfish. No one wanted to touch it. We were warned about several species, including a common yellow and blue species - the scrawled boxfish - notorious for fearsome triggerfish like biting teeth. Trust me I wasn’t going anywhere near this brutish ugly thing without heavy duty gloves and a long nosed pliers. Many species hold poison in surgical spines.
Pinfish baits deter the smaller fish but you will get far fewer bites. We motored out to a seaward drop off. Most of the rental boats have a sounder, but do check and that it is working properly. Tarpon will rest on the bottom, waiting for food to swim past but we hit very unpleasant wind against wave and current action, making our boat start to corkscrew. With no action, increasingly lumpy water and the beginnings of seasickness, we ran back to a 50-metre-wide deep channel beside Pigeon Key.

Drink water. Slap sun block. Rinse and repeat. The heat! Do this or pay a very severe price later. The UV resistant hoodies were gold. We would have been scalded.


So you need to shake the big frozen block of chum every so often to keep the trail going and this will collect bait fish and then predators in the fish scented trail behind your boat in the current… one local tactic that works well is called sand balling. Mince up frozen ballyhoo, real fine, and add it to sand. Add some oatmeal if you want. Next take your jig head and add a shrimp or similar bait and enclose it fully in a ball of fishy sand. The consistency should be slightly gluey so that it sticks together. You can even wrap your fluorocarbon around the jig head and bait enclosed sand ball, and with the bail arm open and line spooling freely, lob the sand ball into the current downstream. Carefully feed out the line, being ready for the hit. Works especially well on snapper like yellowtail and mangroves… especially the smaller ones! :x

Anchored off the pedestrian bridge we float fished pinfish and shrimp into its shadow band. Strictly speaking you’re not allowed anchor under a bridge or in any shipping channel. Literally minutes after the tide turns, Eoin lands a stonking Crevalle Jack of six kilos. We didn’t realise they got that big – it’s a serious chunk. Cathal is so ‘sick of Snapper’ (a first world problem) he switches to metal lures and gets an instant strike off a Barracuda. It flips off. Everything jumps out here. I swap rods with Eoin and bait up sabikis to species hunt swarms of bait fish under our boat but only succeed in landing a beautifully coloured blue grunt’s head… We finally boat Barracudas thanks to those tube lures. The teeth on them! Cathal opts to free line a shrimp again. Eoin casts a pinfish on a knocker rig towards the bridge, now well up tide of us.

Cathal lands a Yellowtail Snapper, under sized. Eoin is hollering - a fish is stripping him off full drag. It’s headed for the bridge. We lift anchor, haul after it and catch up to a large stingray. A metre across, it is heading for the open sea. Thankfully a knot fails and for once, we’re happy about my crap knot tying skills. A nice tip given to me by one of the SWFF people - predators often follow rays as their wings disturb the sand – it’s always worth a cast if you spot one or more rays travelling along...

Out in the ocean, given we’re there now, three pinfish get dropped into the deep. We’re huddled in the scorching shade of the Bimini. A small nurse shark is landed but the tide has gone slack. At the bridge, an excited guy is landing a decent Permit. They had fun getting it in the drop net. The boys agree to another Permit session but a half an hour later, their patience is fried by the heat and little action beyond a few more undersized Snappers and Grunts.

Did I mention the heat? Bring more water than you need… then double that. Twice. Bring salty crisps (chips locally) to help reduce your water loss. It’s blisteringly hot. Even the wind is hot. And remember that here their chips are our crisps and our chips are their french fries... if ya seen what I mean!

In search of Tripletails

A kilometre north of Islamorada, we’re holding off a buoy at Crab Key, casting various kinds of shrimp. The boys have them hooked in the head, under a clear bubble float on a one metre drop. They cast upwind to drift them back to the buoy. We can see Tripletails under the buoy but Jacks are gobbling the baits. Finally, Cathal lands a decent Tripletail on a FireTail shrimp lure. He’s done really well today (for all his mock complaining). Eoin is shouting as a spray of bait fish detonates to our left. Our last pinfish are up. Eoin is in and then he is not - he got too excited and struck using a circle hook. He is re-baiting as Cathal bends into a fine fish, zig zagging and carving around. Eoin is in too. Muggins here - for his birthday present, how did that work? - is on the wheel. Eoin lands another big Crevalle Jack. Jacks fight like supersized mackerel – if we had them in northern Europe, we would probably fish for nothing else. Cathal loses another nice fish.

Then Eoin is hollering at me again, gesticulating wildly… There’s a broad flash of back amid a spiking terrified baitfish shoal. Cue scrambling for the live well whilst I’m trying to figure an intercept course, except now they are all scudding and scrambling all around us. Its crazy stuff. Birds have appeared from nowhere. Two large ocean going sports fishers have hauled up behind us, presumably following the birds. An explosion of bait fish behind us has the two boys whip casting out pinfish.

The tension is palpable.

Cathal screams ‘FISH ON’. I can’t print what Eoin shouted back...

Cathal is reciting OMG as his fish runs. As the first run stops, he tightens up and hits it, three times. Good technique. There is this split second moment of pure silence. Of dread. Of terror. Then line is ripping off like a miniature tornado. It’s incredible to watch! We have never seen anything like it… it's rocketing out… a screaming blur.

There’s an eruption off to starboard. TARPON! I can hear distant whoops from another boat.

Cathal is skittering around the boat, ‘praying’ loudly, trying to stay in contact, so near panicking that I grab hold of his T-shirt with my free hand. He settles into his fight, keeping the hooping rod up as best he can. The line is screaming off his reel during these prodigious runs. There’s a big roll followed by a wild shaking leap. He dips the rod towards his Silver King. The line continues to hiss off the reel…

Then… It’s gone.

Even his older brother knows not to say anything!!!

It’s only then we realized that we got so excited we forget to take any photos.

Well, it was over that quick…

The hard truth is that most Tarpon escape. We had the wrong rods – the leader was too light. Use 35 kilo, at least. They can go over 100 kilos in weight. The sea has returned to a flat calm. Not a ripple. A few seated birds. A few sparkling scales, drifting aimlessly. How did that happen? I’m exhausted. It’s the heat.

Cathal is slumped near the back seat. Eoin is still optimistically scanning the waters but it is late. My phone is chirping. Its time to head back.

Let me say this... if you are an angler, beg, borrow, rob a bank, blow your pension pot if you have one... but you absolutely have to try this someday.

Re: off Marathon Key, FL 30th June 2019

Wed Jul 10, 2019 9:25 pm

Excellent report Kieran thanks.

As the late Gerry Ryan used to say, "great story and well told"!