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

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.

 

 

 

 

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.