To the casual observer the Florida Keys
look remarkably similar, water, sky and mangroves. Everyone immediately
recognizes the beautiful skies, clear water and endless shades
of blue and green, but there is so much more than that. Each
of the areas that we fish has a character of its own. Perhaps
it is a geological difference, perhaps different fishing opportunities
each area offers, or sometimes it is something as intangible
as a sense of place. Whatever the reason, from the Everglades
to the Marquesas, we are blessed with incredible variety and
The Marquesas Keys
Every fisherman who visits Key West
will inevitably end up fishing this ring of islands 20 miles
west of the island city. Shaped
much like a classic volcanic atoll (it’s not) with a ring
of outer islands surrounding a protected inner harbour, the Marquesas
offers just about every type of habitat seen in the Keys, all
contained within a small "package.” Every game fish
that can be caught in the Keys, can, with varying amounts of
regularity, be caught in the Marquesas. From redfish and snook
to cudas and sharks and all of the Slam species. Without a doubt,
this area is witness to some of the world’s best fishing
for permit and tarpon (both migratory and resident). It would
not be too much of an exaggeration to say that on the appropriate
tide every square inch of the place is frequented by some variety
of game fish. The whole area is just "fishy".
Yet, to talk only of the fish, does not do the Marquesas justice.
The lush grass flats host the highest concentrations and variety
of sea turtles that we know of in the Keys. In the hidden mangrove
lakes, the elusive and rare Mangrove Terrapin Malaclemys terrapin
rhizophorarom is often found. Depending on the time of year migrating
birds can steal the show. Hawks and Falcons (Peregrines spend
several months here) in the fall and Wood Warblers in the spring.
Brown Boobies, Northern Gannets and occasionally Masked Boobies
can by seen skirting the edges of the atoll. In recent years,
these islands have been host to migrants of a different kind.
Cubans, whether smuggled in on speed boats or braving the Florida
Straits in homemade boats, make landfall here more and more frequently.
A number of abandoned Cuban rafts can be found dotting the flats
and beaches along the south side of the islands.
With the exception of the somewhat heavy fishing traffic that
these keys experience in May and early June, it is one of our
favorite fishing areas. The fish, wildlife, and cultural history
make this a special place.
The Lakes is the name given to the
flats and basins that extend west from Key West, beginning
with the Tower Flats and ending
at Boca Grande on the Ocean and encompassing Mule Key to Cottrell
Key and past the Mullets on the Gulf of Mexico. This area offers
wide open vistas, with only a handful of islands dotting the
horizon. Turtle grass "pastures" extend for miles in
every direction. These flats, along with the hard charging currents
are the perfect ingredients for successful permit fishing. Throw
in the blue skies of spring and fall and a 15kt breeze and you
might as well consider the fish caught. Mudders, tailers, and
cruisers, schools or singles, the area has them all, often in
excess. A perfect late winter or early spring day can be spent
hunting mudding singles on the first of the ebb tide while marveling
at a flock of northern gannets flying over head as they migrate
to their breeding grounds in Canada.
Talk of permit alone would be foolish as the Lakes also provide
some truly fantastic angling for migratory tarpon. From early
season laid-up fish to the countless strings and schools that
follow the Atlantic fish lanes. The spring tarpon fishing opportunities
here seem almost endless. Our favorite methods are poling the
expansive flats looking for large fish laid-up in the turtle
grass basins and, when conditions are right, enjoying the bacchanal
delights of shrimp and guppy hatches. See one and your life will
never be the same. When this gets slow, a quick run to the Atlantic
puts you right back into the game. White sand and black fish
is never easy, but it sure is fun.
Key West Backcountry
This is the area where the four
of us first fell in love with flats fishing. From the early
days when any fish sighting was
celebrated to today when expectations are much loftier (Slam
anyone), this is where we learned and are still learning to flats
fish. Every species is available most days of the year. The proximity
to Key West can lead to some crowded (by Lower Keys standards)
conditions, but the fishing rarely suffers. One could fish a
whole career in just a few of these basins and never wont for
fish, though that does seem a bit boring. Sometimes overlooked
as the first choice for a day's fishing, this area still holds
magic. Slick calm summer and fall fishing is always special.
Bonefish tailing with first and last light is one the highlights
of the year. Cherry picking productive edges for large, sometimes
too large, tarpon is a spring time ritual. When the numbers of
large ‘poons diminishes, their smaller cousins invariably
take their place. The falling tide on the Gulf is sure to find
permit hunting for a meal. In fact, on certain tides, it is possible
to target permit that are actively feeding on crabs drifting
on the surface. These annual hatches are fairly predictable and
provide some intriguing angling opportunities, not for the faint
of heart. This area has some of everything.
Big Pine Backcountry
Big Pine Key marks a major geologic boundary. From the mainland
down, all of the Keys are composed of what is known as Key Largo
Limestone. Fairly young, in geological terms, fossilized coral
makes up the spine of the Keys, that is, until we reach Big Pine
Key. Here the Key Largo Limestone gives way to Miami Oolite,
a much older material. The implications of this change on the
overall flora and fauna is much too complicated to get into here,
but how it affects the fishing is not. Gone are the enclosed
basins that separate the Gulf from the Atlantic that is the hallmark
of the Key West backcountry. Replacing it are deep vertical (i.e.
north to south) channels with islands and banks separating them.
Hard charging currents and easy access to deep water make this
area a haven for game fish.
The bonefishing is on par with anywhere
in the Keys, lacking only the concentrations of truly giant
fish found in the “Downtown” Islamorada
area. Permit fishing, whether on the many banks for tailers or
off the edges for schools of floaters, is often excellent. Despite
this, what sets this area apart is the summer and fall fishing
for resident tarpon. Depending on tide and weather conditions,
there may be few places on the planet that offer more consistent
angling for these fish (Everglades being the possible exception).
There is no need to go to Mexico. Fish under trees, schooled
up on edges or laid-up in depressions, the opportunities are
countless. Better yet, with the exception of two tournament weekends
in the late summer, the fishing pressure is minimal. Most of
the summer and fall the only company is the roosting Frigate
Birds, ubiquitous Egrets, Herons, and shorebirds, and the soaring
kettles of migrating raptors. Best of all the Least Terns, newly
arrived from Central America, which alert us to shrimp and guppy
hatches. This is the kind of company we prefer.
Where to start? It would take lifetimes
to fully understand just a portion of this vast area. The Everglades
the sawgrass prairies just south of Lake Okeechobee to the barrier
banks in Florida Bay. This is truly a world of its own. As one
travels from Islamorada toward the mainland, the species that
inhabit the shallows changes. The bonefishing on the perimeter
of the Park is world class, producing record class fish every
year. As Islamorada disappears on the horizon, the bonefish gradually
give way to redfish. While there are areas that support both
species, the closer that you get to the mainland the greater
the concentration of redfish and snook. The one year-round constant
in this vast area is tarpon. The numerous basins and edges harbor
some of the world’s finest fly fishing opportunities for
these game fish. During the early mornings of the summer months,
you can witness tarpon rolling in every direction as far as the
eye can see. On warm winter days, large resident fish bask in
the shallow muddy waters.
But the Everglades are more than
just fishing. The bird life of the Park rivals that of anywhere
in the world. Grass flats
are carpeted with innumerable Egrets, Herons and Roseate Spoonbills
while Swallowtail Kites, Wood Storks and Bald Eagles soar overhead.
To the lucky visitor, America’s only flock of wild Pink
Flamingos is occasionally seen. All winter long armies of White
Pelicans, “flying buffalo,” feed in large flocks
across the deeper basins and pockets. On the mainland, the rare
Crested Caracara, endangered Cape Sable Sparrow and Snail Kite
can be found. Add to that American Alligators and Saltwater Crocodiles
(the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles
coexist) and Everglades National Park is unlike anywhere else.
To fish in the company of the numerous wild creatures is worth
the effort of reaching the Park. The Everglades presents the
four of us a blank canvas and we relish the time spent here learning
just some of this wilderness’s secrets.