Peak of Spring.
The most important fish to the spring migration on the inshore side is the silver king, a.k.a. tarpon. This magnificent species invades the Keys in large numbers and draws more people to this area in May than any other fish. One reason May marks the peak season for tarpon is because of the palolo worm hatch. The worm hatch happens for one or two evenings on or around the full moon in May. These red and green worms are from 2 to 4 inches in length and come out at dusk, in order to increase their chances of making it to the reef. This protein rich worm is not just a favorite snack for tarpon, but it may be a necessary protein rich "all you can eat buffet" for them to gain enough energy to travel and spawn. Local guides have noticed that after the hatch, tarpon tend to be in smaller numbers; maybe the others are spawning out in deeper water? The worm hatch is most popular with fly fishermen, but they can also be targeted with spinning and light conventional tackle, paired with artificial plastics that resemble the worms in size and color. I have been successful with various types of Gulp! baits.
Tarpon are not the only species that congregate in the Florida Keys in May. Permit are also gathering in large numbers around many reefs and wrecks. Some will gather in the shallow waters, while some will gather around offshore wrecks in over 200 feet of water. Knowing what to look for as you approach can make all the difference. Schooling fish are competing for food so their feeding behavior is much more aggressive.
A small yellow mylar jig head tipped with a small to medium size blue crab is the bait of choice. In case you find yourself in a large school and you could not find any live blue crabs, a Gulp! crab can close the deal. I like using spinning gear, and my go-to outfit is the SSVI3500 combo spooled with 15-pound ProSpec Braid. I tie a 5-foot fluorocarbon leader to the mainline, in order to keep their eyes away from the braid. When I'm drifting over these areas, I shut my motors off as long as I can. If you do not turn your motors off, you will keep pushing them down and greatly decrease your chances of hooking up.
Offshore, dolphin will be the name of the game up and down the Keys. However, yellowtail at the reef is classic Keys fishing, and there's no better month to give it a whirl than in May. Anywhere along the Keys where you find the reef dropping off can be a good yellowtail spot, even at the patch reefs closer to shore. All you need is a spot, a few blocks of chum and baits to get the bite going. It's easy and productive fishing. Pairing yellowtail fishing with some dolphin trolling makes a great day.
DIVING Hogfish season opens on May 1, so if you have your secret spots, get to them. If not, the patch reefs are a good place to start hunting for the tasty fish, a Keys specialty.
In the shallow water it's still mostly about tarpon. Having a chance to fish the worm hatch for tarpon is a dream come true for most shallow water anglers, but it can be a tricky thing to line up. We can predict the moon phases and tides, but if the weather isn't right, it won't happen. However it works out, if you book in trips in May, you should see some tarpon. If the tarpon start wearing you out, you can always change it up and look for the grey ghost, bonefish.
MAY 1: Atlantic waters shallow water grouper season opens
MAY 3-5: Nick Sheahan Dolphin Rodeo, Tavernler Creek Marina, contact Marcia Pense (305) 393-3733
MAY 3-5: Marathon Offshore Bull and Cow Dolphin Tournament, contact Jack Carlson (305) 481-0495
MAY 4-9: The Tarponian Tournament, Marathon Key, call Donna Vankirk (305) 393-0699
MAY 9-11: Annual Mother's Day Tournament, Marathon, call (305) 743-9828
MAY 19-22: Loop Golden Fly Invitational Tarpon Tournament, Islamorada
MAY 31-JUNE 2: Skippers Dolphin Tournament, Key Largo, contact Dianne Harbaugh (305) 522-4868
By Pepe Gonzalez
Caption: Keyton and Travis Rentz land a nice mahi near the Marathon humps (approx. 22 miles southeast of Marathon).
Caption: It's high season for Keys dolphin tournaments. Here are some winners at last year's Nick Sheahan Dolphin Rodeo.