The island-hopping road which is the Florida Overseas Highway traces a graceful scimitar along the outer rim of the Keys and unfolds a vast kaleidoscope of iridescent waters, palm-fringed coves, fishing camps and yacht basins. As a road to good fishing, which is why most people travel it this time of the year, it is unparalleled. The fishing begins at the inland waterway cut at Jewfish Creek and continues to Key West, 100 miles away. It goes on around the clock, the neon of bait shops winking gaudily through the tropic nights.
Anglers go after their fish with every sort of rig: a scramble of spin and fly rod, plug and bait, tarred rope and spear, cane pole and hand line—a tackle store spilled out along the Highway. Only the newcomer is surprised at the catches hauled in daily, creating the air of a huge lottery of angling, with a jackpot of the unexpected always just about to hit. Six hundred and twenty varieties of fish move in the vast wildernesses of the Keys' tropical waters, and more than 80 of these will take a hook in some form or other.
In January a steady procession of sailing yachts, flying-deck cruisers, charter boats and sloops pours down the inland waterway to berths at private anglers' clubs, town docks and bay anchorages at Key Largo, Tavernier, Islamorada, the Matecumbes, Marathon and Key West. These are the big-game fishermen, who for three or four months will fish the outer reefs and the broad indigo path of the Gulf Stream for streaking wahoo and sailfish, for the brilliant-hued dolphin lying underneath the weed drift, for giant barracuda and cobia, schools of water-chopping king mackerel and bonito, ponderous gape-jawed jewfish and groupers.
It's during these months too that the flats stretching out from the low island shorelines fill with skiffs, waders, fly-and spin-casters, and guides soundlessly poling their $50-a-day charters across shimmering shallows for the silvery bonefish, rated by so many as the world's lightweight champion.
Residents and locals never stop talking fish, but only rarely do they wet a line during this annual invasion by seasonal visitors. Many are busy with some form of catering to tourists' needs and almost all of them will tell you, probably under their breath, that spring and summer months will get you five fish for every one hung on the rack at the end of a February day. The winds of winter, often brisk, die off to a fine somnolence of calm seas in the spring, the water warms and fish go closer shoreward.
The winter crowd, fishing from charter boat and private cruiser, hangs up many fine records, which can certainly claim to be the most publicized of all, especially in the big-game division. And while at many other fishing centers in the country the use of a fair-sized power boat often provides the sole chance of any good salt-water fish, it's a different story on the Keys.
Here an alert angler going on his own, fishing by car, from bridge or ramp—at most using a skiff with an outboard—is barred only from a crack at the big billfish of the Stream. An ambitious guide midway down the Highway is now booked days in advance to conduct his parties, by car, to choice fishing spots. He makes no all-day trips, guiding his charters to a bridge or shoreline exactly at what he considers the right tide and hour. This minimizes the time required and eliminates the boat ride, often long, to the grounds to be fished.
Added to the story of this deft operation is the certainly unique feature that so far the fisherman has never been rained out. General storms covering the length of the Highway are rare. A quick run from a drifting squall into sun and calmer waters 20 miles up or down the road saves the day for the fisherman-by-car. He'll fish anything from grunts to tarpon, but his specialty is permit, the great powerful pompano that streaks seaward with the speed of a bonefish and the force of a charging bull. Often he will outcatch the powerboats also seeking this comparatively rare prize.
The casual fisherman's gear should include a bait-casting or spinning rod, a favorite plug or two, a spoon, a feathered lure. Along with this light tackle it is a good idea to bring a six-foot rod with a star-drag reel and at least an 18-thread line. A fisherman is likely to find himself desperately working a heavy fish away from bridge pilings, and he needs the stout gear.