Legendary Advice on Fishing the Florida Keys
Florida angler Richard Stanczyk reveals his game-changing tips for swords, bones, snook, sailfish, reds, dolphin, and tarpon
Any fair discussion of Islamorada’s angling luminaries must begin or end with Richard Stanczyk. At 75, he’s seen it all and done it all. And with no intention of slowing down, he’s a tireless promoter and teacher of the sport that defines him.
“I think I was born to fish. It’s in my DNA and I’ve never lost my thrill for it,” says the Florida Keys legend and Bud ‘N Mary’s Marina owner. “I recently ran 80 miles with my kids to capture 19 sailfish. With every fish that came up, I still got that same charge I get no matter what species I’m fishing for.
“From the very first time I held a cane pole and saw the cork sink, I was hooked. I never lost my passion for fishing, and that has extended to every species you could imagine.”
Stanczyk’s family moved from St. Louis to Miami in 1949. He first visited the Florida Keys in 1969, when he brought a boat down from Miami to fish the Islamorada Sailfish Tournament. At the time, he knew sailfishing as heavy line, wire leaders, and large hooks. But by quickly mastering the considerably lighter local tactics, Stanczyk was rewarded with the event’s 1970 first-place trophy.
Eight years later, Stanczyk purchased Bud N’ Mary’s from Bud and Mary Stapleton and worked to expand this ideally-located Keys marina into an iconic full-service property. Today, he oversees a fleet of inshore, offshore, and dive boats with sons Rick and Nick, but he makes time for fishing several days a week.
While bonefish are one of Stanczyk’s favorite species to fish for, he frequently joins Rick to fish for snook, redfish, and tarpon in the Everglades backcountry, and his son Nick never has to convince him to make an offshore run for swordfish and other Atlantic bruisers. Always sporting his trademark zinc oxide sun protection, Stanczyk will wind with the best of them, no doubt loving every minute of it.
Over four-plus decades of Florida Keys fishing, he’s analyzed the game’s every facet. He’s turned tackle boxes upside down to shake out what he doesn’t need and repack with what experience has taught him to keep. Here are some of the most important things Stanczyk has learned over the years about the Keys’ most popular species.
Having helped pioneer daytime swordfishing in the Florida Keys (along with Gaspeny), Stanczyk can dial his battle-earned knowledge down to these essential points:
Bait selection is critical. Squid tops Stanczyk’s list, but he’ll also cover an 8/0-9/0 hook with a foot-long bonita or dolphin belly strip. Swords like to collapse their meals for easier gulping and his choices fit that behavior.
Stanczyk also feels that fishing with a long line can present its own challenges. Because swordfish are usually hooked at depths of over 600 yards, feeling for strikes can be different. A minor rod bump can signal a strike, but a swordfish is hard-wired to kill or stun its prey before eating it and they typically take a couple of shots at a bait before it’s down-the-hatch. That means the bump you saw in the rod tip, the slight twitch in the line often turns out to be a swordfish whacking your bait with its sword.
“When you see the bite, move the bait,” says Stanczyk. “These fish are hard to hook because you have 1,500 to 1,800 feet of line out. You have to remember that the fish was actually biting a few seconds before you ever saw the rod react.” It’s important to keep your line as straight and tight as possible, and moving the bait will help keep it that way.
Fishing for bonefish in the afternoon has held a special place in Stanczyk’s heart ever since 1985, when he guided friend and charter captain Vic Gaspeny to a 14-pound, 6-ounce bone that was the fly-rod world record for a while. There was a time when Islamorada boasted great schools of these flats phantoms—big bone fish that justified poling skiffs and sight fishing. But environmental challenges have greatly diminished the bonefish population there. Stanczyk finds that the remaining fish have become so educated, so hyper-aware that anything short of ninja-level stealth is usually meet with prompt rejection.
This is why you’ll almost always find Stanczyk fishing “dead boat style”—a stationary technique that encompasses the boat with a 4- to 6-rod spread. Stanczyk knows Islamorada’s every ditch, pothole, and prop scar, and he’ll sniff out the ideal flat where water clarity, grass health, and proximity to deep channels optimizes the likelihood of quality fish pulling up to feed.
For bait, Stanczyk likes to pinch the tail fins off a live shrimp and rig them on light wire hooks with a small egg sinker above a glow bead. Slightly squeezing the shrimp creates a scent line that helps bones locate the meal. If Stanczyk spots a bonefish while baiting a hook, he’ll take a shot at the fish. But he notes that when sight-fishing for bonefish, bait presentation is everything. Drop a bait behind the fish and he’ll never see it; plink it too close and he’s history.
“Show them the bait, but don’t spook them,” says Stanczyk. “You have to cast to the end that eats; don’t cast to his tail. You have to develop a sense for reading fish and determining where they’re going.
“If you throw slightly past the path that he’s on and just lift your rod, that 6 to 8 inches that you moved your bait will create a scent line that the fish will pick up on. ”
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Pointing out that the biggest snook feed in tight windows defined by seasonality, water quality, tide, and time of day, Stanczyk prefers live shrimp for winter outings, and scaled sardines (pilchards) in summer. Fifteen-plus pounds of pin-striped fury will put on quite a show when it feels that hook point, but prior to that moment, snook can be remarkably complacent.
“We tend to think of snook as hyper-aggressive predators, but the big ones spend most of their time lying in wait,” says Stanczyk.
Positioning is a key component, largely determined by tide. Stanczyk wants incoming to high water for wooded shorelines, where snook tend to lay right up next to undercut banks. On falling tides, he checks backcountry creeks for snook retreating to the main channel and deeper structure. In either scenario, precision matters.
“Sometimes, if your cast is a foot short, the snook won’t see it,” Stanczyk warns.
Also, while free-lining live baits will deliver, he prefers a bottom-oriented presentation—either a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jig head, or a light slip-sinker rig. Reaching lower often puts your bait in front of a big fish, but weighted rigs require action to mimic the natural look of the meals these ambush feeders prefer.
“Snook will often pick up a bait off the bottom, so you want to move it, but move it appropriately,” he says. “Don’t move it too slowly, or you’ll wind up catching catfish.”
And don’t overlook isolated hard-bottom spots well detached from the shorelines. You can find them by looking for random limestone outcroppings and channel marker foundations, as they are typically anchored in a hard spot.
Taking advantage of his home waters’ voluminous ballyhoo population, Stanczyk not only regards these slender “half beaks” as prime sailfish baits, but also mobile fish indicators. As winter cools Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay waters, massive schools of ballyhoo set up shop over nearshore Atlantic reefs.
“One of my favorite times to catch sailfish is when they push the ballyhoo up to the surface. That’s called ‘showering baits,” he says. “I’ll ease up to where that’s happening with a ballyhoo on a light monofilament leader and a small circle hook and sight fish them. You can pick out the one fish you want to target.”
Between showering shows, Stanczyk fishes for sailfish by trolling dead ballyhoo. Sails feeding in packs are highly competitive, but if you don’t set your bait up correctly, they’ll spot and avoid it.
“People have a tendency to put a hook in the bait in such a way that there’s tension and the bait has a slight bend to it,” says Stanczyk. “When you do that, it will cause your bait to spin. It’s very unnatural and fish don’t eat spinning baits.”
After rigging several hundred ‘hoos, most anglers develop a feel for proper spacing, but Stanczyk offers an insightful tip that’ll keep your baits straight every time: “Where that hook exits the belly of the ballyhoo, I use the tip of my knife to make a little cut in front of and behind the hook just to be sure that the hook sits loose in the bait. That way there’s no tension.”
These voracious predators are lightning quick, aggressive, beautiful, and provide great eating. Dolphin often appear and disappear with remarkable abruptness, so Stanczyk’s first priority is finding what attracts and, most importantly, holds these fish long enough for him to engage.
“You always hear about weed lines, and weed lines are fine, but there’s more to it,” he says. “You’ve got to get on the weed lines that are alive, meaning there has to be some bait in them. If there is, you’ll have birds near the bait.”
Debris, or flotsam (the sea’s random collection of logs, pallets, coolers, etc.), also merits attention. But Stanczyk won’t waste time on anything that looks like it’s only seen a couple nights adrift. What he wants to see are “seasoned” items—flotsam with accumulated sea growth resembling a stringy beard.
“Debris like this can be loaded with life; all kinds of little fish,” he says. “A lot of times, there will be a lot of dolphin around this debris and sometimes there will be one big bull dolphin down deep.”
If he can’t find weed lines or flotsam, Stanczyk scans the skies for birds and notes their direction and numerical density. “If they’re flying southwest, it can be big dolphin. And it’s not big flocks of birds that you want, it’s usually smaller clusters. When you start chasing big numbers of birds, you’re chasing tuna and bonita.”
Stanczyk describes redfish as “Not quite as intelligent as a bonefish.” The bronze bombers are definitely more accommodating than the ultra-spooky bones; but a good strategy remains essential.
This starts with habitat preferences, which range from mangrove shorelines, to oyster bars, rocks, and grass flats. With the latter, Stanczyk suggests intercepting the fish that are heading for the exits.
“I look for holes and depressions at the ends of run-outs that drain the shallow flats,” he says. “As the water disappears, the fish have to go somewhere, so they’ll follow these drains out to the perimeter of the flat.”
Essentially, you want to set up along the parade route and pick off redfish. Stanczyk likes working light jigs with grub tails along the redfish course, as well as the old stand-by: a fresh shrimp on a jig head.
The reds could hold up anywhere along those edges, but Stanczyk uses his push pole to occasionally feel around for the harder, gravelly bottom reds prefer. Another pointer: Mild turbidity is your friend.
“If you’re fishing these runouts and you can see the bottom, the redfish won’t be there because they can see you,” he says. “You don’t want to be fishing dirty water, but look for the milkier colored water because it provides cover for them.”
These silver cyclones present one of the most visually engaging pursuits in all of sport fishing. Stanczyk feels that sight casting natural or artificial baits to tarpon requires great skill and delivers even greater rewards. But it’s also a game perfected through countless hours of study and practice, which isn’t always doable for the average angler. That’s why Stanczyk is a big fan of fishing for the ones you don’t see. To get to those fish, Stanczyk suggests a technique known as dredging.
“Make repetitive casts to where you think they’re going to be with a weighted baitfish-pattern fly. We do this a lot in the darker backcountry waters, but it also works at night,” he says. “We usually fish the edges of channels, but you can dredge around a bridge or a deep cut, too.
“A lot of times, there will be a particular bank that the tarpon run along, and if the tide is running the right way, you cast upside and allow the fly to sweep back, along the bank. You have to be in the fish, but to some degree, this allows access to a tarpon bite for anglers who may not be as skilled with a fly rod.” Whether you’re an experienced angler or not, this technique, along with the Stanczyk’s other tips, is a sure way to hook up with more Florida Keys fish.