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Under the Surface: Fishing Key West with Captain Mark Schmidt

Ready to hook a big one? Key West fishing guide Mark Schmidt gives us the skinny on fishing Key West’s diverse waters.

Perfectly situated at the southernmost tip of the United States with access to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, Key West is one of the best places in the world to fish. With brilliant blue water, reef, mangroves, shipwrecks, and the deep sea beyond, a day out on the boat casting your line will be a day you’ll remember and might have you catching tarpon, sailfish, marlin, or many more Key West fish who call these waters home.

What’s the best way to get the most out of your seafaring adventure? It depends on what kind of fishing you’d like to do, what kind of fish you’re hoping to catch, and what level of angler you are.

To help us break it all down, we spoke to veteran fisherman and Key West fishing guide Captain Mark Schmidt, owner and operator of Sun Dancer Charters. Mark has been casting his line into the Key West waters for over 40 years. A native of Florida, having grown up in Miami Springs, Mark spent his youth fishing in the rivers and lakes near his childhood home, including Biscayne Bay. Every August, his father, who was originally from Baltimore, would take the month off and the two would spend their time fishing together in and around the Chesapeake Bay. It was in those August months where Mark fell in love with the sport.

An avid fisherman as an adult, Mark was a member of the Miami Sports Fishing Club, where he won tournaments and was encouraged to become a guide. In 1982, a trip to Key West changed his life. “I just never went back,” he said.

What’s so special about fishing in Key West?

Definitely the variety. Because we have access to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, we have access to a wide variety of fish. That’s the biggest thing.

What’s the difference between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic?

In the Gulf, the continental shelf runs out further than it does in the Atlantic. So, if you’re looking for deepwater fish like sailfish, blackfin tuna, and false albacore, it’ll be quicker to find them on the Atlantic, which drops off seven or so miles out, whereas the Gulf could be 30 miles or more. The Gulf is slightly cooler too. But, both bodies of water offer excellent fishing and the fish cross waters. It’s not a cut and dry delineation for what kind of fish you’ll find.

How do you decide where you are going to fish?

It just depends on what the client is interested in catching. They’ll call me up and tell me what they are hoping to catch and then we make a plan based on the time of year and the weather.

Does that mean that everyone who goes out with you are already fairly knowledgeable fishermen?

That’s often the case, but it doesn’t have to be. I have novices or beginners come out all the time, and we teach them the ropes. You know, if a family wants to go and they have younger anglers, they can learn a lot and be successful in catching things too. Even if they are not, it’s likely that they’ll see turtles, bottlenose dolphins, sharks, barracudas, and stingrays along the way. But for the more serious game fishers, we take them out so they can have that authentic game-fishing experience.

What exactly is flats fishing?

Some people call it backcountry fishing. It’s fishing closer to shore in shallow water, sometimes only a foot or so deep. It can be very sporting because it’s rod and reel fishing by sight. So, if you’re looking to catch permit, for example, which is possible here, we’ll go to the flats and watch the waters by eye, dropping the lines just at the right moment–not too close–for the bait to attract the fish.

What about fishing the wrecks?

There are a multitude of fish who school on top of these old wrecks off the coast. So we take our boats out to them and fish above them. The wrecks are interesting because some were dropped into the ocean as man-made reefs. Others were boats or subs that sank. There’s one that was a navy sub that sank, and a couple of shrimp boats, as well as several vessels that the Navy blew up around World War II. There, you’ll find amberjacks, grouper, mutton snapper, tuna, false albacore, and more.

What if people wanted to fish on their own from shore?

You can do that. There’s Fort Zachary Taylor, where a long jetty juts out into the ocean where you can catch tarpon and Jack Crevalles. There’s also White Street Pier, which is a popular fishing spot, and lots of people fish straight off the bridges. You do mostly catch and release.

But what if someone caught something they wanted to eat?

Sure. If it’s an eating fish, we can clean it, and people can bring it back to Latitudes or Bistro 245, and the chefs will cook it up for them for dinner.

Why do you think you stayed here in Key West?

Oh, that’s easy. My boat is the best office in the world, and I really love meeting people from all over the world and sharing this incredible ocean with them. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Where to Stay: The Capitana Key West | Opal Key Resort & Marina| The Laureate Key West| Sunset Key Cottages

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