The Best Thing to Do in Key West

Key West has many charms, but the jewel in her crown is the coral reef that lies just offshore. It’s the only living coral reef in North America, just seven miles away from the city of Key West. That means Key West reef fishing is within reach of smaller boats in most weather. The reef provides habitat for millions of fish and other marine life like sea turtles, porpoise (dolphin), and even the birds benefit from the stretch of reef that runs through the Atlantic Ocean past Key West. The coral reef is an entire ecosystem, complex and important to the biodiversity of the planet.

There are lots of different ways visitors to Key West can explore the coral reef, but this is about fishing the reef. Yellowtail, grouper, and barracuda are the main reef fish but of course you might pull in a mackerel, some jacks, or who knows what else. There’s a good chance you’ll hook a shark or two, since there are lots of them on the reef and around Key West. Just keep a law stick in your boat so you don’t take any undersize fish. If you go reef fishing with a Key West charter boat, then don’t worry about it because they’ll know what’s legal and what’s not.

Basics of Reef Fishing

Key West Reef Fishing


First, if you’re renting a boat or bringing your own boat and heading out to the reef for a day of fishing in Key West, you want to know a few basics first. One important tip is about anchoring. You’re not really supposed to anchor on the coral reef. You are supposed to aim for throwing your anchor into the sand. A good anchor to use for that is a plow anchor with a big, long heavy chain. It’s the chain that will actually keep your boat from going anywhere, so even though a giant chain is a pain to deal with, it helps when anchoring in the sand. Another anchor that’s popular is a grapple anchor. This is an anchor that has spider-like legs that dig into rocks but when you try and pull it out, the legs bend rather than holding on too tight to the rocks. But it’s not for coral, remember. Anchoring in sand is how you’re supposed to do it for reef fishing.


To get Yellowtails (Yellowtail Snapper), the key is using your chum correctly. First, you don’t have to get the expensive chum that costs $5 a box. You can get the cheaper chum, if you can find it in Key West. Most of the places that sell chum seem only to carry the expensive stuff.

You should let your chum go out for a while before you start trying to hook any snapper. This gives it time to reach the bigger fish before the smaller ones get hooked and spook the whole bunch. Feed your line out with the chum so the fish think your bait is just another innocent piece of free snacks. Feed you line way out. This way you should hook some yellowtail snapper for dinner.

Bottom Fishing

For grouper, you want to send down a hook to the bottom, using sinkers. The current out on the reef can be strong sometimes so be ready to put some heavy lead. Most people use 8 oz or 10 oz, but some people like the heavier weights. Live pinfish, ballyhoo, blue runners, pilchards, whatever you can get your hands on. Send him down and waint. Put your pole in the holder and keep an eye on it and be ready to grab it when something strikes. It might be a shark, so keep your fingers crossed if grouper is what you’re after. This is Key West reef fishing at its best.