How to Catch Fish in the Florida Keys with Live Bait

March and April are prime times for excellent fishing off Key Largo, Islamorada, and Tavernier.  This time of year, easterly winds push the gulf stream current relatively close to the reef line. Next, this dirty water from the gulf slides up against the clean purple/blue Gulf Stream water, creating a “color change,” which may result in some of the best fishing of the year in the Florida Keys. If you want to learn the details as too when and how to predict when these color changes occur, read How to Catch Mahi Mahi in April I share a lot details in this blog, so make sure you read it in conjunction with this one.

These color changes in February, March, and April are extraordinary as they can set up for epic fishing. Anglers can catch sailfish, cobia, dolphin, wahoo, and tuna cruising hard color edges 5-10 miles from the Florida Keys shoreline. What is remarkable about fishing these color changes during this time of year is that a handful of anglers will even get a shot at a giant bluefin tuna, blue marlin, and yellowfin tuna off the Upper Florida Keys using live bait.

Many anglers, including myself, prefer using live bait this time of year if the conditions are right. Using live bait will increase our chances of catching yellowfin tuna and potential bluefin tuna.

Learn How to Set The Hook Using Live Bait

The sailfish is the primary fish species targeted along these color changes using live bait. The sailfish are very fast and known for their remarkable hunting skills. First, they often use their bills to stun their prey; next, they tend to grab the bait sideways (similar to how a dog grips a bone with his mouth) and then turn it in their mouths so they can eat it head first.

Catching sailfish can be tricky. For example, if an angler attempts to set the hook too early while a sailfish is “dog boning” the bait, the angler will likely pull the fishing hook, as the fish has not had enough time to turn it around and eats the bait head first. However, if that fish feels any tension or the angler prematurely sets the hooks, 9 out of 10 times, that fish is gone.

Therefore, the angler must do his best to make that bait look as wounded as possible and resist pulling back on the line. For a solid hook-up on the sailfish, the angler must keep the bait in place until the fish swallows it before quickly coming tight on the line to drive the circle hook home.

When using live bait, I prefer inline Gamakasu Circle hooks that are sized appropriately for the size of bait I am using. If I am using J-Hooks, I like Mustad Big Gun Hooks, as these are the best hooks Mustad makes. They come very sharp. Supplies can run low, so buy them up with you find them.

Fishing with Taco Marine Outriggers

My preferred live bait fishing style is slow trolling from the outriggers vs. kite fishing because I wouldn’t say I like to kite fish. Live bait fishing presents different challenges; the biggest challenge is mastering the drop back of the live hooked bait to the fish once he eats and then setting the hook. Most mid-size boats like Good Karma  are equipped with 15 ft out rigger poles. We are actually equipped with Taco Marine 18 ft. outrigger poles because size does matter. After several years of fishing with 15 ft. Taco Marine outrigger poles I decide it was time to add  on the extra 3 feet, because that is what is needed to actually get your baits into the clean water outside wash. I made this change 4 years ago and very happy that I did.

Taco Marine Outriggers provide several advantages when fishing with live bait and help drop back frisky live bait to a hungry sailfish. First, outriggers enable live baits to be placed outside the boat’s wake and into more clean water, which increases the spread of live baits and allows anglers to cover more area. Outriggers also help regulate the length of the drop back for a light release system, ensuring that just enough pressure is applied to keep the bait in place but with enough slack for a fish to take it before being hooked. This system lets the fish turn the bait inside its mouth to swallow the bait head first before setting the hook.

The Best Live Bait Release Clips

Selecting a light tension release clip with the proper tension is critical. When using Black Release Clips, release tensions should be set with a hand-held scale in pounds before setting the lines; that is how essential release tensions are. Many professional marlin fishermen make homemade release clips using two pieces of wood similar to close pins. They want an exact amount of release tension pressure, so they construct their clips to achieve this.

I prefer using the The Best Live Bait Reels for Sailfish-Live Bait Release Clips  when fishing with live bait from outriggers.

Live Bait Release Clips

The TrollMaster Hydrodynamic Fishing Line Release – Light Tension – its adjustable settings allow me fine tune and adapt to changing sea conditions. These release clips are highly similar to those handmade by the professional marlin fisherman out of two pieces of wood, as mentioned above.

The Best Live Bait Release Clip for Sailfish

TrollMaster Hydrodynamic Fishing Line Release – Light Tension


Live Bait Fishing-Dropback System for Good Karma Sportfishing

My Taco Marine outrigger setup gives me the right amount of slack for a perfect dropback. When a sailfish fish pops the line from the Penn Release Clips, I let the Shimano Talica 16 Reel 2 Speed Reels paired with lightweight custom-built spiral-wrapped rods by Adrenaline Custom Fishing Rods take it from there. Clients get the best rods and reels when they fish with Good Karma Sportfishing.

Live Bait Release Clips

The Shimano Talica 16 is the reel I recommend you purchase. The Talica 16 is set slightly out of gear when the line is in the Penn release clip, with what I like to call “thumb tension” just above the free spool.

Florida Keys Fishing Live Bait

Shimano Talica 16

When a fish grabs the bait, the line breaks away with zero resistance from the live bait release clip and the proper “thumb tension” drag setting on the Talica 16; the fish takes the bait without feeling any tension off the reel, and the line peels way from the spool(clicker on) with no worries about backlash.

Next, the angler that grabs the rod out of the gunnel rod hold holder squares up to the fish in the direction he is running and points the rod at a 90-degree angle. The angler must move with the fish across the deck with fish, and for the process to work correctly, I move the angler with the fish and have him squared up with the fish at all times. The Talica 16 does not require the angler to put a thumb on the reel, taking the angler error out of the picture.

I coach the angler to count out loud to 5 as his idea of “5 Count ” will be a lot different than my idea of “5 Count” My job is to instruct him to wait or engage the Talica 16 reel drag. Every bite differs depending on how they eat on that particular trip. This “5 count,” combined with the outrigger light tension setup, allows that fish to grab the bait, run with it, turn it in its mouth, and eat its head first without feeling any tension.

As I instruct the angler to get tight on the fish, I do my best to move the boat forward while he reels. By doing this, I can help the angler get the line fast and set the hook.

We then chase the fish down, get the release quickly, and return to fishing.

The Hard Truth

It can be frustrating for new boat owners to watch professional anglers and tournament fishing teams land double-digit catches of sailfish and wahoo along a color change. You can dig through South Florida Fishing channel YouTube channels for fishing tips, but you won’t find what I teach on YouTube.

If you want to learn the secrets to fishing the Florida Keys and cut years off your learning curve, get signed up for the Good Karma Rigging Crews 1 or 2. In addition, I teach anglers where the fish are likely to be traveling and help them adjust their fishing techniques accordingly so they can be in the right place at the right time. Finally, if you want to start catching some big fish more consistently, contact me at


In future I will cover more on how to fish with live in the Florida Keys. So check back often for new blogs, and please bookmark our blog page on your web browser. Live bait fishing is a complex feat, but if you learn to understand the science behind how fish eat and practice, new anglers can become experts at live bait fishing in very little time. Thanks for reading.

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