The arrival of summer, with sizzling sun and frequent thunderstorms, brought major changes for Keys’ flats anglers. Hordes of migratory big tarpon departed at the end of June for more northern latitudes in both the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico not to return until next spring. The focus of fishing has switched from staking out on Oceanside points and bars – waiting for schools and strings of swimming poons – to dawn departures to prowl backcountry flats in the Gulf and Florida Bay.
Bonefish love calm summer mornings and crawl up onto the skinniest flats in search of prey. Even when the early morning sun is too low to see well into the water, the fish reveal themselves by pushing wakes (called nervous water) or waving silver forked tails when then tip down to nail a hapless crab. Stalking these wary tailers to quietly land a fly or shrimp nearby will usually elicit a bite followed by a long run as the bone races for deeper water. This is classic flats fishing.
Our bonefish population remains down but recent reports, and catches, provide some optimism that the fish are recovering slowly from the 2010 record cold snap that apparently killed thousands of the bonies. More fish are being spotted working the flats and persistent anglers are reporting catching 2 or 3 bonefish a day.
Scientific inquiries continue to try to pinpoint the culprits that caused the decline of this great historic fishery. One hypothesis is that the crab, shrimp, minnows and other flats prey populations declined significantly. If correct, the theory holds, bonefish simply vacated the now less productive flats in search of greener pastures elsewhere. The Key Largo based Bonefish and Tarpon Trust commissioned a study to test this theory. Flats prey samples were collected and measured at multiple sites in the Gulf and Bay and these data were compared to similar samples collected 20 years ago. The result – no appreciable decline in flats prey species or abundance meaning there’s still plenty of food available to bonefish (and other flats predators). This indicates that other factors – such as diminished water quality or loss of juvenile fish rearing habitat – are the probable culprits.
Early mornings are also the time to harass resident baby or junior tarpon. Little brothers (5 to 30 pounds) to the departed migratory poons can often be found rolling along mangrove shorelines right after dawn. The fish must also be approached stealthily but are suckers for wel l presented shrimp or shrimp imitations. A good tactic is to spot a roller, see what direction it’s moving, put the fly or bait about 10 feet in front, and start moving it in darting jerks like a shrimp trying to escape. The small tarpon will often explode on the fly/bait and miss it. Even though the fish might not get hooked, the bites are great. Once the sun gets high around 9 AM, the small tarpon – which don’t like bright sun — go down and the fishing is over for the day. But if it’s overcast, the action can continue until noon or later.
This fishery got started a couple of weeks ago but hasn’t gotten into high gear because of cooler water temperatures caused by recent persistent clouds and rain. Catches of half a dozen or so fish are common when the rollers can be found.
For those not wanting to be in a flats skiff at sunrise, the black tailed devils (aka permit) are also back on the flats after their spring spawning run to the offshore reefs and wrecks. Spotting the ghostly silvery permit is much easier when the sun is up so there is no benefit to chasing these fish at dawn. Besides they readily tolerate very warm water and can be caught when water temperatures top 90 degrees. Comparable temperatures chase bonefish off the flats. Permit also like strong currents and big tides, produced by the full and new moons, so focus on banks and flats where currents ripple the surface or bend over the turtle grass. Anglers and guides reported good numbers of perms returning to the flats at the end of June and diligent effort will produce a dozen or more “shots” (chances to cast at visible fish) a day. Silver dollar sized live blue crabs remain the bait of choice but for the hard core fly fishers crab imitations or a #1 or #2 Red Headed Gotcha are the flies of choice.
Flats fishing is about to get pre-empted by lobster mini-season and the opening of the regular lobster season on August 6. The dramatic increase in boat traffic and lots of divers in the water can make it difficult to fish successfully for wary fish like bonefish and permit. A lot of anglers will take to the water at dawn, try to fool a bonefish or tarpon, and then break out their snorkel gear, tickle sticks and nets to catch some bugs for dinner. It’s a great way to spend a day. Just remember to be safe and keep a sharp eye open for dive flags and swimmers in the water.
Marathon resident Bill Horn is a veteran Keys’ flats angler, a former Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks under President Reagan, and author of “Seasons on the Flats: An Angler’s Year in the Florida Keys.” For more information see his website www.seasonsontheflats.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.