By Tom Redington
Photographs by Aaron Ansarov
At the crossroads of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the Florida Keys are like Main Street in a small town during a parade, with every fish around swimming right through there.
The Keys offer excellent fishing with an incredibly wide array of species and features about every category of saltwater angling, from shallow flats and lagoon hot spots to deeper reef fishing and offshore schools. As a result, more International Game Fish Association world records have been set there than anywhere on the globe. Almost everything that swims there pulls 10 times harder than a comparable-sized freshwater fish, and most are excellent to eat as well.
And smack dab in the middle of it all? Florida Sea Base.
With world-class sailing, snorkeling, and scuba options on the menu, one could spend a couple of weeks at Sea Base and have one incredible day after another. Fishing is a big part of most every program, and it is an experience not to be missed. For a hardcore angler like me, the variety of locations and species means I could happily spend weeks fishing here and never have the same experience twice. The good news is that even for a novice, the odds that you’ll catch fish are very high, and it’ll very likely be your largest fish ever.
I had the good fortune to visit Sea Base in October. Before heading out to our tropical paradise, I studied the Fishing Hall of Fame display on the walls near our dock at the Brinton Environmental Center. We took note of the many impressive all-time records posted there, like a 110-inch, 180-pound nurse shark. Or the 66-inch, 175-pound tarpon. And the 46-inch, 38-pound dolphin. (No, not that kind of a dolphin. This one was a mahi-mahi.)
Even better, tons of huge fish of every type were listed on the bragging board for this year’s leaders, including a 51-inch, 35-pound barracuda, and a 325-pound Goliath grouper! Did I mention that almost every one of the big fish for the year (and for all time) were caught by Scouts? 16-year-old Scouts caught the barracuda and grouper. Oh yeah, and the coveted dolphin record? It’s obsolete now too — an 18-year-old Scout caught a 51-inch, 39-pounder in July.
On our fishing trip last fall, we started at the bridges right outside of the marina, normally an excellent option. However, the tide wasn’t right for good fishing there, so we quickly decided to make a move.
Our captain took us to some calm waters between two islands. We anchored at a sloping transition area where schools of fish were moving into the shallows as the tide would come up and then funneling back out to deeper water when it went out.
GETTING SOME BITES
The tide was going out when we arrived, and our captain casually remarked that we should catch some fish. After putting out some chum, the fish started biting, slowly at first, with sporty little lane and mangrove snappers starting the festivities.
Hundreds of different types of fish reside on the shallow saltwater flats, and almost all of them will eat bait, live or preserved. We used light bucktail jigs — soft artificial lures weighed down with a sinker — tipped with small sections of baitfish or shrimp. The great fun of saltwater fishing is that you never know what species you’ll catch next, from small exotically colored aquarium fish to giant sharks and everything in between.
The bites kept getting better, with two of us repeatedly catching fish at the same time. I heard one Scout yell that he had a fish, then I felt one too, and a whole school of jacks were following the one I had hooked, fighting to steal the bait from mine.
Seconds later, another Scout hooked up as well, and there we were, our caught fish uncontrollably going in all directions, with us feverishly trying to keep them from tangling our lines.
REELING THEM IN
After some long, hard battles, we got them all in — a ladyfish, a grouper and a jack. While we snapped pictures, our captain picked up a rod and quickly landed a fourth fish species: a mutton snapper.
The news that we had to leave to beat a storm headed our way was met with about a dozen requests for one more cast. The morning had flown by, and we wanted every extra second we could get. Finally, a black wall of clouds told us we had to go, so we raced back to the dock ahead of the storm in a boat with lots of smiles.