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March 7, 2024

Flats Fishing in Key West: Top FIVE Targeted Species!

Written by: Captain Kody Michael

Flats fishing in Key West, Florida offers both challenge and excitement! If you’re an avid angler looking to discover the abundant marine life of the Atlantic Ocean waters and the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys is the place for you. Being one of the world’s best sport fishing destinations, Key West is the ideal location to make your flats fishing dreams come true!

The appeal of flats fishing in Key West goes beyond the pursuit of a trophy catch; it’s a holistic experience that immerses anglers in the tranquil environment of the flats. These waterways teem with game fish, including tarpon, bonefish, permit, snook, and yellow jack inviting fishermen to experience a one-of-a-kind angling experience.

Skilled fly fisherman in action, casting over the crystal-clear waters of Key West flats

The top FIVE targeted species when flats fishing in Key West!

1. Tarpon

In Florida, tarpon, often known as the “Silver King,” are incredibly sought-after game fish. Anglers love these fish for their amazing antics and strong runs, which make them a prized catch. The tarpon fishing season in the Florida Keys usually runs from late April through September, with May and June being the busiest months. The fish travel to Key West and surrounding areas during this time to spawn in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Massive tarpon being pulled out of the water during flats fishing in Key West

Tarpon fishing in Key West is predominantly a catch-and-release endeavor; you capture the fish for enjoyment, only to release it back into the ocean.  These fish often congregate in waterways, passes, and near beaches. Tarpon can reach up to 200 pounds, making for an incredible battle! Optimal success when tarpon fishing is achieved through the use of live bait, including pinfish, crabs, or threadfin herring, providing both a strategic approach and an exhilarating experience for anglers!

2. Bonefish

While flats fishing in Key West, you can expect to target Bonefish with your flats fishing guide. Bonefish are prized for their elusive nature, agility, and speed, making them a thrilling challenge for anglers. With the expertise of your guide, navigating the shallow flats becomes a strategic endeavour, offering you the opportunity to test your skills against one of the most sought-after species in saltwater fishing.

Bonefish are easily startled, so maintaining silence is essential while approaching them in the shallow waters. Having the  ability to vanish quickly, bonefish are commonly nicknamed the “gray ghost”. Bonefish offer flats fishing enthusiasts an exhilarating fight, leaving anglers with unforgettable memories of their fishing adventure. Get ready for an immersive experience as you track, cast, and reel in these elusive Bonefish, creating lasting memories on the scenic flats of Key West and beyond.

Bonefish catch-and-release in shallow flats, a prime catch in Key West fishing

3. Permit

Catching the elusive permit in Key West is a prized achievement, especially when aiming for the “Grand Slam,” which involves securing tarpon, bonefish, and permit all in a single day while flats fishing. The optimal time for permit fishing in the Florida Keys generally spans from March through November, aligning with the preferred months for flats fishing enthusiasts in Florida.

Permit are known for their strength and impressive speed, posing a challenge for anglers, specifically while fly fishing. Recognizable by their distinctive long bodies, forked tails, and large dorsal fins, permits can reach lengths of up to 48 inches and weigh more than 50 pounds. Sporting a silver-gray body with a yellowish belly, they inhabit reef regions, channels, and shallow structures throughout the flats of Key West, where they feed on tiny fish, crabs, and shrimp.

permit scaled Reel Guides

While the weather, water temperature, and the fish’s behavior may all affect the optimal time to catch a permit, fishing for permit on the flats is usually best from March through November, particularly for those who love flats fishing in Florida Keys. However, the ideal time to visit during these months may vary from year to year.

While fly fishing remains a popular practice for flats fishing in the Florida Keys, targeting Permit demands a considerable amount of patience and skill. These fish are known for their timidity and easily spooked nature. Employing live crabs or well-crafted crab flies as bait can prove effective. The key lies in stealthily locating the fish and executing precise, quiet casts to secure a successful catch.


 4. Snook

Identifying a snook is unmistakable due to its distinct features, including a pronounced lower jaw, a gently sloping forehead, and a black line running from head to tail along its side. With the potential to grow up to 48 inches long and weigh an impressive 38 pounds, a snook’s color range from golden yellow to a glistening silver.

Anglers that prefer flats fishing respect snook for their fierce fighting capabilities and aggressive bites. Known for their powerful fights and spectacular jumps, snooks offer a thrilling encounter that lures anglers back time and time again. The best times to go flats fishing in Key West for snook are in late spring or at the beginning of the fall.

Powerful snook showcasing its distinctive features during flats fishing adventure in Key West

Snook prefer areas near structures like mangrove shorelines, seawalls, and bridges, where they can lie in wait for prey. Effective flats fishing in the Florida Keys often involves using live bait or high-quality artificial lures near submerged structures. Fly-fishing with patterns mimicking shrimp or baitfish is also successful.

Given their elusive nature, approaching snook requires stealth. A well-placed cast close to their hiding spots can provoke a thrilling encounter. The snook’s unparalleled power and rapid movements guarantee an exhilarating fight for anybody brave enough to take one on!

 5. Yellow Jack

Yellow Jack are marked by their distinct features: a sleek body, vibrant yellow coloration, and a notable black band running from the eye to the tail. These spirited fish, a favorite for flats fishing in Key West, can reach lengths of up to 36 inches and weigh around 20 pounds, showcasing both strength and agility.

Anglers are drawn to yellow jacks for their tenacity and lively behavior during catches, making them a sought-after species for flats fishing in Key West. Known for their vigorous strikes and acrobatic displays, yellow jacks provide an exciting challenge that keeps anglers returning for more. Prime times for encountering yellow jacks in the Florida Keys are often in the warmer months, making summer and early fall ideal for flats fishing excursions in Key West.

Vibrant yellow jack caught in the midst of flats fishing off Key West

Yellow jacks tend to inhabit nearshore waters, including reefs, wrecks, and drop-offs—perfect locations for flats fishing in Key West. Their predatory nature makes them responsive to various bait and lures, with live bait like pilchards or artificial jigs proving effective. Successful flats fishing for yellow jacks involves casting near underwater structures and areas with a strong current where they actively pursue small fish and crustaceans.

Given their energetic behavior, a well-placed cast or a skillful presentation of lures can trigger an exhilarating response from yellow jacks. Anglers who appreciate the thrill of an intense battle will find that the yellow jack’s robust nature ensures an exciting and memorable flats fishing experience in Key West.


The Bottom Line

Going flats fishing in Key West offers a unique opportunity to pursue a variety of fish. The vast, open expanses of Florida’s flats offer an exhilarating  journey, inviting anglers to set their sights on some of the most thrilling game fish. Whether you’re geared up to fight the incredible tarpon, ready catch the elusive bonefish, or wanting to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Key West waters, the flats holds promise for every angler!

For those seeking an authentic flats fishing experience in Key West, Reel Guides offers specialized charters that cater to all skill levels. All captains provide expert guidance and access to exceptional fishing locations. Whether silently poling through shallow waters or engaging in sight-casting for tailing fish, every moment spent flats fishing in the Florida Keys reflects the state’s rich angling history.


Equipped with a well-planned strategy, the right gear, and a touch of luck, success is within reach. These adventures are certain to carve out memories you’ll treasure for a lifetime!


Click here to book your next flats fishing trip in Key West today!