We had been running for just over two hours
and now we could see the buoys that mark the
eastern edge of the park. My Garmin handheld
GPS confirmed we were almost there. Our
destination and home base for the next three
days was Dry Tortugas National Park. Originally
named Las Tortugas (the turtles) by Ponce de Leon
in 1513, the area was later listed as Dry Tortugas
on maps so sailors would know that no freshwater
existed here. This amazing marine environment
is roughly 65 miles west of Key West. It was
June 26th and it was HOT, HOT, HOT. As we entered
the park waters, we could see Fort Jefferson off
to our west. The deep blue waters changed to a
light turquoise, teals and greens as the depth
went from 100ft to 4ft. The colors were simply
stunning. We could hardly wait to start fishing.
After studying a hydrographic map, we focused
on a couple of good looking spots where hard
coral shallows were surrounded by deeper waters.
There are a few reasons why the Dry Tortugas
offers such excellent fishing. First and
foremost is the fact that commercial fishing
is illegal within the park boundaries. This
includes sportfishing charter boats. So, the
angling pressure within the park is restricted
to only recreational anglers. Since this area
is such a long run and there are no services (gas,
water, electricity), many are reluctant to make
the trip. The Tortugas acts as a border between
the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The
rich tidal flows provide plenty of food along this
dividing line. The location and rich waters help
to offer a good mix of fish species. While we were
there, the Gulf Stream was only about 7 miles south
of Fort Jefferson.
The wind was blowing steady at around 18 knots all
three days we fished which made the seas a bit choppy
and fly-casting a challenge. We also had four anglers
onboard a 25ft Contender (The Bigger B) so things were
a bit cramped, not to mention all the gear we had.
The park waters offer a very wide variety of species
to target. The main quarry for us was Black Grouper,
Red Grouper, Mutton Snapper, Yellowtail Snapper,
Tarpon and Jewfish (sorry but I refuse to use the
new PC name of Goliath Grouper).
We also enjoyed catching Permit, Jack Crevalle,
Mangrove (Gray) Snapper, Barracuda, Bar Jacks and
Bull Sharks. All but the Jewfish are manageable
on fly-fishing gear in the 6WT to 14WT range
depending on the species. Most of the Jewfish
we encountered were more than willing to eat a
big fly but since they averaged 250-400+lbs,
landing one was impossible on the long rods.
We spent most of our time targeting the Grouper
and Snapper in the shallower reef areas. Prime
spots were in the 8 - 12ft range with a good
bottom of scattered hard coral. The Grouper
prefer to live in the larger coral formations
while the Mutton Snapper prowl the reef patches
and sand flats between patches.
Recommended gear for this fishing is a 12WT
rod and a reel with a very stout drag system.
I was fishing the Islander 4.5LX with a
Scientific Angler Quad-Tip (used the floater
mostly). Rod of choice was a 9ft Thomas & Thomas
12WT which cast like a dream. Leader set-ups are
simple. I use 4ft of 60lb Seaguar fluorocarbon to
3ft of 40lb to 15 inches of 20lb and a 10-inch bite
leader of 40lb Terminator Titanium wire. You can
tie it like regular line and since it does not kink,
you do not have to replace it like standard steel
leader. You can get away without the wire and
instead use a bite leader of 60lb or 80lb fluoro
or mono. These fish will take a wide variety of
baitfish patterns in the 3-inch plus range but
topwater fishing is certainly the most exciting
way to fish here. Poppers were the ticket and
the louder and splashier they were the better.
Short but very firm strips which caused a great
deal of commotion were rewarded with some amazing
strikes. What a sight it is to have a 30-pound
Grouper come charging from 12ft down and launch
3ft out of the water at your fly!
Enticing a strike is only the first part of this
type of fishing. Once you are hooked up it is a
battle royal in order to keep the fish from getting
back into its coral lair. They know where to go
and they know what to do to get there. The Grouper
are very strong fish but they do not hold a candle
to the strength of the Mutton Snapper.
This type of fly-fishing is like A River Runs
Through It meets the WWE (World Wrestling
Entertainment). It is a full contact sport and it
is a lot of fun! Be forewarned, you will go through
a lot of flies, leader material and maybe even a rod
or two. You will have close encounters with some
large Grouper and you will be helpless to stop them.
You may win the battle of keeping your fish out of
the coral only to have a 60-inch long Barracuda take
everything but the head from you. Yes, it's an eat
or be eaten world out there in the salt.
If you are up for some light tackle fun, break out
your 6WT or 7WT and tie on a small Chart/White
Clouser for the Yellowtail Snapper and smaller
These species tend to not dive into the structure
so break offs are less common. Yellowtail's have
very good eyesight and can be quite line shy so I
really scale down my leaders for them.
I run a 10ft leader that consists of 3ft of 50lb
Seaguar fluoro, 3ft of 30lb, 2ft of 20lb and 2ft
of 12lb. Target the large coral heads and you can
enjoy sight fishing for the larger snapper that
chase your fly. You are also likely to catch a
few Mangrove Snappers, Jacks and may get a Grouper
to take the fly as well. The Barracuda will also
oblige but they and the Grouper will take your fly
and keep it. The shallow water Yellowtail Snapper
average around 10-13 inches and offer a lot of fun
on the lighter rods.
If you are interested in catching one of the larger
Barracuda that patrol the reefs you should step up
to a 10WT and a reel with a decent drag. I love to
use my the Islander 4.0LX with a Scientific Angler
Mastery WF-F saltwater line. The same leader set-up
as I used for the Grouper is fine but wire is a must.
These fish will cut through 100lb mono or fluoro
like sewing thread.
Shiny baitfish patterns with a thin profile to mimic
a Needlefish or Ballyhoo are good choices here.
Despite what you may have read elsewhere, you do
not have to strip the fly very fast to get a 'Cuda
to strike. If you have a good fly and the
presentation is good, they will take a fly that
is stripped slowly or even dead-drifted. The
key is to not give them a good long look at it
up close. I will often pull the fly away on a
false cast and slap the water a few times with
false casts before putting the fly out in front
of the fish and stripping it. Try to bring the
fly across in front of the Barracuda. You will
spook them if you strip the fly right to them.
Baitfishes don't make a habit of attacking Barracuda
so this type of presentation does not sit well with
them. On this trip we saw Barracuda up to around
65-inches but most will average around 36-40 inches.
They are a great deal of fun once hooked with their
blistering runs and aerial acrobatics. Much care
must be taken when handling these fish. Their
teeth are like scalpels and can do a great deal
of damage in a split second. Being a long way
from medical help can put ones life as risk if
you suffer a serious injury out here.
If you want to try your hand at catching a Tarpon,
the waters around Fort Jefferson are the spot to
be. There is a solid resident population of Tarpon
here near the fort and there are some VERY large
fish to tangle with.
While we were there, we spent only three or so
hours fishing for the Tarpon. We literally
hooked as many as we wanted and had a great
time. The fish ranged from easy to handle
40 pounders to leviathans in the 150-170lb
range. What a sight it was to see a 160-170lb
class Tarpon eat a fly right at the boat and
then explode into a series of somersaults.
The gear needed for this depends on the size
of fish you are targeting.
You at least need a 12WT and would be much
better off with a good 14WT and a stout rod.
Brighter attractor type patterns and baitfish
patterns are your best bet for these fish.
Permit can also be found in large numbers within
a short run outside the park. We found them on
wrecks and on sand bars when the water was shallow
and dropped off quickly. These Permit are not
your typical Keys fish. These are very large
Gulf Permit and fish in the 30-45lb range are
not at all uncommon. Recommended setup would
be a 10WT or 12WT with a clear sink tip. Leader
should be long and extra low visibility. I prefer
a knotless fluorocarbon tapered leader of around
12ft and throw larger crab patterns at them.
Typically, where you find the Permit, you will
also find large Bull Sharks. These are also a
lot of fun of the fly but be prepared for a battle
that may last a while. The Bulls we saw were in
the 250 - 300lb+ range and were more than willing
to take a fly.
If the weather cooperates, the Gulf Stream is
often only 5 - 12 miles south of the park and
can offer some excellent fly-fishing for Dolphin.
Just use the run and gun approach, which is
simply running until you see birds working.
Where you find the birds you'll find the
baitfish and often the Dolphin as well as
Sailfish, Tuna and the occasional Marlin or
Wahoo. A 9WT or 10WT will suffice for the
smaller Dolphin (less than 12lbs) but keep a
big stick handy as a 40 pounder can show up
in an instant.
While the fishing is simply outstanding, you
also need to take the time to do some snorkeling
or diving within the park. You will be rewarded
with lots and lots of fish and wonderful coral.
You also may see some of the large Lobsters
that live here (sorry, they are protected)
along with Bottlenose Dolphins and three
different species of Sea Turtle. We saw lots
and lots of large Loggerhead Turtles along with
some Green Sea Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles.
There were even some Loggerhead's nesting at
night up on the beach while we were there.
Fort Jefferson is also a must see. It is a very
impressive brick structure (largest 19th century
coastal fort) with a lot of history.
Construction started in 1846 and continued on
through 1876 but was never completed. As if
the fort was not enough to see, if you go during
the spring or early summer, you will also see a
massive number of sea birds nesting near by.
While we were there, over 100,000 Sooty Terns
and Noddy Terns were nesting on the island.
It is also a stopping point for many migrating
songbirds heading north and south. Of course,
you are also likely to see Frigate Birds, Brown
Pelicans and several species of shore birds. If
you are on Garden Key at night, be sure to bring
a flashlight, as the ground is covered with thousands
of Hermit Crabs.
If you happen to be in Key West for a few days
I highly recommend a visit to the park. Even if
you cannot devote enough time to fish, you should
catch a fast ferry for a days visit. There were
a few there who brought their kayaks and spent
the day fishing around the fort before heading
back to Key West in the evening. You can also
charter a seaplane to fly you out and back and
the view is spectacular.
I have been blessed over the years and have gotten
to travel around the world in search of new fishing
adventures. Of all the places I've been, the Dry
Tortugas stand out as one of the very best. I'll
remember the trip forever and cannot wait to return
and once again enjoy this fishing paradise.
For more information on the Dry Tortugas National
Park and Fort Jefferson, check out the parks website
For information about booking a fishing adventure
to the area contact one of the captains below.
Capt. Rob Delph, Capt. Mike Delph - www.delphfishing.com
Capt. Rob Hammer (office 305-253-1770) (cell 305-321-1473)
~ Dr. Fish, July 2004
About Dr. Fish:
Dr. Fish (Jeff Pierce) is the Sales Manager for O.
Mustad & Son. Along with being an avid fly tier,
he's a diehard fly fisherman that's always looking
for something new to bend the long rod.