I take this opportunity to renew my best wishes and extend an invitation to join us in the 65th “Ernest Hemingway” International Billfish Fishing Tournament, to be held from May 25th to 30th, 2015.
I take this opportunity to renew my best wishes and extend an invitation to join us in the 65th “Ernest Hemingway” International Billfish Fishing Tournament, to be held from May 25th to 30th, 2015.
“Sharks in the Harbor”
Sharks are eating one out of every three tarpon hooked in Key West harbor.
Be it geography, demographics or a narrow gene pool, Key West Florida is known for unusual occurrences….Spring 2014 is no exception.
Around the island the migrations of many aquatic species are in full swing, and none more anxiously awaited than the million member march of tarpon moving north, up from the Caribbean.
Two distinct species – Atlantic and Gulf – stimulated by rising water temperatures and the call to procreate, cross the Straits of Florida in football field size schools. These silver sided beast, some in excess of two hundred pounds are historically greeted by large, hungry sharks.
The traveling tarpon’s first port of call are the channels, harbors and grass flats of the Florida Keys. From Key Largo to the Marquesas, world class anglers also await the fish’s arrival armed with thousand dollar fly rods alongside shrimp tinted tourist on the fishing trip of their dreams.
Tarpon have no food value –an entrepreneur tried making pet food from them in the 1940’s but the dogs and cats refused it – but are highly prized for their leaping jumps and strong battles.
As one Key West captain said, “There is more money spent catching tarpon than any other non-edible fish in the world.”
This year an inordinate number of sharks –mainly bulls and tigers – of unusually large sizes have shown up in advance of the tarpon and are feasting with an aggression that has the fisherman edgy.
Ralph Delph, an elder statesman of Key’s captains pointed out this observation while meeting up with son Rob at the Key West Yacht Club. Delph holds in excess of one hundred world records, many on sharks. “I’ve never seen bulls this big in the harbor.” He said. “Some of these beast are six and seven hundred pounds.”
“Their very aggressive.” Adds Rob, himself a renowned fishing captain. “And, there are more tigers around than I ever remember seeing in the harbor.
“We’re having tarpon eaten in spots where we’ve never had a problem with sharks before.” Peter Heydon said over a beer at Dante’s bar. Peter is a flats guide and poles in pursuit of the monster tarpon across skinny water grass flats and shallow snaking channels. “We were anchored in Calda channel the other day and the baits we had out behind the boat were only being eaten by sharks. We were jumping tarpon on plugs casts along the channel edges. The fish were creeping right next to the banks, trying to sneak past the sharks waiting in the deeper water.”
Both bull sharks and tigers are flat bellied sharks able to suck in their gullets and pursue prey into inches of water, pinning them against a bank or bar. These highly visible chases across the shallows many times end in exploding cascades of water and sand, whipped by thrashing tails as the shark devourers the tarpon leaving only blood, scales and a lifeless head staring up from the eel grass bottom.
The big bull sharks in many instances are jumping clear of the water when hook – not an unheard of event but unusual and scary due to their size. “I grabbed my son Santiago and held him close,” related Capt. Pepe Gonzalez. “The shark cleared the water and all I could think of was what if it lands in the boat.”
“It was a really big one.” Adds Capt. Paul D”Antoni, who happened to be anchored close by. ”I’m guessing six hundred pounds.”
Not only are these giant, leaping bull sharks being more aggressive, but also appear fearless, showing up before the fishing boat has anchored or put out the first chum. Attracted by the idling motors, the sharks have learned to stake out the most popular spots and wait for the action to begin.
No one is more familiar with the underwater topography of the Key West harbor than Lee Starling or “Lobster Lee.” For more than thirty years Lee has made a living harvesting lobster from the honey holes, ledges, wrecks and discarded debris from Fleming Key to Fort Zachary Taylor at the harbor’s entrance.
Lee is used to fighting strong tidal currents, poor visibility and yachts speeding overhead while gleaning the Caribbean crawfish from hidden holes along the channel’s dredged banks. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Lee offered. “On one wreck I dive where the tarpon hang out the bottom is carpeted with scales. I’ve seen scattered scales before but never anything like this.”
Tarpon are lined with silver dollar size heavy armored detachable scales that give way to shark bites, allowing them to escape many times, leaving a few scales as reminders of the encounter. But, when they coat the bottom in numbers Lee describes, it translates to fish being eaten.
“I’m not diving Ft. Zack right now.” Lee states. “I dove for a lost anchor the other day and the bull sharks were on me as soon as I hit the water. No chum, no spearfishing – two things that attract sharks – they were just on me.”
Lee blames the gathering on “Power Chumming” and doesn’t single out the harbor fisherman who use shrimp trash – the by-catch from shrimping to attract the tarpon. “Even the guys on the reef yellow-tailing are responsible. Their scent trail can bring fish in from the gulf stream.”
Illustrating his point, a six hundred pound Blue-fin Tuna was hooked and fought for six hours last week before escaping, an unheard of feat in Key West. The giants are known to migrate far offshore this time of year but this fish was hooked close in only a hundred fifty feet of water just outside the reef.
Tim Ott – veteran tuna harvester and star of the popular National Geographic Channel series “Wicked Tuna” owns a home on the island and spends much of the winter fishing from Dry Tortuga to Marquesa.
“The tuna are feeding the bluefish up into the Gulf of Mexico to their spawning grounds.” Ott offered, “Something has caused the bluefish to travel inshore of their normal migration route and the tuna followed.”
Around the same time a great White shark was spotted repeatedly over a four day period at the Toppino buoy, a popular dive site only seventeen feet deep, lying within sight of shore. Are these two unusual encounters a product of power chumming? Or as some suggest a reflection of climate change.
Capt. Mike Weinhofer believes the rising overall local shark population explains the increases in the harbor and on the reef. “With the elimination of long-liners, finning, and finally the closure of a loophole that allowed commercial fisherman to sell sharks as incidental catch, we have seen an increase in all sharks, but especially the inshore species.”
Capt. Tony Murphy owner of The Salt Water Angler fly shop has won the ESPN shark challenge three times. “I’ve seen large hammerheads, twelve to fourteen feet, just outside the swim buoys at Ft. Zack. Evidently the sharks aren’t after people. In many cases they are just yards apart.”
Reports from along the Keys trail indicate this problem is not Key West’s alone. Rumor has it a frustrated charter Captain killed a big bull shark – most everyone releases sharks – and hung it from the Bahia Honda Bridge in hopes the scent of their dead brethren would keep the other bull sharks at bay. It reportedly worked until after three days the fragrance faded and the sharks returned.
Tim Ott and Rob Delph rig for big tuna.
“In the spring a young man’s fancy turns to love.”
Schools of spawning permit join the procreational pursuit at a most spectacular of gatherings. In multitudes of silver and gold they mass, holding over a few picturesque spots suspended in crystal waters of the outer bar. Trinity is one such site, a name coined by divers in deference to three coral peaks rising 20-25 feet above a white marl bottom.
Located on the outer reef or “bar”, this ridge of coral disappeared beneath the waves at the end of the last Ice Age, millennia ago. Running east to west, with an average relief of 10 feet, this outside reef is a phenomenon, occurring nowhere else along the Florida Keys chain. Trinity is a deep spot, 55 feet, and sits inside the Atlantic drop-off due south. Bathed in nutrient rich currents, often by the Gulf Stream itself, the ledges, walls and sea-fan forest of Trinity draw resident fish and traveling schools, layered at times from surface to sea-floor. On clear water days the sandy bottom reflects the tropic sun, lighting an outdoor aquarium.
By the second week of April, on rare calm days, spawning permit rise above the corral pinnacles bathing their egg laden bellies in the warm sun. Often, pin prick fins spike the surface giving up the school. In sun, the mother-permit flash golden, ripe with the next generation. When flushed, they file beneath the boat matching numbers and moving with the herd mentality of buffalo. Seen from below, they flow over submerged ridges like Hollywood Indians sweeping down on circled wagons.
We’re aboard a powder blue Yellowfin 42 with four high horsepower Mercury’s strapped to the back. Eight minutes out of Key west Harbor, a new Trinity record. Only Popeye’s fried chicken boat made this run faster, and he was on the outward bound leg of the world powerboat championships.
As one friend Jim Butters put it following a furiously fast ride in the behemoth center console, in less than calm seas. “This isn’t a boat, it’s a carnival ride.”
Captain T.J. Ott is at the wheel. T.J.’s a second generation professional tuna harvester, and star of the popular reality show, “Wicked Tuna.” Six months of the year he battles thousand pound blue fins with rod and lance. Winter months he’s at the family home in Key West, ranging his ocean rocket west to Dry Tortugas then east to Cay Sal Banks, relentlessly pursuing a tug on the line and fish in the box.
An early morning phone call from key’s captain Steve Rodgers – another Key’s fishing celebrity- was short and to the point, permit on the bar. Rodgers, a native son Conch captain is privy to inside info, always one of the first to know. We’ll have a day or two before word spreads and boats flock to the site. Secrets don’t last in the southernmost city.
Nikie and I join T.J. and Diesel, a fish hound black Rottweiler weighing in at eighty pounds. Constantly in the shadow of our captain, Diesel stakes out a spot at his master’s feet, daring any challenge. He’s veteran crew and knows where the ride is softest and dry.
The spa-size live well teems in crab. Some, half-dollar size baby blues imported from Miami, others corral colored sand crabs caught this morning by Nikie, wading a shallow bar. All are declawed.
We’ll hook these squiggling crustations thru the pointed end of the carapace on a half-ounce plain lead jig. Thirty pound leader connects the weighted offering to twenty pound braid spooled on Shimano spinners, Flora-carbon of course. Seven foot Star graphite rods, in tandem with the lead jig provides casting range with backbone enough to muscle a fish. Unlike wreck or tower fishing these permit have no close cut-off place to flee to, a common occurrence around structure. Given enough head they will scrape the hook across the sand bottom or dash under a sharp edge overhang, attempting to rid themselves of the bothersome tug.
There is reason to horse these hard fighting members of the jack family in. Sharks, most often the Great American Hammerhead lurk just out of sight. Shadowing the schools these anvil-headed monsters run large, over 10 feet, some eight hundred pounds.
While conjuring a plan for a first drift a shout and splash turns every head. Our informant Steve Rodgers, leading a charter has been fighting a fish since our arrival. Now, the tan tail of a 12 foot shark slaps the side of his Conch 27 while the other end devours his angler’s twenty pound permit. The fisherman freaks. Not used to seeing a tail the size of a grown man waving at eye level he seems convinced the shark wants him.
With engines at a quite idle, T.J. eases up to a school. We cast our crabs into a group of tiny points directly above a cloud of milling, flashing shapes. Reacting to the splashes, the fish move forward and down. Free-lined off the spools our baits sink with them. Two of the three crabs are eaten. I strike and miss, Nikie’s reel is whining her rod bent double.
The bent rod sends Diesel into frenzy. He covers the length and breadth of the Yellowfin barreling by any unfortunate bystander, barking his excitement, cheering Nikie on. Paws on gunnel Diesel watches for the fish, if he’s disappointed not seeing a giant tuna it doesn’t show.
Nikie fights this fish like the seasoned pro she is. She holds the spool and lifts the rod smooth, never jerking, then winds down even and fluid. With skills honed hoisting Halibut in Alaska, this beautiful bartender-angler is a fish in the boat kind of girl.
The action is fast with multiple hook-ups and our luck with the sharks holds thru a few close calls. We release nine hard fighting permit, missing a dozen more. Low light brings our slugfest to a halt when wispy clouds gather blocking out the lowering sun. Fueled by cooling air over warmer water these late afternoon formations are common in the spring, the fish disappear with the light.
Another eight minute ride, then a slow swing by the Mallory Square sunset extravaganza ends the day. We watch “The great Rondine” wiggle in chains. A high wire artist balances on one leg and twirls plates. Cat man directs a pride of felines thru circus routines climaxing with a leap thru a flaming hoop. Nowhere else on earth does this land and sea dichotomy exist. But what to expect when one boards T.J.’s – “Key West carnival ride?”
Crossing the four miles from the snow white beaches of Boca Grande Key to the Black Mangrove lined east entrance of Marquesas in a flats boat when the wind bucks the tide is like shooting the Pipeline on a Walmart raft.
Marquesas…..The name conjures images of exotic tropic settings, seclusion, wildness. Lying west of Key West, separated from the sheltered path of the lakes passage by the treacherous Boca Grande channel, the lush islands and shallow bay of this geological wonder are home to some of the best skinny water stalking in the world.
The Marquesas Islands sit betwixt and between. Straddling a watery boundary dividing the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, this atoll style formation of keys and bays remains a puzzle to geologist. Creation theories ranging from a meteor strike to giant springs and shifting sands have been proposed and analyzed by scientist worldwide. All agree the Marquesas are special. No similar formation exists in this hemisphere
Every indigenous shoal water species is drawn to the bounty of life thriving in the island’s lush grass seabeds and winding channels. Birds – the barometer of any marine environment’s health – abound, feeding on a seemingly endless supply of minnow to mullet size bait. Pelicans, gulls, terns, eagles, pink spoonbills and screeching ospreys, swoop, soar, dive and wade. Mimicking party decorations, they hang between forays in the tall mangrove branches lining the crystal clear passes.
Shallow salt water tidal creeks – arteries of life – snake through the bay delivering nutrients and providing passage to the feeding grounds of innumerable flats.
Having your skiff in Marquesas is Christmas morning. Once in the lee of the islands or polling the protected bay, quiet, clear water can be found on the windiest days. But, like all paradises, a toll is required.
Crossing the four mile stretch from the snow white beaches of Boca Grande Key to the Black Mangrove lined east entrance of Marquesas in a flats boat when the wind bucks the tide is like shooting the Pipeline on a Walmart raft.
The circulating fluxes countering a stiff wind produce a hull busting chop sometimes eight feet high. Waves arise from different directions, cresting with current driven water shoved against the wind. Poles have been known to fly from their holders, left behind, never to be seen again. Seasoned guides know better than to turn a skiff in these conditions. A five hundred dollar pole just isn’t worth the risk.
As with most great fishing holes, Marquesas is best worked at dawn and dusk. Regardless of the tide stage the fish will rise to feed. On calm mornings or evenings the flats and shallow passes come alive with fins and wakes. To take advantage of either of these prime periods requires navigating the tricky path to or from Key West (the closest port) in the dark.
Over the years we found a mother-ship approach much more to our liking. Plus, the nights at Marquesas are a beautiful darkness, peaceful and serene…. until you drop a bait in the water.
A free-lined mullet or pilchard off the stern will stir up more action than Duval Street during Fantasy Fest. Tarpon, sharks, barracuda and snook, all nocturnal feeders can cause severe sleep deprivation to anglers anchored in Marquesas overnight. The fishing is too good to sleep.
Jim Butter’s 42 foot Viking provided a perfect platform for our Marquesas excursions. With air conditioned bunk space and multiple baitwells, a bit of hot water and a minimal four foot draft, we experienced some of the finest shallow water adventures imaginable. Every voyage evolving into its own unique quest.
David Conway got the ball rolling. At the time he was an outdoor writer living in Key West and was seeking content centered on the Kayak fishing explosion taking the country by storm. More specifically, David wanted permit off a kayak and Marquesas is the place.
Teaming up with Dave Dlugitch, owner of Key West Kayak Fishing, an accomplished angler and proficient paddler, we loaded the plastic navy, hitched my skiff behind Jim’s Viking and headed west. We left on one of those rare February days between cold fronts, windless and warm.
Even with the Vikings shallow draft we must enter the east cut on the top of the tide. The channel into Mooney Harbor anchorage on the south side is deeper, but is used by commercial lobster and yellowtail boats for sheltered overnight mooring.
Navigating past a pvc pipe – the only channel marker – we slipped through the shallow pass with the barest swirl of mud and anchored just inside the tree line. Even in winter it is best to select an anchorage with an eye to prevailing breeze…. The mosquitoes in Marquesas can be murder.
It was early afternoon when we dropped the hook in nine feet of water and launched the self-propelled angling team off in search of “The Prince of the Flats.” Permit are found on all sides of the islands and will crowd the bay as well. On warm days in late winter the large females push into the shallows to feed and bask in the sun’s rays, hastening the development of their incubating eggs.
On these rare, still days, tails wave across the flats and channel edges and black singular fins rise straight out of nowhere, pointing, pivoting as the thirty plus pound fish feed in inches of water. Permit swimming with half their eyes exposed buck the tide, burrowing into the sand and mud for crabs, using the water flow to sweep vision blocking silt clouds away, so necessary in the Marquesas. This is shark city.
Ten foot bulls, spinners, lemons and the occasional tiger shark prowl these waters eager to bring a short end to the battle between man and fish. Sucking their bellies in, they’ll follow the sounds of struggle onto the shallowest flat.
During the spring tarpon run you can add the Great American Hammerhead to the list – big hammerheads, sometime eighteen feet in length, homing in on the leaping silverkings, ready to sever a hundred plus pound fish with one head shaking bite.
While the permit expedition paddles off to the west, Jim and I set out to catch bait, one of our favorite things. Pilchards or fingerling mullet are what we seek and it doesn’t take long to find them. When it comes to bait, Marquesas is the bomb.
Diving pelicans – normally a constant – were not to be found on this early afternoon. Instead they were roosting in the trees, watching the water below, fat and full. As Jim motored the skiff along the shore, the surface flashed with the shimmer of a silver school – pilchards or white bait, “tarpon candy.” One throw with a ten foot net and our well was brimming.
While Jim cleared the drain clogging weeds, I cast a Bagley mullet at the mouth of a small creek flowing into the channel. The second twitch of the plug brought a rise and a swirl. Snook, I think. They are found here in numbers at times, but are hard to fool in the clear water.
We offloaded our living treasure and I headed out to find our wandering kayakers, toward the setting sun. It was crucial to locate the pair before dark. The duo floated high on an Atlantic side flat, Dave was landing a fish, a fifteen pound permit…. Mission accomplished.
The last of the sun sank as we eased up to the mother-ship. On one side a very large barracuda hung, head out of water, hooked on a spinner. Jim emerged from the cabin with a pair of cable crimps.
“Just look astern.” He responded to the puzzled looks from our boarding party. Fins cut the still water behind the boat. Lured to the smell of barracuda, topsail shaped dorsals cleaved the dimly lit surface like a cartoonist rendering, surrounding castaways on a deserted island.
“I’ve busted off three and am not going to lose another.” Jim proclaimed and began to crimp a shark rig for his 50 wide Penn. In the twilight he easily hooked three more sharks, all large Spinners. They’re aerial displays, an electrifying happy hour show.
While Jim was busy sharking, I spotted something working the creek mouth, the same spot I cast to earlier in the afternoon. Grabbing a spinning rod off the skiff I mounted one of the Kayaks and paddled quietly for the dark shore. On the second cast a sharp tug preceded an explosion of water as a large snook shook his wide mouth head.
This will beat hamburger, I dared dream as the fish headed for the mangrove roots, a common move for this species. The fifteen pound braid could turn the linesider but with added pressure, the kayak scooted along making stopping the fish impossible. Just as dinner seemed lost I found the bottom with my foot, anchoring the plastic craft.
We dined on snook susi, snook cerveche, and pan fried snook that evening. It feels good to be a hero, even if for a night – and what nights. In the clear winter skies of Marquesa, without the backlighting of a city or town, the heavens come alive with starlight, satellites and far off green and red winks of airliners making for distant lands. When the big moon emerges orange from the Gulf, it’s magic.
The tide changed at three that morning. Sleeping on an outside cushion, savoring the cool evening, I felt the boat swing in the new current and settle bow into the flow. I could hear the tarpon rise, breathing short gulps, rolling in the shimmering moonlight, celebrating the change.
David Conway appeared from below, awaken by the shifting sounds. “Put a bait out.” I suggested. David free-lined a large pilchard back with the tide and the offering was instantly inhaled. Flipping the bail he held steady as the circle hook found a home, then bowed as a ninety pound silver tarpon launched skyward, tail walking across the moonlight, imploding the serenity.
Finished with jumping the tarpon set into escape mode two and with a drag burning run, streaked for open water and freedom.
“What now?” David was staring at the dwindling spool.
“Break him off.” I suggested. “You’re not going to land him unless we chase him and I ain’t getting up.”
It took the avid angler a long moment to get his head around the deliberate act of sabotaging a battle with a trophy fish.
David held the almost empty spool, breaking the line at the leader. He retrieved the braid, re-rigged and jumped two more fish before the bite faded.
In the spring of that same year Jim declared, “My friend Paul wants to catch a tarpon on fly.” It was twilight and we were sipping Cuba Libre’s on the front porch of his Key West home, our favorite people watching spot.
“That shouldn’t be a problem if he can throw.” I answered with a good deal of assurance. After all it was April in the Keys and the tarpon were as thick as fleas.
Jim studied a moment. “What about Marquesas? I’d like for him to see that.”
Paul _____ owns an Amazon mother ship operation in Brazil specializing in Peacock bass fishing on fly, but had yet to tangle with a tarpon.
An overnight expedition was planned, we’d leave tomorrow.
The next afternoon found the Viking anchored in our favorite channel and Paul, myself and David Conway in the skiff on the south side looking for fish. All we saw were sharks, no tarpon. As the sun sank along with my confidence we poled up the edge of a channel past a commercial yellow tail boat, moored, waiting for dark. At sunset they would head to the reef to set up for a night of chumming and fishing.
“Seen any tarpon?” I yelled across the quiet expanse to the crewman siting at the stern.
“You want to see tarpon?” he replied.
“I’d give a six-pack of cold beer to find some.”
“Hey, Carlo.” He shouted below.
Carlo, awakened from his late afternoon nap, smiled, waved and slid the top off a dingy size fish box. He produced a flag yellowtail snapper, slit its belly and tossed the contents overboard.
The first crewman joined in the cleaning and out of nowhere tarpon appeared, rolling and feeding at the stern of the fishing boat. Within minutes there were fifty fish, then a hundred.
I staked the skiff within range and Paul began casting the Sage twelve weight, placing a pilchard fly in the middle of the boiling school. Time and again he positioned the offering amidst the mass of feeding tarpon to no avail – nothing, not a follow, not a swirl.
Rummaging through my stash of shark and cobia flies, I found a red and black monster, the closest thing to a fish gut imitator we had.
Paul bounced the large fly off the transom of the feeding station and immediately found himself hooked to an eighty pound beauty. Launching skyward, then turning for the Atlantic, the tarpon streaked off, toward the last of the day’s sun.
“I own you a six-pack.” I shouted in gratitude to the fishermen and throttled up after the running, leaping fish.
After a twenty minute sunset framed fight, the fish frayed through the leader and was gone. We made it to the mother-ship just at dark.
“I got what I came for.” Paul said, hoisting a before dinner beer.
“But you haven’t landed a fish.” I replied.
Paul studied the serenity of the evening, the stillness, the company. “No, but I felt the power of one. I now know how strong they are. That’s what I’d heard about, that’s what I wanted to feel.”
Sometimes we catch what we set out for, not often do we find so much more….
At first light we were off in the skiff. Idling out the cut, the water and sky blending together in ghosty greys, the horizon line invisible like a white out in a snowstorm. The tide was at full moon flood when we reached a sand beach facing east, reflecting conch shell pink in the first light of the morning.
Suddenly, the early glow reflected golden off the scales of a thousand tarpon rolling along the beach. Taking advantage of the high water, fish were laying, milling or starting to move with the morning, the school stretched for a mile.
I shut the skiff down and we spent several glorious hours gliding over the clear, calm water barely three feet deep, teeming with hundred pound fish. As the sun climbed higher they finally moved on, continuing their temperature motivated migration, following the warming waters to spawning grounds further north.
Paul landed his fish that morning, not a monster, but a nice one regardless. The battle took a back seat to the sight of a flat full of tarpon, millions of silver scales cast gold in the early rays of a tropic sun.
Fly or spin – fisherman or photographer – by kayak or catamaran – a trip to the world class fishery that is Marquesas should be on every outdoor lover’s list.
Sail, row or fly to get there. Just do it!
For fly trips call the Saltwater Angler or the Angling Company in Key West. For light tackle take Dream Catcher Charters out of Stock Island or click Key West Kayak Fishing
Note: If by chance a particular pair of commercial yellow tail fishermen read this story, I still owe you a six-pack of beer, which I will gladly buy.
The evolution of fishing equipment mirrors the advances in society’s technology- from the steam car to the space shuttle. Dr. Gerald Millistein, a south Florida angler shared some of his eighty plus years of experience with me over a daiquiri at the El Floridita bar.
At age six Doc began angling with a hand line off the seawalls of New York City. Over the next eight decades, Doc landed ten pound bonefish and thousand pound marlin. From Patagonia to Siberia, Doc’s fishing tales include a history of tackle refinement, fly, conventional and spin.
I caught up with Doc in Cuba attempting to retrace his last visit to the island in 1955. From 1951–55, Doc fished the north and south shores, first in rowboats, then powered by a five-horse outboard brought via ferry from the U.S
Off the Isle of Pines he waited for the flood of tarpon filing out between mangrove cays by the thousands. Doc had solid fiberglass rods. As he describes, “They were the latest breakthrough, but had no backbone. We had thumb-drag Pflueger reels and linen thread line. Three threads equaled nine pounds breaking strength. We only had one plug – a red and white floating Mirrorlure.”
“We would jump a tarpon and he would throw the lure or break the line, the plug would float free and we retrieved it to use again. We lay down in the bottom of the boat and slept. Hell, I was in my twenties, I could sleep standing up.”
“Off Cayo Romano we had clouds of bonefish,” Doc explained. “We quickly ran out of Joe Brooks jigs.”
“Incredible.” Is how Doc describes the advancements, not only tackle, but technique and knowledge. “We know so much more about the fish’s habits. The ancients knew their patterns, but now, we know where they move and why.”
“And don’t forget the advancements in weather forecasting and satellite imaging. You can check the radar and get tide information off your smart phone as well as keep a fishing log complete with position and pictures.”
Doc fishes his home waters around Stuart Florida in a Hell’s Bay skiff and a 23 foot Pathfinder. Both are examples of progress in boat design and construction. Doc declares. “My skiff floats in 5 inches of water. There’s no need to wade.”
Doc is off to Cat Island this week to fish marlin. Then it’s back to Cuba for a live aboard trip to the Archipielago de Los Jardines de la Reina “Garden of the Queens”- a group of pristine islands on the south side of the island. There he’ll revisit his bonefish and tarpon memories in real time.
He’ll be armed with custom carbon fiber rods, a Calcutta bait caster and Penn spinner, both spooled with braided line and boxes of jigs and plugs.
For flyfishing, G.Lomis tip flex rods, long casting weight-forward line, large arbor smooth drag Tibor reels, a selection of 70 or so flies.
Oh, and wearing spf clothing.
Only the fish haven’t changed, but that’s why he still chases them.
Looking to avoid winter’s chill, I sought refuge and Bonefish on San Salvador Island Bahamas, a sixty square-mile limestone deposit lying on the eastern rim of the Atlantic Ocean.
Surrounded by thousand foot abysses, only a handful of shallow water flats and one pristine creek provides suitable bonefish habitat along the rocky shores of San Sal, noted for its spectacular wall diving and wahoo fishing. But, in addition to fishing, I was looking for solitude, and the friendly family island with a population of eight hundred was just the ticket.
My sojourn would be a low budget affair with extra cash for fishing guides not practical. Budgetary restraints would preclude transportation except for foot and thumb as well. As my cousin the undertaker would say, “If this was a funeral, it would be a fast driving, shallow digging, no singing affair.”
I hitched to Russell’s store in Cockburn Town, across from a two hundred year old Almond tree dominating the intersection, a protective canopy for the settlement’s hub of actively. On a shaded bench at the roads edge, the island’s official troubadour Pop, sat drinking a coke soda, his ever-present left hand strung guitar by his side.
Pop, approaching seventy, is a regular at the San Sal airport and Riding Rock Marina serenading arrivals from Canada, Europe, and the U.S. with his raspy voiced repartee of island melodies.
An authority on the shallower waters of the Island, Pop spends off hour hand lining small snapper and grouper off rock formations and in deep holes reachable from shore. He targets Bonefish in the deeper dredged channels of Riding Rock Marina and Government Cut. To Pop, as with many Bahamians, Bonefish are highly prized table fare.
“Did you catch any fish today?” I ask, looking for an icebreaker to start the conversation.
“Naw, I couldn’t get no con fish.” Pop replies, referring to small baitfish he uses to con the larger Grouper and Snapper into biting.
When I emerge from the small island store with an extra can of corn beef and present it to the bearded balladeer, an information conduit is established.
Following Pop’s directions, I gathered my gear and set off to explore the closest X marked on my satellite photo, French Bay.
Falling in love with a fishing-hole is as old as the hook. Even before unsheathing my Thomas and Thomas nine-weight, or seeing my first tail, the wild beauty of French Bay seized me. Rolling breakers from an Atlantic swell curled on rocks a half-mile from shore, launching a soft crescendo of ocean sound that bathed the isolated cove. Only the squawks of the resident osprey, protesting the intrusion, and the shrill call of the Kingfisher broke the soft thunder of the waves.
At low tide, vast expanses of water carved rock, backed by lush mangrove lay exposed, broadening at the entrance to a small tidal creek, a mile farther down. Beyond the creek a pearl sand beach stretched another two miles, ending abruptly at the white limestone bluffs of Sandy Point.
Adding drawing power, the creek halfway down is a Conch nursery, a natural baby conch farm, and the Bones loved them.
My most memorable day at French Bay occurred on a most unlikely excursion in less than perfect conditions.
Billowy clouds moved in and the rising wind built to twenty knots, the normally calm water chopped by remnant waves fetching over the reef on the high tide. I made straight for the nursery hardly scanning the flat rock muddy shallows leading to the cove.
I spotted the tails waving along the mangroves, the largest tailing bones I’d ever seen. Easing closer, I took cover behind a solitary mangrove precariously rooted to the rocky point outside the cove and watched the fish working tight against the roots.
These fish were feeding voraciously, heads down, tails at times completely above the water, forcing the mudding fish’s mouths deeper into the sand. From time to time scattered splotches of sunlight swept across the cove and in the swift moving shafts of light, I made out the small group of nine to twelve pound fish, all trophies.
This school I had seen before, but they were smart, spooky, always on the move. Now I had them cornered and distracted with the wind a double-edged sword. On one hand it would hinder casting, but it was noisy and together with the cloud-cover restricted vision between the mediums of air and water.
Choosing a heavier crab pattern to counteract the puffing breeze, my first cast landed much too close to two tailing fish. Not deterred in the slightest, the larger of the two pounced on my offering in a mad fit of feeding. I striped set the hook and the fish blazed out of the cove, skirted the mangrove bush, headed to open water. Within seconds the reel was down to half the backing as the fish streaked across the rocky flat and into deeper pot holed bottom. Rod held high, wading and winding as fast as humanly possible, I made it to the edge before the fish took off on another drag burning run. Before the fight concluded he would have three more burst well into the backing until in a tired and somewhat confused state of mind, he ran aground.
Largest bonefish of my life, somewhere around twelve pounds and no one to witness or take a snapshot.
Although no photo or eye witness account of the banner bonefish exits, the image is etched in my mind,cemented in the solitude of the moment and can be revisited instantly, by simply closing my lids and drifting back to French Bay.
When discussing the Florida Key’s worm hatch, people become wary, suspicious. Even with close friends cred wavers. Stories recounting the phenomena fall short and, when accurate adjectives are found, they’re doubted, disbelieved.
The doubters aren’t short on ammo. Take the namesake worm for instance. The lowly Palolo’s size alone would preclude any serious thought of tarpon food. What does a hundred-fifty pound prehistoric creature see in a small red worm? Certainly not sufficient sustenance to gather by the thousands and feast like there’s no tomorrow.
Maybe it’s the taste that drives the frenzy. Perhaps, to the tarpon the worm is candy. The answer might lie in the nutritional value of the small meal. Some scientist propose the worm has an aphrodisiac effect on the fish who are at the start of their own spawning cycle. Or could it be the worms give the fish a narcotic buzz – gets them higher than a hippie in a helicopter.
Whatever the draw, on calm nights in late spring or early summer – with the right combination of tide and moon – the tarpon gather then rise to slurp the floating worms.
One guide attempting to deliver the scene said. “It’s like you threw two handfuls of M-80s in the water. Bucket size explosions, everywhere. Most times we fish the sound.”
Each spring massive numbers of tarpon pass through the Keys, returning from their winter haunts to summer and spawn in estuaries along Florida’s east and west coasts.
When one of the mile long schools speed north through the Yucatan channel, riding the three knot current, the only objective is to cross mid ocean. With no food and an abundance of predatory Hammerheads and Tigers, the tarpon move fast, gulping air constantly, their light blue Caribbean color shining. When seen at sea, the columns of rolling fish flash with the brilliance of a million mirrors.
Once back in the USA, the fish take on a greener hue, another chameleon of nature. Water temperatures to the north determine how long the travelers remain. During the season, which can be weeks or months, the fish filter out into the winding channels of the backcountry and patrol the beaches of the Key’s Atlantic side.
The fish sell themselves. In Key West they travel against the tide, up and down the harbor, cruising Mallory Square like silver signboards. Come catch us they tease. Tourist watch amazed, then lay their money down. Bets are, this international crowd of anglers will spend more dollars catching this leaping trophy than any other non-edible fish on the planet.
As good as Key’s migratory tarpon fishing is, the climax comes with the worm hatch. Night fishing reigns supreme. As word spreads of the hatch, the sea off the Keys harbors and channels are dotted with running lights and flashes from high beam spots. Shouts and splashes ring out from the darkness….the hatch is on.
Captain Travis Rolan, long time Key’s fishing guide notices a change in the daytime feeding habits of the fish as an indication of the hatch, which he claims can occur as early as late April. “Previously successful fly patterns suddenly don’t work.” He says. “When I see this behavior it tells me they have changed their focus. They have worms on the brain.”
Another sign of the hatch Rolan looks for is the absence of large fish in the backcountry, on the Florida Bay side of the Key’s island chain. “The juveniles will still be there. The large adults have left, headed to the Atlantic. They know what’s coming.”
Asked about the best hatch fishing excursion Rolan grins, “Jumped 22 on fly one evening, in about three hours.” Veterans of the hatch don’t spend a lot of time fighting fish. After a couple of jumps they break them off and go after another. “You don’t want to spend an hour married to one tarpon. Once the initial flurry of acrobatics is over, it’s time to hook another.”
“I take the voodoo out of the hatch equation.” States Captain Steve Lamp. Owner of Dream Catcher Charters. “I have it marked on my calendar.” Lamp is a fifth generation Floridian and has fished the Keys since childhood. Lamp too, sees the hatch coming by the tarpon’s behavior and the gathering of fish on the Atlantic.
“We’ve developed a special tube lure just for the hatch.” He says. “We use a small hook that seldom sinks into the hard boney mouth of the fish. We measure success by how many we put in the air, not to the boat.”
According to Dr. Dave Vaughan, leading scientist at Mote Marine’s Keys research center, the spawning habits of the worm are filled with wonders. “The male worms have oversized heads and eyes which are distinct from the females. The females release a segment of their bodies filled with eggs before sunset. This released segment is bioluminescent but it takes 45 minutes for the male worm’s eyes to adjust to the lowering light and spot the glowing target floating above them. The male then charges up and fertilizes the eggs.
Ask why the tarpon go wild over such a small morsel, Dr. Vaughan believes in the narcotic theory. “I think it’s like the tarpon are doing shots.”
Dr. Vaughan research reveals the hatch is ongoing from March through July with peak periods reaching a crescendo around the first part of June.
When fishing the hatch an imitator style jig or plug is most effective, next to a red fly. When asked about the intensity of the bite, I relate the following: “Just after sunset one evening, I made a long cast directed at an approaching school of worming fish. I jumped off a tarpon, another wacked the plug and missed and I hooked a third fish, all in one cast.”
So even if the exact day or week cannot be pinpointed for your bucket list tarpon excursion, that’s just another reason to spend more time in the Keys. Or, check with Capt. Steve Rogers co-host of the popular show, “In the Blue” who says. “I can tell when the worm hatch is on. There’s no Humus or Coconut milk left on the store shelves. The fly-guys have cleaned them out. ”