Is a cold winter better for Key West fishing? For many reasons, I think so. Here on the Southernmost island city cold is a relative term. We are located in the tropics where humidity and wind direction dictate the air temperature regularly like a thermostat. Our cold winters are days in the 50s and highs in the lower 70s. Extreme cold for us are temps in the high 40s. The last cold blast like that really shook up our fishery back in 2010 and it took a good bit of time to recover. On the norm our winters consist of a few really good cold fronts to keep things in check with average temps in the low 70s and do no harm to our fishery.
Late October and early November is typically the first cold snaps of the winter season here in Key West. A real line in the sand where our tropical Southerly patterns give way to the winter Northerly patterns as the cold fronts start to march across the country. While the weather in these first fronts can be pretty nasty the chill is mild. It isn’t until January and February that we get the tail end of the North Easters bringing us our coolest temps of the year.
As the cooler weather comes down the state the water temps North of us drop pretty drastically. Many species of fish move south to keep warm. This provides us a whole different selection of fish species to choose from both inshore and offshore. As a fishing guide I feel we are super lucky to have these changes and keep things exciting here with more species to chose from. Lets look at the different areas we fish and how the cooler winters affect them.
Because the water column is smaller the inshore waters get affected by the drop in air temperature resulting in lower water temps faster. High winds agitate the water much like blowing on a hot cup of coffee to cool it down. Shallower water makes the cool down easier. Its easy math. The results can be really fun.
My winter clients really enjoy the catch ratio that the colder winters bring to our amazing backcountry fishing. Species that are not here so much in the summer such as trout, ladyfish, blue fish, pompano, spanish mackerel just to name a few can add to catch ratios tremendously. On the nicer days in the colder winters the near shore fishing for great table fare on our bay boats and flats fishing boats are mutton snapper, mangrove snapper, lane snapper and yellowtails. During the cooler months these tasty food fish love to come into the shallow reefs and power feed on the massive amount of bait near and inshore. This makes them easy targets for artificial lures and live bait.
One of my favorite fishing trips in the winter when the weather cooperates is my Marquesas Keys All In Wonder fishing charter. An opportunity for my anglers to experience many different types of fishing and bring home some lunch.
Flats Fishing The Shallows
Many think that the colder weather really kills the flats fishing. My experience says different. A cold winter isn’t bad for flats fishing it’s just different. Permit don’t seem to care about the cooler water temps so dedicated anglers can expect shots at them while flats fishing as they do their thing in the shallows. While barracudas hate the cold snaps they get acclimated in a few days and make for fun trophies on a warming trend. Find a warmer flat that has been basking in the mid day sun and you will find a hungry barracuda ready to eat a top water or fly.
The added bonuses of a colder winter flats fishing is getting shots at the monster jack crevalle that are in the shallows tailing up behind sting rays. Another treat on the flats in the cold are mutton snapper. Muttons will work the edges of the flats and tailing behind sting rays looking for crabs in the shallows. They really seem to love the cooler temps. The real bonus are the cobia. I just love working certain flats that will have these tasty fish behind a shark or a sting ray looking for a snack. There are few fish that will fight harder than a decent sized cobia on the flats. Check out Island Genn Fried Fish Recipe for cobia. Honorable mention while flats fishing are the redfish. Up in the shallows these guys are lurking around in the cold water and will eat a fly or bait quickly.
With some seasonal understanding its not hard to see how a good cold winter can be great fishing inshore on the flats, near shore waters and in the backcountry here in Key West. Cooler temps set up the rest of the year for us here.. After winter we rush right into tarpon season and a good cold winter can really set us up nicely for lots of tarpon early in March that come out of the Gulf to feed in our shallows. These tarpon are traditionally quite large and really fun. March being a windy month makes tarpon fishing in the backcountry an excellent choice for many of our fishermen.
Everything works on a clock or a fishing calendar here in Key West. The weather can certainly enhance it to make it better or worse. I find that the extremes in our weather are what keeps things shaken up. This is very evident in all of our offshore fishing when we have a nice cold winter.
Deep Sea Fishing Blue Water
Winter months can be a roller coaster in more ways that one in the blue waters off the reef fishing for pelagic species. Mother Nature is quite in charge out there with the conditions and the fishing. Deep sea fishing can be very regulated by many factors when it comes to the weather and a cold winter. Wind shifts, moon phases and the Gulf Stream current are all the variable factors that come into play. Cold winter air temps not so much as the waters are much deeper than the easily affected backcountry and flats. Therefore harder to cool for a result in fish behaviors. Keep in mind, the blue water temps are regulated by the Gulf Stream.
The wind shifts play a major role in what might be biting in the winter for deep sea fishing. A warming trend brought on by a South East winds can and will produce a fantastic mahi mahi bite with larger fish sometimes right up against the reef line. Northerly and North Easterlies after a front can turn on the sailfish and blackfin tuna bite near the reef mix that with a full or new moon and the wahoo will be on the menu. A cold winter will bring in some very nice king mackerel fishing right on the reef keeping boats close for the entertainment and hookups. Its hard to plan what the weather will provide. So I often tell folks to book their day of deep sea fishing and be open to letting mother nature and their captains decide the species. Cold winter or not the above is a good rule of thumb for deep sea fishing.
Cold Winter And The Reef Fishing
Everyone knows that when the first cold fronts move in and start to chill our tidal waters the reef fish tend to go shallow. Cooler water temps AND a copious amount of bait fish are huge encouragement for the mutton snapper, yellowtail snapper and grouper to get shallow and feed like crazy making them easy targets. This is actually a god send in the winter months on our reef fishing charters when the winds can be strong and staying short is helpful to avoid high seas. The inside patch reefs, deeper channels and even the backcountry waters all hold great opportunities to put some lunch and dinner in the coolers.
If I get the weather one of my favorite things to do is target the shallow water snappers and groupers with artificial lures. There is nothing like the hammer down aggressive bite of a hungry yellowtail snapper or mutton snapper in the shallows. They are always looking over their heads for an easy meal and my anglers provide it for them. I use an assortment of lures and jigs to make it all happen.
Pro Tip – Match The Hatch.. No Chum No Bait..
When things get super cold like they did in 2010 I have seen some pretty cool stuff. That year I had a photo shoot to do with the catalogue guys at Bass Pro Shops. We headed out in my 32 ft Yellowfin in 50 degree air temp. Regrettably one of the coldest days I have ever tried to fish in. The weather had calmed quite a bit and I was headed West of the Marquesas Keys to hit some shallow water wrecks for a shot at some cobia. I had not prepared for what I saw. We stopped at the first of several wrecks on my target list and the water was clear enough to make out the wreck, however it was covered by a huge group of odd looking fish. They were permit. But not the kind of permit we see here typically orbiting the wrecks on the regular. They were ghost white on the body with hard black backs and all of them were ginormous. 30 – 50 lb permit were just keeping time with the current. It was pretty incredible. There were thousands of them. They were cold. Yes, we tried to catch one but they would not eat a thing, crab, fly, or jig. They almost seemed to try and get between my engines to keep warm. The school of these permit went on for acres and acres.. I had to idle slowly to not hit them as they lazily got out of the way of my boat. I feel that these fish were pushed out of the chilly cold water of the Gulf that week from some isolated location, I think they had never seen a boat. It was pretty cool.
The 47′ Viking sport fishing boat “InXS”. Where luxury meets deep sea fishing charters. Located at Oceans Edge Resort and Marina on Stock Island in Key West. Fast and super comfortable with all the amenities of home including air conditioning, clean bathrooms and full kitchen.Tournament ready every day with custom rods.
A colder (not frigid) winter can make better fishing in Key West. Things really seem to come alive and get on track with the seasons. Yes, It can suck with higher winds but the result in the fishing can be tremendous. Don’t discount Key West fishing when it is going to be a cold winter unless your targeted species are summer or tropic oriented.
Pro Tip – Dont run over fish – to go find fish – in the winter.
We offer inshore and offshore fishing charters out of Key West. Since 1994 my company has been providing some amazing experiences and helping folks make memories in our fishery here in Key West. Give us a call and we will go over all your options for when you will be here.