Family, Friends, Fish and The Fourth

Good Morning

Good morning on this July 4th. On this day we reflect upon the great freedoms we enjoy as citizens of the United States. The simplest and best is the freedom to enjoy family and friends.

My family has been the greatest blessing in my life. Anyone who knows the Rowe family is aware of what a unique cast of characters we are! I am sure my loving wife Lauri and my wonderful children would tell you they have many interests beyond fishing. However, many of my fondest memories are of times spent together fishing! I love you all so much!

My Mom started fishing at a young age!

A Sunday catch Mom and Grandpa Hessey!

A Sunday catch Mom and Grandpa Hessey!

My Dad helped carry on the fishing fun.

Frank Rowe

Dad and I Dressed To Catch…Not Sure What

Lauri and I have fished together since our honeymoon.

Fishing On Our Honeymoon!

Fishing On Our Honeymoon!

Nate Hands Dirty (00043426@xC4F0B)

Nate Avoids Fish Slime

Andy and I primed and ready in the Keys!

Andy and I primed and ready in the Keys!

Ginny Rowe

Ginny at Indian Lake

Pete Rowe

Pete Catches The Dreaded Rock Fish!

Seth Rowe

Seth Loves Batman and the Cane Pole

 

I confess to having great adventures planned for my future fishing buddies!

Izzie and Oompah have started already!

Izzie and Oompah have started already!

Ezra Rowe

Seth and Ezra looking for fish

 

Hudson Rowe

Huddy Is Always Up For An Adventure

Fishing is an activity which provides a foundation of adventure, success, and failure upon which family and friends can build a lifetime of memories. This picture of Capt. Steve Huff and Lee Mitchell was taken this spring in the Everglades.

Lee and Steve salute a great day on the water!

Lee and Steve salute a great day on the water!

Their friendship is indicative of how time on the water with a fishing rod in hand can lead to a lifetime of memories and a phenomenal friendship. Lee first fished with Captain Huff as Steve’s career was beginning in the Florida Keys over 40 years ago. They have fished together for at least 500 days. Oh the stories they share!

As you reflect upon your freedom, remember that nurturing family and friends is free of charge. The investment necessary is your time. A phone call to friend and family today would be a great way to show your appreciation for your freedom to love your family and friends!

Have a great Fourth of July.

The photo tribute below is my way of saying thank you to all of my fishing friends for a lifetime of memories!

Ralph the golfer (00048013@xC4F0B)

Ralph Walls Could Play Golf

Frank Catchpole - What a name for an angler. We miss you Frank!

Frank Catchpole – What a name for an angler. We miss you Frank!

Chuck Sheley You are one of the best guys I know! You also are a great dresser!

Chuck Sheley
You are one of the best guys I know! You also are a great dresser!

Friends getting ready to fish!

Friends getting ready to fish!

My first fishing friend- Grandpa Hessey

My first fishing friend- Grandpa Hessey

Bob Hamilton and I double on Permit

Bob Hamilton and I double on Permit

Junior, let's go fishing!

Junior, let’s go fishing!

Pedro! That wahoo hides the fact that you forgot your shirt!

Pedro! That wahoo hides the fact that you forgot your shirt!

Larry LaFleur and Guide Dustin Huff with a gorgeous permit

Larry LaFleur and Guide Dustin Huff with a gorgeous permit

Dane McCarthy and I ready to bonefish in Roatan

Dane McCarthy and I ready to bonefish in Roatan

Doc Wight,  I will catch you with a fishing rod in hand sometime in this lifetime

Doc Wight, I will catch you with a fishing rod in hand sometime in this lifetime

Tom Blake

Tom Blake Still Wet After Lure Retrieval

 

Of course, celebrating a great day on the water is essential!

Dinner at Key Colony Inn with Frank Catchpole, Steve Huff, Ron Souder, Lee Mitchell, Sherry Walls, Rich Mealy, and Ralph Walls!

Dinner at Key Colony Inn with Frank Catchpole, Steve Huff, Ron Souder, Lee Mitchell, Sherry Walls, Rich Mealy, and Ralph Walls!

 

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.

Evergaldes Fishing Report

Back to reality! The Everglades fishing trip is over. One of the great joys of any upcoming adventure is the anticipation of the trip. I admit to fishing trips where the anticipation was more exciting than the results of the fishing. As the years have passed, anticipation of the adventure, the memories created, and relationships nurtured have replaced the fishing results as the barometer for a great trip. Based on that measure, this year’s trip was a rousing success. Bob Hamilton, Lee Mitchell, Chuck Sheley and I enjoyed five days of interesting and exciting fishing. However, at our average age of 76.5, the fishing has become secondary to the primary enjoyment of spending time together with our guides, Steve Huff and Andrew Bostick.

Nonetheless, I do have friends that rightfully question whether I ever catch fish on a fishing trip. So here are the details of the catch. With occasional assistance from our guides when they racked the push pole and fished with us, we caught 203 snook and 36 redfish during our five-day trip. We kept a few “keeper” fish within the legal slot limits of 28 to 33 inches for snook and 18 to 27 inches for redfish. May I offer the following amateur recipe: garlic infused olive oil in the bottom of the baking pan, add snook or redfish filets, sprinkle with Panko crumbs, add a touch of parmesan cheese and paprika and bake for 20 min. in a 400° oven. The chef, me, received no complaints!

Keeper Snook

Keeper Snook

Tidal Creek Redfish

Tidal Creek Redfish

Naturally, the fish we did not catch provided the most notable stories. Bob Hamilton had a 100 pound tarpon strike his plug, take off to parts unknown, and strip every inch of this fishing line leaving only a resounding “ping” as the spool emptied. Lee Mitchell on his first cast on day three looked down boat side and saw what we refer to as a “pancake”. A pancake is the only evidence of a missed strike! This particular pancake was 6 feet in diameter. Big tarpon, big snook, we will never know but a great way to get your heart started early in the morning!

Chuck Sheley did his normal thing. Caught everything in sight!

I experienced two mind numbing fish. One keeper snook actually raced some 15 feet pushing a wake the whole way before he struck my plug. I actually managed to catch him!

The second snook was a different story. He struck just 2 minutes after the video card of my new Go Pro camera filled up. As I was speeding up the retrieve of my plug right at the boat preparing to make another cast, a huge snook exploded on the plug not 12 inches from the skiff. After a five-minute fight, the fish began to circle back and forth under the boat. Just as I began to think I might actually catch this fish, the plug pulled out as my rod stretched over the very bow as the big snook swam under the boat for the third time. We did get a look at him and he was no doubt the biggest fish which I hooked the entire week.

So much for the fishing report. Now I will provide a little bit of picture and video evidence that we were actually in the Everglades with fishing rods in hand.

On day one, the truck is unloaded, hands are shaken, hugs exchanged, and smiles of friendship are evident.

The Boys Unpack at Huff's

The Boys Unpack at Huff’s

The best part of every fishing morning is the joy of easing the skiff away from the dock and heading out to the wildness of the Swamp. Is the Swamp a wilderness? On two days, our skiff encountered no other boats or human beings during the entire fishing day.

The second best part of every fishing day is the gorgeous run back home while running thoughts of appreciation through your mind as you give thanks for another fishing day and the awesome beauty of nature which on display as the sun sets. Sometimes you just throw your hands up and say THANKS!

Boys Will Have Their Fun

Boys Will Have Their Fun

When you are on the homebound skiff of Steve Huff, you know you will not only see the sun set but you also see the stars began to shine brightly in the evening sky.

The Inspiring Florida Sky

The Inspiring Florida Sky

Once in a while the anglers have the opportunity of running into a back tidal Creek where redfish gather as the tide floods out of the backcountry. Andrew Bostick loves running his skiff into extremely skinny water to get you to such sites. The rewards can be great!

The Redfish Honey Hole

The Redfish Honey Hole

The anglers are also sometimes given the opportunity of clearing cobwebs which span the mangroves on each side of a narrow creek connecting between two lonely gorgeous bays where if you say nothing there will be no sound!

Clearing The Cobwebs

Clearing The Cobwebs

Finally In The Clear

Finally In The Clear

The sky at the end of the day often speaks to the power of the infinite creation.

Slick Calm

Slick Calm

Off To Fish The Everglades

On Monday morning, good friends Lee Mitchell, Bob Hamilton, Chuck Sheley and I will begin our annual November fishing adventure. We are off to the Swamp! The beauty of the Everglades cannot be over stated. Although blurry, this picture of flamingos in the wild was taken on a previous trip to the Everglades.

Wild Everglades Flamingos

Wild Everglades Flamingos

Our quarry will be the beautiful snook, bulldogging redfish, and there may even be a few tarpon around. The three year ban on keeping a snook due to a huge fish kill as a result of extreme cold in the Everglades has been lifted. So, if we are lucky, there may be a snook and redfish dinner some evening next week.

Everglades Snook

Everglades Snook

We have the good fortune of fishing with tremendous guides, Steve Huff and Andrew Bostick. I am quite sure they are not as excited about fishing us as we are about their being our guides! They will either pole or use their electric motors to direct the skiffs along oyster bars, mangrove islands, channels, and other fish holding structure. With the new moon we are hopeful that enough water will be moving to create tidal exchanges sufficient to encourage hungry fish to strike our plugs.

There will be some bugs, some plugs hung up in the mangroves, a lot of good-natured chop busting, and great camaraderie. If I can master a little technology as the week goes along, my hope is to do a brief daily posting with a little pictorial proof of our adventures.

I have one personal goal. Avoid falling from the boat into the water where alligators and sharks swim. I had two such mishaps last year. Although I am confident I will stay dry, Steve Huff did tell me during a phone call last week that he had stored a snorkel on the boat to make sure it is available for me.

TIGHT LINES!

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!

Fishing Long Key Bight Well Prepared

The sun transformed Long Key Bight from an ocean side flat into an eye piercing mirror.  The transformation had been gradual as Steve Huff poled the l6 foot bonefish skiff into the brisk wind.  The water varied in depth from one to five feet and sparkled with an intense bronze cast.  The water’s hue caused cruising bonefish to appear black instead of their normal brilliant silver.  The crescent shaped flat was formed by Long Key and Long Key Point in the middle of the Florida Keys and was easily seen from Highway 1.

Huff had been guiding Lee Mitchell and I in pursuit of Keys bonefish, permit and tarpon for years.  Today was one of many spent on the duck grass flats of “The Bight”. I often remarked that The Bight is to receive a portion of my cremains when the time comes. Huff stepped down from the poling platform and jammed the l4 foot push pole into the sandy bottom.  He tied off to the elevated poling platform with a white nylon line. When the skiff was secure, he announced it was time for lunch.  Steve opened the boat’s fiberglass cooler and removed chicken salad in Styrofoam cups from the brown lunch bags. Usually, aluminum foil protects the sandwich bread from melted ice. Today it did not.  No matter, for Stout’s Restaurant in Marathon made chunky chicken salad which could be enjoyed even if eaten by spoon.

As we began to eat, I wondered why soggy chicken salad served in a bonefish skiff always tasted better than a Fifteen Dollar ($l5.00) lunch back home. Steve ate quickly.  Lee took his time.  I wolfed down my food and never took my gaze from the eye straining water. Lee believed that whenever he set down his rod and reel to light a cigarette, eat his lunch or pop an icy cold beverage, a bonefish would mud or tail and then disappear before a cast could be made.  But today we had not seen any fish and so we took some time to talk.

“It’s great to be back in the Keys” I said as I slowly shook the grasp of the real world and began to enjoy the first day of our annual Keys bonefish trip.  Huff ignored the sentiment and commented that Mitchie’s diet failure had made the poling a hell of a lot harder than the previous year. Lee replied, “Maybe I should find a younger less expensive guide who will pole into the wind at least part of the day without complaining”. Huffer and Lee were glad to see each other.

I thought of my trip preparation which always began with my fish log. For years, I have kept a blue, now dog-eared log to record the fish caught, the fish missed and the fish imagined.  It is also a valuable aid to detect fishing embellishment which is of course what other anglers do. Each entry of the log contains a few words to assist the aging mind in recalling the flats fished, the tides, the weather, but most importantly, the stories.  I read these stories often as I prepare my fishing mind and soul for a Keys fishing adventure.

In addition to the log, I keep a navigational map of the Keys.  On the map, grease marks note the exact location of the most memorable bonefish, tarpon, and permit caught. I keep the map and log in the middle drawer of my office desk in Columbus, Ohio.  On cold winter days when I cannot successfully return one business call out of twenty on the first try, I often pull out the map and gaze at each smudged grease mark.  The map and log have been to the Keys as often Lee and I have. I would never even think of packing it in anything but a carry on.  Clothes lost in an airport can be replaced, but the map and log are as precious as my Mickey Mantle rookie card.

During lunch, Mitchie and I spoke of plane schedules, reservations at The Siesta Motel, the packing of rods, reels, rain gear, sunglasses and the lengthy list of items crucial to the success of the trip.  My wife often wonders aloud how I could pack for the trip by myself without error, but can never find my glasses without her help.

After listening to the endless details of our preparation, Huff snorted “Hell, you’ve had a great time even if you never catch a fish.”  We agreed.

Cold January Days In The Keys

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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