Rigid Flexibility: An oxymoron that very well describes what it often takes to have a successful trip when fishing keys waters in the fall.
Fall in the Keys is a time of transition. The summer fish are on the way out and the winter fish are moving in. Most fish that are considered seasonal can be found to some extent at any given time of the year. The good news is that you can find most species of keys fish in the fall. The bad news is that you may not be able to find them in the numbers that they may be found in during their prime season. The fish that are found outside of there normal season are often referred to as local fish. For example Dolphin are usually referred to as a summer fish. However given a few days of east or southeast breezes you are very likely to find them crossing the stream and foraging outside of the reef, even in January. Inversely Sailfish which are usually thought of as a winter fish can be caught in the middle of summer, usually however, farther out than their normal near reef haunt. Grouper are another prime example of fish that are thought of as seasonal. Most grouper are caught in the keys in the winter on the shallow patch reefs where it is easier to pry them away from their hiding places; however you can still find plenty of fish in the summer just a few hundred yards away by targeting the deep reefs and deep wrecks where the water is a little cooler.
Many of the fish that are found in keys waters are considered migratory, like dolphin, mackerel, sailfish and tarpon. Many come to the keys to visit but like human visitors, some find it to their liking, and opt to stay indefinitely. Some fish, like tarpon, are usually considered migratory. Big fish move in, in great numbers starting in the late winter. There are however local fish found here year round. The local fish will tend to be a little smaller than their migrating counterparts. Look for them where they find large amounts of food like Key West Harbor , and in warmer areas of the flats like around under cuts around mangrove islands. The weather doujour will have a lot to do with which species of fish will be the most cooperative. Winter conditions, winter fish, summer conditions summer fish, should be the rule of thumb. Putting all of your eggs in one basket is never a great idea. By keeping flexible, and prepared for several types of fishing, you will be able to cut your losses if one type of fish is not cooperating. Keep a variety of bait and tackle on the boat and be able to stop beating a dead horse early and change game plans. If the fish are not biting offshore try a wreck, if the fish are not cooperating there, go to the reef.
To determine what to start your day targeting, it is often helpful to go to your local tackle shop and ask what has been brought in the last few days. Listen to fishing reports on the radio, and ask friends and neighbors what they have been catching. These are a good way to start your plan of action.
The fish in the fall may not be quite as cooperative as they are other times of the year. They may need a little extra coaxing. Try to have some live bait on hand to offer if your dead or artificial offerings are refused. Pinfish are the easiest of the local live bait to acquire in the fall. They are accepted by the largest variety of game. Use a lighter leader and as light of a weight as possible to get your offering down. By adjusting what and where you target to the weather conditions you should be able to have a successful trip.
Captain John Sahagian