Ready To Go
Not many things make my heart race with excitement as much as seeing the words "Keys Trip Info" in the subject line of an email from my brother or a fishing buddy. I have been going to the Florida Keys in one fashion or another every year or so since I was old enough to drive. Every time it is an adventure and our last trip to Big Pine Key was no exception. If you are considering a trip to the Florida Keys there are three things I would recommend that you spend time getting right: A location that suits your needs, as much local or experienced knowledge that you can beg borrow or steal about navigation and fishing or diving spots, and preparation around your gear and boat so that the days go as smoothly as possible.
Key West Harbor
A Bertram Sportfishing boat cruises through blue Key West water
FL Keys Accommodations
The two main modes of accommodation in the Florida Keys are hotels and private home rentals. A quick search on one of the travel sites (such as VBRO) will provide tons of information to compare and contrast. Narrow your search by the Key or Island you wish to visit, and go from there. On my last trip I rented a house directly on Big Pine Channel and enjoyed the short boat ride to Bahia Honda State Park (and the causeway boat ramp). Proximity to a boat ramp is something to consider if you are trailering a boat to use in the Keys. Many places, such as the Dolphin Marina nearby, rent boats and this is a great option if you are only down for a few days. The luxury of NOT taking your boat is well worth the rental fee for three days or less. However, we were there for twelve days (you can be jealous now) so we took our own ride and loved every minute of it. On this trip we were there for the first week and two weekends of lobster season. The salinity of the water in the Keys, and the never-ending flow of current in many spots prevents barnacles from growing so your boat can be left in the water if you feel that the property is secure. We have left our boat docked on every trip for several years and never had any problems, but that is the boat owner's decision and our experience is no guarantee these days. Find a spot that suits your needs such as a close boat ramp if you plan to take your own boat. Many properties in the Keys have docks, including some hotels, so make sure you get a place with a safe secure dock whether for your own boat, or a rental if you think you might rent a boat instead. Once you are there you will need to know where to go. Knowledge is always important to fishing or diving success.
Boat Docked in FL Keys
Many FL Keys rental properties have docks.
Get Some FL Keys Knowledge
My brother and I used to vacation on Ramrod Key and dive the small reef patches along the shore between Big Pine Cut and Little Palm Island so we know our way around the general area which is always an advantage when navigating, fishing and diving in the lower keys. We always talk to people who have recently been to the area we are visiting if possible. While fisherman are often secretive about their favorite spots (divers even more so) people will always give you some insight and most will steer you right in a general way. Then you can find your own secret spots and there is nothing more fun than that I can promise you. Navigating in the Keys has gone high tech and the electronics are valuable in many ways. Always err on the side of caution when approaching rocky areas and remember it is better to idle up and discover bottom at a slow pace than to find a coral head as big as a house just inches below the surface when you are on a plane. A good paper chart is indispensable when plying Florida Keys waters. Yes we all have GPS navigation now and that makes finding spots and getting home a pleasure compared to the old days, but a physical chart can show you where you are relative to other islands, rocks, and structure on a much larger scale than any GPS screen. A Physical chart is immediate, doesn't use electricity, and nothing ever gets "deleted" from it by accident. The waterproof charts produced by HotSpot are great because they zero in on a specific area. I wouldn't leave the dock without mine. Read the charts the night before, plan your dive and dive your plan.
Florida Keys Water
Water so clear you can see fish from the boat!
Fuel When Boating in the Keys
Mind the current!
Here is one serious note on fuel: fill up 100% before starting out each day because weather and wind change quickly in the Keys. You may have to take an alternate route home. Also something that many boaters new to the Keys don't consider (and this includes lifelong Florida boaters as well) is current. The current never stops running in the Keys, and often you might be going against the current going out, then the tide changes, and you are going against the current again on your way back in. This can burn twice as much fuel as you are used to in the same amount of time on the water. A wise rule of thumb is to always fill up 100% before departing for the day, then check your fuel level at the time you think would be halfway through the day you intended. Doing this can save you a very inconvenient stranding. You can also purchase boat towing insurance from companies like SeaTow or B.O.A.T. US, and in my opinion, the benefits they offer far exceed the costs.
Your FL Keys Gear & Licenses
When Fishing or Diving, It's all about Preparation
Fishing and diving in the Florida Keys is rewarding and fun. But be sure to observe and obey all of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission licensing and catch rules and regulations. In addition to current licenses and stamps for everyone on board, we also always take a copy of the FWC Regulations to refer to out on the water (available where Florida fishing licenses are sold).
Once you are licensed and informed you have to be ready with new and functioning gear. For fishing: sharp hooks, new line and fresh terminal tackle can make your life easier along your adventure. For lobster diving and snorkeling: a spare mask and fins are a good idea and we go so far as to make a "save the day" kit that has extra fins, snorkel, mask, gloves, measuring devices, sunscreen, and bottles of water. This is in addition to the stocks that you always take out on the boat in the keys. Sun protection is no laughing matter in tropical locations. Those new nylon breathable long sleeve fishing T-shirts are amazing. Use sunscreen or cover up (you will be glad you did). My brother might make fun of my white face mask and hat combination, but I never get sunburned!
Sun Protection gets serious
A ten hour day on Florida Keys Waters demands it.
Florida Spiny Lobster
Delicious Lobster can make your trip worthwhile!
So plan your trip to the Florida Keys and get ready for a real adventure. Remember to choose a location that suits your needs for launching and docking a boat. Gather as much knowledge about navigating and spots as you can. Supplement your electronic navigation systems with quality physical charts and be sure to prepare your gear. Proceed with caution into unfamiliar waters and find the bottom on purpose, not by accident at hight speed. Don't take chances with fuel and mind the current (it depletes fuel at an alarming rate). Finally prepare your day and gear so that you can enjoy the beautiful Florida Keys and return again and again. I hope to see you down there sometime!