Catching Tarpon By Hand at Robbies, Islamorada, Florida Keys

Midway through the Florida Keys you can find a charming gulf side bar where my fishing group stops en route to our final destination of The Ranch House Motel in Marathon, Florida. At that point of the journey we need something for our lips – a Matecumbe fried grouper fish sandwich and an ice cold beer. The restaurant is known as Robbies. To the rear of the of the bar is a small marina which is famous for selling buckets of dead fish with which tourists (such as myself) can use to feed a group of tarpon who have come to depend on the free fish from Robbies for an easy meal.

Tarpon Robbie's

The Dock At Robbie’s

It would be improper to refer to these tarpon as wild but seeing 100+ pound tarpon up close and personal is something I cannot resist. So, in spite of my fishing buddies shaking their heads in disbelief that I would pay two dollars for a bucket of fish so I can throw them at what really amounts to tarpon in a large aquarium, I always do so.

Scan0028 (2)

The tarpon compete for every fish chucked into the water. The water boils and occasionally a super quick jack can out run a tarpon for the bait. However, one must be careful. Strange people, no crazy people are often on the dock with you and will try the strangest fish catching techniques.

Scan0039

Beautiful Tarpon – The Quarry

There is always a good fish sandwich, cold beer and adventure waiting at Robbies.

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 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

 

 

 

Ralph Walls Last Fishing Trip

 

Ralph Walls was my best friend. I was introduced to Ralph by a mountain of a man, Mac McDermitt. Mac, who was the kind of guy that simply took over a room as he entered, owned Capital City Excavating Company an underground contractor in Columbus. Ralphie, as we called him, was Capital City’s treasurer and accountant. As Ralphie would self describe, he was a bean counter. Ralph was an outstanding collegiate golfer who played at Ohio State and maintained a four handicap well into his fifth decade. Ralph took me under his wing and tried to teach me to play golf. I was not a very good student.

Ralph as Golfer 1992

Ralph as Golfer 1992

Another mutual friend, Lee Mitchell, provided Ralph and I with the opportunity of becoming fishing buddies as well as golfing friends. Lee owned a gorgeous 32 foot Bertram boat which he captained on Lake Erie. Ralph and I spent many crazy days on Lake Erie catching perch and walleye. When absolutely necessary, we quenched our raging thirst by drinking 7 oz Little Kings. As the summer sun heated up, Ralphie would often be heard to say “I need something for my lips.” Translation – is there a cold Little Kings or Heineken around?

Ralph had many other verbal masterpieces which are carried forward in my own personal vernacular. If I hit an errant golf shot and the ball was resting in difficult spot, Ralph would say “Rowe, you hit it here, now hit it out.” Translation – quit whining and put the ball back in play.

Ralph became a client. Ralphie would say, “Rowe, I will pay you for your legal advice and listen to your business advice.” Translation, I know you have opinions on how I ought to run the business but you are probably wrong.

 When I presented Ralph with a legal document for review, he would sadly shake his head and say “Rowe, you lawyers write all these words, but you never put pencil to paper to see if the numbers work.” Translation, you do not have a practical bone in your body or brain cell in your head!

In late-night gin rummy games, Ralphie was often heard to say, “Rowe, it’s a quick game.” Translation, please make up your mind and make a play!

Ralph and I would often share business and personal concerns. Even though we were guys, we could share not only what we were thinking but also how we were feeling about the challenges of the moment. When discussing a particularly thorny issue, Ralph would shake his head with amusement and say “Rowe, I do not understand everything I know about that.” I ask you to translate that profound observation.

When the incredulous occurred, Ralph would laugh and say ” Been to two goat ropins’ and three county fairs but I ain’t never seen nothing like that before!” Translation – sometimes there is just no explaining the events of real-life.

Each year, Ralph and I looked forward with great anticipation to a fishing trip to the Florida Keys. We dubbed that trip the FIFO Flats challenge. Over the years, many different fishing friends participated in the trip. However, Lee Mitchell, Ralphie, and I were the mainstays. Ralph and Lee fished for one or two years before I was invited to join the group. Starting in 1988, Ralph, Lee, and I would head to Marathon, Florida in the Florida Keys for a November week of pursuing bonefish, permit, and tarpon on the flats.

On November 26, 1989, Ralph, Lee, and I headed to the Keys with friends, Frank Catchpole, Bill Keethler, and Ron Souder.

Ralph and Frank Catchpole waiting on  the fishing day in front of Halls' Bait Store, marathon, Florida

Ralph and Frank Catchpole waiting on the fishing day in front of Halls’ Bait Store, Marathon, Florida

During our road trip certain rituals were honored. We would stop at World Wide Sportsman in Islamorada, Florida and speak with the owner, George Hummell, who had the distinction of being the personal bonefish guide of President George H. W. Bush. Another mandatory stop was the Green Turtle Inn where we dined on the Sunday evening before the fishing began.

As we dined at the Green Turtle, I noticed that as the adult libations were poured and stories of the prior year’s fishing were being shared, inaccuracies popped up. Knowing the nature of fisherman, I did not find the perceived exaggeration the least bit curious. However, I decided to do something about it. Upon arriving in Marathon at about 8:30 in the evening, I asked Lee if I could borrow his truck “Where you going?”  “Kmart,” I replied. “What for?” “Not telling you,” I replied. “Can I use the truck or not?” Mitchell tossed me the keys and off I went.

 I returned with a blank blue journal. For those of us who participated in this spirited fishing tournament known as the FIFO Flats challenge, the Journal became as cherished as the Bible to the religiously inclined. For over 20 years, every fish we caught was recorded. Every story was recited with only slight embellishment. Every adventure and misadventure was noted. As the years rolled by, I never went to dinner after a fishing day without the journal so that the stories we told could be checked against the facts as I had written them.

In thinking and writing about Ralph, the journal prompted many smiles. I hate the fact that Ralph is no longer here to smile with me. In 1993, Ralph discovered he had cancer. Even though he had been a lifelong smoker, the moment the diagnosis was delivered to him, he quit smoking.

Ralph and his True cigarette at the Siesta Motel

Ralph and his True cigarette at the Siesta Motel

A couple of years later, I was visiting Ralph at his home during the final stage of his illness. As we talked, the phone rang. The caller was his doctor. After hanging up the phone, Ralph simply stated, “Doc said there’s no more treatment available for me”. He walked to a drawer in the kitchen, pulled out a pack of his old reliable True cigarettes and lit up. While there was hope of recovery, he was willing and able to do something for himself and his family. Quit smoking. I am certain that all of us have a bad habit we should surrender. If you do, stop now and let Ralph be your inspiration.

When the summer of 1994 rolled around, I sent our annual fishing letter to the prior year’s participants in the FIFO Flats challenge. Basically, the letter asked “are you going fishing or not? If you are going, send me a deposit of $300 which you will lose if you don’t go!”

 As I dropped the letter in the mail, I wondered whether Ralph would send me a check. He did. In the spring after the trip, towards the end of his life, we were talking and I asked Ralph if he had fun on the trip. He said, “No, but I am glad that I went.” Ralphie had a knack for saying things which delivered meaning far beyond the specific words he used.

By reason of Ralph’s illness, the 1994 trip was different. Ralph’s wife, Sherry, came along as nurse and roommate.

Sherry Walls and the Gang

Sherry Walls and the Gang

Sherry helped Ralph prepare as he faced the daily challenge of going to breakfast at Stout’s, climbing into a pickup truck with his guide and heading up or down Highway 1 to a fishing destination. Without Sherry, Ralph could not have fished.

Our guides also went above and beyond the call of ordinary duty. By the time of the 1994 trip, our fishing guides and Ralph were friends. The angler/guide friendship is unique. The relationship is based on a mutual love of a common endeavor. The friendship is nurtured by the respect a guide gives an angler such as Ralph who tried very, very hard no matter what the fishing conditions. The angler reciprocates by genuinely appreciating the skills of a guide who is willing to help an angler try to catch a fish which the guide knows he would without doubt land if only the guide could change places with the angler.

I want to share the events of Ralph’s last fishing week as reflected on the pages of the blue journal.

The first day of the Ralph’s last trip was November 8, 1994. Because of his illness, Capt. Harry Spear decided to fish Ralphie near Marathon where our home away from home, the Siesta Motel, was located. After a couple hours fishing, Harry ran Ralph into the Siesta for a nap.

Ralph Needs Some Rest

Ralph Needs Some Rest

After the rest, Ralph went back out fishing and caught an 11 pound bonefish which is no easy feat. The first run of an 11 pound bone is going to strip somewhere between 100 to 150 yards of line against the drag. Typically, the guide is screaming for his angler to stand with arms and fishing rod extended as far as possible overhead to create a sharp angle between where the line enters the water and the underside of the fish’s mouth. The angle is important to prevent the fishing line from becoming imbedded in the lush turtle grass growing on the Oceanside flats near Marathon. If the angler does not keep the line off the bottom, the streaking fish will eventually brush the line against a small coral head or sea fan and break off.  On this day, Harry was determined to do everything in his power to help Ralph catch the hooked fish even though Ralph could not stand up, let alone extend the rod over his head. Harry fired up the outboard motor and followed this big bad bonefish with the skiff. Ralph fought the fish while seated on the small casting platform strapped to the front of the boat. After a determined dogfight, the fish was captured and released – a good start to a physically challenging week for Ralph.

On November 9, 1994, Ralph and Rich Mealy fished with guide, Steve Huff. They could not find any bonefish but ran into a herd of permit. Ralph caught a 25 and an 18 pound permit. My journal notes indicate that they “chased Ralph’s permit for an hour.” A 25 pound permit typically takes 15 to 25 minutes to land. For a 25 pound permit to stay hooked for the better part of an hour without dragging the line against some obstruction to free itself was a miracle! Also, visualize the effort it took for Steve Huff to pole the 16 foot skiff loaded with two anglers for an hour chasing an angry 25 pound permit!

Steve Huff Unhooks Ralph's Permit

Steve Huff Unhooks Ralph’s Permit

On November 10, 1994, Ralph was feeling tired. He and I fished together with guide, Ray Fetcher. We quit at one o’clock and returned to the hotel. I later fished by myself wading High School Flat. As I entered the water, a huge bonefish was moving slowly along about 8 feet from shore. Needless to say, I did not catch it, but at least Ralph was getting his rest.

On November 11, 1994, the last day of the trip, Ralph and I fished with Harry Spear who launched the skiff near Islamorada. Late in the morning, Harry was running the boat towards a favorite Florida Keys fishing hole, Long Key Bight, which over the years affectionately came to be known as “The Bight”. All of us had sufficient fishing success in the Bight so as to cause us to genuflect each time we approached its entrance. As our boat was flew around the corner of a small mangrove island on the backcountry side of Islamorada, a pelican spooked from its perch in the mangroves and flew directly into the boat. The agitated bird struck Ralphie in the shoulder and knocked him to the bottom of the skiff. The pelican flopped around the boat. Ralph flopped around the boat. As he picked himself up, mildly irritated, Ralphie softly said “What the F…!”

Neither one of us fished well on that last day. We knew the unstated reality that this trip was our last together. We did not see fish well even though there were plenty of fish to see. We did not cast accurately to the fish we did see. According to the journal, we managed to catch one small bonefish the entire day. However, the fishing mattered very little.

All of us privileged to exist in this world long enough to have encountered some living and dying have reflected upon matters of the spirit. We have pondered the question of what awaits us after we pass from this earth.  As for me, my friendship with Ralph is kept alive even though he is not physically present. The memories of our shared adventures keep Ralph at my side. Perhaps this could be eternal life.

Long Key Bight was the last fishing water Ralph and I shared. Harry poled every bit of the huge expanse of the Bight but we saw no fish. As the beautiful golden November afternoon slid away, the angle of the sun sharpened. The brisk ever present wind began to lay down. Rippled water turned to glass. As Harry gently poled out of the Bight, he pushed the skiff approximately 50 yards from shore. The shallow water was punctuated by solitary mangrove shoots fighting to establish themselves in their salty home.

Suddenly in the final moments of the afternoon, a huge permit gently finned out among the sparse patch of mangroves directly in front of the skiff. Ralph and I saw the motionless fish and glanced at each other in wonder. The skiff drifted slowly towards the permit. The fish was not startled. The fish was not scared. The fish did not streak off in panic. We were awestruck. Even though we had our rods in hand with silver dollar sized blue crabs attached to hooks, neither of us cast. Harry said nothing. Harry had never before been mute when a fishing situation called for his angler to cast. The permit slowly began to swim directly in front of the bow of the boat no more than 10 feet from where we stood paralyzed. As we silently watched, the giant fish gently eased away from Long Key Bight on the watery path leading to a sun setting in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunset Over Still Water

Sunset Over Still Water

As the silvery permit faded from sight, I whispered to Harry “If we had cast, what chance did we have to catch that fish?” Harry replied, “None”.

In over 20 years of fishing the Florida Keys, I have never seen a permit behave in similar fashion. This fish had no fear of what came next. Nor did it have any great concern for its current circumstance. Since that bittersweet last fishing day, the gorgeous old permit has for me represented Ralph’s spirit as he too slowly slipped away from his family and friends towards a different destination.

 

 

 

 

Agitation Factor

Sunset Off Seven Mile Bridge

Sunset Off Seven Mile Bridge

This post is a sequel to “Dustin Huff Swims Seven Mile Bridge”. That adventure occurred on the morning of June 18, 1995. As all anglers know, a great catch early in the day does not quench an anglers’ thirst for another shot at a great fish. So the miracle permit caught after Dustin went swimming did not cause us to head for the dock. After Dustin dried off and released the permit unharmed, we ate lunch.

Lunch on a flats skiff is more like an eating contest than a meal. Experience has taught me that sought after fish just love swimming right up to the boat when it is tied off to the push pole, the rods are racked, and the anglers are eating. It is as if the fish know we are not prepared. Our solution is wolfing down the sandwiches and hopping back on the bow of the boat locked and loaded with rod in hand ready for the next shot at a bonefish or permit.

As we ate, Dustin pointed to the water just off the edge of Boot Key as the land curved into a point marking the beginning of the channel ocean side of Seven Mile Bridge. “See that strip of white sand off the point?” Dustin pointed out a football field shaped area of brilliant white sand with lush turtle grass forming the sidelines. “Baby tarpon lay up on that bank on an incoming tide which is just starting now. I’m going to tie on shock leaders and we’ll see if we can jump a baby tarpon.” Dustin whipped out some 80 lb test line, tied the shock leaders on both our lines, and baited the hooks with fresh shrimp. He jumped up on the poling platform after dislodging the tied off push pole from the mucky bottom of the flat. The rods he rigged for the baby tarpon were the seven foot spinning rods we had been using earlier in the day for permit. Our reels were spooled with 10 lb. test Ande clear monofilament.

Tarpon Daisy Chain Off Seven Mile Bridge

Tarpon Daisy Chain Off Seven Mile Bridge

Dustin spun the boat into the current and poled with the noontime sun directly overhead. Visibility was terrific. As we slowly moved towards the leading edge of the sandy bank, a couple of green missile shaped streaks were swimming slowly towards us. “Andy, cast as soon as you think you can reach the first fish. Drop the shrimp ten feet in front of the cruiser and let it sink.” Andy can really cast and did as instructed. The leading green shadow surged toward the sinking bait, opened its large maw and the shrimp simply disappeared. “Hit em, hit em, hit em!” Dustin screamed. Andy reeled down until he felt the weight of a hooked fish and did a terrific job setting the hook. We were in business. One problem. The tarpon was no baby and Andy was using 10 lb test line. The drag screamed as the fish made its first spirited run away from the skiff. Zzzzzzzzz. There is no better sound. Suddenly the water began to bulge in front of the huge tarpon as it launched into its first and only jump. Andy bowed to the fish and somehow the rig held. The fish was hooked!

Tarpon anglers can attest that each fight of a hooked tarpon is unique. Just as we humans have distinct personalities, so do tarpon. This fish acted as if it was a cranky middle child with a chip on its shoulder. After the first jump, this nasty tempered tarpon headed for the bottom and stayed there. The tarpon had an apparent first destination of the Gulf Stream which runs North off the Florida coast. The Gulf Stream was first reported by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513 when he discovered Florida. In the area where we were fishing, the stream is known as the Florida Current. The speed of the Gulf Stream varies. In areas where it happens be narrower it is faster than in wider areas. The speed is up to 2 meters per second. Interestingly, the Gulf Stream meanders. It is like a river which has no banks. It can be experienced as close to a quarter-mile from the Florida coast in spots. Our tarpon must have sensed this because the fish swim directly towards the fast current offshore.

Dustin fired up the boat as the tarpon began to tow the boat towards the ocean and into a depth of water where the push pole could not touch bottom. He also wanted to head off the fish before the bulldogging fish stripped Andy of the 300 yards of mono spooled on his Stradic 4000 reel. The fish cooperated and wheeled back towards shore.

For years I had heard my buddy, Mitchie tell stories of tarpon fights. “Never let the fish rest. Better to lose him early than late. Their rasp like mouth will eventually wear through even an 100 lb leader.” Unfortunately, Andy knew none of this as this was his first tarpon. After about twenty minutes, the fish began to tow the boat. The fish had settled down and was swimming, the tide was slack, the drag was not slipping and Andy could not gain on the fish. Still the skiff moved forward. Dustin coached, ” Reel down to the fish and then lift, reel down lift, reel down lift.” We edged close enough to see the fish in the water. “How big?”, I whispered as I stood on the stern next to Dustin who had jumped down from the poling platform when he fired up the engine. He had not begun to pole again as he hoped Andy could keep just enough pressure on the tarpon so the drag would not slip resulting in the tarpon’s effort in towing the boat wearing the fish out. “Well over 100 lbs., so much for baby tarpon.” Dustin responded.

Andy put very little pressure on the fish as he was inexperienced and I am sure could not imagine how much the 10 lb. mono would stretch if he tightened down the drag and pulled hard on the face of the giant. “We have no chance unless you put more pressure on the fish, Andy,” Dustin shouted. “Let me get the cooler up on the bow and you can sit down and use your hips to fight him.” After a few seconds, the cooler was on the bow and Andy settled down. He said nothing. We were two hours into the fight at that point. The fish swam and towed and Andy held on while we hoped for a miracle. With each passing minute, Andy’s shoulders slumped a little bit more as the fish fought on relentlessly. “The agitation factor is setting in,” whispered Dustin. For the tarpon, it was a life or death struggle. For Andy, it was a first time adventure with a very steep learning curve.

About a mile away from the hookup point, Andy’s fish was joined by another tarpon which began swimming beside the hooked fish. It was as if the confused or perhaps mildly amused tarpon had reached out for reinforcements. We had just concluded the fourth hour of the fight. During the first couple of hours I tried to offer the occasional light hearted remark to break the tension. “When am I going to get to fish, Andy?” No reply. “Great job, Andy!” No reply. “Hang in there, Andy!” No reply.

Slowly the fish pulled the skiff towards Marathon. Just as the shoreline begins to turn in towards Highway 1 and the High School flat, there is a small island about a quarter of a mile off the tip of Boot Key. The island contained a gorgeous home with sunrise views in the morning and sunset vistas in the evening. Just off shore were a couple of boats were moored. As we approached the island, we noticed several small children happily swimming. The tarpon swam straight towards the splashing children. We followed. When the fish was twenty feet from the kids and their cheerful spirited commotion, the tarpon spooked from the water vibrations and bolted in the opposite direction. The companion free swimming tarpon spooked a moment later and as it spun sideways in a mirror image move of the other fish, its tail hit the taut line and the hooked tarpon was free. Over! The struggle was over.

Andy was in a state of shock. As each hour passed, I had begun to think our chances of catching the giant improved. Dustin knew better. And now, Andy and I knew better.
Andy spun on the cooler and faced us. He was drenched in sweat and I sensed a hint of exhausted relief on his face. This struggle with a great strong fish was like life’s moments of uncertainty where we are trapped in the quick sand of the unknown unable to move forward. With resolution of the uncertainty, we can begin to live again. Once the giant tarpon was free, Andy could absorb the lessons of the fight preparing him to handle the next tarpon he encountered. An intense fish fight such as Andy’s also offers all of us a clear demonstration of how hard a wild creature will fight for life. With lessons learned, the next morning Dustin guided Andy to his first tarpon.

June 19, 1995 Andy Rowe's First Tarpon

June 19, 1995 Andy Rowe’s First Tarpon

Although Andy appears elated in the photo, I am confident that the memories of fighting a 100 plus lb tarpon on a bonefish rod and 10 lb test line are more vivid than the fish caught.

Andy's Tarpon Released

Andy’s Tarpon Released

Dustin Huff Swims The Seven Mile Bridge

One of the Rowe family traditions was to let our children take a trip with a parent in celebration of their graduation from high school. Our son, Andy, had listened to me speak of fishing the Florida Keys for bonefish, permit and tarpon for many years. I am sure that all my children could sense their Father’s excited anticipation as the first Monday in November rolled around each year. I have been blessed to fish in Florida for a week each year since 1988 with a group of close friends and guides who became close friends as we shared caught fish, lost fish, stories, adventures, misadventures, and icy cold adult beverages.

Of course, I was thrilled when Andy decided that a trip to the Keys would be his graduation adventure. On our first morning, our guide, Dustin Huff, launched the bonefish skiff from the ramp of the Marathon Yacht Club. He raced to a bridge abutment on the old portion of the Seven Mile Bridge which runs from Knight’s Key (part of the city of Marathon, Florida) in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys. Among the longest bridges in existence when it was built, it is one of the many bridges on US 1 in the Keys where the road is called the Overseas Highway.

There are two bridges in this location. The older bridge was constructed from 1909 to 1912 under the direction of Henry Flagler as part of the Florida East Coast Railways Key West Extension, also known as the Overseas Railroad. After the railroad sustained considerable damage due to the effects of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the line was sold to the United States Federal Government, which subsequently refurbished Seven Mile Bridge for automobile use. Dismantled trackage was recycled, painted white, and used as guard rails.

The current road bridge was constructed from 1978 to 1982. The vast majority of the original bridge still exists, used as fishing piers and access to Pigeon Key but the original swing span over the Moser Channel has been removed. The old bridge is an idyllic place for walkers to exercise and gaze at the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. If you ever get a chance to walk Seven Mile Bridge at sunset take it. You will be awestruck.

Sunset Seven Mile Bridge

We were blessed that morning with gorgeous weather. The sun was bright, the sky was a crushing blue, visibility on the flats was excellent. Dustin shut down the skiff near a bridge abutment on the old portion of the bridge. We were using 7 foot spinning rods and Shimano Stradic 4000 reels loaded with 10 pound test Ande monofilament. Dollar sized blue crabs were the bait. Dustin staked the boat off about 80 feet from the bridge abutment and instructed Andy and I to stand on the bow. Andy was to cast to the right and I to the left. We both loaded the rods and launched the crabs. As the baits landed we left the bails of our spinning reels open permitting the drift of the racing current to take the crabs towards opposite sides of the bridge abutment. Two permit were waiting. Each of us got strikes and set the hooks. Chaos erupted.

Andy’s fish went to the Gulf and my fish went to the Atlantic. Dustin screamed at me to back off my drag. “Rowe, you’ve caught permit before! Let’s get Andy’s fish and then we’ll see if yours is still on.” So here was Andy, taking his first cast at any saltwater fish and hooking up with the determined and wily permit. He fought the fish very well. Dustin, as always, gave great instructions. The permit made several bulldog like runs. After spending substantial energy, the fish began to circle the boat. Since the skiff was staked off, Andy began to walk along the gunnel, across the stern and back up the other gunnel to the bow. The fish continued to circle pulling as if it was a sidways frisbee straining into the current. Dustin was directing traffic from the poling platform. Each time Andy passed around the stern, he had to pass the tip of the spinning rod underneath Dustin’s legs and out the other side. On the third trip around, the taut monofilament brushed the screwhead which fixed the poling platform to the brace. “BING” It was over.

The disappointment settled on Andy’s face, but Dustin and I still had a permit out there somewhere free swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Dustin got down off the platform, stored the push pole, and fired up the engine. I jumped up on the bow of the boat and tightened down my drag slightly, just enough to be able to slowly gather line as Dustin guided the bonefish skiff in the angle made by my line entering the water. We safely passed close to the old bridge abutment and slowly edgeed across the 300 to 400 yards between the old and new bridges. As we approached the new bridge, it became apparent that our permit, as most do when hooked, had swum at the nearest obstacle in the water. In this fight, our fish had somehow found its way through the H frame bridge abutment supporting the new portion of the Seven Mile Bridge deck. Unfortunately, the skiff would not fit through the uprights of the H.

Dustin slowed the skiff and seemed to be thinking. Silence hung over the boat. He said after a moment, “Rowe, you mind if I touch your rod?” The G. Loomis rod was brand-new. The reel was brand-new. I asked, “Why, what are you going to do?” Dustin’s question was directed to the notion that if a guide assists an angler in any way by touching the rod or reel while a fish is being fought, the fish could not qualify if it happened to be a world record. I wasn’t worried about that. Although a very lucky man, I am not that lucky. Dustin replied, “I’m going to tie your rod and reel to a life jacket, throw all of it overboard and drift it through the other side of the H.” I looked at the water. The tide was ripping from the Gulf to the Atlantic and the current was streaking right through the opening of the H. “Sure, why not?”

Overboard went my rod, reel and the life jacket. The splash left a sinking feeling in my gut. I was out of touch with the fish and my gear. Somehow, the odd misshapen raft drifted just as Dustin predicted under the uprights and out the other side. We picked the floating equipment off the surface of the water and unstrapped the life jacket. Relief shook my wet hands as I grasped the recovered rod and reel.

At this point, no one was certain we had a fish on the the hook. I had never gotten tight on the still unseen permit. But we had been able to follow the line from the old bridge to the new bridge and through the H frame. Unfortunately, as the fish swam through the H, the line had snagged somewhere below the waterline. It was impossible to see where.

“Rowe, can you handle the boat?” “Why, what are you going to do,” I asked. Dustin shouted,”I’m going to dive in, get the line in my hands and follow it down till I find where it is snagged! If I can free it, we’re gonna catch this fish!” I have never owned a boat but regardless of my inexperience, I said, “Of course I can handle the boat!”

I took the steering wheel and put my hand on the throttle as Dustin dove off the bow. By now, the tide was absolutely ripping through the bridge abutment. Nonetheless, Dustin found the line in the water, followed it hand over hand and then suddenly extended his arms towards the bottom and dove out of sight. Moments later he came up with the line in hand. He let go as the ocean bound current swept the line away from more trouble. He quickly swam to the skiff, gripped the bow edge rail with both hands and literally launched himself on board.

Dustin Huff Swims Seven Mile

Andy had been holding my rod and reel as I was controlling the boat and Dustin swam. Andy handed me the rod and reel. Once again I tightened the drag. This time there were no obstructions and soon I could feel the pulsing shake of the no doubt utterly confused permit at the end of the line. As the fish felt the pressure, he streaked off suddenly recalling the original hookset some thirty minutes earlier. Five uneventful minutes later, we had a 20 pound permit.

Miracle Seven Mile Bridge  Permit

Miracle Seven Mile Bridge Permit

I suppose there may be other guides who would jump overboard to provide his angler with an opportunity of having a fish story to tell for the rest of his life. If so I hope you are fortunate enough to fish with such a guide. I have enjoyed such a privilege. Thanks, Dustin!

Marquesas Key Sharks

Marquesas flats fishing chart

Key West has a mysterious and exciting reputation for an angler. Although I had pursued bonefish on many of the beautiful flats of the Keys, I had never fished out of Key West. So when my guide, Steve Huff, suggested that we fish Key West on a beautiful crystal clear November day, I was excited. The trip from Marathon was approximately one hour. We pulled the trailer and skiff into a marina and quickly launched into Key West Harbor. The broad basin is much larger than other harbors in the Keys. Substantial numbers of large sailing and pleasure yachts were moored in the aquamarine basin providing ample evidence of the affluence of the owners.

Historically, Key West was a military outpost which in the late l800’s grew to a community of some seventeen thousand citizens and outlaws who had communications with the mainland of Florida only by boat. In that the first road through the Keys was not constructed until the early l920’s, Key West took on an isolated independence. That independence is still reflected in the attitudes of the Key West natives who are not bound by societies or governments norms or expectations.

Just as Key West’s quirkiness is first rate, so is its fishing. We were there to fish. Permit were our quarry. Steve shut the 90 horse motor down, staked off, and began to rig my spinning rod with a Bimini twist leader and bait hook suitable to secure the dollar size blue crabs we intended to use as bait. My knots had yet to meet with his approval. As I looked up from the rigging efforts, I noticed a large barracuda sunning easily in a state of motionlessness. The day before while fishing a flat near Marathon, Steve’s son Dustin was my guide. When we sighted a cuda, Dustin rigged a spinning rod with a tube lure constructed of a single piece of bright green plastic tubing with three hooks running the length of the lure. He handed me the rod and I fired a cast well in front of what turned out to be a hungry fish.

“Reel the lure as fast as you can! If wants to eat you cannot reel too fast.” I cranked furiously. The cuda exploded on the lure and jumped several times, elevating high above the churning water. The fish made short, quick runs of approximately twenty to thirty feet and after about 5 minutes, I was able to land the twelve pound barracuda with brilliant blue tones accented by black vertical bars etching its missile shaped body. My fishing buddy, Lee Mitchell scoffed. It was as if I had caught a carp back home in Ohio.

On this Key West morning, we did not bother the lazy barracuda. After the rigging was completed, Steve poled the sixteen foot super skiff for approximately an hour searching for a flashy silver side of a permit or a black sickle shaped tail sticking above the water. We sighted nothing. Huffer suggested that if we were up for a ride, we might see permit if we could make it to Marquesas Keys.

Marquesas Key is a group of small coral islands half-way between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. The small atoll, which means a group of barrier islands with a harbor in the middle, is the last stop before Cuba. The Marquesas are uninhabited and are surrounded by some of the most beautiful water anywhere in the Florida Keys. The flat bottom is a supercharged ecosystem where an infinite variety of salt water creatures live in a complex chain of predator and prey.

To get to Marquesas Key from Key West, the angler must cross the Boca Grande shipping channel which connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Typically, the channel is choppy, especially when the wind and current are running in opposite directions. On such days, a skiff will move like a large bobber being tossed in multiple directions at the same time. On this day, the water was relatively calm and the seven mile crossing was uneventful.

As the crossing progressed, I had a feeling of vulnerability as I gazed into the violet colored water where I could not see bottom. Typically, I feel safe and confident while fishing. However, I had never before been aboard that little piece of fiberglass as it bounced around in water with a depth of thirty-five to forty feet. Needless to say, a bonefish skiff does not have sufficient room to carry a spare motor in the event of a mechanical breakdown.

As the mangrove covered Marquesas came into sight, the beauty of the moment was overwhelming. The water was absolutely crystal clear and the visibility as we scanned the surface ahead of us for signs of fish with the sun directly overhead was seemingly unlimited. Every shadow, movement, sandy spot among the waving duck grass lining the bottom of the flat held a promise of fish. But the permit were elsewhere. Instead, after poling into an inner bay of one of the islands, we found ourselves surrounded by a large school of lemon and nurse sharks. The cruisers swam gently around the boat as if they were a squadron of soldiers resolutely marching to battle. As these magnificent sharks swam underneath the boat, I glanced up and found no other human beings, boats, or signs of civilization. This sun crushed isolation created a sense of oneness with the elements I have never before or since experienced.

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!