The Dry Tortugas

Some of the best light-tackle fishing in the world is found in U.S. waters, just 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, in a small group of islands called the Dry Tortugas

Field & Stream Online Editors

Some of the best light-tackle fishing in the world is found in U.S. waters, just 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, in a small group of islands called the Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas is a national park that encompasses approximately 70 square miles of islands, coral reefs, sandbars, and flats, all surrounded by breathtaking emerald water that is so clear you can see fish swimming along the bottom 50 feet down. And the Tortugas is an all-year fishery, with a list of available gamefish as long as your arm.

Offshore, along the reefs, and over the numerous wrecks, you can fish for wahoo, sailfish, king and cero mackerel, dolphin, African pompano, mutton and yellowtail snappers, many species of grouper, horseye jacks, cobia, various species of tuna, and amberjacks that pull until your arms ache. Inshore there are tarpon, permit, barracuda, jack crevalle, and various snappers. It's not unusual to catch more than a dozen different species on a typical two-day trip.

There are a number of reasons why this area is so productive. First, commercial fishing is prohibited inside the park and closely regulated in the surrounding waters to protect North America's richest coral reefs. Sport fishing is allowed at any time, but all size restrictions, bag limits, and seasons mandated by the state of Florida are strictly observed. Second, because of its relatively remote location, recreational fishing pressure is low.

How do you get there?
Several charter skippers specialize in fishing the Tortugas. The minimum trip is usually two days, and because there are no hotel or restaurant facilities on the Tortugas, you must stay aboard the boat or camp on the beach in front of Fort Jefferson, located on Garden Key (the only place where camping is permitted).

New York angler Don Kaye and I made a two-day trip last Decber with Captain Rob Hammer of Miami. Rob has a fast, spacious 28-foot center console boat that can make the run in under three hours, weather permitting. Because there is no fuel for sale in the Tortugas, you need enough capacity to get there, fish, and then make the trip back with a reasonable reserve for rough weather. Ditto food and fresh water. The charter skippers who make this trip furnish it all, including camping gear and fishing tackle. You just bring clothing, rain gear, and any personal tackle you may want.

Large, Hungry Fish
Our trip started on one of those beautiful, flat calm days that punctuate south Florida's winters at irregular intervals. Leaving the dock at dawn, we stopped briefly along the way to catch a well full of live sardines with a cast net. Upon reaching the Tortugas, we didn't stop at Fort Jefferson, but instead we continued on to a wreck another 30 miles away.

Live sardines are about the best chum there is, and the first handful to hit the water quickly brought up an assortment of large, hungry fish. We caught no wahoo on this day, but we wore our arms out catching amberjacks to 45 pounds, horseye jacks to 20 pounds, big barracudas, mutton snappers, yellowtail snappers, groupers, and even a few king mackerel. You can hook many of these fish on the light tackle of your choice, even a fly (an 11 or 12 weight is best).

By 1 p.m. we were ready for a brief rest. After we ate lunch, we ran to a nearby deep reef and immediately started catching dolphin, groupers, and snappers. We also caught a 30-pound king mackerel and several a little smaller. And, of course, we caught the ever-present amberjacks, some of which weighed over 60 pounds.

Needless to say, we were exhausted when we finally arrived at Ft. Jefferson with the last rays of the sinking sun. We were just in time to jump several tarpon before getting to brief camping chores.

That night a cold front passed through, and with it came 20 to 25 mph north winds. Despite the weather, we were able to spend a delightful morning fishing some sheltered reefs on the south side of the Tortugas, where we caught lots of snappers, groupers, and even a few king mackerel to 20 pounds. Mercifully, we were spared the rigors of wrestling big amberjacks.

You might expect that 25 mph winds would make the trip back to Key West that afternoon a nightmare, but actually there are only about 35 miles of really open water along the way, and Hammer's 28-footer handled the 6-foot seas with ease. It's not a trip to be made without wearing full rain gear, however, but we were out of the worst of it in under two hours.

Even though there is an abundance of fish in the Tortugas all year, most anglers prefer the cooler months (October through April), when pelagic species like wahoo and king mackerel are more abundant. Cobia are also more likely to be plentiful during those months. Even the reef fishing is usually better. And, of course, camping ashore or staying aboard a boat is more comfortable in milder weather. On the other hand, tarpon and permit are more plentiful during the warmer months, and there is also less wind.

Regardless of when you go, as one long-time e to jump several tarpon before getting to brief camping chores.

That night a cold front passed through, and with it came 20 to 25 mph north winds. Despite the weather, we were able to spend a delightful morning fishing some sheltered reefs on the south side of the Tortugas, where we caught lots of snappers, groupers, and even a few king mackerel to 20 pounds. Mercifully, we were spared the rigors of wrestling big amberjacks.

You might expect that 25 mph winds would make the trip back to Key West that afternoon a nightmare, but actually there are only about 35 miles of really open water along the way, and Hammer's 28-footer handled the 6-foot seas with ease. It's not a trip to be made without wearing full rain gear, however, but we were out of the worst of it in under two hours.

Even though there is an abundance of fish in the Tortugas all year, most anglers prefer the cooler months (October through April), when pelagic species like wahoo and king mackerel are more abundant. Cobia are also more likely to be plentiful during those months. Even the reef fishing is usually better. And, of course, camping ashore or staying aboard a boat is more comfortable in milder weather. On the other hand, tarpon and permit are more plentiful during the warmer months, and there is also less wind.

Regardless of when you go, as one long-time