All About Back Country and Flats
By Capt. Frank Stabile
The Bonefish also called banana fish, phantom and gray ghost, is definitely a
fish with after burners. Probably pound for pound the strongest and fastest running fish in salt water. When people
ask me what it is like to fight a bonefish, I tell them to hook a car on the highway. That's a bonefish.
We catch bonefish in the Keys all year round. The spring and fall are probably the best times of the year to find
fish all day long because the water temperatures are more constant. In the winter, mid day is very good once the
water warms up. And in the summer the morning or late afternoon are best because the water gets too hot during
the day. Bonefish don't like extreme temperatures. My favorite is in the summer, when it has been hot and calm
for many days. If we then get a rainy overcast day, the bonefish will show up in good numbers and be very hungry.
There are three basic ways to fish for bonefish. Some people chum with bits of shrimp or crab to bring the fish
on to the flats. We try to catch them on light tackle spinning gear or fly. Some anglers will stake up the boat
on the edge of the flat and wait for bonefish to come in with the tide. The third way is to pole the boat around
on the flats and sight fish for them. This is the way I usually look for bonefish. Sight fishing is when you look
for the tails of the fish when they are digging for food. Or actually see the fish in the clear waters of the Keys.
I call this kind of fishing angling, because it requires more skill than luck. But it always helps to be lucky.
The tackle I use for bonefish is of two types. Spinning and fly. My spinning rods are seven feet long with Shimano
spinning reels spooled with 250 yards of 8 pound line. The fly rods I use are Penn or Sage foot rods with STH or
Penn reels. I use a 6 weight rod for calm days and bonefish in the 5 to 8 pound range. On larger fish I use 8 and
9 weight rods. And if it is a bit windy I use a 10 weight rod.
Most anglers I fish, have seen on TV or read about catching bonefish on fly but have never actually tried it. It
is much more challenging than the kind of fly fishing done on freshwater streams. So don't worry if this is your
situation. I am happy to teach my anglers the art of saltwater fly casting. That is, casts that are 30 to 70 feet
long and shooting the line to the target.
Tarpon also called the Silver King, and for good reason! When hooked, this fish will jump with great acrobatic
leaps. They will run you out of line, and if you haven't lost him yet, battle you till your arms cramp and you
can hardly stand . The tarpon I fish for run from young juniors that weigh 20 pounds to the body busting 150 pounders.
Tarpon live in the Keys waters year round. We call these fish resident Tarpon. In the spring starting in late February
the larger migrating tarpon show up to spawn in our Gulf waters. These fish are coming and going throughout the
Keys until late June. Tarpon that weigh over 200 pounds have been caught at this time of the year. After the migrating
fish have left I catch smaller tarpon which are here through the summer until the water starts to get cold in the
I use different size rods depending on where I am fishing for the tarpon and the size of the fish. I use 8 pound
test line spooled on Shimano stradic spinning reels for small fish that weigh 7 to 20 pounds. 12 pound test line
on Penn 550 spinning reels for 20 to 100 pound fish 20 pound test line on Penn 750s for 80 to 100 pound fish when
I am using crabs for bait. And 25 pound test line on level wind reels when I use pin fish for bait and the tarpon
are over 100 pounds.
My personal favorite is to catch 100 plus pound tarpon on a fly rod. This is becoming very popular among northern
fly fishermen that come to the Keys. The Tarpon will take a fly quite readily. The hard part is trying to keep
the fish from jumping off or breaking the tippet. If you are a fly fisherman you must try this at least once in
this lifetime. I use 11 and 12 weight fly rods for large tarpon. And a 10 weight for fish 20 to 50 pounds in weight.
My rods are Penn, Loomis and Sage graphite construction. My reels are STH, Penn and Fin-Nor direct drive. I tie
most of the flies I use. This way I can keep up on the best patterns and colors the fish are taking at the time.
Permit are the Bulldogs of the flats. They will run long and hard. When you get them near to the boat , they start
running out again like you had just hooked him up. They will do this several times. After a long while, you think
you finally have the fish tired enough to land him. You get him close to the boat , yelling to your fishing partner
to get the net. The fish just takes off on another long run. Now you don't know who is more tired, the fish or
you. After a while longer and a few more runs, you finally land the hardest fighting fish you have ever caught
on light-tackle. This is a typical scenario of an encounter with a Permit.
Permit are found in the Keys all year . The best time to find them is late February to May , and October till the
water gets cold. If winter in the Keys is mild and the wind stays calm, the Permit fishing is red hot! The tackle
I use for Permit fishing is usually spinning. I use 7 foot custom Graphite rods and Shimano spinning reels with
8 pound test line. If the fish are running over 30 pounds, I use 12 pound test line on Penn 550s.
Catching Permit on fly in the Keys is the most t challenging fly fishing you will ever do. Permit do not eat flies
very often. But it can be done. I have had several anglers hook Permit on fly. I supply fly rods and flies on my
charters. I use Penn, Loomis and Sage fly rods matched with Fin-nor, Penn and STH fly reels.
Redfish are caught in the Everglades National Park. The boundary of the park starts 2 miles from the Keys shores
from Key Largo to Islamorada. A trip into the park is a must if you are new to fishing in the Keys.
Redfish are what I call a Fly friendly fish. If you have never caught a fish on fly , then redfish is the fish
for you. They won't give you long runs, But a red in the 7 pound range will give you a respectable battle. They
don't spook as easily as bonefish, and don't often turn down a fly. For anglers who don't fly fish, I supply ultra
light spinning gear. 4 and 6 pound test line provide a challenging fight.
Redfish are found all year, but the best months to find large schools is from March through October. June , July
and August is the best time to find tailing fish.
Snook fishing in the Keys is very good. When are in the eating mode, you can catch as many as twenty fish on a
trip. Do to the conservation efforts of the Park the fish are now averaging 10 pounds and up to 20. A 12 pound
Snook is quite a battle on light tackle. They jump, thrash and run. You have to be on the ball once you hook up
a snook, or he will run back into cover or gill the leader.
Anglers who fish a lot for Snook know that the fish can be very finicky . You can catch Snook on fly , spin or
plug. The good thing about using fly is if the fish are feeding exclusively on bait fish, they can be teased into
taking a fly. I use live bait such as pin fish, pilchards and shrimp. The most popular way is to throw jigs into
pot holes and along snags and shore line.
The Snook is the finest eating fish you will find in saltwater. This is a catch you will remember in your arms
as well as your tummy! Snook fishing is best September till April. I do allot of night fishing for Snook starting
late October through March. The mosquitoes are not bad during these months.
When I tell my anglers we are going to see a lot of sharks on our trip, they start to think of Jaws. Well that’s
not the case here. A lot of different kinds of sharks live in the Glades shallow waters. Blacktips, Bonnet, Lemon
and Nurse Sharks. All of which are of no threat to us in the boat.
Sharks provide a great fight , no matter what you use for fishing gear. I catch 50 pound Sharks on 8 pound test
line, using just shrimp for bait. Of course you have to have wire leader on your rig so as to not get bit off.
Bonnet sharks will take long fast runs similar to that of Bonefish. Blacktips will jump and thrash. Lemons are
usually the largest of the Sharks I hook up. They can get up to several Hundred pounds. People are surprised to
see such large sharks in shallow water. I lose a lot of redfish to these large sharks. I have never heard of anyone
being bitten by a shark on an Everglades fishing trip.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM A GUIDE
Florida Keys backcountry guide: What an eclectic collection of individuals from
all types of backgrounds. Your guide must be bonded to the conditions around him. Knowing which tide to fish,the
effects of water temperature, wind speed and direction, cloud cover, moon phase, barometric changes, and a host
of other variables Vary from location to location in the back-country. Your guide must be highly proficient at
finding and catching fish, and imparting the years of experience necessary to get him on the line and landed when
you are handling the pole.
Let's talk about what you can do to find the right guide for you
Look around! You're already on the internet so use a search engine. Entering keyword combinations such as "Florida
Keys + backcountry fishing" or "Florida Keys + fishing guides" into your favorite search engine
will give you a host of web addresses to start from. Being a good page designer is not necessary for being a good
guide, so don't judge them by page design only.
If you haven't looked before coming to the Keys and find yourself searching for a guide. ln some locations, a fleet
of backcountry skiffs may be visible from the road; this would be an great starting point to inquire about a charter.
Also, local tackle shops are a good place to inquire about guide services. Hotels get a fee for referrals and asking
may not get the best guide for you. Hang out at the dock and listen to the anglers returning if you have time.
The local Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Councils Have their own members and the best guide for you may just
not be a member. When all else fails, the yellow pages can be a helpful resource for finding a guide.
Once you have located a fishing guide talk to him about how you like to fish. Your day will be dependent on this
person. If you don't like him over the phone you probably won't like spending eight hours in a boat with him either.
Find out if your guide is willing and/or able to run the kind of trip you're looking for. It's very important that
you give your guide some idea of your angling ability (be realistic). There are some types of fishing here in the
Keys that just aren't suited for newcomers, and would only create frustration for both angler and guide alike.
Feel free to ask about his level of experience too. Although this is seldom asked, it certainly would be wise to
ask about seeing his Coast Guard captains license or proof of insurance.
Try to develop a rapport with your guide before you go fishing. Doing this before you book the trip with him is
even best. You have a right to expect a guide who is fishing to please you, rather than a case where he is expecting
you to make him look good in front of his peers.
Expect to give a deposit to secure the trip (varying from $50 up to half the charter price). Although many guides
will take three anglers, be smart and keep it to two. A Flats skiff can get very small with four passengers (guide
included). Remember to bring a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, and a pair of polarized sunglasses (to enable you to
see the fish you're casting to). Be sure to get a pair of glasses that have a brown tint for maximum contrast when
looking into the water. If you are planning on sight fishing up on the flats, don't wear exceptionally bright or
dark clothing. Light blue, teal, light gray, and khaki are good choices, as they will not only help to keep you
cool in the sun, but will blend well against the background of the sky. Bug repellent and sun screen are a must.
Most skiffs are equipped with a cooler with ice; all the angler needs is his own food and drink. Bring more water
than you think you'll need: soda and beer aren't going to cut it. Brief showers are quite common in the Keys most
of the year, ask the captain if he carries extra rain slickers on board for his guests. If not, it wouldn't be
a bad idea to pick up some inexpensive rain gear for yourself, just in case.As far as fishing tackle is concerned,
the guide will have everything you need. Guides get understandably aggravated when they put an angler on a nice
bunch of fish, and then lose them because of tackle failure. A good guide will have tackle ready, i.e:
1. The spools are filled to capacity with fresh line.
2. The drags are smooth
3. The guides on the rods are all in top shape (no nicks or cracks that will eat line when a nice fish makes a
Cancellation policies are not standard, every guide is different. Ask him to explain his policy to you before you
book your trip. Try to fish during the week. You'll just have a better trip.
Prices may vary somewhat, tipping in the
10-15% range is customary, provided you feel that your guide did all he could do to make your trip a pleasant one
Backcountry Fishing Guides