Florida Keys Backcountry 101


Fishing the Fabulous Flat

Part of the Fishing the Florida Keys Series

Picture yourself standing on the casting platform of a twenty-foot skiff that was specifically designed to fish the shallow waters of the Florida Keys.  Having already run forty-five minutes from the dock, you are now located on some remote backcountry flat, gazing ahead into a mirrored sea and sky that seem to meet together as one.  It is not difficult to sense that special kind of tranquillity that only the early morning hours of the Florida Keys backcountry can produce.

The waters before you are anything but tranquil however, as the transparent shallows are teeming with life.  Schools of glass minnows scurry about trying to avoid predators of all types, while horseshoe crabs ramble across the bottom in their own business-like manner. Several majestic white herons wade the shallows up ahead, while an occasional tern or gull swoops and dips up a meal on the surface.  Every few minutes, a stingray or small shark swims past you with an agenda all its own. 

Yet, as wondrously synchronised as the environment is, you refuse to allow yourself to be distracted, choosing instead to focus on the task at hand…locating and catching your first bonefish.  The level of anticipation and excitement building within you over the prospect of meeting up with the legendary “gray ghost” of the flats is just indescribable.

At the other end of the skiff, perched upon his poling platform, is your guide.  Deeply tanned from his many years of fishing out on these sun-soaked flats, he is a picture of concentration and proficiency as he silently poles his craft through the shallows.  He is intensely searching the broad expanse of flat before him for telltale signs that might give away the presence of a bonefish.  One of those clues might come in the form of “nervous water” (small ripples on the surface that are out of sync with the ripples from the wind).  Another tipoff is a noticeable wake (caused by a single moving fish) or a “push” (bulge of moving water caused by a school of traveling fish).  Small patches of discolored water (muds) can also give away a school of feeding bonefish as they stir up bottom sediments.  But the sign that both angler and guide long to see is what could arguably qualify as the prettiest sight in all of flats fishing…the exposed waving silver tail of a bonefish as it roots out crustaceans from the bottom.

But locating a bonefish is only the first of many challenges you will face.  It must next be approached with the utmost of stealth or it will “spook,” as bonefish are very much aware of their own vulnerability when they enter shallow water to feed.  Once the fish is within range, you’ll be called upon to make nothing less than a perfect cast to your quarry…too close and the fish will bolt in terror for the safety of deeper water…not close enough and your prize will never see the bait.  If you are lucky enough to hook up, you will witness what is perhaps the fastest, most powerful run by any fish in shallow water. Its first dash for freedom may cover over 100 yards, and its second run nearly rivals that of the first. Large bonefish are tough, cagey fighters, and they possess a level of endurance that would make the Energizer Bunny look like a slug.  But once you do catch and release that bonefish (whether it’s your first or your fiftieth), there is a feeling of both satisfaction and awe, knowing you’ve just experienced one of those defining moments in the life of a fisherman.  And if perchance this procedure has taken place with a fly rod, then the intensity of the experience seems magnified tenfold.

What Is Backcountry Fishing?

The scenario described above is classical flats fishing at its best, a game of absolute precision, and to many, the epitome of catch and release angling.   Yet, this is only one facet of backcountry fishing…there are many styles of angling that can be employed to match an angler’s skill level with the appropriate species of fish.  There is literally ” something for everyone” in the Florida Keys backcountry.

So, what then is backcountry fishing?  In the strictest sense, it is an expedition north from the Keys into a watery wilderness of uninhabited, mangrove-lined keys and broad expanses of shallow water areas called flats.   Quite often guides will take their anglers into a nearby national park or refuge area such as Biscayne National Park, Everglades National Park, Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, National Key Deer Refuge, or Key West National Wildlife Refuge.   These trips are highlighted by beautiful scenery, plentiful bird life, and for the most part, superb fishing.  It is a true “get away from it all” adventure.

However, it’s not unusual to hear the term “backcountry fishing” used in a broader sense to describe fishing the flats and channels in the nearby waters of the inhabited Keys.  A lot of good fishing takes place on the oceanside flats of the Keys; don’t be surprised if you find yourself fishing here during part of your “backcountry” trip.

Not surprisingly, a special breed of boat was developed to deal with the many varieties of fishing encountered by the Florida Keys guides.  The backcountry flats skiff averages 16 to 20 feet in length and has a very shallow draft (drawing 10 to 12 inches with the motor tilted up), so that it can fish (or run) in very shallow water.  A platform is positioned above the motor of most skiffs to provide the captain maximum visibility as he poles his skiff quietly across the flats in search of fish.  The rest of the boat is constructed with fishing in mind…flow-through livewells, excellent storage areas for rods and other gear, raised bow area for casting, and gunwales wide and sturdy enough to walk upon.  The backcountry skiff is, in effect, a clutter-free highly mobile, casting platform.

Your Guide.

The Florida Keys backcountry fishing guide is a truly colorful subject; an intriguing blend of knowledge, determination, and enthusiasm (allowing for the occasional gesture of despair).  The backcountry guide is not only called upon to be highly proficient at finding and catching fish, but must also be able to impart that knowledge in instructions to his anglers.

There is probably no other area in the realm of charter fishing that requires a guide to be so “dialed in” to the conditions around him.   Knowing which tide to fish for a given species is not enough. Backcountry guides must know which hour in the tide to fish, as well as the effects of water temperature, wind speed and direction, cloud cover, moon phase, barometric changes, and a host of other variables.  The guide must combine the offices of businessman, entertainer, teacher and diplomat in sufficient proportion not only to catch his anglers some fish but to transform a good percentage of those anglers into return clientele.

Types of Fishing

One of the truly wonderful problems a skiff guide faces each morning is deciding which fish to target and what techniques to employ.  Usually, the guide will listen to an angler’s “piscatorial preferences,” make an assessment of the angler’s skills, and then come up with a recommendation for a plan of action.  For instance, he may recommend fishing the flats if his angler has the ability to sight cast. Bonefish, permit, tarpon, redfish, barracuda, and shark are the most commonly sought flats species. The flats are also where the majority of the fly fishing takes place.

Occasionally, novice anglers may want to catch a bonefish, even though their casting skills are less than stellar.  In such a case, the guide will locate a spot on a flat where bonefish are known to travel during that particular stage of the tide.  He’ll then anchor the boat and toss about a dozen diced-up shrimp onto the flat, where the current will carry the scent.  Several live shrimp are then cast into the same area where the diced shrimp were tossed.  Bonefish react very well to this approach, and many a rookie angler has been rewarded with his first “bone” via this method.

Another option a guide may choose is that of casting shrimp-tipped jigs into backcountry channels, creeks, or along deeper backcountry shorelines for a wide variety of fish that includes trout, snapper, redfish, snook, pompano, black drum, ladyfish, sheepshead, and jack.  This is often called “potluck fishing” because one never knows what’s going to bite next.

In the spring, many guides make a specialty out of a third type of fishing, live-bait tarpon fishing.  Done primarily around the bridges or in the deepwater channels of the backcountry, this style of fishing is probably the best for putting customers with only modest angling skills onto a really big fish.  The main tarpon run takes place in April through June, but it’s possible to catch tarpon in the Keys year ’round except during winter cold fronts.

Your Choice

If you like the challenge of stalking and then making a finesse presentation to a great gamefish…if you enjoy the feeling of really being “on the water”…if you appreciate the concept of having a guide customize your trip to meet your needs, then a backcountry charter is for you.  Spend a day with a skiff guide in the Florida Keys backcountry and those fish won’t be the only ones to get hooked.




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