Captain Mike Wilbur of Chaser Key West Fishing provided the recipe for Snapper With Tomatoes and Basil, below. / Courtesy Fishing Booker

By Dean Belmont

No list of the great North American fisheries can be deemed complete without the iconic waterways of Key West.

Yellowtail snapper have a delicate, mild, flaky meat; so do the red snapper. / Courtesy La Camaronera Fish Joint and Seafood Market

Nested cozily between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the southernmost city in the continental U.S. is home to some of the best sport-fishing on this side of the globe — be it reef, back-country, wreck or deep-sea fishing — no matter the season.

But not everything is about the thrill of the catch. For many of the thousands of visiting anglers each year, the best part comes once you’re back on the shore — and in your kitchen.

Game fish are great to eat

Yes, most of the game fish roaming the local hot spots are as tasty as they are feisty. And nobody knows that better than Mike Wilbur, a veteran captain of Chaser Key West Fishing.

With over 30 years of experience, “Captain Mike” is well-versed in what makes Key West one of Florida’s top fisheries. He mainly targets what’s commonly known as the “Big Three” of inshore fishing: tarpon, permit and bonefish. Catch all three in one day, and you join one of the most coveted clubs in all of sport-fishing.

Yet angling accounts for only half of Mike’s expertise. When it comes to cooking, he has more than a few tricks up his sleeve. I recently talked to Captain Mike about fishing, Key West, and preparing the perfect snapper (either yellow or red will work).

If you’re in the market for a quick, easy, captain-approved fish dish — well, you’re in for a treat.

(To learn more about Mike and other fishing guides in the area, visit Bon appetit!)

A Q-&-A with Captain Mike

Question: How did you decide to become a fishing guide?

Mike: I was a kid with shotguns and fishing rods in the trunk of his car. On my way to law school, I decided I would take a year or so off to fish. Never got to law school.

Q: There’s a lot of debate about seasonality in the Keys. In your opinion, when is the best time to go fishing in Key West?

Mike: The best time to fish in Key West is purely dependent on current weather, tides, moon phase, and wind directions and velocities. In other words – any time of year when conditions are right.

Q: You specialize in inshore and back-country fishing. What’s your favorite fish to target in Key West?

Mike: My favorite game fish would be tarpon, permit and bonefish — in that order.

Q: What’s the biggest fish you or your clients usually catch in the area?

Mike: The biggest fish caught are usually tarpon of over 170 pounds on a fly rod.

Q: Everyone’s got their own favorite rig for inshore fishing. What sort of bait have you found works best in the Keys?

Mike: I usually use artificial baits, “gigs” and flies — rarely live or dead bait.

A client reels in his catch while Captain Mike watches. / Courtesy Fishing Booker

Q: What’s the best part of being a fishing guide?

Mike: I have the best job in the world because I make friends from all countries and have lots of fun!

And although the “Big Three” rarely end up on a plate (most are caught and released to preserve the fishery), Mike does enjoy the occasional freshly snatched snapper for dinner. Below is the recipe that he has perfected over the years: nothing too fancy, and just a few spices to complement  the snapper’s natural flavor.

Recipe: Snapper With Tomatoes and Basil

Snapper fillets (bonus points if you caught it)
Butter (butter will brown the fish; oils won’t)
Sun-dried tomatoes
Fresh basil or cilantro
White wine

Heat up the pan on high.
Ready the snapper fillets. Their meat is flaky, delicate and mild.
Once the pan is hot, add butter, ginger and garlic.
Allow the butter to melt until it’s just about to burn, then place the fillet in the pan. Keep it on each side until it gets brown — just a couple of seconds. Avoid overcooking.
Add a splash of white wine just before removing the fillet from the pan.
Dress the fillet with sun-dried tomatoes and freshly chopped basil or cilantro.

Dean Belmont is, in his own words, “a writer and fishing enthusiast — mostly doing one to support the other. I’ve fished on three continents and now write and work with captains from Florida.”