August 20, 2019
Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash
The Dry Tortugas is a series of small islands west of the last bridge-connected island in the Florida Keys. Given the distance and time needed to get there, day fishing trips do not typically provide enough time to truly experience what this area has to offer. A lot of people opt for overnight fishing charters, as this gives you time to fish a bit and get up at daylight the next day to start fishing or fish through the night.
“The islands here are surrounded by deep-water reefs and wrecks and are teeming with many different species of grouper, snapper, mackerel, tuna, Wahoo, dolphin, sailfish and more. The Dry Tortugas has been referred to as an angler’s paradise, so if you’re looking for world-class game fish you’ll be in the right place. Even Ernest Hemingway loved to fish in the waters surrounding the Dry Tortugas back in the 30’s,” says the Dry Tortugas National Park ferry website.
The National Park Service has put some specific fishing regulations in place for the park. Parts of the marine park are off-limits to fishing. The park regulations are on top of Florida’s saltwater fishing regulations. Fishing guides for the region are aware of the regulations, and can advise you as needed and keep you out of the no-fishing areas.
The Tortugas are partly islands and partly sea mounds that do not break the surface. They go from shallow to deep very quickly, as seen in maps showing the depth of the water in the national park. The water column often drops sharply, and these ledges are excellent areas to fish.
Overnight fishing charters to The Dry Tortugas require a bit more preparation than a shorter trip such as a few hours on the flats or going just offshore. Be sure to pack a change or two of clothes, and any medications you take. Most overnight charters supply you with food and drink, however it is best to clarify with the captain to ensure a comfortable trip.
Being islands, the Dry Tortugas have plenty of inshore fishing locations. The region is most famous for its huge schools of snapper which also go into deeper waters on the ledges.
“During the day, the shallow coral reefs in 6 to 25 feet of water are covered with yellowtail snapper, mutton snapper, red grouper, scamp, graysby and various wrasses. You can also move out into the deeper reef areas and catch larger snapper and grouper, but on medium/heavy spinning tackle, the 6- to 9-pound muttons were about all I could handle from a kayak.” writes Outdoor Hub.
Your best shot at landing some snapper are bottom rigs. Snapper love to cruise around near the seafloor where they look for squid, shrimp, small crabs and baitfish. The top bait choices are baby mullet, pinfish and cigar minnows. Rig one on a circle hook with a lead weight a few feet from the hook and drop the line over the side.
The shallows are also an excellent place to get the inshore fly fishing slam: a tarpon, a permit and a bonefish all in the same day or the same trip. The bonefish and permit are both easily spooked, so stalking within casting distance takes time and patience.
The same bottom fishing setup, just with heavier lines and bigger reels, works well offshore over the reefs and ledges that are everywhere in the region. These reefs and steep drop-offs are prime fishing for pelagic fish like yellow jacks, rainbow runners, blackfin tuna and cero mackerel. The cero is a cousin to the King and Spanish mackerel but rarely gets as far north as its cousins. Blackfin tuna, which are found up and down the coast, are thicker here than in most places because of the unique underwater structure of the Tortugas region.
These fish are cruisers, never staying in one place for long. Trolling is the best way to find them. You guide will run the ledges, keeping an eye out for baitfish at the surface. Diving seabirds are a definite sign of a feeding frenzy. Typical trolling rigs are dusters tipped with some kind of baitfish, spoons or trolling lures. Once you find schooling fish, cast to them with bucktails, spoons, jigs or shallow-running silver crankbaits.
The Dry Tortugas is also home to a sea monster, the Goliath grouper. Once fished almost to extinction, these beasts of the grouper family are catch-and-release only. The good news is they are eager diners, and take big baits readily. How big? A three- or four-pound pound bonito is a good start. These monsters can reach 800 pounds and test the stamina of the strongest anglers. Though not commonly targeted in sport fishing, a large Goliath Grouper is a bucket list fish for many.
Ready for your next fishing adventure? Check out all of our Key West fishing charters.
Planning a fishing trip?
Find a Fishing CharterSearch Trips