Live Bait Fishing in Key West

There are many different ways to fish in Key West but perhaps one of the most popular and effective techniques is live baiting.

Just like fishing, catching bait requires skill and practice and a successful haul of bait can make or break the day.

Types of Live Bait

While any fish will sometimes eat anything it can fit in its mouth, certain baits are considered better for different fish. Actually, certain baits are just basically better.



Pin fish are like the peanut butter sandwich of baits. Everyone will eat them but they are not really their favorite. Pinfish are small oval fish that kind of look like a bream or a sunfish.

They are a kind of yellow/brown color and have rows of spines across their back.

The pros of pinfish are there are tough and they are easy to catch.

  • You can catch them with small hooks on almost any grass bed in the Keys.
  • They can survive with little oxygen so they live very well in a live well.
  • They also will stay alive a long time on a hook.

They can be caught reliably in traps as well.

Like I said earlier, everything will eat them, but in general they are better baits for Gulf and inshore.

They are commonly used to fish for tarpon, cobia, mangrove snapper, and grouper.



Ballyhoo are slim silverfish with beaks that can be 1/3 the length of their body.  They run in schools and are more common in the colder months.

They can be caught using small hooks or in a cast net. Catching them on small hooks tends to damage them less and they will survive longer in the livewell as well as on the hook.

Cast netting them can be a fast way to catch a lot of them.

Ballyhoo are shiny and have no spines. This makes them a lot more appetizing to fish then pinfish. However, they need a lot of water circulation and will die easily without it. You cannot keep them alive in a pen, so they need to be caught fresh right before the fishing trip.

Ballyhoo can be fished a variety of ways. One of the most common is to hook them through the nose and let them swim around on the surface for sailfish.  They can be rigged with a wire leader and stinger hook in the tail for King Mackerel.  They are often sent to the bottom when targeting grouper and mutton snapper.


Pichards are small silvery fish that congregate in huge schools around Key West. The move in and out of the shallows in the early hours of the day. You can often see boats targeting them in the early hours during the winter months.

Captains drive their boats up in the shallows and throw cast nets on the schools. This can be very easy or difficult depending on the day. You have to watch for birds diving, in order to see where the schools are located.

Pichards are like the Pringles of the ocean: many fish cannot resist them and once they start eating them they can’t stop.  A 3 or 4 inch long pilchard is like the universal bait, so everything from a flag yellow-tail to a sailfish will readily eat them.


Speedos are bigger baits, found offshore on the reef or on wrecks. They are fat, vaguely bullet-shaped fish that come in schools.

They have to be caught with small hooks and are hard to keep alive.

Speedos are big fish baits: they will usually be 6-10 inches long.

They are put down on bottom rigs when targeting big grouper, they are also slow trolled with wire leader for big kingfish and wahoo. They are considered the best wahoo bait.

Deep Sea Fishing Key West

Offshore fishing and reef and wreck fishing could both be considered Deep Sea Fishing Key West. In general in other part of the country when they say deep sea fishing they just mean not inshore.
Not fishing just off the beach but actually fishing offshore. Here in Key West fishing offshore can actually refer to a bunch of other smaller categories or fishing.

Types of deep sea fishing in Key West

  • True offshore fishing – fishing for dolphin and pelegics up to 20 or 30 miles offshore
  • Wreck fishing – bottom fishing on one of the wrecks located past the reef 7-10 offshore
  • Deep drop fishing – bottom fishing in 400-1000 feet of water 7-15 miles offshore
  • Reef fishing – bottom fishing on the edge of the reef 7-10 miles out
  • Sword fishing  – bottom fishing in 500-1000 feet of water 10-15 miles out, sometimes at night

The actually terminology “deep sea fishing” is not really used by locals in Key West. They are usually more specific and say something like “going offshore, for dolphin”.

Choosing which fishing trip

Choosing which trip you would want to take, would depend on the what you want to catch and the weather. Most of the fishing done really far offshore will tend to be in the late spring and summer when the winds are a little less.

The wrecks and edge of the reef can be accessible even when the weather is not quite as nice, and these are popular spots to fishing in the winter and early spring.

Due to the way our reef runs east to west, it is actually possible to fish by land but still be 20 miles out in the ocean from Key West. Although land is loose term, in this case it would be a patch of sand with mangroves growing on it.



Key West Shark Fishing

Shark Fishing

Down in the Florida Keys there are several thrilling ways to spend your vacation, but up there on the list is shark fishing. Imagine fighting and reeling in one of the most feared predators in the ocean!


What kind of sharks are in the Key West waters?

Sharks are popular to catch because of their sheer fierceness as an apex predator, but also because of the fight that they put up when caught. In the waters surrounding Key West fishermen hope to catch blacktips and spinner sharks which put up a strong and aerobatic fight, lemon sharks found in the flats, bonnet heads that will spool a line at first snag and numerous others including nurse sharks, bull sharks, brown sharks, sandbar sharks, finetooth sharks, blacknose sharks and Atlantic sharpnose sharks.

Where are they caught?

While many think that sharks need to be caught out in the deep blue water, a large number of shark fishermen fish for them in just 6 feet of water. Sharks tend to hang around shallower areas to hunt, but prefer areas where access to deeper, safer waters is readily available.


What kind of bait is best?

For shark fishing, the more blood the better.  When blood enters the water it makes a “crackling” sound which is the blood cells rupturing, so sharks can “hear” that meal coming! While sharks like a lot of blood in the water, they prefer it to be fresh blood; they aren’t a fan of rancid bait. Fresh bait is best for chumming and to bait a hook.

Fish-wise, bonito is favorable because it is a very bloody fish. Blue fish, small tuna, jacks, mackerel, mullet and even barracuda make good bait. It is important not to chum too much as the shark will take this free meal and leave your hooks alone, defeating the purpose.

Getting a good chum slick going is important though; sharks will smell it down-current and head up to see what is for lunch. Another main attraction for sharks is a struggling live fish. Sharks can detect a fish in distress and will come in for an easy meal so if a wounded fish is hooked as bait, it might quickly attract a predator.

Rod and Reel

For shark fishing it is best not to skimp on rod and reel. The sturdier the better as sharks tend to do a serious amount of thrashing. On the reel, the minimum amount of line is 175-200 yards as the first run of a shark might take a considerable amount of line. Of course circumstances vary, but a good shark line to use is monofilament since it has pretty good stretch in it. This will allow a little play in the line to absorb the constant thrashing of the shark as it is reeled in.

The Release

As with any type of fishing, the release of the fish to ensure it will live is very important. It is best to have two people, one to hold the shark while the other removes the hook. If there is a desire for a picture be sure to hold the fish firmly, but carefully so not to do an internal damage, behind its head and at its tail. The gaff can be used to pull the hook. If the hook cannot be pulled, bolt cutters may be used to cut the hook out or if even this is not possible, cut the line as close to the hook as possible. Obviously it is preferable to set the shark free with no new piercings. When releasing the shark, hold it by its dorsal fin until it swims away on its own.

While there are many ways to get the adrenaline pumping, shark fishing is up there with its thrills! Apex predator versus apex predator. Key West is a mecca for shark fishing year round!

Key West Tarpon Fishing

Tarpon Fishing

Whether you are brand new to fishing or a seasoned angler, fishing for tarpon is a thrill unlike any other. Fisherman come from all over to the warm waters of the Florida Keys to catch these prehistoric beasts. One of the most exciting game fish to hook: tarpon put up an incredible, aerobatic fight that certainly gives fishermen a run for their money!

Tarpon Facts

Tarpon, also known as the “Silver King” range between the sizes of 4 and 8 feet typically, although some have been caught measuring over 9 feet! They can weigh between 60 and 250 pounds thus having the poundage to put up a good fight. Females are larger than the males and live longer. Males generally live to be 30 years old while females can live up to 50 years!

Tarpon have the unique ability to control the air in their swim bladder and use some of the air for respiration. They are also able to “breath” air from the surface unlike any other fish; they can “roll” for an extra air gulped by mouth. This extra bit of oxygen gives them a burst of energy. These giant game fish put up such a thrilling fight because while they are fighting they are jumping and taking in more oxygen, giving them more energy to fight longer. This “rolling” of the tarpon also makes them easy for anglers to spot since they breach the surface so often. They are especially easy to spot in big groups.

From March to October the warm waters of the Florida Keys draw tarpon south to feed and spawn. Tarpon grow slowly and do not mature sexually until about 7 years of age. The first few years of life they are small and defenseless and spend their time in shallow estuaries for protection from large predators. Tarpon are able to live in less oxygenated waters because of their ability to gulp air allowing them to live where other fish aren’t able.


Tarpon are mainly opportunistic eaters. They are toothless and swallow their prey whole. At younger ages they feed on crustaceans, shrimp, crabs, sardines, and easy prey and adopt fish into their diet when they are bigger. When fishing for tarpon the best bait is live mullet which is hooked through the lip and dragged behind the boat.

Got one on the line!

When a tarpon is hooked it immediately starts jumping, thrashing and pulling violently. At this time, depending on location, some anglers hook their anchor to a buoy and free-float letting the tarpon run with the boat and tire itself out. This is the exhilarating fight that fisherman are seeking! The explosive, airborne moves of the tarpon are thrilling to watch and even more exciting to fight against! In Key West, the best location to catch a monster tarpon is close to shore: in the shallow flats or close to bridges with a fast moving current.

After a long fight, the tarpon although seemingly full of energy is actually tired, weak and delicate at this time. While it is ill-advised to take a tarpon out of the water at all, many anglers want a photo with the catch-of-the-day. If this is the case, the only safe way to do so is quickly (15 seconds or less) and holding the fish horizontally; a tarpons’ body is not used to gravity and holding it vertically may shift its’ internal organs.

The Release is Key

The release of the fish is also very important in its tired state, if done improperly the fish may die. It is important that the fish swims away horizontally. This is ensured by supporting the tarpons’ stomach and giving it a forward thrust so that it can swim away naturally. If the tarpon is too tired and begins sinking it will sink to the bottom and die. If the simple forward thrust doesn’t work the next option is to slowly idle the boat forward holding the fish parallel to the boat until it is ready to swim on its own. Releasing the fish safely is important so the fish can live to be caught again!