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.