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.

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!

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.