Have you ever been somewhere that just makes you feel exceptional? A place that gives you a feeling of satisfaction, a natural place that seems to welcome you every time you return with something new you did not see before. I have; my special place, here is a Guide to the Marquesas Keys
A Re-Posted article that I wrote in 2004
I specialize in Fishing The Marquesas Keys
Located about twenty-five miles to the west of Key West, this circular group of islands has captured the attention of many who have visited them and the dreams of those that have not but heard the stories. What is it about the Marquesas Keys that draws so much attention over other areas of the Keys? Is it the amazingly vast, pristine grass flats that spread all throughout offering world class grand slam flats fishing? I bet for some it would be the great wreck and reef fishing close to shore offering the light tackle angler a full day’s adventure. For others it would be enough to just sit there and take it all in, quiet, calm, full of life and beautiful. For me, it would be all of it. The Marquesas Keys have held that special place in my heart since I was old enough to pronounce it correctly. What I love most is that it still looks about like it did when I was a kid.
As technology and marine product reliability keep improving, getting out to the Marquesas these days is very easy. Anyone with a sixteen-plus foot boat, a recent chart, basic electronics, and some common sense has got it made to plan out a great day’s adventure or overnight stay on their boat out in this vast fishing utopia. With a bit of planning and some local knowledge it can be a wonderful fishing adventure for anglers of any skill level. However, if you don’t pay attention to details it could be a very uncomfortable experience for you and your crew.
How To Get There
First off I will tell you to hire a Key West fishing guide that specializes in it. Depending on the type of boat used, there are a few ways to track your way out to the Marquesas Keys. The most efficient “all weather” route to use is through the Lakes Passage. This is easiest for the outboard powered crowd, drawing less than twenty-four inches on plane, to have a smooth ride for most of the trip. The Lakes Passage starts west of Key West just on the other side of North West Channel. This route is a cut that is marked by regular aides to navigation and is easily tracked by visual aide or very apparent on any chart plotter. The passage is shown very clearly on the local charts for this area as well, cutting its way through a small chain of islands that falls short of reaching the Marquesas by about six miles, ending at Boca Grand Key. The passage then opens up to Boca Grand Channel, making visible the island chain of the Marquesas on your western horizon. Keep in mind that the aides to navigation in the Lakes Passage are not just a suggestion, understand them and make sure you are passing on the correct side of a marker, otherwise your trip may be cut short and damage to the resource will occur.
Crossing Boca Grand Channel can offer any boat a run for its money on some of the nicest days let alone when the winds are up. There is much caution to be taken here if a small flats boat is being utilized. To put it into perspective, Boca Grand Channel is the first direct link between the Atlantic Ocean and The Gulf of Mexico; it can be six miles of bad road. With a very impressive current during a tide change the channel is no place for bad judgment. Pay attention to your weather reports before leaving the dock and take a look at the tides. Key West Harbor tide is very close to the same times as Boca Grand Channel. If you see that Key West is a falling tide with a good flow, Boca Grand Channel is screaming. Now let’s add a ten to fifteen mph south wind component to that, and there you have it, a two to three foot chop for six miles until reaching the protection of the Marquesas.
Once You Get There
Once approaching the islands of the Marquesas from the east there are a few things to note. If you intend to go inside the circular chain of islands, also called Mooney Harbor, try and use the entrance on the southeast side. Wear a good pair of polarized glasses and take your time, paying particular attention to your depth. A few minutes of carelessness here can cause years of damage to this pristine natural resource. All the way inside the channels there is about five feet of depth available. For your first time, idle speed is not required but may be a good idea. Also note that there are other entrances to the south and the west of the Marquesas as well. Careful navigation and extreme consideration of fishing guides working these flats is suggested to utilize these entrances, most of which have very shallow entrances. Once inside Mooney Harbor you will realize why you came. In an instant everything will be calm with the soothing sensation of nature wrapping itself around your boat. A lot of times when I enter Mooney Harbor with my clients I drop off a plane and shut my motor down just so they can soak it all in before we begin to fish. The most common remark I get is, “Wow! This place is amazing.”
Planing A Trip
As you can see, a trip to the Marquesas in a smaller boat takes a bit of planning and common sense. I have mentioned tides, winds and currents, so let’s take just a minute and talk about storms. Summer time here is like anywhere in Florida; we get some nasty thunderstorms with lots of lightning and water spouts. Most boaters are able to seek shelter during a bad storm where they do their boating; this is where I think that the Marquesas offers a false sense of security. Where else in the state can a guy go thirty miles offshore in a sixteen foot flats boat? In perspective that’s how far a boat is from decent shelter when in the Marquesas. While enjoying your day out there look up and over the islands on occasion to search for dark skies, especially ones coming from the east; they are between you and Key West. See some heavy weather, move to a better vantage point for viewing. See how long you have and which way the storm is moving. If it’s too late to run for it, seeking shelter around the islands out there is easy on a high tide, but difficult on a low tide. Before you chose this option be sure your boat is equipped with ample amounts of mosquito repellent.
Fishing The Marquesas Keys
Fishing in and around the islands and the flats of the Marquesas Keys is a great way to spend the day. Like anywhere else most of the fish here are tide oriented and rely on the tidal flow to bring them food while higher waters allow them to get up on the flats to forage. The Marquesas are known the world over for flats fishing for Permit. Here I have seen as many as ten seperatly tailing fish within 100 square yards of flats around my boat. Everything that an angler has read in a book about flats fishing works out here. The Tarpon fishing is amazing almost year round. Tarpon can be found in many places varying in size and number. Most of the bigger fish are found outside around the Gulf and Atlantic facing flats and the babies (fifteen to fifty pounders) are found inside seeking shelter among the mangrove edges and deeper inside channels. Bonefish frequent the waters as well. Found mostly in the super shallows and lighter sandy bottoms, most of these fish are five to eight pounds and very skittish. For even more sport fishing, the Mangrove Snapper, like many species of fish out there, run larger than normal; it is very easy to catch a nice limit of legal fish in a short while by working the channels in between the islands. With this vast population of fish it is no wonder there is also a huge population of sharks, jacks and Barracudas on the flats ready to pounce on a plug or live bait, offering a well rounded angling experience for anglers of all skill levels. Close to shore to the south and the west there are patch reefs and small wrecks holding large numbers of big Barracudas, some Permit and great light tackle bottom fishing. Some of the charts available at local tackle shops here in Key West offer GPS numbers to some of the more popular wrecks to get you started. Last winter, my company organized several species hunts for corporations that came in to fish Key West with myself and several other guides we refer trips to. The object of the species hunt is to offer a great day of fishing no matter the skill level of the angler. Fishing the Marquesas, my anglers and I boated fourteen different species of fish, eight of which were caught on artificial, without ever fishing deeper than ten feet of water.
In my guide to the Marquesas Keys here are my suggestions on loading the boat for a day in the Marquesas: bring some casting spinning rods in the eight to twelve pound range with one rod in the fifteen to twenty pound size for sharks. I generally stick with 1/0 Owner hooks for my live baiting for most all occasions with the exception of sharks. For artificial I am a big fan of Yozuri plugs lipped and non-lipped, all colors. Carry with you also some buck tail Jigs, chartreuse, white and yellow. You may want to carry some D.O.A. shrimp as well for the baby tarpon should you run into them. I never leave the dock without a small medium and large top water popping plug. A must in my box is also Triple Fish fluorocarbon leader material ranging in size from twelve pound for Bones and Permit, fifteen to twenty pound for snappers and jacks, to thirty to sixty pound for Tarpon. Don’t forget to bring a good steel leader for sharks and Barracudas as you well know they have unforgiving teeth. Tube Lures are a favorite for the Cudas on the flats and a good top water popping plug will certainly get the attention of any Blacktip and Lemon sharks prowling the area. Trolling a plug or tube lure on one of the shallow wrecks around the islands can be rewarded with a trophy size Barracuda. One other note, have a buck tail jig ready for the jacks, they are a blast and can show up at any time, ranging in size from five to thirty-five pounds.
Live baiting in the Marquesas is like anywhere else. Crabs, shrimp, Pinfish, Pilchards, and whatever else is available can be utilized. Your flats species will appreciate the crabs and shrimp. The channel fish will respond very well to shrimp and baitfish. It may be a good idea to bring along a bait-net just in case you see some local baits wondering about.
Tides are critical when fishing the flats and inshore areas of the Marquesas. Here are a couple of tide secrets to get you started. The tides on the Atlantic facing side of the Marquesas are about the same as Key West Harbor tide. The Gulf facing side can be two and a half hours behind the Key West Harbor tide in some places. Inside the north rim I have noticed almost a three hour difference. These times are a rule of thumb only and they do spread differently during different parts of the moon phase.
A great chart reference for the routes I have explained is the one from Standard Mapping Services Charts # F 110. This chart is a color photographic chart that covers from the East end of the Lakes Passage all the way to the West side of the Marquesas revealing shallow areas to avoid, with all aides to navigation overlaid on it for reference. I find it to be a great tool to learn more about an area quickly before I leave the dock.
If you are trailering your boat down to Key West then heading out I recommend two boat ramps that offer some security, Oceanside Marina on Stock Island at the end of Maloney Ave. and City Marina at Charter boat row on the corner of North Roosevelt and Palm ave. Both of these places you will find parking for truck and trailer attached. Stop by the tackle shops, Local knowledge is always helpful in finding your way around an area that you have never visited. When I go to a new area to fish for a few days I generally stop by one of the more popular tackle shops near the area where I am putting my boat in. Here I make certain to buy the last minutes supplies like ice, chum, live baits, and some of the things that the store clerk says I will need in the area I plan to fish. This is also a great place to pick up info. Ocean Side Marina has a great tackle store with all the supplies you will need. Near the City Marina Location you will find Conchy Joes on the corner of North Roosevelt blvd and McMillan Drive about one block from Charter boat row here you will find a complete tackle and bait center with a friendly staff. Stop by and see what’s happening oh, and don’t forget to pick up a tide chart.
There is no doubt that the Marquesas Keys are a wonderful place to visit. I have been going out there since I was very young. Currently forty-five percent of my fishing charters are to the Marquesas Keys and every day that I fish out there it becomes more evident this area is unspoiled and possibly the last frontier of how it used to be. With that in mind I ask that when you plan a trip to the Marquesas, look at this area not as a place to conquer but as a place to enjoy. Practice proper “catch and release” techniques with our fish so that they can be here for many generations to come. Use the ample amount of channels going in and out of the islands, not the flats to get around with your boat. Prop scars are so ugly, especially in pristine clear water. Also have some courtesy for fellow fishermen. When you see a flats boat polling a flat give him plenty of clearance; chances are that flats fisherman is a working fishing guide who helped you with all the information to get out there in the first place.
There You Have It, The Keys To The Marquesas. Take Care Of Her, She’s Beautiful………