Reef Fishing the Florida Keys

Reef Fishing the Florida Keys

Reef Fishing Lures Anglers to the Florida Keys

Last year my brother Mike and I made a trip to do some reef fishing in the Florida Keys to do some serious fishing.  We set up our headquarters on Islamorada – known as the sport-fishing capital of the world!  We stayed at the beautiful Pines and Palms Resort on Islamorada, and one of the fishing excursions I booked was on a party boat which was based out of Robbie’s Marina, just down the road on Islamorada

On the day of our trip, Mike and I climbed aboard the 65-foot party boat Capt. Michael and I stowed my camera bag in the cabin.  Once everyone was aboard, the captain and the mate gave us a quick rundown of the rods and reels we would be using and exactly what type of bottom-fishing we would be doing once we arrived at the reef.  We were all excited to get started!

It was a fairly short run out to the reef where we would be fishing.  As the big boat motored along, an afternoon breeze kicked up and there was a slight chop on the water.  A small pod of dolphins appeared off the starboard bow, porpoising along at nearly the same speed as the boat.  They were fun to watch, but my attention was quickly diverted back to the stern of the boat as the mate started chopping-up small fish and squid to use as bait.

reef fishing florida keys
Ballyhoo baitfish. Tom Berg

He was cutting the squid into bite-sized strips that we would add to our hooks once the boat stopped.  When he thought he had enough squid, he started chopping and cutting the baitfish.  These were long and slender ballyhoo – a very strange-looking baitfish (about 8-10” long) that has a thin bill jutting out two or three inches from its lower jaw, just like a swordfish (but in miniature form and on the lower jaw instead of the upper jaw).  We would soon find out that the reef fish loved both the fish and the squid.

Once the captain found the spot on the reef that he was looking for, he stopped the boat and dropped anchor.  The mate put a small bait bucket full of cut squid and cut ballyhoo at the feet of each angler and we all baited-up.  The reef was about 35 feet down, and it didn’t take long to drop our baits all the way to the bottom.  It didn’t take long to get a bite, either.  In fact, the bites were almost instant and non-stop!  The problem was these fish were expert bait-stealers!

florida fishing
Eating-size white grunt. Tom Berg

When I felt a fish bite, I immediately set the hook.  I felt a fish and reeled him up to the surface, and saw that it was a brightly colored blue-striped grunt.  These fish are yellow in color, with several bright blue stripes running the length of their bodies horizontally.  They often have a black tail, also.  This fish was a little small, so I released it.

The action continued fast and furious for small grunts of various kinds, but mostly white grunts and blue-striped grunts.  The white grunts had a non-descript white-colored body, but their head and cheeks were marked with bright blue stripes.  Several of the white grunts were good-sized, so we kept them.  We also started catching yellowtail snappers, and some of them were fairly, large, too.  The large ones were put in the cooler and the small ones were released.


Of course, the small bait-stealers were ever-present.  In fact, the grunts and snappers were so good at stealing our baits that they soon became a major annoyance.

reef fishing florida keys
A strange-looking scrawled filefish – look at the weird spike sticking straight up out of its head!


Since we were using sinkers that probably weighed a couple of ounces, it was a real pain to drop the bait all the way to the bottom, and then within seconds have your bait stolen.  If you felt a nibble and didn’t hook the fish, you might as well reel all the way back up to the surface to re-bait.  My arms were getting tired!

At one point, an elderly couple fishing next to me on the rail called for the mate to come and help with a strange fish the gentlemen had brought up to the surface.  I leaned over the rail to get a good look and saw that it was a scrawled filefish.  It looked very bizarre!  It was grayish-olive in color, but it had bright blue dots and worm-like markings on its side (and black dots, too).  The tail was large and fan-shaped, and its mouth looked like it was permanently puckered!  But its strangest feature was the thin “horn” or spike sticking straight up out of its forehead!  I had seen pictures of them before, but had never seen one in person.  It was crazy looking!

As I was looking at the scrawled filefish, I suddenly heard a commotion near the back of the boat and saw that the captain had hooked a bigger fish.Throughout the trip, he had made a habit of free-lining a live bait off the stern in the hope that a larger fish would grab it.  Then he would hand the rod off to one of the customers.  As luck would have it, my brother Mike was standing nearby and he handed the rod to Mike.

reef angling
Yellowtail snapper. Tom Berg

The fish made several strong runs and Mike fought the fish as it started to circle the boat.  Mike and the captain made their way towards the bow and the fish finally started to tire.  Once Mike got it near the side of the boat, the captain reached out with a long-handled gaff and gaffed the fish.  He hauled it aboard and we saw that it was a Little Tunny.  The mate called it a bonito, which is one of the slang names for it.  Although it wasn’t very good to eat, it gave Mike a great fight and it would make good bait once it was cut up.

As soon as I got back to fishing, someone at the back of the boat hooked a grouper.  It was not huge, but it put up a spirited fight.  The captain landed it carefully at the stern and said it was a protected species of grouper (a Nassau grouper), so it would have to be released.  It was beautiful with its marbled brown and white markings.

After the excitement of those larger fish, Mike and I got back to catching bottomfish at the rail.  The white grunts were still biting feverishly, and as I reeled up what I thought was another grunt, I saw a pinkish-orange fish come to the surface.  This fish was also panfish-sized, and it had orange polka-dots covering its entire body – including its tail and all of its fins.  I asked the mate what kind of fish it was and he said it was a strawberry grouper.

reef fishing florida
Mike Berg with a very hard-fighting Little Tunny. Tom Berg

He said strawberry groupers don’t get much larger than the one I caught, and since it was good to eat I could keep it.  But since we had plenty of yellowtail snappers and white grunts, I decided to release it.  As soon as I did, Mike hooked another one and brought it over the rail, too!  I almost thought it was the same fish, but Mike’s fish had a slightly different spot pattern than mine.  After checking my fish ID books at home later, I determined that its proper name was a graysby – another species of small reef-dwelling grouper.

All too soon, it was time for the boat to head back to the dock.  We reeled in our lines and enjoyed the ride back to the marina.  Once there, the mate cleaned everyone’s fish and handed our fillets to us in a plastic bag.  The captain suggested that we take some of our fresh fillets over to the Hungry Tarpon – the dockside restaurant right there in Robbie’s Marina.  So we did!  The chef did an excellent job preparing them and Mike and I had a fresh fish feast!

To schedule your own trip on the Capt. Michael, call Robbie’s Marina at 305-664-8070 or check out  The Capt. Michael runs three trips per day: morning, afternoon and after dark.  The cost is very affordable and you may either rent a rod and reel or bring your own.

Although fishing was the reason we were in the Keys, there are plenty of other things to do.  Swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, paddle-boarding and parasailing are just a few of the activities that are available.  Birding and eco-tours are favored by some visitors, too.

One of the things I really liked about the Florida Keys is the great places to eat.  I’ve been to some ports where it was nearly impossible to find something to eat after a hard day on the water!  For breakfast, we really enjoyed the Key Largo Conch House The food was excellent and it had a down-home “Old Florida” feel.  Lunch at the Hungry Tarpon inside Robbie’s Marina was great, too.  One evening we had dinner at the Marker 88 restaurant on Islamorada, and their fresh mahi-mahi was fabulous.  The view of the setting sun from our beach-side table was hard to beat, too!

Marker 88 on Islamorada
Don’t miss the fresh fish at Marker 88 on Islamorada. Tom Berg

For more info about the fishing around Islamorada and the Florida Keys, check out the Florida Keys Visitor website at

Article by Tom Berg

About Ken McBroom 307 Articles
Ken McBroom is an accomplished outdoor writer and photographer. Growing up in Lynchburg Tennessee allowed him many opportunities afield as a boy and young man. Later in life, after Desert Storm, Ken’s wanderlust took him to Alaska to live and work and experience the last frontier. Married now with two beautiful children, Ken now calls Kentucky home where he continues to communicate our American outdoor traditions and the lifestyle it offers.

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