Yoga Chant Attracts Large Tarpon

Many years ago, a workout partner suggested that I should take up the practice of yoga. The suggestion was accompanied by the comment that I was one of the most inflexible people he knew. I thought to myself, “In so many ways!”

The encouragement led me to take a few classes, buy a DVD, and hide in the basement with my mat to become familiar with the art of yoga. The most fun part was chanting. Little did I know that years later, a yoga chant would help me catch my first 100 pound tarpon.

Beautiful Tarpon - The Quarry

Beautiful Tarpon – The Quarry

From 1988 through 2011, a group of my fishing buddies and I fished annually in the Florida Keys. We were fortunate to have the best guides in the Keys trying to put some very average but enthusiastic anglers on the fish of the flats, namely, bonefish, permit, and tarpon.

As we drove to the Keys for the second year of the trip, stories from the previous trip were shared in a tone of excited anticipation. I observed a significant discrepancy in the way each of us remembered the details of the previous trip. As a result, I bought a blue journal at the K-Mart in Marathon, which has been referred to as the fishing bible ever since.

For the next 22 years, I recorded the fish caught, lost, and the adventures shared. The result – my buddies often contended that the stories of the fishing bible, which were written daily as the events unfolded, were wrong. So instead of arguing with each other, they argue with me over the “truth.”

The Fishing Bible

The Fishing Bible

I have the journal in my hand reviewing the events of November 4, 2010.

I was fishing alone with Guide Dale Perez who is an extremely talented flats guide. On difficult fishing days, Dale referred to himself as “Captain Snake Bit”. I often reminded him that poor fishing results are typically caused by the angler or the conditions encountered, not the guide.

Guide Dale Perez On The Poling Platform

Guide Dale Perez On The Poling Platform

Dale launched the skiff out of Little Torch. As we cleared the narrow channel lined with beautiful homes, the skiff was punched up on plane and we started the long run into the backcountry of the Content Keys which are a slice of heaven nestled in the flats bordering the Gulf of Mexico. The early morning run was made as Dale and I silently shared the optimism of endless possibilities. The skiff skimmed over the surface pushing a gentle wake as a soft hissing sound caressed our ears. Dale raced to the first fishing destination as I daydreamed of fish to be caught and stared into the water looking for signs of life.

That morning, the skies were a flat slate gray as a single sheet of low hanging cloud stretched to the horizon. A mild breeze was blowing. No sun meant visibility into the water was zero, but fortunately, we arrived at our first flat as the water began to rise with the tide. Good fortune followed.

Once In  A While The Sun Does Not Shine In The Florida Keys

Once In A While The Sun Does Not Shine In The Florida Keys

Dale had been poling along the edge of the flat for no more than 10 minutes when a large school of bonefish pushed water ahead of them as the fish left the deeper water of the channel and swam up on the edge of the flat staging to feed as the turtle grass began to flood with saltwater. The “wake” resembled a v-shaped flock of geese migrating through a Midwest fall sky.

Although I could not see the fish, I understood from years of mistakes under similar circumstances that the actual fish were swimming well ahead of the wake. I threw my shrimp about 10 feet in front of the wake and as the bait landed Dale shouted, “Rowe, you should get one!” I did.

The First Of Two Content Keys Bones

The First Of Two Content Keys Bones

We had several more shots at schooling fish coming up on the flat and I caught an eight pounder before the fishing shut down which coincided with worsening weather. The wind came up and rain drops began to fall. Dale hopped off the poling platform, stored the push pole, and fired up the engine as I stowed my spinning rod and reel. We were off to what we affectionately call the 26 foot hole.

Captain Perez and Larry LaFleur Hooked Up To Big Tarpon In The 26 Foot Hole

Captain Perez and Larry LaFleur Hooked Up To Big Tarpon In The 26 Foot Hole

Over the years, I have fished the 26 foot hole a number of times. When we are out of good fishing options in the Contents because of a lack of sun, poor visibility, too much wind or from some other combination of the endless variables which affect the fishing, we will run to the 26 foot hole. When the tide is right, tarpon resident to the hole often will roll in the channel which is at least a mile long, a couple hundred yards wide, and yes, 26 feet deep. Typically, the rods and reels remain stowed as we all scan the surface for signs of rolling tarpon. As soon as a roller is spotted the tension and excitement in the skiff explodes.

Tarpon Rolling Off Seven Mile Bridge

Tarpon Rolling Off Seven Mile Bridge

The first step is to rig a small spinning reel with a sabiki rig. Each tiny hook of the sabiki is tipped with a small piece of shrimp as we fish for live bait, the feisty pinfish. For me, a pinfish is the saltwater equivalent of the freshwater bluegill. The next step is to get out a tarpon rod and reel, sharpen the hooks, and cut a hunk of Styrofoam as a bobber. Two slits are cut in each side of the hunk of Styrofoam into which the guide wraps a couple of turns of line. If a fish strikes, the line cuts through the Styrofoam as the angler sets the hook. Instantly, the bobber is gone and the angler is tight to the fish.

Crab Pot Styrofoam Makes Great Bobber

Crab Pot Styrofoam Makes Great Bobber

Once rigged, the technique is simple. I lob the pinfish which is hooked in the back and the Styrofoam bobber out into the current. As the rig lands, the spinning reel bail is left open so the bait will drift with the tide and current. If the lob cast is too aggressive, the Styrofoam bobber will break and the guide will be cranky! Next, you watch the bobber as it ducks and weaves on the water while the feisty pinfish tries to escape. It takes little imagination to envision a huge tarpon causing panic in the pinfish as the Styrofoam chunk skitters across the surface.

Pinfish Are Great Tarpon Bait

Pinfish Are Great Tarpon Bait

With no other good options that afternoon, we drifted pinfish in the 26 foot hole for five hours. Almost immediately, the bobber disappeared and I caught a beautiful jack crevalle. Although not our quarry of choice, the jack put up a tremendous fight full of pumping runs and a singing drag. As the fish was released, I was sure there would be bigger and better fish to follow.

Jack Crevalle

Jack Crevalle

An hour passed. As tedium descended and my eyes began to get heavy, I decided to lob my bait to the opposite side of the boat. As the bobber settled in the water just a few feet from the port side of the boat, it just kept going. Before I could tighten on the fish and set the hook, a 4 foot barracuda exploded through the surface and jumped some 6 to 8 feet ascending to our eye level.

Jumping Barracuda

Jumping Barracuda

As it splashed back into the water, the fish reversed direction and streaked across the bow jumping a second time as if it was a thoroughbred clearing a hurdle. As soon as the cuda hit the water, it swirled around churning the surface as if it was trying to escape a dreadful fate. Suddenly, the fish was again airborne as a huge boil of water erupted underneath the flying fish. Out of the water came a 500 pound bull shark with jaws wide open not 10 feet from the boat. The hungry shark caught the barracuda and disappeared under the surface.

Bull Sharks Like To Eat

Bull Sharks Like To Eat

The line went slack as the refrain from “Jaws” drifted in my head. “Do, do-do, do.” It was one of those events where a month of intensity was jammed into a few seconds. Dale and I looked at each other in disbelief. “Can you believe that? “. Our knees were shaking.

Many more casts followed. I wondered why any fish would be swimming in the 26 foot hole after the bull shark exploded on the barracuda.

After another hour, a third bite. The bobber slowly disappeared some hundred yards from the boat. I reeled down to tighten against the fish and set the hook. Immediately, a large tarpon jumped some 6 feet out of the water.

Jumping Tarpon

Jumping Tarpon

That was the last time we saw the fish as it seemed to burrow to the bottom of the 26 foot hole. After 15 minutes of bull dogging, the line went dead. There was no hook and no fish as I reeled in the slack line with the hip thrusting slumped shoulder bad body language of disappointment. I cast my eyes skyward to ask the fishing gods when I might expect to catch a big tarpon? There was silence on the boat.

Dale rigged. Another 90 minutes passed. No bites. Boredom set in. There was no conversation. Finally, a strange thought popped into my head. I set the rod down next to me and climbed up on the bow of the boat. I sat in an upright cross-legged position with my knees spread apart. Putting my index fingers against my thumbs, I placed a hand on each knee. “What in the world are you doing, Rowe” Dale asked. “Dale, nothing is happening. We haven’t had a bite in over an hour and half. So I am going to call the fish to my bait by doing my yoga chants”. Dale shook his head.

“Ooooommmmm. Ooooommmmmm. Anshati, shanti,” I chanted surrounded by the stillness of the ocean and an extremely skeptical guide. As the last word left my mouth, the bobber disappeared. I had been chanting for all of five seconds. I laughed out loud, stood up, put both hands on the rod and reel and set the hook. The fish erupted from the water. After a long battle with many runs, jumps, and scary moments, Dale fired up the skiff and chased the fish from the depths the 26 foot hole onto a shallow flat.

Caught Tarpon

Caught Tarpon

We had our hundred pound tarpon. The fish swam slowly under the bow of the boat as Dale reached over and touched the leader making it a “caught fish”. He then yanked and broke the line. The tarpon eased off as its silver green color drifted out of sight.

I went crazy! My first tarpon exceeding 100 pounds had been attracted and caught under the spell of a yoga chant! “Only you, Rowe, only you…” Dale sighed.

Bonefishing In Roatan

 

Roatan-Roads-and-Villages-Garifuna-In-Peril-Movie-Screenings-October-2013-roatanislandDOTnet

The Island of Roatan

 

Several years ago, good friends, Dave and Margy McCarthy joined my wife, Lauri, and I on a cruise on the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship, Epic. The itinerary included a day long stop at a small island off the coast of Belize named Roatan.

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The Rowes and McCarthys

 

 

As soon as the trip was booked, I began investigating the possibility of a bonefish trip while in port. A Google search of “Roatan bonefish” revealed a website for an eco-lodge known as the Mango Creek Lodge.

Sunset At Mango Creek Lodge

Sunset At Mango Creek Lodge

My phone call to the Lodge went to voice mail but was was returned in a few minutes by the owner, a former resident of Colorado. I learned that when the economy was booming in the early part of the decade, he decided to buy Mango Creek which was built in 2003. His plan to be an absentee owner with an on site manager had failed and as a result he and his wife moved to Roatan to manage the five bungalow mini resort.

mango creek

A couple of years before the cruise, I had begun to teach Dave how to fly cast. My good friends at Mad River Outfitters in Columbus shook their heads in disbelief when they heard I was trying to instruct somebody in the art of fly casting as my own casting skills are modest at best.

Dave is an agreeable friend who would never do anything to disappoint a buddy. Once while we were fishing for smallmouth bass in the Olentangy River, Dave fell and gashed his wrist on a rock in the first 15 minutes of fishing. We had waded in opposite directions, so I knew nothing of his fall until the end of our fishing an hour and a half later. Even then he said nothing. The dried red blood from his wrist to his elbow told the tale of the mishap.

Dave knew me to be a bonefish addict and in a true demonstration of his habit of putting others first, he readily agreed to accompany me on the bonefish trip in Roatan even though he had never fished for bonefish or any other saltwater fish.

The proprietor of Mango Creek Lodge informed me that he would send the most reliable taxi driver on the island to pick us up at the pier where we were to disembark. The driver’s name was Jose.

I was assured that Jose would be holding a sign with the words “Mango Creek Lodge” so we could easily pick him out of the crowd of drivers seeking the easy tourist fare.

Roatan is a narrow island approximately 30 miles long and the owner asked if we were docking at Port Royal Harbour, one of the two Roatan piers, where cruise ships disgorged their passengers. At his suggestion, I called the customer service number for NCL and the hard to understand operator confirmed that indeed our ship would be docking at Port Royal.

roatan-2

The plan was for José to transport us to a little bar called PJ’s at the opposite end of the island where our fishing guide would be waiting with his skiff to transport us to Mango Creek Lodge which was not easily accessible by road.

Knowing that cruise ships wait for no passenger, we needed reassurance that there would be a foolproof plan to return us to the ship on time. The owner said that José would return to PJs at 2 PM to pick us up insuring a timely return. Based on this long distance information from someone I had never met, I confidently promised Dave and our wives that there would be no problem with the return. We would be back no later than 3 PM as the ship was to sail at 4.

Our ship docked early in the morning.

Roatan-Honduras-Mahogany-Beach-p

Dave and I were first in line to disembark and we were loaded with fishing gear and the requisite amount of cash, eager to begin our fishing adventure. After clearing security, we descended the gangway and gazed the length of the very long pier for the most likely exit to start our search for José. Of course, we picked the closest exit.

As we neared the street, we carefully scanned the horde of taxi drivers for someone holding a sign that said “Mango Creek”. There were no signs. I shouted out, “Is there a driver here named José?”. Surprisingly, every single driver waiting was named José. Now we were confused. No sign but 50 Joses’.

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Suddenly, a young local named Michael frantically approached us asking if he could help us arrange transportation, give us a local tour, or serve our needs in any other way. I asked Michael if he knew where a bar named PJ’s was located. Of course, he was certain of its location. Michael and I were approached by a local policeman who told Michael to leave us alone. Obviously, self-appointed tour guides were not popular with the local gendarmes.

Another quick but futile glance for a sign led us to head to the other end of the pier where we approached a security desk and asked if there was any particular place where we could expect to be picked up by a prearranged taxi driver. Security personnel directed us back to the exit where we had encountered Michael. Then I asked Security whether the pier where we had docked was Port Royal Harbour. “No, Mahn, you are at French Harbour, Port Royal is at the other end of the island.” So much for the accuracy of NCL’s customer service operator upon whom I had relied.

By now we had spent the better part of a half-hour attempting to make connections on the first leg of our fishing trip. Great uncertainty clouded over our once optimistic heads. Obviously, our José was at Port Royal Harbour and we were not.

We returned to gate one and suddenly the fear of missing out on a fishing adventure overcame me as I gazed desperately across the street looking for a Mango Creek sign with a José attached.

I noticed Michael. “Michael, got a minute? Can you get us to Port Royal Harbour quickly? We have a driver named Jose’ waiting for us there!” We were now only a half hour away from the time we were to meet our fishing guide at PJ’s bar. “Of course!” Michael responded with great enthusiasm.

Michael approached a taxi driver, spoke in Spanish, and suddenly the driver threw open all three doors and gestured for us to climb in. Dave and I jumped in the back and Michael jumped in the front. Off we went. Only after we were underway did I ask, “How much?’ Michael responded for Pedro, “$30!” “Fine, keep driving, we have to find Jose’ as soon as possible!”, I pleaded. Dave rolled his eyes.

George 034george

Pedro

 

We traveled no more than 200 yards down the crowded street when Michael said “Mahn, while you are here, do you need any drugs or women?” Dave glanced at me with a look that screeched the words, “Rowe, what have you gotten me into?”

touris4

Narrow Streets of Roatan

 

As it turned our taxi driver was not a José. His name was Pedro.

After a 15 minute drive down narrow traffic jammed roads, Pedro pulled to the left and exited at Port Royal Harbour where another 100 drivers were waiting for the passengers of the second ship to dock at Roatan that morning to disembark.

We repeated our desperate scanning of the gathered drivers who were enjoying their morning coffee as they jabbered excitedly in anticipation of naive travelers such as me and generous tippers…such as me. As we watched, Michael approached us. “Hey, Mahn, why not let Pedro and I take you to PJs?” I replied, “Let me make a call.” I quickly called the proprietor of Mango Creek, who sounded relieved to hear from me. “Where are you?”, he asked. “José has been looking for you.” I explained our predicament and the proprietor insisted that José was at Port Royal waiting. I promised to look again.

After a 10 minute search, no José appeared carrying a Mango Creek sign. I approached Michael and asked “Are you sure you know where PJ’s is?” Without saying a word, Michael walked away and approached the gathering of taxi drivers with whom he started talking in an animated fashion. Apparently, Michael was trying to figure out where PJ’s actually was even though he had been certain of its location earlier. In a minute, he returned with the promise that he had talked to someone who had given him explicit directions on how to get to PJ’s. I looked at Dave, we shrugged simultaneously, and crawled back into Pedro’s cab. Michael crawled in the front seat and off we went. This leg of the trip cost $75.

About 300 yards down the road, Michael and Pedro began to speak urgently to one another in Spanish. Suddenly, the conversation stopped, Pedro jammed on the brakes, and Michael jumped out of the front seat. He leaned in the back window and said “Give me $30 and Pedro will do the rest of the round-trip for $40. I need to get back to town and arrange more tours!” Pedro nodded his agreement. After I handed Michael the $30, Pedro sped off toward the end of the island. As we traveled, there were fewer and fewer houses and more jungle. We began to sense a tad of isolation.

After another 10 minutes of driving, Pedro seemed to slow the cab and began looking from side to side. A bad sign, I thought to myself. All of a sudden a native of the island who was dressed in orange exactly like Ricky Fowler, the PGA golfer, on a Sunday, came striding down the road. Pedro eased the cab a stop and rolled down the window. More excited Spanish was exchanged. Now “Ricky Fowler” jumped in the front seat and Pedro somehow communicated to us that Ricky claimed to know how to get to PJ’s.

folwer

The Real Ricky Fowler

 

At Ricky’s bidding, Pedro turned off the paved road and the cab began to navigate a narrow gravel road that headed up a very steep grade to the top of a very, very tall hill. There were no houses anywhere. Dave leaned over and whispered “I think we are going to be killed.” As we crested the hill, Ricky pointed to a ramshackle hut on a small sliver of silver bay with a dock in the rear. “PJs!”, he exclaimed. As Pedro parked the cab, we peeked through the four stool bar and saw our guide waiting patiently in his bonefish skiff which floated gently against the dock. His anglers had arrived.

bar_dock

PJ’s Bar

 

Pedro and Ricky seemed quite proud. Ricky of course had earned a $10 bill. I approached Pedro and gave him half of the remaining fare and reminded him that we needed him to be back at PJs at 2 PM to pick us up and return us to the ship. There would be no other cabs in the very sparsely populated residential area surrounding PJ’s. Without hesitation, he promised to return on time. He jumped in the cab and took off spewing gravel as the rear wheels spun. We walked through the empty bar with no bartender and asked permission to board. Permission was granted and the fishing part of our adventure commenced.

Our guide shook our hands and welcomed us. He was 19 years old and was also named Michael. He had reasonable English which he used to inform us that he was taking us to the lodge to prepare for fishing. After a short boat ride, we saw five gorgeous pastel colored bungalows on stilts in the water next to a sturdy dock attached to what turned out to be the kitchen and dining area for the eco-lodge.

Once we were introduced to the proprietor, everyone seemed to settle in as we were all very relieved that the logistics had somehow worked out. Of course, poor José earned no fare even though he was the “best taxi driver on the island”.

We fished for bonefish through late morning and early afternoon. The flats were spectacular. We waded on bottom which felt like coral popcorn as our feet crunched around our feet which shuffled through crystal clear water.

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The Hunt

The skies were piercing blue and the sun was determined to illuminate everything that swam. There were fish everywhere. Many of them were bonefish. We did manage to catch one after about an hour.

A Small Roatan Bonefish

A Small Roatan Bonefish

At noon, we were returned to the Lodge where we were served a spectacular launch of fresh mahi-mahi, hush puppies, and fruit.

Dave, Steve, and Michael Back For Lunch

Dave, Steve, and Michael Back For Lunch

The Lodge owner insisted on giving us a tour while extolling the merits of our planning a return trip. I was antsy because the clock was ticking and the bonefish were waiting. Or so I thought. We caught no more bonefish after lunch.

All the while, of course, in the back of our minds, we were wondering “would Pedro show up on time?” The words were not expressed but I am confident that Dave and I were sharing the same thought. As our guide eased us back to PJs at 2 PM, we saw Pedro standing next to his cab. He had obviously gone home and showered because he was scrubbed up and in his Sunday finest. We paid and tipped our guide and headed through the still empty PJ’s. Pedro explained that we had enough time to make a slight detour on the way back. He also mentioned having to make a stop. As it turned out, shortly after dropping us off, Pedro was in a taxi wreck and needed to stop at a body shop to make arrangements for the repair. We overheard the animated tone of spirited negotiation as Pedro and the body shop owner hammered out the terms of the estimate. After the deal was struck, Pedro jumped back in the cab and drove us a scenic coastal route on the north side of the island as we enjoyed the spectacular scenery of Roatan.

At five till three, Pedro pulled up at the dock and we hopped out. After settling up, Dave and I looked at each other and laughed in relief. As we began to walk towards the ship, our wives were approaching from the other end of the pier. We met them in the middle and Margy asked “How did it go?”

“No problem, Mahn!”, I replied. “And, we even caught a bonefish.”

Water, Water Everywhere – But Of What Quality In The Florida Keys?

Egret Hunting The Flat At Low Tide Islamorada, Florida Keys

Egret Hunting The Flat At Low Tide
Islamorada, Florida Keys

In ninth grade, I first studied poetry. My imagination was stirred by the images and words contained in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. I was required to read and memorize portions of this poem first published in 1798 by the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The poem relates the experiences of a sailor referred to as the Mariner who has returned from a long sea voyage with a tale to tell. He tells his story to a man who is on his way to a wedding ceremony. The wedding guest’s reaction starts with amusement but quickly moves through fear and fascination as the story progresses.

The Mariner’s tale begins with his ship departing on a journey to the south. Although the trip begins well, the ship is driven off course by storm eventually reaching Antarctica. An albatross appears and leads the troubled ship away from the ice but as the albatross is being praised by the ship’s crew, the Mariner shoots the bird. The crew is angry believing the bird had brought the South wind which gently blew their ship out of the icy Antarctic.

The sailors change their minds, however, as the weather warms and the mist disappears “Twas right, said they, such bird to slay/that bring the fog and mist”. However, shooting the bird was a grave mistake. The unnecessary killing arouses the wrath of spirits who pursued the ship “from the land of mist and snow”. The South wind which had initially led them from the land of ice sends the ship into uncharted waters where the wind dies and the water falls deathly still. The poet writes:

Day after day, day after day
We stopped, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
nor any drop to drink.

The sailors blame the Mariner for the torment of their thirst. As a result, the crew forces the Mariner to wear the dead albatross about his neck to illustrate the burden he must suffer for killing it. Eventually, after encountering a ship of death, all the crewmembers die. The Mariner lives on but he is cursed. For seven days and seven nights the Mariner sees the last expression on the face of each dead crew member. The curse is partially lifted only as he begins to appreciate the sea creatures swimming in the water. Despite his cursing them as “slimy things” earlier in the poem, “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / upon the slimy sea”, he suddenly sees their true beauty and blesses them. As he manages to pray, the albatross falls from his neck and his guilt is partially forgiven. The bodies of the crew possessed by good spirits rise again and steer the ship back home, where it sinks in a whirlpool, leaving only the Mariner behind. The Mariner is saved by a hermit but as penance for his killing of the Albatross, he is forced to wander the earth telling his story to each individual he meets.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Pondering those words, I can only conclude that God loves water. Water is necessary for human beings to live and for fish to swim. As a fundamental requirement of being a human being living in this marvelous world each of us should recognize and take responsibility for protecting as best we can the essential elements of life. The water we consume and in which the bonefish swim is such an element.

As I began this series of blog notes concerning the plight of the Florida Keys bonefish, I raised the question of what an individual angler could do to make a difference. The words “water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink” have run through my mind like a broken record. Without habitat, including seawater, of appropriate quality, the bonefish will disappear. That bonefish and other species thrive in healthy saltwater and provide anglers with unparalleled opportunities to catch remarkable fish and make memories that last for a lifetime, can be seen in the pictures below which tell the story about the need for life giving salt water in which bonefish can thrive.

The parallels with the tale of the Ancient Mariner are clear. Our Albatross is water itself. If the actions of human beings kill the quality of water, there will not only be no water to drink, there will be no life. And so the question of caring for the resource extends far beyond an anglers hope that bonefish will have water habitat in which they will swim, spawn, and thrive.

And the bonuses anglers will receive from sustaining the quality of saltwater are profound. When we fish, we experience the uncanny beauty of nature and stories of great friends and fish.

A double on permit with a great friend, Bob Hamilton.

Double On Permit 100 Permit Bank Marathon, Florida Keys

Double On Permit
100 Permit Bank
Marathon, Florida Keys

Tranquility as calm sea meets gray sky creating an infinitely distant horizon.

Horizon Disappears Water, Water Everywhere

Horizon Disappears
Water, Water Everywhere

Mangrove islands caressed with bright rays of sun reflect off life-giving seawater.

Mud Key Channel Keys

Mud Key Channel

 

Vistas from singular highways and bridges within sight of schools of daisy chaining Tarpon.

Daisy Chain of Tarpon Seven Mile Bridge Marathon, Florida

Daisy Chain of Tarpon
Seven Mile Bridge
Marathon, Florida

Mirrors of sand in shallow water reflecting the beauty of a sharply blue sky and providing avenues of travel for healthy fish.

Sandy Highway For Fish Key West

Sandy Highway For Fish
Key West

A wild Tarpon.

Tarpon On Schooner Bank, Flroida Keys

Tarpon On Schooner Bank, Flroida Keys

So what can I do? Here is my plan and promise.

Even though I live in Ohio and have not visited the Florida Keys for two and half years, I will treat water wherever I am as if it represents the sea creatures which the Ancient Mariner begins to appreciate which appreciation causes the albatross to fall from his neck.

The salt water in which the bonefish swims is a resource. The water I use in my daily living is the same resource. I will demonstrate my commitment to the bonefish, by conserving the resource in which it swims. Regardless of where that resource is located. And here is how I have begun.

Perhaps you agree there is nothing better than a hot shower. Personally, I favor long, long hot showers. In fact, after a day fishing on the flats of the Florida Keys, there is nothing more pleasurable than a long hot shower which rinses away the speckles of salt which cling to your body as a result of boat spray, fish slime, and the perspiration of an angler standing on the bow of the skiff for eight hours in a hot benevolent tropical sun.

Despite my love of long hot showers, for the last three weeks I have been taking “Navy showers”. They are simple enough. Turn the water on. Get wet. Turn the water off. Shampoo your hair. Soap your body. Turn the water on. Rinse off. Turn the water off again. I have no idea how much water is saved by a Navy shower but the commitment to the resource is more important than the quantity. I am convinced that if we all do just a little bit better with whatever resource we care about, the resource will make exponential gains because many people care enough to do a little.

When I shave, I turn the water on and off. When I brush my teeth, I turn the water on and off. When I do dishes, I turn the water on and off. Before, I let the water run while each of those simple daily tasks were completed.

My wife and I have had our first conversation about what kind of chemicals we will put on our lawn when the snow melts and the sun angle rises high enough in the sky to grow grass. I hope we can come to an agreement that whatever chemicals we use, if any, will not do damage to the water flowing in the Olentangy River where I fish for smallmouth bass not 300 yards from my home.

The Senators and Representatives from Ohio will receive letters from me. These letters will request that they explain why the subsidies continue for Big Sugar which uses fertilizers to grow sugarcane in Florida. These fertilizers release their chemical components into the groundwater that ultimately flows through the Everglades attacking water quality in Florida Bay. Florida Bay is the astounding but besieged estuary which provides life to bonefish and an infinite variety of saltwater creatures. Of course, I confess to a high level of skepticism about whether or not a letter from an individual citizen will make any difference. On the other hand, what harm can it do? Clearly, it is not realistic to expect Congress to have the necessary political will to make changes for the better of the country unless I have sufficient political will as a citizen to stay informed and express my opinion in a constructive way to those who can make a decision and a difference.

And so I pledge to continue to take steps to conserve on the amount of water I use as a human being. I also pledge to refrain from putting chemicals in places where water will carry those contaminants to rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans.

I have also resolved to take the time to become informed about water quality issues and to ask my political representatives to make decisions based upon a fair balance between the needs of the citizens of our country and the reality that our water resources are limited and tainted.

Finally, I urge you to conserve any resource about which you deeply care. If not water, then something else. I also ask that you keep yourself informed about issues which will affect all of us now and our families and nation in the future.

The Ancient Mariner bore a curse generated by a mindless disregard for the value of the albatross. His shipmates bore a terrible price. The poet concludes that the penance of the Ancient Mariner was eternal.

Let us be mindful of the natural consequences of our choices as we care for the water we use so that neither we nor future generations will have an albatross of responsibility hanging from our neck.

Sunset Bonefish Alley

Sunset Bonefish Alley

Grandma Rowe Was Wrong : God Did Not Create Bonefish To Eat

Catch and Release I Must Grandma

Grandma Mary Ella Rowe

Grandma Rowe Loved To Fish Even If He She Had To Use Her Wheelchair

My Grandma Rowe was the most beloved member of our family. She died at 102 years of age and is missed by all who knew her. A preacher’s wife, her life’s mantra was serving others. As a young child, I struggled being able to imagine Grandma chasing chickens around the barn yard of a family with a new baby. The story went that she caught the chicken, wrung it’s neck, scalded the carcass, plucked the feathers, prepared a fried chicken dinner, served the family, then did a kitchen full of dirty dishes which had accumulated as the new mother recovered.

Grandma broke my heart when she told me as I unleashed my early teenage attitude, “Steve, you have become quite a smart aleck haven’t you?” But forgiveness quickly granted was her style.

All of her Grandkids loved spending time with her even if it meant losing a game of Aggravation to this highly competitive woman.

As I began fishing we had an activity we loved in common in addition to the bond of love which kept us close. Every year before heading to the Keys to fish I believed it would be good luck if I called Grandma to tell her I was headed to Florida to go bonefishing.

Steve Rowe Tom Blake

Grandma Gave Me Her White Hair

She would always ask, ” Are they good to eat?”

” I don’t know”, I would reply.

“Why not? What do you do with them if you catch one?”

“Release them,” I would sheepishly respond.

Tarpon release (00045371)

Andy Rowe’s Tarpon Released

“God, put fish on Earth to eat you know.”

Grandma, you may well be right about the grand creation plan of God, but when it comes to bonefish, I release what I catch. All who love any aspect of this earth should enjoy the resource while at the same time treating it with respect. The term “catch and release” is not new to the fishing world. I can honestly say that I do not know of any bonefish kept by my fishing buddies in Florida. Every bonefish we caught since 1988 was released. As of September 1, 2013 bonefish caught in Florida must be released which is a measure long over due.

Chuck's large bonefish (00045556)

Captain Dale Perez Before Releasing Possible World record Bonefish

Releasing a caught bonefish is only part of the battle. The whole process of catching the fish affects chances of survival. A few tips.

Fight the fish with appropriate tackle. Fisherman seem to thrive on bragging rights. It goes something like this. “I caught a 10 lb bonefish on 4 lb test mono or tippet!” So what? Use sufficient line or tippet strength as well as an appropriate rod and reel to land the fish quickly. The shorter the fight, the higher the survival rate.

On many occasions while in the Keys my buddies would return to share stories of a bonefish being eaten by a shark or barracuda. Trust me, it is hard to want to break off a hooked bonefish when a shark is in the area. Why? Ego, the heat of the battle, focus on the catch…no matter. If you see a predator start to chase your bonefish, break it off immediately. Or if an already streaking hooked bonefish suddenly accelerates as it peels line of a smoking drag, clamp down on the line and bust him off. A shark or cuda is surely chasing the fish whether the angler sees the predator or not. Or if you have landed the fish with sharks in the area, move to another location before releasing the fish.

Once you have a fish at the boat there is a simple equation. The math works like this. The less exposure, the less handling equals the best release. I have many pictures of bonefish. Some of these fish were out of the water too long. And handling the fish for a picture will inevitably remove some of protective slime of the bone. The slime is the coat of armor of the fish so leave the fish armed. Take the picture while the fish is in the water or do not take it at all.

As you release the bonefish hold it by the tail in an upright position and be patient. Keep the bone upright and when it has sufficiently revived from the fight you will feel a surge as the fish is prepared to swim off. Only then should you release the fish. If the fish falters as it swims off retrieve it and start over.

Fly fisherman should use barbless hooks and bait fisherman should use circle hooks.

There is much more but the point is this. If you care about a fish, a plant, a pet, a forest, a beach…or anything in this marvelous creation, you have a duty to protect what you claim to love!

And so Grandma Rowe, I must say again. I do not eat bonefish. Yes, some creatures may exist to provide food. But God put some creatures on this earth to remind of us of the pure joy of the wild! Bonefish are just such creatures.

Would You Come For Thanskgiving Dinner If There Was No Turkey In The Oven? Not If You Were A Hungry Florida Keys Bonefish

Would you attend Thanksgiving dinner if there was no turkey to eat?

Americans love Thanksgiving. Family, food, and no shopping. How could a Holiday be better? I believe most of us would agree that Thanksgiving dinner is one of the most agreeable and enjoyable family holidays of our culture. And so I ask you a simple question, if you invited your family to Thanksgiving dinner this November and there was no food on the table when they arrived, would they return next year?

Hudson Attacks A Thanksgiving Turkey Leg

Hudson Attacks A Thanksgiving Turkey Leg

In my last post, I promised my amateur opinion regarding why the bonefish in the Florida Keys seem to be disappearing. I have reviewed scientific articles posted on the website of “The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.” I have googled the topic and skimmed various other articles, but I think the answer is simple and grounded in common sense. Bonefish do not swim onto flats to feed where there is no food.

Flroida Keys

Bonefish eat shrimp, crabs, worms, Toadfish, and other living creatures which live in saltwater. Shrimp, crabs, worms and every living creature on the dynamically diversified and interesting flats of the Florida Keys must eat as well. Bonefish will return to flats where the saltwater hosts food. Bonefish are like our hungry family members at Thanksgiving. If there is no food on the table when they are hungry , next year, no one will come home to eat.

Islamorada Bonefish (00050668@xC4F0B)

Harry Spear Holds A Big Hungry Florida Keys Bonefish

 

I am not a political human being. My wife would say I am moderately informed. To her credit, she keeps herself well-informed as should we all. An ill-informed opinion is merely guess-work. However, I do know all of us engage in activities which are harmful to the environment.

A recent headline in the Columbus Dispatch reads, “West Virginia chemical floats past Ohio.” The article began with the following ominous statement; “As the Ohio River delivers a noxious chemical from a huge spill in Charleston, West Virginia, to points farther south and west, cities along the river are keeping tabs on their own water supplies.”

It is easy for me to criticize this spill of commercial chemicals. But come this spring, I will want a beautiful lawn. I will hire an invisible “Lawn Company” to put chemicals on my yard. I live approximately 400 yards from the Olentangy River. It is without argument that some of the chemicals on my lawn will make their way to the Olentangy. My Grandchildren will play in my yard this summer on the grass fertilized with these chemicals. On beautiful summer days, I will rig my fly rod or spinning rod and wade in the Olentangy and fish for smallmouth bass. Those fish and my grandchildren will be exposed to chemicals which I voluntarily put on my grass.

Front Yard Fishing Home Base

Front Yard Fishing Home Base

I drive a car. Most of you do as well. I ask myself and you the following question. Would you stand immediately behind your exhaust pipe and intentionally inhale your car’s exhaust. I would not. In fact, when it is cold out and I can see the exhaust, I intentionally walk around it if I am exiting my car for some reason while the engine is running. I expect some of you have done the same thing. And yet, when it comes to the effect of carbon on our atmosphere, our thinking is influenced by our politics, our view of business versus individual rights, and our take on whether the world and its resources are to be used, protected or both.

A recent article in the Columbus Dispatch was entitled, “Climate science should not be a partisan issue”. The commentary was written by Michael Smerconish who writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He opens his piece by describing his walk down 49th St. and the Avenue of the Americas in midtown Manhattan on January 6. At the time it was 57°. By early the next morning, New York City was reeling in -12° temperatures.

He wondered how the frigid weather experienced by 180 million Americans could support the global warming model for climate change. He called Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at Rutgers University and she offered a compelling view which left him wondering how her profession ever became subject to partisan divide.

As the Polar Vortex slammed cold temperatures throughout the country, Rush Limbaugh wasn’t “buying it”. Donald Trump referenced “this whole global warming hoax” poking fun at the global warming scientists and their frozen ship at the South Pole. From the left, John Stewart was quick to respond by lampooning a number of Fox personalities and their failure to distinguish between opinion and fact.

Nothing new, the right and left do not agree. Why not, Professor Francis offers: “I don’t think it’s a clean political slice down the line, she said. “But that said, in certain parties there is more business interest related to fossil fuel industries and, of course, if we decide we don’t want to use fossil fuels anymore, then they stand to lose a lot of money, so there’s a big financial stake there. I think there may also be some religious component to it, and some people believe that humans could never do something like this, and perhaps God would not allow us to do something like this, so there are different beliefs out there that come into play that are difficult to change people’s minds when they’re so ingrained.”

In a somewhat humorous analogy, the writer points to a Pew Research survey that show that 60% of Americans believe in evolution, while a third do not. The latter number has remained constant in the past few years. However, just five years ago there was only a 10% difference between Republicans and Democrats on the issue and that gap regarding whether or not humans have evolved has widened to 24 points at present.

As for why the extreme weather comports with her model of climate change, Francis pointed out that on January 15, Alaska was warmer than Atlanta, the former having had a very warm month of December. Lauri and I learned on our summer Alaska cruise that there remains only one advancing glacier in Alaska. The rest are in retreat.

A Retreating Alaskan Glacier

A Retreating Alaskan Glacier

In the January 19 Columbus Dispatch, an editorial reveals that Norfolk, Virginia is already spending millions of dollars on construction projects, to deal with the rise of sea levels in the area. There are billions yet to be spent. Residents are quoted as bring tired of driving through salt water.

Professor Francis writes, “So the connection to climate change, we think, is that what we are seeing is the jet stream taking these kind of very wild swings north and south more often now. And we believe that is related to the fact that the Arctic is warming so much faster than the rest of the country…. When we make this difference in temperature between the Arctic and areas farther south smaller, which is what is happening as the Arctic warms so fast, the jet stream responds to this by becoming more wavy, so we think this is at least one factor that’s connected to the increasing frequency of these kinds of extreme weather events all around the Northern Hemisphere.”

Interestingly, a friend and Client who knows I love the Florida Keys brought me a copy of the Key West Citizen from Christmas Day, 2013. A flats captain was describing the year fishing in the Keys and his words were that it was plainly “not good”. As you review the article, it becomes clear that the primary reason for the fishing not being good in his opinion was the inconsistent weather.

I reference climate change because of the tremendous bonefish kill of 2010. Some estimate that approximately 240,000 Florida Keys bonefish were killed because of a consistent low temperature. Most certainly, there have been fish kills in Florida on prior occasions. However, the cold temperatures in 2010 were colder for a longer period of time than any other periods of cold temperature in well over 20 years.

However, it is clear that some bonefish still exist. Most certainly, they will rebound, will they not? In my view, based strictly on an angler’s sense, the extent of recovery will directly relate to the quality of the water and the habitat. Keep turtle grass healthy and the flats free from oxygen choking algae blooms and the ecosystem will recover. I believe nature will heal itself if we let it return to the most natural and healthy state possible. For a more detailed analysis of the water related issues, read “The Angling Report: Bonefish Decline in the Florida Keys” by Bill Horn. It is a very well written article with a specific analysis of water quality issues.

My personal experience makes clear that Florida Bay is sick. In part, the source of its illness is the impure water which reaches Florida Bay from the Everglades. The quality of this water is markedly affected by the fertilizers and runoff caused by the substantial sugar plantations of Florida. These plantations receive substantial governmental subsidies at a time when our government should be balancing its budget.

PB100118 Fishing (00039967)

Lee Mitchell Fighting A Florida Bay Tarpon

 

In a recent editorial, Froma Harrop warns,
“Sugar program a sour deal for US taxpayers”

Sugar Program

She begins the editorial as follows: “Ever notice how some government programs draw the ire of almost everyone? Conservatives, liberals, environmentalists, libertarians, business, labor, consumers and grouchy taxpayers are all opposed. Yet these programs go on as though directed by an unstoppable particle beam from a neighboring galaxy. The public rarely sees who in Washington keeps the outrage in motion, and that’s how “they” get away with it.”

The sugar–support program is one such curiosity. She offered the opinion that the reason the sugar industry is supported even though Americans pay about three times the world price of sugar, because of a farm program designed to enrich US sugar growers and processors – in actuality, a handful of families. Among other things, it limits imports of cheaper sugar from Caribbean countries. It provides taxpayer backed loans: if prices slip, the borrowers repay their loans with sugar, which taxpayers must sell at a loss or store at their own expense.

Several years ago, Lauri and I took a helicopter ride while in Kauai, Hawaii and the guide noted the growing coffee fields below us. He noted that coffee has replaced sugar cane as “We cannot compete with off shore sugar.”

In summary, the support policy provides a government guaranteed income to cane sugar producers in Florida and sugar beet growers in Minnesota and Michigan. The manipulated price of sugar amounts to a tax estimated at $3 billion a year.
The domestic sugar industry argues that 142,000 jobs will be lost if the sugar program ended. But the Commerce Department reported in 2006 that inflated sugar prices kill three manufacturing jobs for every sugar growing and processing job saved. For example, the Atkinson Candy Company of Lufkin, Texas recently sent most of its peppermint candy production to Guatemala. “It’s a damn shame.” Company President Eric Atkinson told The Wall Street Journal. He had to move 60 jobs to Central America that in theory could have stayed in Texas.

The key for me of is that Florida giant sugar plantations – propped up by taxpayers and consumers paying higher than necessary prices – dump fertilizer runoff into the Everglades. Water that filters into the Everglades from agricultural concerns ultimately flows into Florida Bay. Florida Bay is one of the most dynamic, beautiful and wonderful estuaries on the planet. I have been fishing in Florida Bay when a glance down through the surface of the water to a lush green turtle grass lined flat would reveal a galaxy of sparkling reflections as the sun shone on small bait fish perfectly camouflaged in their sandy sanctuary. Or more simply put, the bait fish reflected sunlight like my three-year-old granddaughter Izzy’s new shoes which sparkle every time she takes a step.

Tarpon release (00045371)

Andy Rowe’s Tarpon Released

Years ago, I flew from Miami to Marathon on a puddle jumper in order to join my fishing buddies for a week in the Florida Keys. The route taken by the 12 seat plane was over Florida Bay. What could have been a stunning spectacular sunlit view was ruined by the sight of the green murky soup of an algae bloom which stretched as far as the eye could see, hundreds of thousands of acres.

Ms. Harrop concludes her editorial by examining the cause of the continuing success of Big Sugar to gain congressional support dollars. She writes that it should not surprise anyone that the American Sugar Alliance greatly outspent confectioners to win the affections of the elected representatives.

As I see it, Republicans are not solely to blame. Democrats are not solely to blame. Followers of partisan politics should be intrigued to know that so-called liberals came together with so-called conservatives to join their votes for the continuing support of big sugar. On the Democratic side, Florida representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Alcee Hastings both voted for the program. On the Republican side, House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Frank Lucas, of Oklahoma and chair of the House Agricultural Committee, also voted in favor. As he backed the government shutdown, Lucas called for a budget “that reduces spending and eliminates waste and abuse in government programs.” Apparently, big sugar subsidies are not waste to Rep. Lucas.

I cite this issue not only to point out the devastating effect of fertilizer runoff from Big Sugar into the Everglades and then on to Florida Bay, but also to point out the simple truth Ms. Harrop describes at the end of her editorial: “How the politicians get away with this is simple: the voters are not paying any attention. Only when they do will this absurdity stop.”

So for me, the question remains. Am I paying attention? Are my friends paying attention? Are my fellow anglers paying attention? I know the answer. Sometimes yes and sometimes no. When the issue affects us personally, then we pay part attention.

The dangers to the Florida Keys bonefish are clear. If the quality of the water does not support the abundant life of an ecosystem, there will be no dinner on the Thanksgiving table. And when that happens, no one comes home to eat.

Ginny Rowe

Ginny bakes an apple pie for Thanksgiving.  Hey Family, I cannot wait until next year. There will be food and I will be there to help eat it!

Ginny bakes an apple pie for Thanksgiving.
Hey Family, I cannot wait until next year. There will be food and I will be there to help eat it!

The Florida Keys Bonefish Are In Peril

Bonefish Ghost Of The Flats

Bonefish
Ghost Of The Flats

Are the Florida Keys bonefish disappearing? In my last post, I promised some photographs and stories in support of my conclusion that the Florida Keys bonefish are in peril. From 1988 through 2011, I experienced an annual weeklong trip to the Florida Keys with good friends and great guides. Every fishing day, our guides carefully considered the many variables that determine the best possible fishing location for that day. Although our home base was in Marathon, our guides would actually launch their flats skiffs from Key Largo to Key West or anywhere in between based upon their conclusion as to what fishing venue offered the best possible chance for fishing success depending upon the sun, wind, tides, and weather. Over the 23 year history of our trip, we fished for bonefish throughout the entire length of the Keys. One of the largest bones we caught is pictured below.

A Duck Key 13 1/4 bonefish caught by Chuck Sheley Guide Dustin Huff

A Duck Key 13 1/4 bonefish caught by Chuck Sheley
Guide Dustin Huff

Our connection with guides such as Steve Huff, Dustin Huff, Dale Perez, Nat Ragland, Jose Wejebe, Harry Spear, and Ray Fetcher always provided us with the best guides the Keys had to offer. Their knowledge, experience, eyesight, skill, and effort gave us what we refrer to as “plenty of shots” to catch bonefish, permit and the occasional tarpon. Our trip was typically in early November. We thought enough of these professionals to capture a few pictures.

Steve Huff and Jose Wejebe at Hall's Bait and Tackle 1990

Steve Huff and Jose Wejebe at Hall’s Bait and Tackle 1990

A Boot Key bonefish caught in June 1995 Guide Dustin Huff

A Boot Key bonefish caught in June 1995
Guide Dustin Huff

Guide Dale Perez on the pole on Newport News Flat, Key Largo

Guide Dale Perez on the pole on Newport News Flat, Key Largo

Islamorada Bonefish (00050668@xC4F0B)

Content Keys Bonefish With Guide Harry Spear

 

Nat Ragland holding a baby tarpon caught off Big Pine in 1989

Nat Ragland holding a baby tarpon caught off Big Pine in 1989

Ray Fetcher Guide

Ray Fetcher Baitin’ Up For Bones

 

Not only were we blessed with great guides from a technical point of view, they were known to go above and beyond the call of duty!

Dustin Huff Seven Mile

Guide Dustin Huff Swims Seven Mile Bridge To Free Line With Permit On The Other End

 

Rowe falls in trying to hook a bonefish in Long Key Bight, I can hear my words as I fell in, " I still have him!!!"

Rowe falls in trying to hook a bonefish in Long Key Bight, I can hear my words as I fell in, ” I still have him!!!”

I can also hear Steve Huff’s quiet yet terse reply, ” No…..you don’t.”

Steve Huff lends a hand

Steve Huff lends a hand

By 1989, I began to record every fish that my buddies and I caught during our annual Keys trip. In 1991, Ralph Walls, Lee Mitchell, and I fished for four days in late November. Our guides were Steve Huff and Harry Spear. In four days, the three of us caught 30 bonefish and lost 8 more. My journal for November 14 tells the following tale which I quote verbatim:

November 14, 1991 Warmest day yet! I fish Harry alone and Lee and Ralph fish with Steve. It is apparent early on that Harry feels he has gone to the well one too many times. We fish Rodriguez and Tavernier Keys and have a few tough shots. I do catch a 5 pound bonefish before lunch. Harry seems tired and actually a little depressed but still is working hard. At the end of the day, I can tell Harry is grasping for straws. We start poling a flat we name Lee Mitchell Flat, due to Mitchie’s great ability to catch small bonefish. Well, I outdid him on his own flat. In 15 min. I caught two 3 pound, one 2 pound, and another 1 pound bonefish. Had one eat a half shrimp that had been bitten off. Had several more shots but didn’t catch any. Put in that day at Harry Harris State Park. For the four day fishing week, I caught 8 bonefish and four permit for a great week of fishing. I have written the last page while waiting for Huff, Lee and Ralph to arrive. My prediction – they had fabulous fishing. We will see. Well it was! Mitchell caught a nice bonefish in the morning as did Ralph. They were fishing outside of Big Pine after putting in at Bahai Honda State Park. Next move to Huff’s permit flat. Fished there but conditions were tougher. Ralph caught his first permit, a 20 pound fish. They next moved to the Content Keys. Right off the bat they saw some baby tarpon. On his first cast, Mitchie caught in 8 pound tarpon. No other tarpon caught. As they were gathering their wits, a school of bonefish came up a channel of deeper water and began tailing on the flat. After these fish blew, they looked around and were surrounded by bonefish. Huff didn’t know where to pole next. At least 1,000 bonefish 200 casts. Lee caught two bonefish and had three break off. Ralph didn’t catch any. Both of them were terribly frustrated but excited at the same time. We had the fishing of a lifetime. A total of 36 fish. We each caught 12. Ralph: 11 bonefish – 1 permit; Lee: 11 bonefish – 1 Tarpon; Steve: 8 bonefish – 4 permit.

A year later, our tournament had grown to six anglers who fished for four days. Our guides were Steve Huff, Harry Spear, and José Wejebe, the now deceased host of the television broadcast, The Spanish Fly. In four days, we caught 42 bonefish and lost 8.

From that point forward, there was a steady decline in the number of bonefish we caught with the exception of 2004. In 2004, six anglers in five days fishing with Steve Huff, Dustin Huff and Dale Perez caught 24 bonefish. By 2010, that number had been cut in half to 12 and in our last visit to the Keys six anglers in five days caught three bonefish.

Long Key Bight Bonefish (00050663@xC4F0B)

Steve Huff And I With A Long Key Bight Bone

 

Of course, some readers might reasonably wonder whether the anglers were not very good. Indeed, several of the participants changed as the years rolled on. However, I offer this up for your consideration. Below is a beautiful bonefish caught by good friend, Frank Catchpole who passed away several years ago. Frank was a mainstay in our group in the early years. The bonefish which he holds in the photograph was caught on Ted and Mary’s flat outside of Marathon, Florida.

Ted and Mary’s was a go to spot when bad weather descended on the Keys. When the wind was out of the North and there was very little sun or it was raining, our guides would often head to this dependable flat. Below is a journal note from a day spent in terrible weather on Ted and Mary’s with Capt. Steve Huff.

November 6, 2001. Great start! Frank and Chuck fished with Steve. Stayed at Marathon the whole day and water was a little muddy. Frank caught a 13 and 7/8 pound bonefish right off the bat. They caught 10 bones, Chuck 6 and Frank 4. They lost three. Chuck caught a 5, 6, 7, 7, 8, and 10 pound bonefish. Frank caught a 13,8,8, and 6 pound bonefish.

Frank Catchpole bonefish (00050658@xC4F0B)

Frank Catchpole With A Ted and Mary’s Beauty

I tell this story because I admit my fishing partners and I are amateur enthusiasts in every sense of the word. However, I can say with utmost confidence that not only are Steve and Dustin Huff unbelievably good fishing guides, they are equally good fisherman. In August 2011, I went by myself to the Keys to fly fish for permit. I was not successful in catching one but that’s a story for another day. The day before I arrived, Dustin Huff and Steve Huff, father and son, took turns poling every flat Oceanside of Marathon, Florida, including Ted and Mary’s, High School Flat, and around the corner to what is known as Boot Key. They spent the better part of six hours poking around looking for a single bonefish. They caught nothing. They saw nothing. If there was a bonefish around they would have caught it.

During our trip of 2011, 6 anglers fished for 5 days and we caught 3 bonefish. This was the last year for the trip. For over 20 years, at the end of each trip, I would ask Steve Huff whether he would be willing to take us fishing again the next year. The question was typically, “same place, same dates next year?” For 20 years the answer was “yes”.

I spent the last day of the 2011 trip fishing Key Largo where in years past squadrons of bonefish would stream down the edge of Key Largo. Or after a long run towards Miami, we would encounter one school after another kicking up mud as the bones feasted in Biscayne Bay. Or at the south end of a Key Largo trip, we would set up the skiff on the outside edge of the huge expanse of Newport News flat as hordes of feeding bonefish would stream off the flat on a falling tide pushing wakes that resembled a tight flock of migrating geese.

On this last date for our group in the Keys, good friend, Jim Milam and I fished all of those flats and many others in between.

Jim Milam

A Young Jim Milam At Lake Erie

 

Huff poled his tail off. For the day, we saw one group of two cruising bonefish which were swimming directly at the boat. For me, having one cast in a day makes that cast very difficult. I am just not that good. Needless to say, my cast was terrible and the fish took off.

As we approached the dock at John Pennecamp State Park to take the skiff out of the water and say our goodbyes for the year, I asked Steve Huff the same question I had asked 20 previous years. “Same place, same dates next year?” His answer was, “I don’t think I want to do this again.”

A fishing guide takes the success of his anglers very personally. A catch of an angler on their skiff is their fish. Our guides always apologized when we had a rough day as if our ineptitude or a lack of fish was their fault. If they see no fish, they cannot exercise their laser like vision, poling power, coaching prowess or the infinite number of other skills which empower them in helping their anglers make vivid memories. When a flats guide shares the news of a days’ fishing with their fellow guides, the question is always – “how did you do?” When the answer is nothing too often, something has to change. In 2012, we went with Steve Huff to the Everglades to fish for snook because the Keys bonefish are most certainly in peril.

In my next post, I will offer my opinion on the cause of the peril to the bonefishing in the Keys.

The Lorax Asks: Where Did The Bonefish Go?

Lorax (00051591@xC4F0B)

 My Granddaughter, Izzy, calls me Oompah. One of the great privileges of this Oompah is reading books which I have not touched since my five children were little. One of my favorite children’s authors is Dr. Seuss. Over the last several months, I have read “The Lorax”, first published by Random House in 1971, to Izzy several times. The last occasion was upon my return from the Everglades fishing trip about which I have previously posted.

The Lorax Through The Eyes Of A Young Artist

The Lorax Through The Eyes Of A Young Artist

As I read and thought about Dr. Seuss’ warnings of the dangers progress poses to our world, I thought back to a dream I had while on the Everglades trip. On day 2, Guide Steve Huff and I were talking about how the great bonefishing of years gone by had made fishing in the Florida Keys so much fun.

A Great Bonefish Caught on Ted and Mary's Flat in Marathon, Florida

A Great Bonefish Caught on Ted and Mary’s Flat by Frank Catchpole in Marathon, Florida


Two years ago, the annual November fishing trip I take with five of my fishing buddies ended. Four of us continued the fishing adventure by retreating from the Florida Keys to the Everglades. In part, the decline of the number of bonefish and the quality of the bonefishing in the Keys played a substantial role in that difficult decision.

On Tuesday evening after talking bonefish with Steve, I had a dream. I dreamed Steve was piloting a helicopter in a shockingly beautiful sky over my favorite Keys fishing hole, Long Key Bight.

The Florida Sky

The Florida Sky

With the tropical sun creating infinite visibility of the flats below, I peered from the passenger seat. As the helicopter banked from left to right, we futilely searched every inch of the Bight looking for a sign of a bonefish. There were no muds, no wakes, no tails, no fish. As the copter approached the shoreline, we noticed a small creek running from the gorgeous turtle grass lined bay where we had often seen approaching schools of 20 to 30 bonefish suddenly appearing like a mass of black footballs searching for food over the dark green bottom. The small creek flowed into a crystal clear sand bottom pond. The overhead sun reflected green streaks from the backs of two bonefish which moved easily through the pond creating a milky cloud of sand or what is called a “mud” as the fish attempted to stir up crabs, shrimp, or buried worms for lunch. As we watched the happily feeding bonefish, they swam into a second creek which led to a larger pond which held a school of a dozen big gorgeous bones. As we hovered over this group, they bolted quickly as if spooked by the wash of the helicopter blades. The startled fish streaked off into an even broader creek leading to a larger stunning lake in which hundreds of bonefish were swimming.

Steve quickly landed the helicopter. We jumped out, took rigged rods which had been strapped to the landing gear of the copter, and waded in the pond intent on landing one of these bruiser bonefish. As we began to cast, a man approached the side of the pond yelling “Huff, why are you fishing in my lake?” Steve replied, “What are you doing hoarding all the bonefish?” I awoke. Frankly, I cannot afford the psychoanalysis necessary to determine the full meaning of the dream but I promise you this. If the bonefish were still plentiful in the Keys, our group would still be taking our annual trip. When adults give up something they love and are capable of doing there is often a compelling reason. For us, not enough bonefish was reason enough.

A Long Key Bight Bonefish Caught When A Man Could Wear Short Shorts

A Long Key Bight Bonefish Caught When A Man Could Wear Short Shorts

So I began to wonder, was there anything I could do to improve the Keys bonefishing. The dream, my perplexed curiosity about my own responsibility to do something, my missing bonefishing and our trip to the Florida Keys were on my mind as I read Izzy the Lorax.

The story begins as a young boy wanders up the Street of the Lifted Lorax. The boy is curious about just what the Lifted Lorax was. He has been told that an old man named Once–ler still lives deep in a former forest now covered by sharp edged gricklegrass. The Once-ler is suspected to know what the Lorax was and why Lorax used to make his home in a spot where now the “wind smelled slow and sour and no birds ever sing except old crows”.

After bribing the Once-ler with “fifteen cents, a nail, and the shell of a great great-great-grandfather snail”, the Once-ler whispers through a long sneggley hose which he lowered to the boy on the ground. Once-ler whispers the story of how the Lorax was lifted and taken away.

The old man described a time when the grass was green, the pond was wet, the clouds were clean and the Truffula trees were standing. The Truffula trees were cropped with bright colored tufts which blew gently mile after mile in fresh morning breeze. Under the trees ran playful Brown Bar-ba-loots who munched on Truffula fruits. From the adjoining “rippulous pond came the comfortable sound of Humming fish humming while splashing around.”

Hummin Fish A Hummin

Hummin Fish A Hummin

The Once-ler claimed he had searched for trees such as the Truffula trees his whole life because the “touch of their tufts was much softer than silk and they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk”. With joy in his heart, the Once-ler got out an axe and with “great skillful skill” chopped down the first Truffula tree with a single chop. He plucked the tuft from the top of the tree and knitted a Thneed.

The instant he finished, Once-ler heard a ga-Zump! On top of the fresh tree stump Once-ler saw a “sort of  man. Shortish, oldish, brownish, mossy, the creature spoke with a voice which was sharpish and bossy.” The Lorax claimed to speak for the trees. Lorax inquired, “What’s the THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?”

Lorax Speaks For The Trees

Lorax Speaks For The Trees

Once-ler made the case for Thneed as a “Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need”. He described it as a shirt, a sock, a glove, a carpet, a sheet, a curtain or a cover for bicycle seat! The Lorax warned of crazy greed. As the warning hung in the air, a man came by and bought the Thneed. Once-ler laughed and said “you poor stupid guy! You never can tell what some people will buy.” The Lorax cried, I speak for the trees”. But Once-ler shouted “I’m busy, shut up, if you please.”

 Once-ler recruited his family to work. They became adept at knitting and selling Thneeds and chopping down Truffula trees. As the trees disappeared, so did the Lorax. But as the tree supply dwindled to a precious few, the Lorax reappeared on behalf of his Brown Bar-ba-loots who had “the crummies because they have gas, and no food in their tummies!” There was no Truffula fruit to eat and so the Lorax sent the Bar-ba-loots away.

Bar-ba-loots Playing Under The Truffula Trees

Bar-ba-loots Playing Under The Truffula Trees

Dr. Seuss writes that Once-ler felt sad as he watched the creatures wander away. But, Once-ler knew that business was business. He boasted to the Lorax that “business must grow regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.” And although he meant no harm, Once-ler went right on “biggering” his roads, his factories, and most importantly, his money.

But as we know, factories wear out and on a day when Once-ler was fixing some pipes, the old nuisance Lorax came back with “more gripes”. Lorax complained of “smogulous smoke” in which the “Swomee-Swans could no longer sing. His dander was up because the Once-ler’s machinery created “Gluppity-glupp.” The Lorax showed Once-ler what he did with his “leftover goo”. Lorax explained that Once-ler was “glumping the pond where the humming fish hummed. No more can they hum, for their gills are all glummed.” With no other choice, Lorax sent the swans and fish away.

The Once-ler got mad! He yelled at the Lorax “now listen here, Dad! All you do is yap, yap and say, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad! Well, I have my rights, sir and I’m telling you I intend to go on doing just what I do!” And Once-ler kept biggering until the last Truffula tree fell. No more trees. No more Thneeds. Since there was no more work to do, Once-lers family departed and as they drove away under the “smog smuggered stars” all that remained was a bad smelling sky, empty factory, the Lorax, and Once-ler.

Dr. Seuss writes that while saying nothing, the Lorax gave a sad glance backward, lifted the seat of his pants and hoisted himself through a hole in the smog.

A Hole In The Sky

A Hole In The Sky

He left behind a small pile of rocks with one word… “UNLESS.” For years, Once-ler was curious about what that pile of rocks with the word “UNLESS” meant.

The Lonely Word - Unless

The Lonely Word – Unless

As the story of the Lorax ends, the little boy’s presence made the words of the Lorax clear. Once-ler declares:

UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

And with that, Once-ler drops the very last Truffula tree seed into the outreached hand of the small boy and says:

You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds.

Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.

Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.

Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.

Then the Lorax and all his friends may come back.

And so my dream of rediscovered bonefish swimming from pool to pool of crystal clear water and the Lorax warning “UNLESS” spelled out with a pile of lonely rocks have challenged me to make an effort to explore the question of what a single fisherman can do for the bonefish. Is it possible for me to plant a Truffula tree for my favorite fish? In my next post, I will offer pictorial evidence and fishing stories of my friends to prove that the Florida Keys bonefish population was once significant but is now dwindling.

A Preview Of Coming Attractions

A Preview Of Coming Attractions

 

 

 

Lee Mitchell – Florida Sportsman

I Am Florida Sportsman: Thanks , Mitchie

Lee Mitchell waiting for the guides at the Siesta Motel in Marathon, Florida. Fishing buddies Chuck Sheley and Rich Mealey sabotaging gear in the background!

Lee Mitchell waiting for the guides at the Siesta Motel in Marathon, Florida. Fishing buddies Chuck Sheley and Rich Mealey sabotaging gear in the background!

Fishermen love stories. Love to hear them and love to tell them. Mitchie, known to most as Lee Mitchell, was my Lake Erie buddy –you know- the generous guy with the boat who lets his buddies tag along. While we fished for Lake Erie perch and walleye, Mitchie loved to tell stories about fishing the flats of the Florida Keys.  Stories of impossible to catch permit in slick calm Key West channels and schools of tailing and waking bonefish arriving in Bonefish Alley on an incoming tide at sunset.

In March of 1988, Mitchie was responsible for booking my first flats trip – a half day charter out of Marathon with the late Jose Wejebe as our guide. I will never forget that first Boot Key bonefish when José whispered “School of bones – 70 feet – nine o’clock”.  I checked three o’clock. José urged me to check the other side of the boat. I saw nothing but launched a shrimp anyway. As luck would have it, I hooked and caught a six pound bonefish. I was elated. Mitchie was happier! He is that kind of friend.

The fishing continued the next day with Steve Huff as our guide.  We headed across choppy Northwest Channel to the Marquesas Islands. The Marquesas yielded Mitchie a beautiful permit. We had many shots at permit and Mitchie insisted I take all the casts after the first fish had been caught. Even though I did not hook a permit, the flats had hooked me!

Over the last 24 years, Mitchie has treated me to snook, redfish and tarpon fishing in the Everglades on his own skiff.  He organized our annual trip to the Florida Keys during which we fished with close friends and learned to love and respect the bonefish, permit and tarpon of the flats. Mitchie has introduced me to the best flats guides of the Keys – Steve Huff, Dustin Huff, Dale Perez, Harry Spear, Jose Wejebe, Nat Ragland, and Ray Fetcher.  These men became my fishing mentors and friends. Most importantly, we made memories. Mitchie, thanks for making me a lifetime Florida Sportsman!

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.

First Bonefish

I have a great friend named, Lee Mitchell. His friends call him Mitchie and in fishing circles he is known as Captain Crusty. I enjoyed many fish catching afternoons on his 32 foot Bertram which he ran as the consummate captain on Late Erie. We also had the misfortune of being members of a club in Columbus, Ohio known as The Drummers. The Drummers was one of those clubs with no socially redeeming value. However, we did excel at drinking beer, playing golf, and dealing gin rummy. From years of experience, I knew that if Mitchie had consumed at least two Beefeater martinis on the rocks with blue cheese stuffed olives, I could get him to tell his bonefish stories over and over and over. Mitchie had the unique talent of arriving at the end of a story only to push the restart button so I had the pleasure of hearing the story from the beginning before we ever heard the end.

My memory bank was full of stories of bonefish in the Florida Keys. Mitchie raved about a place called Bonefish Alley where he finished with Guide Steve Huff late in the day on an incoming tide. Schools of bonefish would push up on the flat to feed. As the sun was setting in stunning pink and orange, the bones would wake and tail and Capt. Huff would simply use the push poll to spin the boat to give Mitchie and his fishing buddy of the day another shot. I will tell more of the enticing stories in later posts.

Dreams turned to reality in 1988. Lee and his late wife, Marian, were staying on Key Colony Beach and invited Lauri and I to stay for several days in March. Two fishing days were scheduled. On the first, Mitchie and I headed from Marathon to Islamorada. We were to meet Guide John Kipp at The Lorelei in Islamorada. John did not show. We headed back to Marathon disappointed. But Mitchie is a determined sort and fortunately had the phone number of a then young fishing guide named Jose Wejebe. Mitchie called Jose who wasn’t booked. He agreed to meet us at the Holiday Inn near Vaca Cut in Marathon at noon for a half day of fishing. Jose launched his bonefish skiff and ran around the corner to Ted and Mary’s flat ocean side of Marathon. The flat was named after the proprietors of Hall’s, a must stop bait and tackle store in the Keys. We saw nothing. I would not have seen anything even if there were fish on the flat but Jose and Mitchie also detected no fish clues. On down the flats Jose poled. After fishing High School flats we still had seen nothing. Jose jumped down off the poling platform, fired up the skiff and headed around the corner to Boot Key.

After Jose had poled a couple of hundred yards Mitchie said, “Humph, never seen a bonefish on Boot Key!” Jose, “Really?” No sooner had the words crossed his lips than Jose whispered, “Steve, school of bones 9 o’clock, sixty feet.” I looked, saw nothing and out of panic launched my shrimp towards what I thought was 9 o’clock. The fishing gods smiled that day because a fish ate, set the hook on itself and took off. The drag sang that beautiful song of a fired up bonefish and after a couple of great runs, Jose lifted my first bonefish out of the water. “No bonefish on Boot Key? Someone must have gotten lost! Way to go Rowe!” Thanks Jose. You are missed.