It was a beautiful winter day in the Florida Keys, and Rhona Chabot and I were cruising west of Key West in Capt. R.T. Trosset’s 39-foot Yellowfin, Spindrift. Our destination was a ledge some 65 miles west of Key West harbor, where Trosset’s son, Capt. Chris Trosset, had spotted a school of massive kingfish a few days earlier.
Chris Trosset had landed two dozen kingfish weighing more than 30 pounds and two that were north of 50. King mackerel are one of my favorite fish to catch on a fly rod, and I really wanted one more than 40 pounds. This was going to be my chance.
I’ve been fishing out of Key West for 50 years, and I still find it magical. It offers the best light-tackle sport fishing in the United States. The diversity of species you can target staging out of Key West is mind boggling. You can fish flats on the Atlantic and Gulf. It’s the best place to catch a permit on the fly in the United States. You can deep-drop and fish wrecks, reefs, ledges and shrimp boats.
You can troll for blue marlin or take a shot at a swordfish. Tuna, mahi, kingfish or wahoo? They’re all here. I continue to be surprised by these waters and the variety of species you can chase.
The fishing pressure has increased significantly since I first started coming here as a young Navy JAG lawyer. In the old days, you didn’t have to run as far as you do today. We used to go out and jig off the reefs, without live bait, and we caught plenty. It’s different today, but the quality of fish is better than 50 years ago if you have a good, fast boat and don’t mind putting in some miles.
On this day, we cruised at 45 mph, even though the seas were about 3 feet. (The 39-footer has a top speed of 61 mph, but that’s just to show off.) We would have been to the ledge in 90 minutes if we didn’t have to stop in the Marquesas to catch pilchards for chum. The standard Trosset plan is to put 60 pounds of live pilchards into his three bait wells, no matter how long it takes. Yes, it takes away from fishing, but it definitely improves the catching.
Trosset’s custom bait wells circulate 2,000 gallons of water an hour, and the pilchards stay frisky the entire day. Patrick Cline, Trosset’s right-hand man and also a licensed captain, can throw a 14-foot cast net like no one I’ve seen. It’s a rare day that Spindrift is not amply supplied with live chum.
We spent maybe an hour netting bait, then continued our journey west. The Simrad electronics that cover the boat’s console would put us within 15 feet of the numbers Trosset’s son had given us. The side scanner would make sure we wound up on target. This is all sci-fi stuff compared with when I first started fishing Key West.
Way Back When
I arrived in Key West in 1971, 50 years ago this past January, as the Naval Air Station’s legal officer. Two prior years, I had been in Pensacola reading about the exploits of guys like Al Pflueger and the light-tackle records they were setting. There wasn’t much going on in Key West in those days, and the military composed 50 percent of the population. If you didn’t like to fish, you were basically stranded on an island.
I bought a 17-foot skiff with an 85-hp Evinrude and set off on a quest to learn everything I could about Key West waters and catch as many fish as possible. I had a 15-gallon gas tank, and the few times I ran to Cosgrove or the Marquesas, I carried an extra 5-gallon jug. No one netted pilchards back then; we hardly ever carried bait. All we had to do was run south to 120 feet of water and start jigging. We would hook everything from sailfish to snapper. If we ran north into the Gulf of Mexico, we never went past Smith Shoal.
Bob Montgomery was the best guide in town and one of the few who could navigate to the Gulf wrecks, including the Luckenbach and Sturtevant. There were master anglers from Miami — Jim Lopez, Elliot Fox and a few others from the Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club — who were able to get to the wrecks, and their catches were amazing.
Small, low-cost Loran-C units were still about 10 years off, and GPS had not been invented. When I first arrived in the Keys, navigation was based on time, speed and compass headings. The serious anglers all had Danforth Constellation compasses, which were calibrated for accuracy. We’d run a prescribed compass bearing at a specific RPM for an allotted time, which we monitored with a stopwatch.
It was not as easy as I’m making it sound here. When your time was up, you threw out a marker and started looking on your sonar. Sometimes there would be 50 cobia following you. When you found the wreck, the fishing was unbelievable. If you had live blue runners, you could tease amberjack and cobia up to the side of the boat and pick the one you wanted to catch. They ran more than 60 pounds. Permit and 7-pound mangrove snapper would come up the frozen chum line. It was amazing.
We found wrecks in the Atlantic by following ranges and moving along that line to a specific depth. I remember thinking that catching a half-dozen amberjack between 40 and 60 pounds on 12-pound spinning gear in an afternoon was fun. Now it’s rare to find a 50-pound amberjack anywhere.
I moved to Miami in January 1973 and joined the Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club, fishing Key West as often as possible. I began fishing with Trosset in 1975 before he started guiding. He eventually earned his captain’s license and charged $135 for a charter in his 20-foot SeaCraft. I had a flats skiff, so we’d often rotate boats. We learned a lot together and did pretty well in local tournaments, including the MET (Metropolitan South Florida Fishing Tournament). When I upgraded to a 21-foot Speedcraft with a 200-hp Yamaha outboard, it was one of the first Yamahas sold in Miami. I covered a lot of territory with that boat.
The advent of Loran-C for small boats changed everything. With Loran numbers, we could set a course to a wreck from anywhere. We no longer were confined to the Smith Shoal area, and we could run out to shrimp boats to get chum, then take off for a wreck. We spoke to shrimpers to get their “hang numbers,” which referred to the location of something on the bottom they wanted to avoid with their nets. It took a lot of time and gas, but serious anglers and guides gradually found wrecks that had never been fished. However, once someone caught you on a secret wreck, it was no longer secret. Anyone who had secret spots became extremely protective of them, and “guide wars” were not uncommon. Key West was an amazing place in the ’70s and ’80s.
Records, Friends, Sharks
As the years went on, I set a fair number of International Game Fish Association world records with Trosset, who has guided anglers to a remarkable 240-plus world records. He’s a member of the IGFA Captains Hall of Fame, and I’m a retired attorney turned photographer. And we still fish together.
Trosset has come a long way since his SeaCraft days. His 39 Yellowfin holds 500 gallons of gas, and his daily rate is $2,000. His tackle is first class: Penn Carnage rods and Van Stall reels matched with 20- and 40-pound braid. He also carries a half-dozen conventional rigs for deep-dropping and trolling, just in case. Trosset’s tackle is designed to allow anglers to catch fish quickly, and most of the guides follow this plan. The longer a fish fights, the greater the chances that a shark will get it. Even if you land a fish and release it, if it’s too tired, it won’t be able to outrun the sharks. Rhona was fighting an 80-plus-pound spinner shark when a 14-foot hammerhead took it right up to the pectoral fins in one bite. Nothing is safe in some parts of the ocean these days if it’s on a hook.
Back to that ledge and the kingfish Trosset’s son had spotted. Trosset dropped us right on top of the spot south of Rebecca Shoal Channel. We dropped anchor and threw out a handful of pilchards, and the sounder instantly turned into a red-and-yellow mosaic. I made one cast with my fly rod and hooked up after the second strip. Then the day went south: The water was full of bonito (which outside of Florida are known as false albacore) and 15-pound jack crevalle. Every cast was an instant hookup, and both jacks and bonito are tough fighters, taking a fair amount of time to land on any tackle.
After my 10th unwanted opponent, I got sloppy with my leader-tying. Offshore leaders are usually tied with Mason hard mono, but I didn’t have any, so I was using 20-pound fluorocarbon tied to a stainless steel shock tippet. I also forgot that the wire cuts through the fluorocarbon if the knot isn’t perfect. The few times I managed to hook a king mackerel, the leader broke at the knot on the first run. The fact that these kings were huge and were dragging my line through hundreds of jacks and bonito didn’t help matters. We knew there were lots of kings around because we could see them skyrocket on our pilchards. I was 0-for-5 on kings, undefeated on jacks and bonito, which I was growing to hate.
During our discussions on my inability to catch a king, I learned that Chris Trosset had been fishing with live blue runners. These are big baits, too big for jacks and bonito, so all they caught were the monster kings. Our chumming with live pilchards made the situation worse, so Trosset went to Plan B.
We moved about a half-mile, and Trosset put out two of our biggest pilchards with hooks in them while I blind-casted the unchummed waters. Rhona caught a nice 42-pound king on a live bait, and I hooked one about the same size. It was just out of gaff range when a 300-pound bull shark ate it. So much for my biggest kingfish ever on fly. Then the jacks found us again. We gave up after an hour.
Trosset has literally thousands of spots and wrecks marked on his plotter, and it’s not unusual for him to hit more than a dozen during a day’s charter. On this day, we had to run right past his favorite spot for blackfin tuna, a wreck known as “the submarine” that lies in 238 feet of water. Spindrift cruises at 42 mph, and it wasn’t long before we were anchored in more than 200 feet, which is a pretty good trick on its own.
The “sub” is a well-known wreck that holds blackfin tuna up to 30 pounds almost all year. There are snapper on the bottom and amberjacks in the midlevel of the water column, and chumming with live pilchards will bring in not only tuna but also wahoo, sailfish, rainbow runners, bonito and mahi. Unfortuantely, sharks have found it, too.
Sharks don’t care much for bonito, but they love tuna. The blackfin hang around the wreck, and the sharks hang out on the fringe of the tuna. Once a tuna is hooked and gives off those injured fish vibes, the sharks light up. This is where the heavy spinning rods and 40-pound braid go to work, as tuna must be landed ASAP or the sharks will get them. The tuna are easily hooked on fly, but your chances of landing one are almost nil.
On a typical day, you can boat two or three tuna on the heavy spin rigs before the sharks wake up. You’ll land all the bonito you hook, but the sharks will wait under the boat until you drag a tired tuna alongside. And once you lose a couple of nice tuna, you might as well leave. We managed to land a few tuna, several nice mutton snapper and a sailfish that day, and around 4 p.m. we were headed back to Key West at almost 50 mph. I think Trosset was showing off a bit, but the way that Yellowfin cuts through the waves, it’s unlikely he’ll miss many days because of foul weather.
I was back in Key West a few months later, and this time my friend Chris Lalli joined Rhona and me for a trip into the Gulf. Lalli is an avid fly fisherman, so our plan was to hit the shrimp boats for tuna and trophy bonito, then visit a few wrecks. The shrimpers drag their nets all night, then dump the catch on deck to sort the shrimp from the by-catch. It’s the by-catch we were after; it makes amazing chum for the tuna that follow the shrimpers, as well as on the wrecks. The trick is to lure the fish to the surface, where they can be enticed to eat a fly.
On a typical day, the bonito (aka albies) are all trophy size and will outnumber the tuna 10-to-1, so the goal is to hook the tuna and not waste 30 minutes on every bonito. Trosset and I have found that tuna seem to like poppers and big orange flies a lot more than the bonito do. The problem is that fancy flies and poppers are expensive, so it’s painful to pop off an unwanted bonito. In addition, these bonito are huge — many are more than 15 pounds — and a chore on an 11-weight fly rod. Nevertheless, fishing behind shrimp boats is probably my favorite thing to do in Key West. When you’ve caught all the tuna you want, the next stop is one of the towers or wrecks in the northwest Gulf to look for cobia, amberjack and mangrove snapper, as well as kings and huge barracuda.
We lucked out with the weather during our two days with Lalli because the shrimpers work about 60 miles northwest of Key West, and you have to reach them before they dump their by-catch back into the Gulf. When this plan comes together, the action is non-stop.
I still believe that Key West provides the best light-tackle fishing in Florida, if not the entire United States. You can fish the Atlantic or the Gulf, and you can run west to the Marquesas and beyond to Rebecca Channel and the Dry Tortugas. The amazing fishing I experienced in the ’70s and ’80s can still be found, but you have to run farther. We’re catching fish today that we never dreamed of back in my Navy days because we didn’t have the fast boats and electronics to find some of these spots.
There are lots of talented guides in Key West, and there’s nothing like spending a few days on the water with one of them. It gives new meaning to the phrase “tight lines!”