Cold January Days In The Keys

“What do you want to do today?” Huffer asked. The water temperature was 58 degrees and we wore three layers of clothing to keep out the Canadian air of identical temperature. Waves of ice rink air had been blasting the Keys for a week and the chill reminded one of a late fall Ohio football day. After thirteen years of sharing a skiff with our guide, Steve Huff, both of us knew that skimming across the water at thirty miles an hour on a run of half an hour up the oceanside Key Largo shoreline would drive the tears forced by the wind around our face where they would freeze on our ears. So even though we were well prepared for the weather by our dress, our quarry, the bonefish, cope with cold water by seeking comfort in some deep green channel where the water fights off a few degrees of chill. Bones are not fishable under such conditions.

Even the asking of the question was puzzling. Our traditional morning routine includes a conscious effort to avoid even a hint of what we would like to fish for or where we would like to go. Conversation at breakfast with our guides includes a recap of the catches of the day before, the memory spawning disasters which years later are the subject of often told stories, and fishing tackle. But an angler suggesting that a Florida Keys flats guide should seek bonefish instead of permit or tarpon instead of barracuda is taboo. Those decisions are made by guides.

There are times though when the choices do not range from permit at Key West to bonefish at Biscayne Bay. Today was one of those times. We faced the same decision the day before and the answer yielded a destination which was a first for me. Lake Ingraham. We put in at Sandy Moret’s ramp located in the rear of his beautiful Islamorada home which boasts a sunset view of Florida Bay. From there, we wound our way through the back country skirting along the edge of Nine Mile Bank until a deep turquoise channel gave us access to the flats leading past the winter home of the migratory white pelicans. A group of fifteen of the brilliantly bright birds swam quietly along in pursuit of food unlike their dive bombing brown pelican brothers who approach a meal like an airborne freight train.

We hit the mainland shore line just to the west of Flamingo and approached close enough to find the lee of a fifteen mile an hour north wind which caused the Florida weather readers to talk of wind chill as if they were dealing with a Buffalo snow blown forecast. We approached Lake Ingraham through the dredged manmade channel that runs for a half mile from Florida Bay to the mouth of the lake. Arriving at low tide, I was stunned to see a series of exposed mud banks which called up images of a convoluted human brain. Each little crevice or channel in this spider web of mud was an obvious path for the migrating fish as the tide would come in. But today the weak winter tides would never flood the mud flats and the fish were forced to gather in the deeper channel running down the middle of Lake Ingraham.

As the skiff dropped off plane, Steve Huff shut down the Yamaha 120 HP outboard and stepped up to the poling platform. Having long ago learned to be ready when the guide is ready, I grabbed my rod loaded with 10 lb test and a thirty lb shock leader and stepped up scanning the water surface as I settled into my side of the bow. I next edged back so my then 73 year old friend and fishing partner, Lee Mitchell, known to those of us who fish with him as Mitchie, steadied himself for the step up by grabbing on to my belt. Scanning Lake Ingraham was like looking into a huge bowl of Mocha flavored coffee. I thought to myself, “We will never see a fish in this water.” Five pushes into our first approach, we began to see cream puff like explosions of mudding or fleeing fish. “Cast to the muds and look for swirls. You might see a tail on the edges but more than likely the reds will be in the channel. If you see a shake or push hit it and make that jig look alive”, Huff instructed.

Mitchie began to catch redfish. I did not. After three reds Mitchie wondered aloud if I was trying as hard as I could. “Little early in the day to start busting chops isn’t it?” I replied. “Anyway, I would feel bad if I didn’t let you catch at least a couple before taking charge of this water”

“Right”

We fished on and all of a sudden I felt a tap and hooked a two pound red. “Nice Jr. Leaguer, Stevie.” Mitchie calls me Stevie even though I am well over 50 years old. “Need any help landing him?”

“Naw, I thing I can handle it old buddy” I released the red and then the fish started to come. After an hour and fifteen redfish, I uttered the unutterable. “Are there any snook here?” Apparently, the redfish were insulted, took off the feedbag, or fled. The fishing shut down.

“Dammit, Rowe, you know better than to insult the fish. The fishing gods hate that kind of talk. Let’s get out of here.” Huff said with a smile in his voice.

We ran about ten minutes back to the outside and upon reaching the mouth of the inlet, we saw a pack of fishing boats working the incoming tide looking for seatrout, snook, redfish, or any other hungry fish willing to ignore the icy water and take a meal. As we slowed to shut off the wake and work through the pack of boats, all of us indulged in a stolen glance hoping to see a fish caught but knowing that we would feel the catching boat was in a spot where we most certainly would have been fishing had they just not been there. No fish were sighted and so we left the mouth, and motored slowly to the west towards the next cut which was about thirty yards wide and without a boat.

“It’s two o’clock. Let’s drift in towards the mouth and have some lunch” Huff said.

Mitchie and I were both thinking what we always think when fishing with Huff. We had been hungry for two hours but Huff thinks that lunch is at best a time consuming nuisance which steals precious fishing time.

As we wolfed down our food, Mitchie made the mistake of asking, ”What are we going to do here?”

Huff mocked , “What are we going to do here? Why don’t you hurry up and get up on that bow and find out?”

We packed up our left over styrofoam cups which had contained chunky chicken salad and the aluminum foil which had protected the bonefish sandwich Huff favored, a messy combination of gooey egg salad over ham contained by two slices of rye. The trash was stored in the bow compartment

Huff pushed us towards the mouth of the cut which was edged by black mangroves just beginning to receive the touch of an outgoing tide. As we approached the outside edge of the cut we saw two large stationary shapes hovering motionless on the top of a drowned tree which was sitting far enough from the mangroves to catch a shower of sunlight. Two goliath grouper in the range of fifty pounds were warming there bodies and had no interest in the jig we dangled two inches from their snout.

We pushed further out and came to a slot in the mangroves where you could park a pick up truck with no room to spare. Mitchie was on the bow and I backed him up from the middle of the boat. Huff was on the poling platform and jammed the push pole in the muck to hold us away from the slot while the current urged us forward. Mitchie flipped his jig shoreward and bam a five pound snook smacked the jig and after a fight slowed to a sluggish surge or two due to the frigid water, the fish was boated and released. We were in the middle of one of those fishing situations where the boat position permited Lee to demonstrate a basic personality flaw of many anglers – being a fish hog. In the next ten minutes as the tide continued its flood, Mitchie yanked ten snook out of what was an obvious fish parking spot. I managed two.

Have you noticed that anglers have the ability to see through the back of their fishing partners head when he sports an ear to ear grin because he is thrashing you in the boat bet.

“Get back here you evil old man!” I shouted as the last of the ten snook slid towards the starboard sideboard. “Oh, Stevie, I just don’t think this replacement knee can take standing in the middle of the boat. I just have to have this comfortable seat on the bow!”

“Right”

The fishing continued for me and the catching for Mitchie. A total of fifteen snook later, we headed back across Florida Bay for a face freezing run to home.

The next morning, we ate breakfast at Stout’s Restauart. Stouts is one of those Florida Keys establishments that can make a living by remaining open through the noon hour. Fishermen use the establishment for breakfast and lunch sandwiches. The lunch crowd finishes off the day, and the owners hit the water for a little fishing themselves. Bacon, eggs, toast, lots of coffee, and a short wait for the lunch sandwiches to be made. The restaurant seats may be 40 around 10 small tables. The talk is of fishing, fishing guides, lost opportunities, all of which are tied together by a fisherman’s dash of embellishment. Normally, the conversation at breakfast does not include where the anglers might want to fish that day. Such a topic is taboo when you are paying a guide four hundred fifty dollars a day to make such a decision.

But after squeezing two days to fish out of my appointment book to join a best friend on the bow of a sixteen foot super skiff, there was no time to wait on the weather to change, the water to warm up, or the wind to stop howling. So today, I chose to risk the taboo breaking penalty of no fish by answering the question of what we would like to do by saying “ Let’s go find some bonefish.”

After hearing my request, Huffer looked outside saw the north wind and suggested we head to Key Largo. We strolled across Highway 1, got into the pickup truck, and headed towards the John Pennecamp State Park. Pennecamp has one of the best ramps in the Keys. But even on the finest ramps, strange things can happen. After Huffer backed the boat towards the water and down the ramp, he exited the driver side to unhook the safety chain. I was in the back and so after Mitchie exited the vehicle, I began to untangle my long legs by turning my back to the top of the cab, sticking my right foot towards the pavement and stepping out with my left foot. As I twisted to close the door, Mitchie made his way around the front of the pickup truck and and closed the driver’s side door. In the same instant, my right elbow brushed the door lock and I closed the passenger’s door. We were locked out of the pickup. The result was a boat on its trailer, a pickup truck running, and a very distressed fishing guide. The beauty of fishing with Steve Huff, however, is that he knows someone in every town in the Keys who can get things done. Key Largo was no exception. Within minutes, a tow truck driver with a nasty looking metal tool had opened the door and we were back in business.

Once a skiff leaves the ramp at John Pennecamp, the guide and anglers are treated to a gorgeous ride through mangrove lined channels filled with beautiful clear green water. The first time one makes that run, it is impossible to imagine that the Atlantic Ocean lies just a few hundred yards to the east. The Oceanside shoreline of Key Largo is some of the most stunning water in the Keys. The bottom consists of hard coral, which is easily heard by the crunch of the push pole.

Key Largo is a popular destination when the wind is beating on the Gulfside flats. As any angler who fishes for bonefish knows, best results are achieved when one can see the fish. When peering through the clear water to the Key Largo ocean bottom one is confronted by a series of black and green spots which look like an image from the business end of a kaleidoscope. It is not difficult to mistake a stationary black spot for a bonefish. You constantly have to remind yourself that a bonefish moves, but a black spot on the bottom does not. On this day, however, we learned that bonefish sometimes do what is unexpected when the water is more like the temperature found in Lake Erie in the late fall.

As Huffer poled up the shoreline, he remarked, “Is that a school of fish about 500 yards ahead?”

There are many times on the flats, when the guide who stands on an elevated platform sees fish long before the anglers. This was not one of those times. At the edge of our vision range, a huge black wad of something awaited. In 15 years of bonefishing, I had never before seen as school of bonefish swimming in a circle. This group of fish appeared to be wandering in a huge daisy chain. Perhaps the fish were attempting to stay together. How cold-blooded fish in cold water could create warmth by swimming in circles closely together would seem to defy modern science. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what these fish were doing. As we got closer, it did not appear that the fish would spook. Huffer said, “Mitchie, cast to the right edge of the school.” He went on, “Rowe, you cast of the left edge and let’s pull a double out of this group.”

Mitchie cast first. Wide right. I went next and made a decent cast of the left edge of the school and immediately hooked up. Normally, a hooked bonefish will tear through the water stripping line against the drag. A larger fish can take upwards of one hundred and fifty yards of line against the drag. This fish did not seem to have the energy to do what a hooked bonefish normally did. It slowly and sluggishly moved away from the pack which continued to circle slowly. After a brief fight, a beautiful silver sided 8 pound bonefish was in Huffer’s hands. Huffer called over his shoulder, “What the hell were you casting at Mitchie?” No reply.

The lesson learned is one all fisherman know – you never know what might happen when you are fishing while everyone else stays home.

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