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Key West: America’s most varied and historical fishery

World records await.

Key West, at the southernmost point in the continental United States, marks the conclusion of the lengthy US Route 1 highway. Rather than seeing it as a terminus, however, most anglers see it as a jumping-off point for the greatest variety of fishing in one spot on earth, a place where water-borne dreams are fulfilled and new ones are spawned. And it’s all done under the watching eyes of the ghost of Papa Hemingway, to the sounds of Jimmy Buffett.

Indeed, Hemingway was the catalyst for the popularization of Key West as an angling destination, but the area’s greatness preceded him. Perhaps more miraculously, it persists—arguably better than ever—decades after his passing.

What makes Key West particularly great is the variety of species and types of fishing on offer. If you’re trying to engage in a solitary effort to battle flats denizens from tarpon to bonefish or permit, you need not stray far from the lights of Duval Street. If you want a greater insight into what “Old Florida” was like, there’s the maze-like backcountry, an ecosystem unto itself. Anglers seeking blue water glory can go offshore and chase billfish, tuna and other hard-pulling species but while the water is clear and fertile, unlike some other premier destinations it doesn’t take long to get to the heart of it. Further from the dock there are the Marquesas Keys, a group of islands 25 miles away but seemingly out of another world. Go a bit further and there’s Dry Tortugas National Park, a virtual aquarium where history comes to life.

Each of those destination options provides its own special flavor and unique mix of fishing opportunities—and each has an encyclopedic book of fish tales it could tell—but what’s really amazing is that anglers needn’t go far to enjoy this. Just beneath the feat of the nighttime revelers and the lotion-covered tourists is an incredible and wide range of species.

There are both resident and migratory species, so multiple options are always available. If you’re a snowbird, come for light tackle sailfish in the colder months, but that same tackle can be used for mahi in the summer. Tarpon are best in the springtime, whether you want to soak bait or hit the flats and sight fish with your fly gear. The region’s many guides are excellent teachers, so don’t hesitate to try an unfamiliar technique.

Indeed, if you’re a record-chaser, thrill-seeker, light tackle specialist or just looking to add to your life’s list of species caught, Key West is already an immense draw but it’s also a place for absolute novices to get caught up in fishing fever. There’s an option for every budget, including a range of charter boats and guides. There are also “party boats,” where you show up, pay a modest flat fee, and get taken to some of the richest fishing areas on the planet for specific targets or to catch “whatever’s biting”—and trust us, in this tropical paradise, something is always biting. In fact, the hardest and most difficult part is often determining what you want to chase on a given day, and how many days so you can devote to the equally tantalizing yet diverse set of quests.

So whether you just want a day at sea, a bit of solitude away from the rat race, or a chance to fill a cooler with some of the best-eating fillets that can be had, Key West offers options for every budget, for every taste, and for every time of year. There are even restaurants here that’ll cook your fresh catch while you sip on a tropical libation or two. You truly have not eaten gourmet food until you’ve sampled a local grouper sandwich. Like everything in the Conch Republic, it’s a matter of how hard you want to go, the perfect mix of mellow island vibes and screaming drags.

Make no doubt about it, this is a fishing town where even the non-anglers look the part and can live it for a day. There’s no wrong time to come, but this last stop off the highway may be the final fishing exit you’ve always craved.

Start planning your adventure at fla-keys.com.