Fish America: Florida Week 2

The places you see while traveling the country can be neatly divided into the places you looked forward to seeing, and the places that surprise you. The Florida Keys pulled me like a magnet all the way from Maine. By the time I got to Miami, it almost seemed as if I had to put more pressure on the brake to stop the jeep. Somewhere here, there is a line between sea and sky, but if you can't find it you're not the only one. I had been looking forward to the Keys for two months, and it has thus far exceeded all expectations, which is exactly what I expected.
The first guide kind enough to get me out in the Keys was Bob Jones, a well-known and respected bonefish guide based in Islamorada. Bob told me that while August wasn't ideal bonefish season, we had a shot at finding some fish, and said my visit to the Keys would be incomplete without searching for these fish. He was right.
The bonefish, in the keys, is almost held above fish status. They are stalked, respected and admired. Poling along a foot-deep, crystal clear flat with a fly rod, squinting for tailing bonefish is perhaps the highest calling in the keys. This is what we were after.
And the phrases like "crystal" and "gin" clear are not exaggerations. On days like the one we had Saturday, with no wind and clean water, you can see for a hundred yards.
Bonefish hunt nose-down, creating "muds" or poofs of sand when they grab a crab from the bottom. So crabs were our bait of choice.
To watch the sun rise out of the sea leaving Islamorada is like watching a pure light climb from an endless parking lot of smooth fluid. It is hard to describe the infinite feeling of the sky and the water down here. But it's worth the journey to discover it for yourself. The bonefish aren't to be found on my first mission for them, but the trip is stunning and worthwhile nevertheless.
As the day nears conclusion, Bob spreads and nautical chart on the boat, and explains to me where we'll be heading the next day, into the Everglades national park in search of a more varied mix of species.
The next day we're accompanied by Bruce Pollock, another Keys guide, a talented fisherman, and an all-around enjoyable character.
It doesn't take long for Bruce and I to strike up a friendship. How can one guy with a striper in the middle of a compass rose tattooed on him not get along with a guy with a tattoo of a tarpon in the middle of a compass rose? Fighting it seemed futile.
We run about 40 minutes from the dock, and start fishing a flat for sea trout. With a jig and soft plastic under a popping cork, the action is non-stop. Sea trout are mixed in with snapper, and I manage to cull out this beautiful fish.
The trout are also hitting plugs though, as Bruce shows off another nice fish here.
After having our fun with the trout, it's time to go hassle some bigger fish. Here, Bruce is live-lining a jack. As you can guess, we're not after anything small. We're after something with a lot of teeth.
Our first shark is a small dusky, small enough to be brought aboard the boat for a close-up viewing. The shark is a blast on relatively light tackle. But we know there are bigger bulls to bother.
It's the end of the day before we find one. It's the bottom of the ninth, nearing high noon and an almost unbearable heat has set on the water. Keys fishing in August is a morning game. But at the last minute, something grabs our jack and takes off.
It's a race to avoid being spooled as we pull anchor. I've got maybe 30 yards of line left on the spool, which I'm thumbing, when we get underway and start chasing down the shark.
This one, it's evident, isn't coming aboard the boat.
It's a bull shark that Bob and Bruce estimate to be pushing 170 pounds. The fish is my largest thus far, ever. Needless to say I'm excited at getting a glimpse of this thing.
We are able to bring the fish boatside to get a good look at it and estimate its size before sending it back. The shark, for me, equates to a walk-off home run. It's great way to end two fantastic days out of Islamorada.
Back at the dock, I find out that turning on a freshwater hose brings manatees in a hurry. Here, two of them roll over for a drink. Sadly, both are scarred from propellers, but they seem to have healed to the point of loving life again.
Bruce and the boys in the keys, it seems to me, have got life pretty figured out. He invites me up to a private bar at the marina, and we end the day with a cold beer. Not too bad for a kid living out of his jeep and on the good graces of fellow fishermen. I feel, for a second, like I just belong there. It wouldn't be the last time.
The bar, underneath a clearcoat, has all photos of various fish the guys have caught over the years. Enormous tarpon, impressive bonefish, sharks, snook and reds. You could spend your whole day just working your way around, listening to stories. Provided you had a few refills between corners of course, and the stories from Bruce to go with the photos.
The private hangout is part of La Siesta Marina and resort in Islamorada. This place for me epitomized what I hoped the keys would be like. There were experienced fishermen, stories, cold beers, and natural beauty. The place is definitely worth a visit if you're in Islamorada. The owner, Ray Kooser, could not have been more helpful to a traveling fisherman such as myself.
Another place you can't miss in Islamorada is Robbie's. Why?
At the end of the dock at Robbie's, they've been feeding the tarpon for years. There is a body of resident fish that just stays there year-round, and on any given day there are dozens or even hundreds of different-sized tarpon waiting to be fed.
These fish will jump full out of the water to take dangled bait. It's amazing to get a close-up view of these amazing and ancient predators. You'll gain a greater appreciation for their beauty if you stop here first before setting out to chase them. The utter power of these fish is astounding.
I'm told that larger fish hang around in the spring, but some of these, like the one clearing the water for a meal here, look pretty impressive to me. If you're like me, you'll stand transfixed on this dock for at least an hour in awe of these fish.
If You Go: Bonefish/Tarpon: Captain Bob Jones Mixed Bag Captain Bruce Pollock Stay… La Siesta Resort, Islamorada