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Fishing the Dry Tortugas

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On: Fri, Sep 24, 2010 at 3:54PM | By: Lee Clymer

Although you would have thought fishing would have been a strong suit for Ponce De Leon, it appears that isn’t the case. Although it was justifiable, he was worried more about water than fishing when he breezed into the Dry Tortugas and noticed a distinct lack of water, and a whole lot of turtles…thus, the Dry Tortugas were named.

Nowadays, we prepare with plenty of freshwater, and modern technology has helped, so even though the islands seventy miles of the coast of Key West have no fresh water, we confidently head out this time of year for some of the best fishing available anywhere.

Though somewhat tamed over the years, the Dry Tortugas are the wild, wild west of fishing in the U.S. Spartan and loaded with the equivalent of herds of buffalo, only underwater, the area is for the hardy in many respects.

The adventure begins with the seventy mile trip. As with any remote area there are two ways to get there for fishing. It either has to be a charter or your own boat. For the sake of this article, I will cover only your preparation for your boat. Although seaplanes do make the forty minute flight there, it is primarily for sightseeing so you’re pretty much on your own if you don’t take one of the many charters out of the Keys.

Preparation begins with what you want to catch. Since there is almost anything there you could want to catch, you might want to prepare for everything! If however, there is a particular fish you want to target, load up with bait or lures in the Keys, probably Key West, which should be your jumping off point. Be sure to see your doctor before you leave if you have any heart problems because the action can, and probably will, be heart stopping.

Take a smorgasbord of baits. That’s far and away the best choice. Do the Boy Scout thing and be prepared. I do sincerely recommend a wide variety of adrenalin-providing topwater lures. The water is so clear and hits are so hard, the topwaters can’t be beat. Consider it a trip to the gym…you’re almost guaranteed to reach your target heart rate.

Of course, that doesn’t eliminate fly rods. It isn’t uncommon for jewfish to attack a nicely cast bait from a fly rod. Remember jewfish…yeah…the fish that grows up to 200 pounds. It’s just not hard to love a place where fishing records abound, such as the 113-pound, 6-ounce record for black grouper (all tackle). With huge schools of everything from dolphin and wahoo to cobia and snapper, you can search for your own record.

Make sure you take plenty of chum which is easy to buy, and you should take all you can carry, but live bait is always a good choice as you probably well know. While you’re picking up chum, pick up some frozen ballyhoo, cigar minnows, sardines, and just about anything else that’s found in saltwater. Always keep in mind you never know what you’ll run across in the Tortugas. What you don’t use for bait you can use to catch bait.

There’s always live bait for sale for those under a time crunch, but if you plan for it, there’s plenty of live bait to be had. The flats both around Key West and Garden Key hold plenty of ballyhoo and threadfins. Pinfish are abundant in the flats around Key West and they tend to last a while as well. I recommend doing your bait fishing before you leave though in order to concentrate on fishing, and just in case there’s not bait on the flats. There’s nowhere to buy bait once you’re there.

Be prepared for plenty of bottom fishing as well as trolling. Goggle-eyes are great for sailfish, if that’s what you want to target, but the dead baits such as whole ballyhoo are great for grouper and snapper. While the sails, wahoo, and dolphins are all Hollywood, those bottom denizens can be pure thrills that will leave you smiling even remembering them decades later. Just make sure you have the appropriate hardware to go with what you expect to catch. Think big.

Okay, for the bad news. New no-fishing areas are in place around the park. Make sure you know what the regulations are for both where and how much to fish. Bag limits must be followed if you want a good trip to stay good. The federal waters are still pretty much open and the areas to the east and south are still good. Roughly 46 of the 100 miles of the park are off limits. A good bottom finder is instrumental in these waters. Like always, just look for structure.

A lot of people take this trip as a three-day run and camp at the park or anchor in the shallows. Sleeping on the boat is a great idea if you can because tents and the like take up space. If you have a boat big enough camping gear is not a problem, you’ll probably have a boat big enough to stay on. Just remember the facilities define Spartan roughing it, and there’s not so much as running water. That also means you don’t have trash facilities, so leave room for stashing your trash and bringing it back, and don’t trash these pristine waters.

With that in mind make sure your boat is ready, willing, and able. Don’t be shy about safety gear. If you haven’t made a trip like this before, talk to the Coast Guard and get a checklist and use it. I mean it. This is a seventy-mile trip that can get extremely rough in certain weather conditions, and it’s not like going to the Bahamas because the wonderful facilities you find in places, like Bimini, are not going to be there at the end. Make sure there are spare batteries, fuel for at least 150 miles plus fishing time, and emergencies. Plenty of water goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Just know what you’re getting into. A spare VHF is just smart, not to mention a weather radio. Radar is not necessary but another wise choice, just like a good chartplotter with the appropriate data card.. Don’t hesitate to be smart…real smart. Have good charts, file a float plan, and talk to anyone who will give experienced information.

When all is said and done, the Tortugas are true dream fishing. It takes preparation, time, and obviously money, but talk to anyone who’s been there. It’s worth it. Oh, and by the way, there a fort there if you’re just too tired to fish.


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