Fishing Nirvana

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Fishing guide Capt. Chris Trosset holds up his catch while John Raguso fishes outside of Key West, Fla.

A trip to Florida’s Key West is an angler’s dream. 

Story and photos by Ron Ballanti

There are plenty of great reasons to head down to Key West, Florida, especially in winter when many parts of the country are still freezing their butts off and fishing in tropical blue waters seems an impossible pipe dream. 

Reasons like soaking in warm, tropical breezes while you lounge around the pool. Or the bawdy nightlife of Duval Street that goes on till the wee hours of the morning. And there’s the daily evening ritual of sipping a rum drink in touristy Mallory Square while watching the sun disappear into the sea. 

If you’re a hardcore fisherman, however, all these other activities take a distant backseat. Key West is truly a world-class angling destination — providing an experience sort of like Disneyland and Christmas rolled into one.

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The crew was cast-netting for live pilchards to use as bait.

Fishing Grounds

For one, its location at the southernmost point of the continental U.S. gives anglers the unique option of running out to the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.

Light tackle and fly-fishing fanatics can find a local guide who specializes in chasing tarpon, bonefish and permit across the flats. Inshore reefs and wrecks team with cobia, grouper, mutton snapper, jack crevalle and thick-shouldered amberjack that will test your stamina and tackle. 

Or anglers can search out blue water for opportunities to enjoy wide-open bites on blackfin tuna, bonito, king mackerel, sailfish, wahoo, and more.

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Patrick Klein and Rick Ryals fishing off a 39’ Yellowfin center console.

Friendships Renewed

Fishing Key West used to be an annual event for me thanks to my job in the boating industry. However, my most recent trip there came after a 15-year hiatus. 

It didn’t take long to renew old friendships while fishing with famous Key West fishing guide Capt. Robert “RT” Trosset and his son Capt. Chris Trosset. I’ve known and fished with RT many times over the years. 

His sponsorship by Suzuki outboards for 41 straight years and my marketing work for the brand back in the day had us sharing a rail fairly often. 

Still, it had been ages since we last hit the water together. Back then, his son Chris was just a cute little kid who loved to fish. Today, he’s a stud charter captain in his own right, with his Contender 39 Center Console slipped right next to RT’s 39 Yellowfin center console at Oceans Edge Marina. 

Both boats are rigged with a trio of gleaming Suzuki DF350 outboards across the transom. This style of boat, with a large “coffin box” fish hold in the bow, 360-degree fishability and the speed and dry ride to run far offshore in all kinds of weather, was perfected in the Keys. 

The marina at the Oceans Edge Resort & Marina in Key West

Oceans Edge Resort and Marina

The marina had changed quite a bit from my previous visits. The old Oceanside Marina I remember was little more than a dry stack boat storage shed, creaky fuel dock and a dingy bait and tackle store. 

Over the years, however, the entire area was developed into the beautiful new Oceans Edge Resort and Marina complex, with luxurious hotel rooms, recreational amenities galore, gourmet restaurants, and plenty of strutting roosters to make sure you don’t miss your early morning fishing trip. 

The marina boasts rows of fishing boats just waiting to charter. On one side, flats and bay boats ready to explore skinny-water adventure. On the other, blue water center consoles and even sportfishing yachts ready for longer runs offshore.

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A deckhand shows off a Crevalle jack.

‘Insanely Good’ Fishing

While the surroundings and comfort level certainly had changed since my last visit, the fishing was just as I remembered—insanely good. 

The first morning, after cast-netting a boatload of live pilchards for bait and chum, our two boats worked together to hit some nearby reefs. This gave us the chance to take some great boat-to-boat photography, as we often fished close enough to speak without the need for a VHF radio. 

More importantly, this strategy gave us the combined fishy brainpower of Key West’s two best guides. We hopped from one spot to another and often before we even came tight on the anchor, we would have big jack crevalle, amberjack and snapper and great barracuda crashing through the chum.

Every type of surface bait or lure you threw was quickly inhaled by something, most often a big Crevalle jack that could easily top 20 pounds. 

A couple of our anglers used the opportunity to pick up their fly rods and enjoy some epic hand-to-fin combat. Cobia swam through a couple times, and we were able to entice a couple with jig-and-bait combos fished on the cast and retrieve.

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Rick Ryals hauls in a fish off the Florida Keys.

Baits fished with sinkers or leadheads often resulted in some nice-sized mutton snapper, grouper, yellowtail snapper and other tasty reef fish that made it home for dinner (expertly prepared for us that evening by the resort’s Yellowfin Bar & Kitchen).

All that first day, the action only lagged when we stopped to take photos, our arms got tired, or we decided to move around and look for something else because it was getting “too easy.” Now, that’s a good problem to have.

Secret Gulf Spots

Our second day was even better. We got an early start, caught bait and made an 80-mile run to some secret spots out in the Gulf. Fortunately, given the flat calm weather and the fact that these boats can easily cruise in the mid-40-mph range with their twin Suzuki 350 hp outboards, the run to the fishing grounds went by quickly.

Eventually, we dropped our anchors in blue water near an offshore radio tower. And just as before, the fish were waiting for us. Shortly after we put out the chum bags and started tossing a few live pilchards, our boats were surrounded with life and surface activity. This time it was massive schools of big amberjack exploding on everything that hit the water. 

After pulling our arms off, we began casting surface poppers with the hooks removed, just to “geek out” on watching these predators attack and come flying clear of the water. We hooked and lost some big kingfish, landed a gorgeous African pompano, had fish snatched off our lines by marauding bull sharks, and marveled at the amount of life around the boat. 

The highlight attraction of this day, however, was big cobia. If you could manage to get a heavy leadhead down to the bottom through the hungry amberjack, you would likely get slammed by a big cobia. Both boats loaded up on beautiful cobia in the 15- to 35-pound range, and I had one to boatside that RT estimated at 50-plus pounds before it dove back down and became a meal for a hungry bull shark.

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A 39’ Contender with Suzuki DF350 outboards got to the fishing grounds quickly.

Chasing Records

Key West is the ultimate American angling destination. There is plenty to fish for any time of the year, but I always like going in the winter. I highly recommend staying at the Oceans Edge Resort and booking a trip with one of the Trossets.

If you’re the type of angler who likes to pursue I.G.F.A. world records, RT is widely recognized as one of the best. Over an illustrious angling and charter career, he has guided anglers to 238 line-class and fly-tippet-class world records. And if backcountry and flats fishing are more your game, they can handle that for you as well. 

Key West has no shortage of fishing guides, but Oceans Edge has some of the best in the business only steps away from your room.

Whether you bring your own boat or go with one of the pros, the Oceans Edge Resort & Marina makes a great home base. It’s got everything the boating angler needs, and the recreational amenities will keep the whole family happy if you manage to pry yourself away from the great fishing. There are luxurious rooms, swimming pools and hot tubs to soak in, kayaks and bicycles for exploring the area, and gourmet restaurants aplenty on the grounds and in the town itself.

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There are plenty of fishing guides in Key West, Fla.