Key West has a mysterious and exciting reputation for an angler. Although I had pursued bonefish on many of the beautiful flats of the Keys, I had never fished out of Key West. So when my guide, Steve Huff, suggested that we fish Key West on a beautiful crystal clear November day, I was excited. The trip from Marathon was approximately one hour. We pulled the trailer and skiff into a marina and quickly launched into Key West Harbor. The broad basin is much larger than other harbors in the Keys. Substantial numbers of large sailing and pleasure yachts were moored in the aquamarine basin providing ample evidence of the affluence of the owners.
Historically, Key West was a military outpost which in the late l800’s grew to a community of some seventeen thousand citizens and outlaws who had communications with the mainland of Florida only by boat. In that the first road through the Keys was not constructed until the early l920’s, Key West took on an isolated independence. That independence is still reflected in the attitudes of the Key West natives who are not bound by societies or governments norms or expectations.
Just as Key West’s quirkiness is first rate, so is its fishing. We were there to fish. Permit were our quarry. Steve shut the 90 horse motor down, staked off, and began to rig my spinning rod with a Bimini twist leader and bait hook suitable to secure the dollar size blue crabs we intended to use as bait. My knots had yet to meet with his approval. As I looked up from the rigging efforts, I noticed a large barracuda sunning easily in a state of motionlessness. The day before while fishing a flat near Marathon, Steve’s son Dustin was my guide. When we sighted a cuda, Dustin rigged a spinning rod with a tube lure constructed of a single piece of bright green plastic tubing with three hooks running the length of the lure. He handed me the rod and I fired a cast well in front of what turned out to be a hungry fish.
“Reel the lure as fast as you can! If wants to eat you cannot reel too fast.” I cranked furiously. The cuda exploded on the lure and jumped several times, elevating high above the churning water. The fish made short, quick runs of approximately twenty to thirty feet and after about 5 minutes, I was able to land the twelve pound barracuda with brilliant blue tones accented by black vertical bars etching its missile shaped body. My fishing buddy, Lee Mitchell scoffed. It was as if I had caught a carp back home in Ohio.
On this Key West morning, we did not bother the lazy barracuda. After the rigging was completed, Steve poled the sixteen foot super skiff for approximately an hour searching for a flashy silver side of a permit or a black sickle shaped tail sticking above the water. We sighted nothing. Huffer suggested that if we were up for a ride, we might see permit if we could make it to Marquesas Keys.
Marquesas Key is a group of small coral islands half-way between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. The small atoll, which means a group of barrier islands with a harbor in the middle, is the last stop before Cuba. The Marquesas are uninhabited and are surrounded by some of the most beautiful water anywhere in the Florida Keys. The flat bottom is a supercharged ecosystem where an infinite variety of salt water creatures live in a complex chain of predator and prey.
To get to Marquesas Key from Key West, the angler must cross the Boca Grande shipping channel which connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Typically, the channel is choppy, especially when the wind and current are running in opposite directions. On such days, a skiff will move like a large bobber being tossed in multiple directions at the same time. On this day, the water was relatively calm and the seven mile crossing was uneventful.
As the crossing progressed, I had a feeling of vulnerability as I gazed into the violet colored water where I could not see bottom. Typically, I feel safe and confident while fishing. However, I had never before been aboard that little piece of fiberglass as it bounced around in water with a depth of thirty-five to forty feet. Needless to say, a bonefish skiff does not have sufficient room to carry a spare motor in the event of a mechanical breakdown.
As the mangrove covered Marquesas came into sight, the beauty of the moment was overwhelming. The water was absolutely crystal clear and the visibility as we scanned the surface ahead of us for signs of fish with the sun directly overhead was seemingly unlimited. Every shadow, movement, sandy spot among the waving duck grass lining the bottom of the flat held a promise of fish. But the permit were elsewhere. Instead, after poling into an inner bay of one of the islands, we found ourselves surrounded by a large school of lemon and nurse sharks. The cruisers swam gently around the boat as if they were a squadron of soldiers resolutely marching to battle. As these magnificent sharks swam underneath the boat, I glanced up and found no other human beings, boats, or signs of civilization. This sun crushed isolation created a sense of oneness with the elements I have never before or since experienced.