Fishing Articles

Fishing articles written about fishing in Islamorada by Capt. Rick Stanczyk and Capt. Nick Stanczyk. These articles contain lots of valuable information for fishing here in the Florida Keys or abroad. Many of these tactics have been passed down through the years by some of the pioneers of the sportfishing industry. We happily share them with you here on our website!

Fishing with Crabs in Islamorada

Fishing with crabs in Islamorada is done all throughout the year.  There are many species of fish which enjoy a delectable crab once in a while.  Often times there are many fish that you wouldn’t even think that will eat a crab.  Typically the most common targets with crabs are tarpon and permit.  Tarpon typically like the larger blue crabs while permit prefer smaller sized ones, of course the size of the target fish may call for a different sized crab.  For tarpon the most common methods of fishing with crabs usually involves drifting.  The most standard rig is using a heavier spinning or conventional rod loaded with 50 lb braid, or 30 lb mono.  Most guides nowadays prefer fishing braided lines as you can fish heavier line, get more line on the spool, it doesn’t have near the amount of memory like mono filament which will twist up on you after reeling against the drag on a fish, and it is very tough and long lasting.  Now one drawback of braided line for tarpon is there is no ‘give’ in the line, so we usually put a good 15 or 20 feet of 60# monofilament on top of the braid, then have that go to your main leader.  The main leader consists of a swivel, about 8 feet of 80# or 100# monofilament, and your hook (usually something in the 6/0 to 8/0 range, J hook or circle hook will work), and a bobber up near the swivel.  Tarpon fishing with crabs can be good all throughout the year, but usually starting in the spring through early summer is when they work the best…[sociallocker id=”692″]   Crabs should be hooked through the corner of their shell, try to avoid hooking them in the meat as that will kill them after some time.  I like to use a smaller hook to start the hole when hooking them on, that way you won’t dull your main hook.  Drifting often works best as it keeps the crabs from spinning in the current, especially when the tide is running hard.  You can anchor in certain areas with them, however if you are in hard current (typically around the bridges) it is usually better to drift.  If you see your crabs spinning funny when you are anchored, then there is too much current to stay and fish like that.  You want to try and set your drift up with the wind and tide so you drift over areas where you know tarpon are.  I like to try and fish two baits at least, and keep them out a good 50 to 100 feet.  It is important to check your crabs for weed or grass once in a while, as they will often try to bury themselves in that stuff when it floats by.  You can do this by slowly lifting on the rod tip once in a while and see if it feels heavy, especially at night when you may not be able to see the bait/bobber.  When a tarpon bites you usually just want to reel, with a J hook giving them a small thump after you reel and get tight is OK.  With a circle hook just keep the rod pointed at them and reel, and wait about 15 seconds before lifting the rod top.  Using crabs for bait in Islamorada for tarpon is a lot of fun!

Fishing for permit with crabs is also a lot of fun.  This can often be done in similar fashion to tarpon fishing, and you may even catch one on accident doing that once in a while.  Though when targeting permit specifically you will want to use much lighter leader, usually fluorocarbon.  30# to 40# test is usually good for larger permit, and  sometimes it may require you to go down to as light as 20#.  I like to have 5 feet of leader or so, to prevent permit from being able to see your knot connection to your mainline.  The long wind-on leader is not required here, so going straight from 20# braid to your main fluorocarbon leader works well.  They can be very picky so fluorocarbon is usually a must.  A smaller hook of 3/0 to 4/0 size is usually sufficient, I prefer a circle hook for them.  You can drift areas where you know permit are, or set up and anchor and let them hover over a wreck, structure, etc… that has permit schooling around it.  Permit crab fishing can be very tricky.  Sometimes you can cast to permit as well and using a small jighead works well for this, or even just a bare hook with a crab on it.  If the permit are not biting what you are offering, usually you need to go with lighter leader, smaller hook, or try to get the presentation out further away from the boat.  When casting to permit, try to lead them sufficiently – you don’t want to bop them right on top of the head, but rather through 15-20 feet in front of them and let them swim to your bait as it drifts down in front of them naturally.[/sociallocker]

Capt. Rick Stanczyk

How to fish with shrimp in Islamorada

Fishing with live shrimp in the Florida Keys is probably the most popular style of fishing in the area.  Just about every bait shop throughout south florida carries live shrimp.  These shrimp are caught in areas of the gulf and atlantic by trawlers who consistently net them and then truck them to local area bait shop early in the morning.  It is one of the staples of our fishing industry and without them it would make the life of an islamorada fishing guide very tough!  Just about everything eats shrimp so it is the go-to bait for us.  Of course certain baits work better for certain things depending on a variety of conditions, however we bring live shrimp along on just about every charter.  In Islamorada itself we do not have a big run of shrimp consistently, so we rely on trawlers who go out closer to the mainland and bring them down to us.  In the winter time though with the right conditions (cold front coming in), they will run and you can catch shrimp in islamorada.  So we will get down to the basic of buying, caring, and using shrimp for bait.  Winter time we get the largest shrimp and with the cooler water temperature, everything in the backcountry just about eats them as well as on the patch reefs.  Summer time is often a tougher time as the shrimp are usually very small, and you may be better off trying to catch other forms of live bait or even using artificials in some cases.  [sociallocker id=”692″]

Live shrimp vs. frozen shrimp

You can always buy frozen shrimp as they are packaged and kept in freezers to sell.  Though in just about every situation, live shrimp or fresh dead shrimp is going to be better.  It is going to have more consistency as frozen shrimp often gets mushy and falls off the hook easily.  It will also have better scent.  Depending on what you are fishing for, also having a live shrimp that kicks is going to be much more appealing to a predator fish.  Now if you are fishing for things such as yellowtail on the reef, frozen shrimp actually can be just as good as you are often just using a tiny bit of meat from the shrimp to hide the hook in.  Though in general, live is better followed by fresh dead, then frozen.

Keeping live shrimp live

A nice thing about shrimp is they are fairly easy to keep alive for your days fishing.  They usually don’t live for much more than a day or so, but of course you can put them on ice for the next day and again fresh dead in many cases is just as good as live.  To keep them nice and lively, the best thing is to have a bait well that pumps fresh water in.  This recirculates the water helping to keep the temperature cooler as well as brings in fresh oxygen.  In the fall and winter, a simple aerator is all that is required.  In summer when the water is very hot though it will help to recirculate the water to keep it cooler.  If you keep them in a bucket without any form of oxygenation they will die eventually, so you can either buy a battery aerator or use oxygen pellet stones.  Though air pellet stones will only last for an hour or so.  If your fishing from land another option is a bucket with tiny holes drilled in it, you can leave this in the water that way fresh water is circulated, and you just pull it out when you need to put a few shrimp in your bucket you keep with you for fishing.  These are sold in many tackle shops and known as a flow-troll bucket or something similar.  The lesser amount of shrimp you keep in a bucket with no aeration, the longer they will live.  So you can keep a few shrimp  in your bucket with only water, and once they are gone pull the rest out of the bucket in the water, and that way keep them nice and lively for your fishing.

How to fish with shrimp in Islamorada

I’m often asked the best way to hook a live shrimp.  Well it depends on what you are fishing for and how you are fishing.  Some things to consider are whether it matters if the shrimp is actually live looking or not.  Obviously if the shrimp is dead that won’t matter.  Also if there are lots of fish, can they easily steal it off the hook.  These methods will work with both J or circle hooks, as well as with jigs or standard hooks.

Standard tail hook shrimp rig

Our most classic go-to rig is usually a small jighead (1/4 oz is most common) with a shrimp hooked through the tail.  Simply pinch off the tail and then start the hook through the tail end.  Come out either through the belly of the shrimp or the back.  The back is often better as it then goes through the shell which may make it stay on there better.  This rig works well for jigging and the bait stays on the hook well.  Just make sure that the shrimp doesn’t jig in a weird fashion, such as spinning around in circles.  This will likely discourage fish from biting it.  This will work for everything and is often the best for thing such as snapper, trout, mackerel, etc…  If your using a regular J-hook, a Bait Saver style hook is best as it has small barbs to help keep the shrimp positioned correctly.

Horn hooked live shrimp rig

The other main way we hook shrimp is through the head.  There is a ‘sweet spot’ just behind the horn on their head but in front of their heart (the big black spot).  If you go through the heart the shrimp will die and you will lost the lively effect which is the point of this style.  Try to get it perfectly lined up in the center, and hook from the bottom coming out the top.  This is a good presentation for more picky gamefish such as snook or tarpon.  The shrimp can freely flinch it’s tail which often excites a hungry gamefish.  However if there are lots of ‘picker fish’ around it is much easier for them to steal shrimp off in this fashion.  This works well with a jighead, or often we fish with a tiny bobber and a regular j-hook with a tiny split shot near the hook.  This way you can drift the shrimp around mangrove shorelines etc… and simply watch for when the bobber goes down to indicate a strike.

Floating shrimp rig

Most of the time shrimp fishing in Islamorada you are wanting the shrimp to sink down in the water a bit.  This would be using a jig or a regular hook with a split shot or sinker attached.  There are exceptions when floating a shrimp may be a better choice.  Snook and tarpon for instance are surface feeders so sometimes if you are wanting to throw a live shrimp floating on a cork it may work better.  You can drift mangrove edges or areas of structure (bridge, etc…) in this fashion.  For this rig a small bobber is usually attached maybe 3 feet up from the hook and this way the shrimp is kept floating.  Now sometimes you may still attach a small split shot near the hook, or even still use a small weighted jighead, to let the bait sink down a little bit, but obviously not continuously until it hits the bottom.  You’ll have to play with the presentation but it is something to consider in certain situations.

About leaders and such

Our typical leader size for the backcountry fishing with shrimp in Islamorada is 30# test.  I prefer fluorocarbon as it is a bit stronger than regular mono, plus in certain areas where the water is clear it is tough for fish to see.  On the patch reefs we often go down to 20# or even 15# test.  For things such as snook or small tarpon we may go up to 40# as they can go through lighter leader.  Give yourself a couple feet of leader at least.  We fish a lot of braid and the best way to rig is usually to double the braid with a spider hitch.  Then tie your leader with an albright knot to the doubled braid.  Then use a simple uni, clinch, or whichever knot you prefer to tie the hook or jig to the leader.  Most fishing we do you are wanting the shrimp to sink down so a jig head or split shot near the hook is preferable.  It will also help you get some weight on the bait to make casting easier.  In general a 1/4 oz is good for most fishing in the everglades areas and patch reefs.  If the current is really hard you may require more.  If your fishing a bait in a rod holder and leaving it sit, I often use a 1 oz sinker that slips and goes straight to a circle hook.  Fish will hook themselves with this setup and you can cast it far, plus it is enough wait to usually hold bottom wherever you put it.  Sight fishing in shallow water the rules may change depending what you are fishing for, obviously the more weight you use the louder the splash when you cast, so you may have to lead the fish more.  One general rule of thumb if you see fish and cannot catch them, a better presentation is all you can usually do.  That means lighter leader, smaller hook, and perhaps a livelier bait on the hook.

Chumming with shrimp

In some areas especially on shallow patch reefs, hanging a traditional chum block in the water is not always a good idea.  It can bring in ‘junk fish’ such as grunts, baby snapper, chubs, etc… that just grab your bait before anything else has a chance to do it.  Chopping up some of the dead, smaller shrimp into tiny pieces can work well in these instances.  It can help bring in better fish without attracting the junk.  Saving dead shrimp from a previous days fishing works well for this, or even buying a bag of frozen can sometimes work in this situation too.  In other cases such as in the backcountry, sometimes chumming with just live shrimp can help.  If your fishing around mangrove islands or shorelines, throwing a few live shrimp out can spark up snook or redfish that are hidden in the trees and entice them to bite the next bait you throw to them on a hook.  Obviously you can go through your bait in a hurry, but if you are fishing a spot that looks really good it may help to throw a few live shrimp out if you are not getting a bite.


Capt. Rick Stanczyk

Catching and using pilchards in Islamorada

Pilchard bait overview

Pilchards are a great bait for all kinds of different species in many different areas.  In Islamorada, Florida they are a favorite of both offshore and inshore captains.  In the backcountry they are often used for species such as mangrove snapper, snook, trout, tarpon, and more.  They also work in the gulf for mackerel, cobia, and other predator fish.  On the ocean side they use them for tunas, sailfish, snapper, and more.  The nice thing about pilchards is you can chum with them which is very effective for certain species.  This really fires the fish up and gets them congregated behind the boat.  Some fish such as tarpon, snook, or tunas that can be tricky to get to feed will often go nuts when thrown handfuls of pilchards and can be hooked easily.  Catching pilchards in Islamorada and throughout the Florida Keys can be done in many different places as well as in a few different ways…[sociallocker id=”692″]

Netting pilchards

Using a cast net is the way most captains obtain pilchards in the florida keys.  A small mesh net is best as it will prevent gilling of them.  It also doesn’t beat the baits up as much so they will live more hardily throughout the day.  However in deeper water you may need to increase mesh size for it to sink quickly enough to get the baits.  I typically use a 1/4 inch square mesh net, though again I am primarily a backcountry fisherman so I am not catching big pilchards most of the time.  Most of the time we look around shorelines and island moats where we have caught pilchards in the past.  Certain times of year they tend to show up in certain places.  When it starts to cool down in the fall they can often be found on the oceanside shorelines.  Throughout they year they can also be found around many of the backcountry islands and moats.  Other times of year larger pilchards show up offshore of Islamorada.  This is often around certain structural areas, and often you must mark the baits on a bottom machine and blindly throw your cast net.  Often times you will see birds bombing on them.  If it is calm weather you may also see them visibly flipping and disturbing the water on the surface.  Typically the early morning is the best time to catch pilchards, right at daybreak.  Birds often find them at this time and are the first to disturb them.  You can also often find pilchards in marina basins and canals up and down the florida keys.

Chumming for pilchards

There are plenty of areas where boats chum for pilchards.  These are often on the edges of channels and flats in the backcountry as well as on the oceanside.  It may take a bit of experimenting to find the right areas, but often once you find a place you can chum the baits to you on a regular basis.  Again the early morning is the best time to do this.  Simply put a chum block out and shake the bag.  Look for the water to ripple almost as if it is raining and that is usually a sure sign pilchards are in the chum slick.

Catching pilchards on rod and reel

You can use a sabiki rig to catch pilchards for bait too.  Often offshore boats will do this to catch real lively baits that they plan on using for species such as sailfish that may be a bit more picky as to what they eat.  These baits can be fished longer and generally are hardier as they don’t get beat up in a cast net.  They also can be caught, put in a live well, and saved for a later day.  Simply find a school of pilchards and jig the sabiki rig through them.

Keeping pilchards alive

A good livewell setup is critical for keeping a good number of pilchards alive.  Make sure you have good waterflow.  Also make sure to keep the drains from getting clogged with grass or scales.  If the pilchards you are catching are sandy keys, be wary as they die much quicker and scales fall off and often clog up well systems.  The better type of pilchards is called a ‘razor belly,’ aptly named for the sharp, strong angle of their belly.  Pilchards can also be penned up and saved for a later date.  Typically sabiki fishing them is best for this as the net doesn’t beat the baits up, however if your using a very small mesh net and catching razor bellies, you can often pen these baits up to save.  Again make sure the pen area has good water flow.

Fishing with pilchards

You can fish a pilchard in any number of ways.  In the backcountry I generally either free-line them with a small 1/0 J hook, put them on a small jig-head similar to a shrimp, or put them on a knocker rig with a circle hook if I am leaving them sit on the bottom.  I generally hook them through both lips in the mouth.  If the baits are very small though often they make get stolen off the hook with ease.  In this case try simply hooking them somewhere in the meat, or maybe even put a couple of baits on one hook.  Another trick is to belly hook a pilchard, this will make him swim down as opposed to up, if your trying to get a bait to a fish in deeper water.  You can also try cutting pilchards in half and throwing them out for some species, to give the injured appearance.  Remember in most cases to let a fish eat the pilchard and don’t jerk right away when you feel action.  Slowly reel and come tight, then give the fish a slight tug to set the hook while continuing to reel.

Chumming with pilchards

Chumming with pilchards is pretty simple and straightforward.  This is where these baits really come in handy.  If your fishing an area and you want to get the fish fired up, simply throw out a handful of pilchards.  Snook, for instance, will come out and often pop these baits and you will know they are there.  You can stop around an area and simply throw out a few handfuls to see if fish are there or not, then quickly move on without wasting too much time.  You can also pull fish to you, if your sitting up current in a creek or at the mouth of a channel, for instance.  One trick is to pop the pilchards eyeballs as you throw them out.  This injures them and makes them swim around in circles on the surface, and awaiting predators often cannot resist this temptation.  After you do this, simply cast your hooked baits out in the same area.  Continuing to chum will keep the fish in the area, though no need to overdo it and go crazy.

Capt. Rick Stanczyk


How to catch and use pinfish for bait

Pinfish bait overview

Pinfish are a great bait choice for fishing both offshore and inshore in Islamorada as well as many other locations.  While often not the first choice of many larger predators, most anything that will eat a bait fish will eat pinfish.  Fish such as redfish, snook, and tarpon will all take a pinfish.  They work great in the gulf or on the reef for things such as cobia, grouper, mackerel, and snapper.  Offshore they can even be used for dolphin or tuna.  They are a hardy fish which can be easily caught with hook & line, bait traps, or a cast net.  One beautiful thing about the pinfish is how easily they are kept alive.  I regularly have my bait pen loaded with 200 pinfish ready to go and as long as the pen is big enough you don’t really have to worry about feeding them or anything.  Also once in the boat a simple aerator will keep them alive in most live wells.  One downside of pinfish is they are tough to chum with when compared to things such as shrimp or pilchards.  When thrown out alive they will swim back down to the bottom and hide, so you can’t get fish really ‘fired up’ by throwing freebies as you do with other baits.  However with as easy they are to catch and keep alive, they are a great back-up bait to have when other preferred baits are not available…

How to catch Pinfish

Trapping Pinfish with a Pinfish Trap

My preferred method is using a pinfish trap.  These small traps are built out of chicken wire and have multiple openings which pinfish can swim inside and then get stuck as they can’t find the way out.  You can find them online pretty easily or pick them up at your local bait & tackle store.

Pinfish Trap

Pinfish Trap

Using a pinfish trap is pretty straightforward.  I like to take a frozen chum block and cut it into 5 or 6 pieces.  This winds up being about 1.5 lbs bait per trap.  Simply place the chum inside the trap and close it.  Many of the flats and grassy bottom areas of the bay will hold pinfish, simply put the trap out and let it sit for a couple hours then retrieve it.  Generally speaking the colder months (winter time) you will likely have to let the trap soak a bit longer as the chum thaws slower and their are often less pinfish around then.  I’ve had to let them sit for up to 6 hours during a cold front when the water was ~65 degrees, and I’ve let them sit for only 1 hour when the water was ~85 degrees.  I recommend getting a few traps, and fishing them in different areas until you find one area that is productive.  Then you can put all your traps in the same general area.  Also this way if one trap doesn’t produce the others may do better, and if you decide you can fish different areas too.  Fish carcasses will work for catching pinfish too, though you may have to let the traps sit for a day or so.  This method may be preferred if your leaving the trap out all the time and just picking it up in your boat when going out.

Hook and line fishing for Pinfish

You can catch pinfish easily on hook and line in many areas.  Simply put out a block of chum near a grass flat or in the bay where you think pinfish may be.  You often will see them swimming around or notice them stealing bait when fishing with shrimp in fishing areas, so try these.  For tackle a light leader is best close to 12 # test.  Use a tiny hair hook with a small split shot weight.  Just about anything will work for bait, though something like squid is great as it will stay on the hook for multiple catches.  Shrimp is good too but you have to rebait often – just cut the shrimp into small pieces and use a little bit of meat.  Cut bait such as mullet or any other fish should work too.  A small dehooker is recommended for removing them, you’ll save yourself getting poked and it is healthier for the bait too.  Once you get the process down you can often catch them quickly in no time.

Cast Netting for Pinfish

Finally a cast net will work for catching pinfish too.  If your chumming in an area and pinfish are around, simply load up your cast net and throw.  With as spiny as they are you can’t really help but get them stuck in the net.  I’d recommend a heavy net of maybe 1/4 inch mesh.  They also have a tendency to swim down and away and not come up to the surface, so often they will see the net coming and disperse quickly.  They also get beat up from the net and may not live longer than the day of fishing, so won’t keep well for later fishing in a bait pen.  These are reasons I don’t like cast netting pinfish, but in a pinch if you want to get them quickly, go ahead and try!

Fishing with Pinfish

Surface rigging Pinfish

Pinfish can be fished on the surface, on the bottom, or even cast and retrieved on a jig.  One thing to remember is they have a tendency to want to swim down constantly.  This is one reason why floating them can work very well – they will constantly struggle to get to the bottom which nearby predators cannot help but notice.  You can be anchored up or drifting while using this method.  Adjust your float to the depth your trying to fish.  A circle hook is a good option if your going to let the bait sit out and you don’t want to pay attention to it.  A J-hook I prefer when your actively fishing it.  Adjust the size of your hook to the size of your bait – bigger bait, bigger hook.  Circle hooks should pretty much set themselves, and left unattended often may give a better hookup ratio then a J-hook.  But hanging on to the rod I like being able to set the hook myself with a J-hook.  When fishing structure such as tree lines or underwater debris, hooking the pinfish in the upper back near the tail is a good option.  This way the pinfish will swim towards the structure and often underneath it, where big fish such as redfish and snook often hide.  However with this method if your reeling the bait in and recasting it often, the bait will not stay very hardy for more than 2 or 3 casts.  The other way to hook them is through both lips.  This will work in all other situations, and the bait will stay nice and hardy for a much longer period of time.  Also if your just leaving the bait sit out I would recommend this way as the bait will not be struggling constantly and become tired.  Some times people hook them through the upper shoulders too, this may allow the bait to swim down a little bit more which is preferred in some situations such as heavy current, though you’ll have to play around with different methods and presentations!

Bottom rig with Pinfish

A simple knocker rig will work for pinfish as well.  Generally you want to be anchored or stationery when fishing pinfish with this method as you don’t want your bait just dragging along the bottom while drifting.  Basically just have an egg sinker go straight down to your hook.  Adjust the size of the sinker to the amount of current your fishing in – go only as heavy as will keep you on the bottom in the spot your fishing.  A circle hook or J-hook will work, again a circle hook being good if leaving the rod unattended and a J-hook if your actively setting the hook yourself.  Adjust the hook size to the size of your bait.  I often fish multiple baits with this method and will just keep an eye on them to double over with a bite then just grab the rod and reel!  If fishing a J-hook remember to give a little jab to set the hook.

Jigging with Pinfish

Finally a simple troll-rite will work well fishing pinfish too.  Depending on the depth of the water and size of fish your trying to catch, vary the size of your troll-rite.  For deeper water, harder current, you will need a heavier troll rite.  Hooking the pinfish through both lips will work well and you can recast him often.  You can also try hooking them through the tail if your trying to get him to struggle more or get him to swim towards underwater structure or something.  Just remember if your retreiving him often or going to let him just sit out on the bottom, he won’t live as well this way and become tired much faster.

Free lining Pinfish

You can also try free lining pinfish in certain situations.  Simply just have a hook tied straight to your leader with nothing else.  The pinfish can be hooked any of the ways mentioned above.  This method will let the pinfish swim from the top of the water column all the way to the bottom naturally.  This presentation often works well when predator fish are skittish and spooky.  Often times you will cast the pinfish out and just let him swim out with the bail open.  After a period of time just reel him up and try again, or you can let him sit out there and wait for a bite!


Capt. Rick Stanczyk