Email Address

Tarpon Fishing in Islamorada. Florida Keys - 09/04/17

Lee, our oldest son had said he would love to go back to the Florida Keys to fish for Tarpon, Goliath Grouper and Bull Shark – not much of a list!! We'd also been told that Jeff Pfeister, skipper of Dockside Charters was thinking of retiring so we planned one more trip. We rate Jeff as one of the best skippers we have used having fished with him over several years. No flamboyance, just a traditional skipper who knows just what he is doing, especially when fishing for Tarpon at night.  It's the best time to do this and some of the skippers from other Marinas avoid this.  Our friend, Hugh, also expressed an interest in Florida fishing following our 2016 Canadian expedition, so the three of us, plus one (Sandy) headed for Islamorada in April which is the time when you can catch big Tarpon.

We arrived at Miami Airport around 8pm and then had to queue for around 2½ hours to collect our pre-booked car from Budget.  People waiting in line were backed up and so we took it in turns to stand in the queue - it didn't make it go any faster and we looked on as one man tried to deal with the crisis and persuaded other staff to stay on to sort out the mess.  The whole process was shambolic but I had pre-paid for the car and to sort out a refund meant that I still had to wait in line.  I will never use Budget again; customer service was almost non-existent.

For accommodation during our stay, we rented a private house in a gated community; the cost was £2090 split four ways.   A good choice as it had a fully-equipped kitchen so that we could prepare meals; eating out in Florida can be very expensive.  We did have a problem with the booking through and the resultof this was a severe communications breakdown which ultimately resulted in a $250US taxi ride for Lee from Miami airport but that's another story. 


This location was idyllic; small, verdant with palm trees and flowers, and it had a small swimming pool which Sandy made good use of whilst we were out fishing.  There is a small dock there where you can moor your boat, and fish whilst watching nesting Osprey.  Anglers' Reef is located at Mile marker 84.9 and was within a very short walking/driving distance of the Marina where Jeff's boat is moored.

Day one of the holiday started with the sound of a pair of Osprey feeding their fledgling in a nest high up on a on a pole a few yards from our rented villa.


Breakfast in the sun was at Robbie's, where the restaurant is called 'The Hungry Tarpon' and as this was Hugh's first visit, we took him to enjoy the delights of a huge meal, and a chance to feed the Tarpon he had travelled so far to see as well as Egret, Brown Pelican and the ever present Grackle which is an indigenous bird similar to a blackbird. 

 Having enjoyed this start to the day, we headed for Worldwide Sportsman - a massive tackle shop which seems to have more clothes than fishing tackle these days.  A final stop for the morning was Sandy's favourite; Winn Dixie, where we bought our food and drinks for the week.  This is located around 7 miles from our resort.

After lunch we fished of the jetty at the rear of the house using sections of prawn (or shrimp in the USA) for bait with a few pieces thrown in for loose feed. I was first up with a Gray Snapper, then Hugh joined me and we had a couple of Rainbow Parrotfish each which fought well on lightish tackle (7’ spinning rod, 8lb line size 10 hook).  Hugh then caught a different species of Parrotfish as yet unidentified. We had a couple of hours' break before heading out to Tarpon fish as the light fell at around 7.00pm.  Lee still had not arrived so missed this first experience which was a great shame.

The wind wasn’t helpful as it caused our drifts to veer off in less than ideal directions, but Jeff persevered by manoeuvring the boat to get this best location. We used the classic bait, crab suspended from a float to stop them diving into the grass on the bottom. The takes were not the usual Tarpon screamers you get when the wind is in a better direction, these were knocks and you had to wind down hard and quickly to set the hooks. I missed the first one, but when I hit the second the water erupted as the Tarpon thrashed around, jumping and tearing line from the reel. Those who know Hugh will know he has filmed wildlife all over the world, and he said the take and fight was the most savage thing he had seen. We saw the full length and sheer depth of the fish as it jumped well clear of the surface as I struggled to get it back to the boat. Jeff said it was a good 160-170lbs, my best to date. With a less skilled skipper I think we may well have blanked.

We finished until midnight and were glad to be able to sleep after a hectic day.

Lee had also arrived as last after a problem with his ESTA and the Homeland security computer system being down.

The next day, we were up at 7.00 am to go shark fishing. This may have been too much too soon as we were still very tired from travelling and the previous night's exertions.  I asked Jeff if we could stop on the way to catch fresh bait and to try for other species. Again, because of the wind of the previous few days, the water was coloured and great chunks of weed were drifting across the surface. We managed a few Speckled Seatrout, Snapper and a small Barracuda by jig fishing with prawn, after which we headed off to the deeper water to fish for Shark.

As Lee had missed the first day's fishing, we decided he would be first up to take whichever of the three rods went off first, followed by Hugh who hadn't done that type of fishing before, and I was last to fish.

Lee missed the first run, mainly due to him trying to strike (a difficult reflex habit to break), as against just keeping the rod low and winding to set the circle hook. He got it right the second time and played a Lemon Shark of around 140lbs to the boat.  The next one up was a Nurse Shark for Hugh. These aren’t the most spectacular fighters but this one was 8-9 feet long and weighed around 250lbs so tested Hugh’s strength with its sheer bulk.

We were talking about returning to the marina when the rod went again and I had a smaller Lemon Shark of around 125lbs so it was the perfect way to end the day with one fish each. 

Jeff told us that forecast for Friday’s Tarpon fishing didn’t look good as the weather would be deteriorating  and so suggested we went out again that evening at 8pm as conditions looked much better.  We always listen to our skippers; Lee was the brave man who OK'd it with Sandy and we were back on the boat that evening.

This was a good call as it was the only night with near perfect conditions. Lee and I both hooked and lost Tarpon on the first drift when the hooks pulled out. This happened frequently as a Tarpon's mouth is rock hard. Shortly afterwards Lee hit another really big fish, fighting it all the way to the side of the boat.  (You're not allowed to lift Tarpon fully out of the water).  Jeff rated the fish at 160lbs (fortunately just smaller than mine otherwise I wouldn't have heard the last of it!!).  Understandably, the fishing went quiet for half an hour before I had one, a smaller fish of around 100lbs but still powerful sport.

Hugh hadn’t had a take and Lee and I had decided that the next fish would be Hugh’s even if we had to hand him a rod, as you just have no idea where a fish will hit (Hugh later said he would never have accepted it).  I'm not sure he wanted to catch one having seen the amount of energy expended on the earlier catch but sure enough, he had the next take. He played it well and he kept thinking he had the fish beaten when it came to the surface, but it took a breath and off it went again. Each time it surfaced, Jeff said “that’s another 5 minutes” and this was followed by a groan from Hugh! I think he was starting to despair that he wouldn’t get it to the boat but perseverance paid off and he played the fish skilfully using all his strength and was rewarded with his first Tarpon.

We headed back in at around 1.00 am and were looking forward to a lie in the following morning as we were all shattered. Fishing-wise we had made the right call, guided by Jeff – that's one of the reasons we make sure we use the best skipper and follow his advice but we were all out on our feet as we hadn’t had sufficient recovery time and I'm not sure I would do that again.

We were slow up the next morning and went for a dabble in the quay at the back of the house. There were lots of smaller fish, one being a Sargeant Major, so we made the challenge of trying to catch one each. Their mouths are very small so this was a problematic, especially with the Parrotfish and Grunt being more dominant. Sure enough, Hugh 'the Roach master' won the challenge by catching a Sargeant Major as well as a couple of species of Snapper. I managed a French Grunt whilst Lee switched to our trusty bait…. Spam!!! and managed 4 Pinfish and a Parrotfish and then taught one of the local kids how to do the same.

When 8pm came around for the next Tarpon trip we were all whacked. Hugh decided to have a night off, but Lee and I persevered even though the conditions were the most changing as Jeff had predicted and drifting with crab proved a real challenge. This made the sport slow. I had a tarpon of around 70lbs, the smallest one of the trip, but the highlight of the evening was seeing Lee’s float charge to the side. These aren’t used as bite indicators for tarpon so you never really watch them, they just keep the crabs up, but his took off. He would down and set the hook into a less powerful fish which didn’t jump. I said I didn’t think it was a Tarpon, Jeff agreed and said there were permit that turn up occasionally, and this was a 21lb’er. Neither of us had ever caught one before so this was one of the highlights of the trip and made a difficult night a red –letter one.

We were all worn out so the following day we had a leisurely walk around the State Park at Key West where we searched for wildlife and birds, a nice break after fishing.  Back at the villa, we spent the rest of the day chilling out watching the Red Bellied Woodpeckers that were frequent visitors to the palm trees opposite, and the nesting Ospreys and Pelicans in the marina.

The next day the wind had subsided so we went out on the ocean side of the Keys to try reef fishing. We all enjoy trying lots of different methods to catch different species but due to the poor weather conditions, we'd been unable to get out far enough to where the Bull Sharks and Goliath Grouper were so we thought this would be a fun alternative and it was.

Jeff bought along a gross (144) of prawns which we used to bait a weighted jig lure casting out and twitching or using a slow retrieve. We had constant sport fishing on the coral heads catching a vast array of fish including Hogfish, Saucereye  Porgy, French Angelfish, Lane Snapper, Mutton Snapper, Yellowtail Snapper,  Bar Jack, Grunt, Spanish Mackerel, Bermuda Chub … the list just goes on. So much so that we ran out of bait and had to briefly return to shore to get more.

As we went out, there was a storm warning so we tried out a little further away in an attempt to beat the weather. Once again the sport was full on. Much to everyone’s surprise, Lee managed a stunning Goliath Grouper of around 5lbs just before his next fish was bitten clean through by a Barracuda which menacingly returned to take the head before Lee could retrieve it.  Hugh was playing a Bar Jack and after a brief fight, his rod whipped over and he wound in just the head.  Barracuda were on the prowl which is not what you want if you're not fishing for them!   By this time, the wind had got up and the swell was in danger on coming over the side of the boat so we ended the session and returned to shore.  I went down to the jetty and managed to catch a couple of Sargeant Major’s of my own and three Snapper

As we hadn’t got a Tarpon trip that evening Lee and I decided to fish the quay at around midnight. I was touch legering for bits and pieces but Lee reckoned he could catch a shark. I used small pieces of fish purchased from the bait freezer in Win Dixie (why don’t supermarkets have bait fridges over here?)  I managed three Gray Snapper and a Blue Striped Grunt before Lee’s line started to run out. He was using my Exage rod with 20lb line and a 17lb wire trace.  Lee struck into the fish which veered off behind a mooring post but with constant pressure he got it back to the quay where I could wrap the trace around my shark gloved hand hauling the fish in. It was a Nurse Shark of around 10-15lbs. The other “highlight” was the raccoon that came to watch us and see what he could steal.  Fortunately he didn’t fancy smelly prawn pieces and we were glad when he wandered off as they can have a bad attitude.

The next morning was our last fishing trip, another shark trip. Once again, on the way out Jeff let us try another method. This was floatfishing with a jig head suspended below baited with a prawn. The difference this time is the float was made as a popper so as you twitched it, it made the noise attracting the fish to the bait. This was fished with the boat drifting over the grass beds. We all caught Ladyfish, named the poor man’s Tarpon because of its aerial acrobatics and you only get 50% of them in as they frequently throw the hook. We all caught around 10 Speckled Seatrout each, some was for shark bait and some were kept for dinner. Then for the last half of the session, we fished for shark again, and once again we all caught a Lemon Shark each.

This one ended a little differently. Once again I was last man and was playing my fish when a shark ran through one of the other lines. I got mine in but Lee was hanging on to the other rod as the fish just kept going and the reel was down to the backing. Jeff pulled up the anchor and chased the fish so that Lee could get on to the regular line. We all hoped this was his longed-for Bull Shark, but as it neared the boat we could see it was a foul-hooked Lemon Shark and one of the smallest of the week. It never fails to amaze me how hard fish fight when foul-hooked. 

 Then we went to Worldwide Sportsman just down the road to have a drink on the balcony and watch the sea and the sun going down which was idyllic. Then it was back home to eat the seatrout with Cajun spices cooked by Hugh; really tasty.

The following day, our last, we started the morning with breakfast at Robbie’s once more, then visited the John Pennecamp State Park searching for wildlife and birds again, and seeing a great aquarium there too, before heading for the airport and home.

It had been a great trip. The accommodation was excellent and we would do it that way again. Once again Jeff (Pfeister on Dockside Charters in Windley Key, Islamorada webpage ) had been an outstanding skipper, a pleasure to share a boat with and is highly recommended, always putting us on the intended species despite the conditions being testing and joining in with the mickey taking between us all. The thing that really makes the trip is the good company, so a big “thank you” as well to Lee and Hugh, and especially Sandy for being so patient and supportive.

If you are interested in a trip like this, you can read more about the organisation in the "Two Travellers, One Rod" section or by using the following link.