Alex Tejeda is a professional guide and regular Kayak Angler contributor. His playground is a dream kayak fishing destination, the Miami backcountry and Florida Keys. “One of the central locations is Sugarloaf Key,” he says. With access to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, the small island 60 miles down the tropical archipelago is a world-famous destination for bonefish, permit and tarpon. After years of experience exploring the mangroves and flats, Tejeda is still surprised by the incredible fishing.
[This article is part of our 10 Most Popular Kayak Fishing Destinations According To Google series. See the most searched for kayak fishing hotspots, and get all the inspiration you need for your next dream getaway.]
One of my favorite Florida Keys kayak fishing trips was in late summer when everything was just right. The summer air was still lingering, but the summer winds were absent and the air was crisp with a clear blue sky.
Kayak Fishing in the Florida Keys
My good friend Chris “Tex” Lewis and Randy Morrow joined me for a fun trip. As we paddled out with the tide, we chatted about the day’s expectation, but no one could have predicted what would happen next.
When we rounded the corner of a small island, our chatter turned to tactical strategy. Hundreds of bonefish were tailing across a huge flat, their signature V pattern crossing the shallow water for miles.
I stripped line off my reel and searched for a single bone to target. By focusing on a single fish, I hoped to prevent the rest of the school from spooking.
Florida Bonefish On the Run
Within seconds, I heard Tex’s reel screaming the familiar tune of a bonefish making a run. I turned my attention in front of me in time to see two large bonefish tailing.
My reel hummed and fly line sliced the water towards the horizon.
Two false casts and I landed my fly a few feet in front of the fish. I watched and waited. When the bonefish gave me the green light, I stripped my tan crab fly. The bonefish lit up and pinned my fly to the marble bottom. I stripped the line to strike the fish.
In an attempt to shake the fly, the bonefish rubbed its face across the bottom. Then it took off in a supersonic run. My reel hummed and fly line sliced the water towards the horizon.
All three of us were hooked up and fighting bonefish. After several minutes, the bulldog pulled me to the edge of the flat. When the fight was at an end, I jumped in and grabbed the silver fish. I took a few photos and then I released the bone. After sharing high fives with my friends, we turned to see miles of bonefish tailing across the flat.
Florida Keys Kayak Fishing Tips
The clear water allows the unique opportunity to sight fish for bonefish, permit and tarpon. Light rigs and live bait like shrimp, crabs or finger mullet, allow the angler an edge when pursuing elusive game fish. The recommended set up for fishing the Keys is a seven-foot, medium-light rod with a 3000 reel spooled with 10-pound braided line.
For medium-size tarpon, permit and small sharks, use a seven-foot, heavy rod and 5000 reel spooled with 20-pound braided line. Nothing trumps live bait. There are plenty of bait shops selling live shrimp, crabs and mullet.
For bonefish, rig a shrimp on a 3/16-ounce Hookup bucktail. To target tarpon, use live shrimp on a 4/0 wide-gap circle hook with a small split shot. Attach the hook to a short 40-pound fluorocarbon leader.
Permit are one of the toughest fish on the flat. Use a live crab on a 4/0 J-hook and a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader.
Choose a kayak with good stability. Standing in the kayak makes sight fishing easier. Look for a quiet boat, with low hull slap. A clean deck also helps reduce noise when sneaking up on fish.
Where to Launch
Sugarloaf Marina provides central access to the Gulf or Atlantic. Blimp Road is one of the best locations to access to the Gulf backcountry. The public ramp at Spanish Key Harbor is the best place to access the ocean or Gulf side of the Keys and work both tides in one day.
Where to Stay in the Florida Keys
Sugerloaf Lodge is minutes away from the best fishing with a bait shop on location. You can have a cup of coffee with local legends before launching. Just down the road, Palms Hotel has great prices and is central to some of the best hot spots.
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Where to Eat in the Florida Keys
My favorite place is Mangrove Mama’s. Try the lobster Reuben and homemade potato salad. Then, finish it off with a world-famous Key lime pie.
Other Florida Keys Attractions
Visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and relive the tumultuous life of the legendary author and angler. Don’t miss his famous six-toed cats, descendants of the writer’s own feline friends.
This article was first published in Kayak Anger Issue 44. Subscribe to Kayak Anger and get the magazine delivered to your front door. Download the Kayak Angler Magazine+ app to seamlessly glide between the digital archives, the latest articles and videos or browse the digital archives for your desktop here.
The Florida Keys are the best place to catch permit, tarpon and bonefish. | Feature photo: Alex Tejeda