Keys to paradise: Blue water, coral reefs, big saltwater fish, warm weather

(Kansas City Star/MCT)
Florida Keys guide George Coffey guides customers to grouper and other fish.
Story by Brent Frazee
The Kansas City Star
April 2, 2012
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ISLAMORADA, Fla. — Charter captain George Coffey was steering his 25-foot boat across the aqua waters of the Florida Keys, heading for the place he calls “a fishing paradise.”

Some two miles out, there was a coral reef loaded with saltwater fish. And Coffey couldn’t wait to get there.

“They call the Keys the 'Sport Fishing Capital of the World,' “ said Coffey, 67, who has been running his Blue Water Blues Charter Service for 10 years. “And I think it would be hard to argue with that.

“I used to guide off shore up in Maine, but I moved here because this is the best fishing you’ll find.”

Coffey paused and laughed.

“Plus, the weather’s a whole lot nicer,” he said. “I don’t have to freeze in winter anymore.”

Coffey lives close to his work. His residence is a big boat docked at a marina in Islamorada.

Weekly, he heads out into the Atlantic Ocean to fish the coral reefs, wrecks and changes in bottom contour that make the Keys special.

He is an old salt, and has the look of a grizzled charter captain. He can be gruff, wears rumpled clothes at times and is not always clean-shaven. But those are the guys you want to go fishing with.

He knows the Florida Keys like the back of his hand, and he knows the fish that live there. Find structure, he said, and you’ll find fish.

“It’s like the brush piles you have in your lakes,” said Coffey, who keeps his boat docked at the Key Largo Hilton. “Only our structure is coral reefs, old wrecks and changes in bottom contour. That gives the fish places to hide and attracts the baitfish.

“You never know what kind of fish you’ll catch. That big boy could come cruising in at any minute.”

Coffey has plenty of fish stories about the “big guys” he and his customers have caught on the Atlantic Ocean. His eyes sparkle when he relates the tale of a customer who hooked a 25-pound tuna that became bait.

“He was reeling that tuna in, and all of a sudden the line took off,” Coffey said. “We chased that fish for two hours, and finally got it in. It was a 350-pound marlin. When we got it to the side of the boat, it just spit that tuna out.”

Coffey and his friend Dave Strengholt were hoping for more fish stories when they headed out into the Atlantic on a recent weekday. Coffey stopped the boat at the edge of a coral reef and dropped a bag filled with chum off the side.

Within minutes, an array of colorful snapper were darting around within a couple feet of the surface, feeding on the bits and pieces floating through the water. But Coffey wasn’t interested in those fish. It’s what lay below that interested him.

“You have to get your bait past those little ones,” he said as he chopped shrimp into bite-sized bait. “You get it down there 25 feet or so to the reef, and that’s where you’ll catch your big ones.”

Moments after Strengholt got his bait past a multitude of hungry mouths, he felt a tap. Then he felt the pull of a heavier fish.

The fish strained to get free, tugging hard as it took out drag on Strengholt’s reel. But eventually, a big grouper floated to the surface, and Coffey reached down to land it.

From that point, the bite was on. Strengholt landed a cero mackerel and another grouper. Then I landed several grouper, yellowtail snapper and a giant moray eel.

By the time we were done, we had caught eight different species of fish, all of which were released to fight another day.

Coffey wasn’t surprised. He sees the same drama unfold day after day.

“The great thing is that things can change in a second out here,” he said. “I remember one day when we’re out here on these reefs and there wasn’t a lot going on.

“Then all of a sudden a big school of nice-sized kingfish moved in and it was crazy. We caught 20 to 30 of them before it was over.”

Many factors go into fishing success, Coffey said. Current, tides, barometric pressure and even cloud cover can affect the bite. But there is one constant. Get near structure, and there’s a good chance of getting something to bite.

Some of that structure is unique. Coffey talks about an underwater mountain that rises out of the ocean depths that provides great habitat for the fish. He talks about coral reefs that look like underwater cathedrals, with craggy outcropping s and spires for the fish to swim through. He also mentions the area’s many wrecks — boats that have been purposely sunk by fisheries agencies to provide structure.

“There’s one that is called the Eagle, which was a 90-foot-long Coast Guard cutter,” Coffey said. “Divers have told me that the fish will swim in and out of the open windows and doors on that boat.”

But for Coffey, it’s not all day work. He also takes fishermen out at night to fish for tarpon and nurse sharks.

“A lot of time, we’ll catch them near bridges,” he said. “We’ve caught 200-pound fish at night. Now that’s fun.”

But for Coffey, it’s all fun. He has fished all of his life and has guided for the last 20 years. He spent 10 years guiding customers to striped bass and big bluefish off the upper East Coast. Now that he’s in Florida, he’s found his idea of true paradise.

“I’m living everybody’s dream,” he said.


WHAT/WHERE: The Keys are a chain of islands that lie just off the tip of the state and extend almost 200 miles south and west. The islands separate the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west.

FEATURES: The Keys are known for their coral reefs and rich marine ecosystem. In fact, the islands in the Upper Keys were formed by large coral reefs that became exposed as sea levels dropped over time. The Keys contain the world’s third-largest barrier reef system.

FISHING: With its abundant structure, the Florida Keys are famous for their saltwater fishing. They support more than 100 species of fish, including the famous blue marlin, sailfish, tarpon, bonefish, tuna, grouper and snapper. And there are plenty of big ones roaming those waters. The Keys have produced more saltwater world records than any other region in the world, according to the International Game Fish Association.

OTHER WATER LIFE: These waters also are home to Florida manatees, bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales and five of the six marine turtles found in the United States.

AND ON LAND: Almost 300 species of birds live on or migrate to the land surrounding the Florida Keys. More than 3 million people participate in bird watching throughout the state, many of them in the Keys.

DOLLARS AND CENTS: The Keys also are important financially. Tourism and recreation there contributed more than $1 billion annually to the economy in one year, according to a recent study.

Brent Frazee


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