The backcountry waters of the Florida Bay and the saltwater flats off Islamorada are legendary for the fish, the fights and the stories. Anglers travel from all over the world to try their hand at bonefish, tarpon, redfish, permit, blues and shark by fly, one of the hardest ways to fish—it's all about the fight.
Though the waters are prolific, finding the fish can be quite the task. Local knowledge is key—locals know not only where to go but also when to go, what to use and how to land the fish. Plus, one of the best and most important aspects of a charter is third-party corroboration to that seemingly impossible fishing story told at the bar.
When preparing to hit the backcountry, be on lookout for a good guide; the more info the better. Guides should tell you what to expect on the day (conditions, techniques for presenting to different fish and responses to the boat clock—important when they spot a tail), check your rigging, test the knots and maybe even give some advice on places to go on your own, either wading or by boat.
Bud N’ Mary’s Marina (milemarker 79.8) has probably the most prolific array of backcountry captains, with 22 operating off the docks. Half-day rates for two anglers are $400 or $575 for full-day, while half-day tarpon trips cost $425 (two anglers). Most boats can accommodate three anglers for an extra $75 for half-day or $100 for full. Bait and tackle are provided, though most bring their own gear.
- Reservations are a must, with a $100 deposit needed upfront.
- For more information on times, fees and captain/boat info, visit budnmarys.com/backcountry
For those looking to tackle the flats by fly for the first time, here’s some advice:
- Dress accordingly. Most charters embark in the wee hours before or just as the sun begins its ascent. In the wet and windy morning, it can get downright chilly on the water. Wear a breathable long-sleeved shirt, which not only helps with the early morning chill but will also save your arms from being burnt to a crisp.
- Polarized shades are a must. Fishing the flats isn't not just about knowing the waters but seeing the fish. Though it may seem like these fly fishermen are simply casting about willy-nilly, there is a method to the madness, and seeing is half the battle. Costa Del Mar shades are made for fishing. They come in a wide range of styles, shades and hues; choose a set that fits you. The Zane ($139-$249) is an appropriate pair if picking up a pair specifically for flatwater fishing in Islamorada: They're named after Zane Grey reef, which gets its name from author and famed fisherman Zane Grey, who took up residence on Long Key, right around milemarker 66.
- Look for tails, everywhere. Don’t be surprised to see a tail trailing along in skinny water near shore—head on a swivel.
Know your prey and pack your tackle accordingly. Most good charters will provide flies and even gear for your specific fish, but if you want to be prepared, here’s the gear that will make you look the part.
- Tibor Reels are simply the best. Handcrafted in Florida by Tibor “Ted” Juracsik, these reels are specifically made for, developed and tested in Islamorada. Tibor is the most trusted name in the game—no other brand has landed as many world records. For the flats, the Billy Pate, Tibor Signature Series (right in gold, starting at $775) and Tibor Series all work well. The large spool and arbor design allow for extra line and easy retrieval, ideal for those epic runs, while the drag system is designed to work—plain and simple—whether you’re landing a billfish or trout in a meandering mountain stream.
- The right rod will go a long way. Sage rods are tried and true for both fresh and salt water. The Xi3 series (starts at $715) is fast action with a high torque and torsion resistance allowing for smooth tracking (the rod path during the stroke), giving exceptional distance on the cast without an overexertion of energy. And Sage’s proprietary resin lends itself to superior strength and durability in the salt.
- When it comes to flies, if you aren’t making your own, then its best to grab some from a local who is. The Florida Keys Outfitters, milemarker 81, sells an array of custom flies, all tested and proved in these very waters. Depending on what you’re aiming for, the time of day and conditions, Outfitters has a fly specifically designed for the experience, from custom-made lures to bonefish, permit, tarpon, stripers and redfish.
If you want to strike out on your own sans boat, Islamorada has some of the best public wading flats in the Keys. When wading, pick a spot and stay still; kicking up mud will scare off any bonefish around. Try to keep the sun at your back and the wind to your side. Here are a few spots off the Overseas Highway to checkout:
Anne’s Beach, Lower Matacumbe | milemarker 73
Wide open flats, plus a public beach with restrooms and boardwalk. It’s best to avoid on the weekends, and try early in the morning or late at night.
Ocean Flat, Lower Matacumbe | milemarker 70
As high as four-feet deep at high tide, extends several hundred yards from shore.
Bay Flat, Long Key | milemarker 66
Technically out of the Islamorada Village of Islands, this Long Key fishing spot is a dandy. Across from Long Key State Park, the best time to fish is winter; flats extend about 150 yards from shore and rock wall.