Keys to paradise: Blue water, coral reefs and big saltwater fish

Charter captain George Coffey was steering his 25-foot boat across the aqua waters of the Florida Keys, heading for the place he calls a fishing paradise.

Some two miles out, there was a coral reef loaded with saltwater fish. And Coffey couldn’t wait to get there.

They call the Keys the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, said Coffey, 67, who has been running his Blue Water Blues Charter Service for 10 years. And I think it would be hard to argue with that.I used to guide offshore up in Maine, but I moved here because this is the best fishing you’ll find. Coffey paused and laughed. Plus, the weathers a whole lot nicer, he said. I dont have to freeze in winter anymore. Coffey lives close to his work. His residence is a big boat docked at a marina in Islamorada. Weekly, he heads out into the Atlantic Ocean to fish the coral reefs, wrecks and changes in bottom contour that make the Keys special.

He is an old salt, and has the look of a grizzled charter captain. He can be gruff, wears rumpled clothes at times and is not always clean-shaven. But those are the guys you want to go fishing with.

He knows the Florida Keys like the back of his hand, and he knows the fish that live there. Find structure, he said, and youll find fish. Its like the brush piles you have in your lakes, said Coffey, who keeps his boat docked at the Key Largo Hilton. Only our structure is coral reefs, old wrecks and changes in bottom contour. That gives the fish places to hide and attracts the baitfish.

You never know what kind of fish youll catch. That big boy could come cruising in at any minute. Coffey has plenty of fish stories about the big guys he and his customers have caught on the Atlantic Ocean. His eyes sparkle when he relates the tale of a customer who hooked a 25-pound tuna that became bait.

He was reeling that tuna in, and all of a sudden the line took off, Coffey said. We chased that fish for two hours, and finally got it in. It was a 350-pound marlin. When we got it to the side of the boat, it just spit that tuna out.

Coffey and his friend Dave Strengholt were hoping for more fish stories when they headed out into the Atlantic on a recent weekday. Coffey stopped the boat at the edge of a coral reef and dropped a bag filled with chum off the side.

Within minutes, an array of colorful snapper were darting around within a couple feet of the surface, feeding on the bits and pieces floating through the water. But Coffey wasnt interested in those fish. Its what lay below that interested him.

You have to get your bait past those little ones, he said as he chopped shrimp into bite-sized bait. You get it down there 25 feet or so to the reef, and thats where youll catch your big ones.

Moments after Strengholt got his bait past a multitude of hungry mouths, he felt a tap. Then he felt the pull of a heavier fish. The fish strained to get free, tugging hard as it took out drag on Strengholts reel. But eventually, a big grouper floated to the surface, and Coffey reached down to land it.

From that point, the bite was on. Strengholt landed a cero mackerel and another grouper. Then I landed several grouper, yellowtail snapper and a giant moray eel. By the time we were done, we had caught eight different species of fish, all of which were released to fight another day. Coffey wasnt surprised. He sees the same drama unfold day after day.

The great thing is that things can change in a second out here, he said. I remember one day when were out here on these reefs and there wasnt a lot going on. Then all of a sudden a big school of nice-sized kingfish moved in and it was crazy. We caught 20 to 30 of them before it was over.

Many factors go into fishing success, Coffey said. Current, tides, barometric pressure and even cloud cover can affect the bite. But there is one constant. Get near structure, and theres a good chance of getting something to bite.

Some of that structure is unique. Coffey talks about an underwater mountain that rises out of the ocean depths that provides great habitat for the fish. He talks about coral reefs that look like underwater cathedrals, with craggy outcroppings and spires for the fish to swim through. He also mentions the areas many wrecks boats that have been purposely sunk by fisheries agencies to provide structure.

Theres one that is called the Eagle, which was a 90-foot-long Coast Guard cutter, Coffey said. Divers have told me that the fish will swim in and out of the open windows and doors on that boat. But for Coffey, its not all day work. He also takes fishermen out at night to fish for tarpon and nurse sharks.

A lot of time, well catch them near bridges, he said. Weve caught 200-pound fish at night. Now that’s fun, but for Coffey, its all fun. He has fished all of his life and has guided for the last 20 years. He spent 10 years guiding customers to striped bass and big bluefish off the upper East Coast. Now that hes in Florida, hes found his idea of true paradise.

I’m living everybody’s dream, he said.