Spring Fling in the Keys

On the way out to Whitewater Bay, we encountered this very sluggish American crocodile. John was stoked; he'd never seen one of these endangered lizards before. (Enter for your chance to win a trip for 2 to the Florida Keys! Find out how at the end of this photo gallery).
Capt. John McMurray, who hails from Long Beach, New York, is an old friend, colleague in the outdoor writing world and brother in arms on the conservation front. John even introduced me to my wife, Ericka, when she was living in Long Beach, surfing a lot with John and trying to save the surf and surf fishing there from an Army Corps boondoggle dredging project. During the summer months, I have to endure report after report of John and clients catching huge stripers in really skinny water. I've fished with John a few times up that way, and it's some of the greatest fly- and light-tackle action in America. During the winter, though, I taunt him with reports from sunny Florida. John's wife, Danielle, is pregnant with their first children--the twins should arrive mid-March. In the middle of one of the worst New York winters in memory, Danielle told her stir-crazy husband to take one last adventure before getting down to diapers. The fishing has been superb in Southeast Florida all winter, especially the bluewater action. Cold winters really fire up the fish. So I threw out the concept of road trip through the Keys, stopping along the way to fish with some friends of mine. He said he'd always wanted to ride a bike through the keys. A fishing buddy owns a Suzuki dealership in Miami, and he hooked John up with a sweet bike.
We were supposed to go straight to Key Largo, then run across Florida Bay to Flamingo with Capt. Jason Swensson (keylargobackcountry.com), but John brought the coldest cold front in memory with him. Instead of riding 90 minutes round trip across a 3-foot chop in 40-degree weather, we drove straight to Everglades National Park, down to Flamingo, where we fished some areas protected from the wind. John was dying to catch a tarpon, so we ran up some remote rivers where juvenile 'poons stack up in the winter. I hadn't been back there in a couple of years, and I had no idea that that particularly day brought the lowest tide in 50 years. We damn near spent the night. John kept saying, "How do you know the way out? It all looks alike." I told him to follow the tide, and handed him the wheel. He figured it out.
We had some luck in the creek connecting Whitewater and Coot bays. John caught a fat gray (a.k.a. "mangrove") snapper.
At the top of the creek, we found some clean water and a huge school of glass minnows. Under the minnows lurked a school of juvenile snook. We caught a pile of them. John caught one of the smallest snook I've ever seen right as the tour boat went past. The captain got on the loudspeaker and asked, "What kind of minnow is that?"
Another cold, blustery day made backcountry fishing with Capt. Jason a no-go on Super Bowl Sunday. But northeast wind creates ideal sailfishing conditions, pushing the bait right against the reef edge. Capt. Richard Stanczyk, owner of Bud & Mary's Marina, called to say get our butts down to Islamorada--the sailfish were chewing. The first order of business was making bait. Mate K.J. Zeher applied his castnet prowess.
Scooped up baits headed for the livewell--and hopefully a sailfish' maw.
Sailfish pack up like wolves, and the fish were ravaging bait balls. Everywhere you looked, someone was hooked up.
A NOAA weather research buoy.
McMurray puts the screws to his first Atlantic sail.
Acrobatic leaping ability is what makes sails so much fun to catch.
Capt. Nick Stanczyk, Richard's son, on the left, and First Mate KJ Zehar, flank a joyful McMurray with his first sail. These are the two best sailfishermen I've ever had the pleasure to watch at work.
My first sail of the trip.
When conditions are right, hooking up doesn't take long.
KJ's holding those scissors to remove a tag in this sail. Catching a sail with a tag in it is an honor like shooting a banded duck. I've never caught a tagged fish before. Unfortunately, we didn't recover the tag. In clear water, you have to use very light leader and despite KJ's gentle coercion, the fish eventually wore throught the leader.
When we got back to Dove Creek Lodge (dovecreeklodge.com), we went over to Snapper's to celebrate and to watch the Super Bowl. What a scene. This dude had painted his dog in Pittsburgh team colors.
Barmaid, bring a pitcher, another round of brew . . .
A family drove up in their boat, complete with kids and their yellow lab on the bow.
The girls were hamming it up while their parents lived it up.
Day three, we went swordfishing. Record low tides made it impossible to get the 53-foot Catch 22 out of the marina at first light. So Capt. Scott Stanczyk and KJ brought it out during high tide at 3 a.m. and we ferried out there at daylight.
We prepare for the fishing battle of our lives--swordfish. More on our Spring Fling tomorrow...
A decade ago, we managed to get longlining for swordfish banned in state waters. The populations bounced back, and night-time swordfishing off Southeast Florida became the rage. But most fish caught at night are small. The Stancyk's pioneered daytime angling for swordfish. It's more engineering than angling. You're trying to keep a bait on the bottom in as much as 1,600 feet. You can't fish more than one line at a time.
Rough seas made fishing tough, but John got his first broadbill swordfish at the second place we stopped, about 45 offshore. The fish was 100 pounds.
We took a risk and ran to a sharp undersea wall where it's easy to get hung up and lose $300 of tackle in one fell swoop. When the fish hit, there was a five-minute debate as to whether we had bottom or a swordfish. I was thinking bottom. I've never felt a stronger fish on the other end of a line.
This photo was taken about an hour into the fight. I'm in a harness, and in a harness you gain on the fish by bending your knees as you lower the rod, then straightening your legs to lift the rod. I figure I did at least 500 seated leg presses with 255 pounds of pissed off fish on the end of the line. I literally fell out of the chair once the fish was onboard.
I was exhausted, and trying to understand the significance of catching the biggest fish I've ever caught and with the family who pioneered the fishery. I'll never forget that day. Many thanks to the Stancyk clan and KJ.
After spending a day in the backcountry catching snook and redfish with Capt. Bob, we rolled down to Key West to spend a couple days bluewater flyfishing with Capt. Tony Murphy. We got blown out the first day. Day two, it was blowing 27 knots on the reef, but thankfully straight offshore. We were hooked up on Cero Mackerel and bonitos in no time.
These Cero mackerel were hitting popping bugs and streamers, sometimes launching 15 feet out of the water to attack the fly.
For more photos of the trip- continue through this gallery!

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Heading home on a hawg with a swordfish in tow! READY to learn how you can win a chance for a fishing trip for 2 to the Florida Keys? Click 'Next' to find out!
Ready to win your chance for a week long Florida Keys fishing vacation? It includes three nights at the Grand Key Resort in Key West (seen here). Click 'Next' to find out more...
It also includes three nights at La Siesta Resort in Islamorada (seen here). There's even more! Click 'Next.'
Alright, we've kept you in suspense long enough. Earn your chance to win a trip for 2 to the Florida Keys! Your trip includes: - $850 American Airlines air gift card provided by Florida Keys & Key West (fla-keys.com) - Three nights at La Siesta Resort in Islamorada (lasiestaresort.com) - Offshore charter on the Bn'M out of Bud N' Mary's Fishing Marina (budnmarys.com) - Three nights at the Grand Key Resort in Key West (doubletree.com) - Fishing trip out of Key West with Captain Tony Murphy from Saltwater Angler (phone: 305-296-0700 or saltwaterangler.com) - Two VIP passes to Key West attractions - Two Florida Keys & Key West fishing guide hats CLICK HERE TO ENTER. You must be an Outdoorlife.com registered member to enter. If you have not already made an account with us, do so now! Email olwebmaster@bonniercorp.com if you are having problems with this form. OFFICIAL RULES __ Win A Trip For 2 To The Florida Keys Contest __ The Win A Trip For 2 To The Florida Keys Contest (the "Contest") is sponsored by Outdoor Life Magazine, a publication of Bonnier Corporation ("Sponsor"). ONE (1) GRAND PRIZE: A week-long Florida Keys angling vacation to include: $850 American Airlines air gift card, three nights at La Siesta Resort in Islamorada, offshore charter on the Bn'M out of Bud N' Mary's Fishing Marina, three nights at the Grand Key Resort in Key West, Fishing trip out of Key West, two VIP passes to Key West attractions, two Florida Keys & Key West fishing guide hats., approx. retail value $4,000. __ All federal, state and local laws and regulations apply; void where prohibited. __ ELIGIBILITY: The Contest is open only to individuals, 18 years or older at time of entry, who are legal residents of the United States and have signed up for a free account at outdoorlife.com. 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