Hot water tactics.
Drift-fishing large areas is the way to bottom fish the Keys in the hotter months. To start, find some flat bottom in the 200- to 300- foot range. This area is less than 10 miles from many Oceanside boat ramps in the Keys. It may take some time and effort to locate higherfish densities, but this style of fishing pays off because you don't need "hard to get" numbers and once you put in the effort you can map out where the fish are from your experience. You're also pretty likely to find some small untouched spots of your own.
You want to stay in a similar depth scope for the majority of the drift, so factor in the wind and current to maximize drifts in your target zone. A great way to figure out what effects these forces will have on your boat is to try a practice drift before you get any lines wet. Once you have reached your target depths put the boat into a short drift and watch your actual path over the GPS. When you are sure of the speed and direction of the drift, relocate your boat so that your baits have maximum bottom time in the desired depth.
Tackle selection is important for any fishing expedition and this time is no different. When you are hand cranking in deep water, braid is probably the best option for line. It allows you to feel the bite better and requires less weight to hold bottom, due to its low elasticity and thin diameter. Braid can be very expensive, but one way to cut down on cost is to simply wind on a top shot instead of filling entire reels with it. As for terminal rigging, begin by forming a double line with your braid using a Bimini twist. Next, tie on about 20 feet of 30-pound mono. Then tie three short loops spaced a couple feet apart, finishing each with a 2/0 hook. Then add enough weight to the "bitter" end of the leader to hold it near the bottom. This is a great snapper rig and should be employed when exploring new areas.
While searching this mostly flat terrain, you are bound to eventually find some sort of structure, however small. This is when you want to rapidly deploy a bullet head jig rigged with an extra hook and a whole ballyhoo. These pieces of structure are notorious for holding grouper. However small they may seem they offer shelter in an otherwise featureless bottom and many are home to hungry grouper.
Inshore, seasonal tides make for an interesting time of year in the Upper Keys. Large areas that normally are too shallow to fish become fishable. A locale that changes during this high-water season is east of Whipray Basin, Crocodile Dragover. These flats will all have enough water on them to consistently pole around in search of redfish, snook, jack crevalle, sharks and trout. The grey ghosts will also be out on the flats, but to have your best shot at seeing some bones, fish during the cooler parts of the day either in the early morning or the late afternoon as the hot water pushes them off the flats.
DIVING Hitting deep wrecks can be an exciting possibility this time of year as big reef fish move to the depths fleeing the high water temperatures. Depending on your skill level as a free diver you may or may not elect to try some tank dives. The twin wrecks of the Bibb and the Duane off Key Largo are prolific spots to try. The top of the Duane is about 65 feet deep and the sand is at 130 feet. A decent free diver will be able to effectively hunt the blue water surrounding the wreck and the upper portion of the wreck itself. However many large bottom fish are nearly inaccessible without tanks to all but the most accomplished of free divers. The Bibb lies on her side, not generating much relief for a free diver to explore easily, but a great wreck to tank dive because the Bibb receives markedly less fishing pressure.
BEST BET KEYS
This could be your last month of the year to reliably target dolphin and other offshore species. Your best shot is to head offshore and look for any floating debris, which if you're lucky will hold dolphin, wahoo and tripletail all on the same piece of flotsam. If you find a piece of debris and it appears to be void of any predatory fish, make sure you drop a bait down as wahoo may remain lurking deep underneath the object. The commotion could also attract any dolphin or other predators that were previously out of sight.