Fish America: Last Week in the Keys

On the one hand, more than a week is far too long to drag your feet in any one spot if you're intention is to fish the entirety of the country, but on the other, to rush yourself out of a spot like the Florida Keys, the one time you fish the country, seems equally foolish. So what do you do? You stay as long as you can, and you leave when you absolutely need to go. This is how I spent my last week in the Keys, and why you need to put this place on your fishing bucket list if it isn't already.
I started off fishing again with by-this-time friend Bruce Pollock out of Islamorada. Bruce had an afternoon charter but was kind enough to run me out in the morning. Our intention from the start was to hassle something big, and it didn't take long.
This hammerhead shark was another species crossed off the list on Fish America. Certainly not enormous by hammerhead standards, but these sharks make steady runs and put up good fights on light tackle. We fed this one a live-lined jack.
Bruce shows the fish off here before a healthy release.
There's no shortage of sharks in the keys and if you're looking to hear a drag and tire yourself out, shark fishing is a good bet, especially in the summer months when warmer water temperatures make other species more hesitant.
Next up, it was onto the party boat that fishes weekly out of Bud n' Mary's marina in Islamorada. The party boat experience is definitely worth the 60 bucks if you're in the Keys. It's 6 ½ hours of steady action for good-eating fish. You can call Bud N' Mary's or visit www.budnmarys.com to find out the party boat schedule for when you're passing through Islamorada.
Captain Ben was charged with putting the 20 or so passengers of the Miss I on some grouper and snapper.
Order of business number one was mixing up some chum for the yellowtail snapper. It consists of churned-up fish remains and some oats to give it some consistency.
Before the day was over we'd go through two 50-pound bags of the stuff trying to bring the fish to the back of the boat. The trick was to throw a handful of chum, and drop your shrimp body, threaded on a jighead, into the melee that ensued. The action was steady all day.
The fish we were after is pictured here, the delicious and plentiful yellowtail snapper. The fish here is about average size for a party boat trip, and they are a prized eating fish in the keys, and for good reason.
Perhaps the coolest part about party boat fishing is the crowd. Michael, pictured here, didn't let a rail that was a little tall stop him. This guy outfished most of the boat. After his first snapper, he held both wrists, claiming, "My ankles are broken." True to form, though, he bounced right back onto his stepstool and was bailing fish all day, right until Ben fired up the engines to go home. I lost track of how badly this kid outfished me.
Here, Michael poses with his brother, who came on the trip with their grandfather, after successfully bringing two yellowtails over the rail.
I couldn't hold a candle to Michael, but I managed to jig up this mangrove snapper. These fish put up a good fight on light tackle and I'd later find out they're pretty good on the plate too.
There's always something bizarre that happens on a party boat, and on Thursday it was a lemon shark coming over the rail. I'm guessing it didn't take this guy long to figure he wasn't tied into the World Record yellowtail.
These alien-looking sharks are everywhere in the keys. They have sandpaper-like skin and are a weird sight to behold up close.
Captain Ben and the angler that hooked the shark pose for a photo before sending it back over the side.
In the Keys, a piece of shrimp on a jig can hook you into just about anything, from a tarpon to something like this, a parrot fish, to add some color to the day.
The Captain marks each angler's fish with a distinctive cut (mine was three slits on the throat) and when the boat reaches the dock the catch is divided up.
I stuck my two three snapper in the fridge, grabbed a few hours sleep, and the next day it was off on a daytime swordfishing trip with Scott Stanczyk and the crew of the Catch 22 out of Bud N' Mary's. August, with the heat, can be a tough time to find these fish, but there are swordfish to be caught.
The first order of the day was throwing the net on some pilchards, a small baitfish that will get eaten by just about anything bigger than it. Here, the first mate Hunter tosses the cast net on a school of them.
Scanning the weedline on our way out to a location some 40 miles offshore, we find some mahi, dolphin, or Dorado. These colorful fish will hang under just about any structure and with a little casting accuracy you can get them to eat a rigged bait like a ballyhoo.
Where there's one dolphin there's more, and these acrobatic fish will take to the air more than a few times before you get them into the boat. Playing one dolphin by the side of the boat will bring in more, allowing other anglers to drop baits on them. It's known as "bailing" dolphin and can make for some rapid action.
After we hassle the dolphin, something a little more substantial is hooked and starts peeling drag.
It turns out to be a decent-sized skipjack tuna. These things are fast, fight hard, and make for great swordfish bait.
Another kind of dolphin would accompany us throughout the day and put on a show.
Swordfishing is a hit-or-miss game, where you're sending down a rigged bait 1500- to 2000 feet and hoping for the best. August is a tough time to do it and despite staying on the water until 6 p.m. before heading for home, we wouldn't hook into a sword on Friday. Hopes were high and the 40-mile run back to Islamorada took a little longer than the run out, it seemed. I knew the Bud N' Mary's guys were the best around for finding swords in the Keys, so I was confident that if we didn't find them, they weren't there to be found.
Back at the dock Hunter fillets the mahi, which are delicious table fare, as the sun sets on another Keys evening.
Speaking of filleted fish, it was time to figure out what to do with the snapper I'd managed to catch despite Michael's dominance on the Miss I.
Across from the apartment where Pasta Pantaleo was graciously putting me up, was Lazy Days restaurant. I'd heard they would cook your fish if you brought it to them, so I took them up on the offer. Mounted tarpon and marlin made it feel like my kind of place anyway.
"Lazy Days" style means sauteing the fish, with panko breadcrumbs, diced scallions, tomatoes, and shredded Parmesan cheese and soaking it in a key lime butter sauce. If you can do that to a fish, you're a better cook than I am, all I can tell you is that it's delicious way to prepare them should you decide to try it.
Better even than the meal was the company. Bartender Tom Morgan guided in Alaska for a summer for salmon, and had fished many of the places cross-country that I hope to hit. "I was in my 20s, just quit my job, put my stuff in my van and hit the road," he said. It sounded familiar. Morgan had done his share of fly-fishing on Cape Cod, a place I called home for almost two years, and we knew many of the same spots, channels and sandbars. It was funny to be discussing Cape Cod stripers in a bar in Islamorada, but it was one of those unpredictable things about life on the road.
If You Go… Bruce Pollock: Backcountry and offshore, Islamorada. Bud N' Mary's, Party Boat, offshore