Fish America: Florida Keys

I feel that, since I am encouraging fishermen to visit the keys, I should include a warning. It is tough, almost impossible, to leave. The weather is always beautiful, the fish are usually biting, every bar has a guitarist, and everybody has a story. If you get stuck here, you can blame me, I shouldn't be that hard to find. This week I made my way down to Key West to fish with Johnny Irwin.
Captain Irwin grew up in the Keys, and has been guiding in Key West for more than a decade. The guy knows the water down here as well as anyone. He's got a laid-back Keys demeanor, and a fascinating understanding of the history of this place.
The order of the day when we first hit the water is chasing some tarpon with light-tackle. I've never caught a tarpon, so I'm excited to say the least. There are schools of juvenile tarpon busting bait back in the mangroves.
We're throwing Bomber plugs like this one at juvenile schooling fish feeding on the surface. As you can see, this plug has already taken a beating from these powerful fish.
Now, here's proof I did get my tarpon. It was a juvenile we estimated at between 20 and 25 pounds. We got a leader-touch, but the fish shook loose before we could get a better photo. But at the risk of telling a fish story, I'm hoping some proof is better than none, even if this isn't going to win any photography awards.
Chasing these juvenile tarpon around makes them skittish, so we decide to get after another prized keys species, the permit. These illusive but beautiful fish stalk the flats for food, and catching one is a matter of dropping a crab like this one right in their path. It's a finesse game, and you've got to be quick and precise. You can wait all day for a few shots.
It's easy to get distracted while scanning the flats for these fish because every sea/sky combination is different down here and they are all stunning. Mornings like this one almost don't seem real, not when you're from upstate New York anyway. I have a few shots at permit, but the fish don't seem starving, exactly, and being new to the game I'm not sure I placed the crab perfectly. Still, it's tough to argue with days on the water like this.
To leave Key West after you get off the water would be doing yourself a disservice. The bars that line Duval Street, like this one, are places of legend and lore.
Anytime you've got the chance to drink at a bar where Hemingway did, you've got to have at least one beer right?
There is no shortage of bars on Duval Street, the main drag in Key West, each with it's own flavor and personality. The "Duval Crawl" is something you've got to try if you're in the Keys.
Sloppy Joe's is perhaps the most famous Key West watering hole. Hemingway spent a great deal of time here, there's always music playing and a bell ringing, it's never empty and it's a must-stop on a Key West visit.
There are some things you just won't see anywhere else. For a dollar, this musician played me Cross Eyed Mary while his dog relaxed with some shades. We discussed the drive across Texas, and I wandered on.
Of course you've got to visit the Hemingway house in Key West. The writer spent a portion of 10 years here, composing some of his most famous work, including A Farewell to Arms. The house-turned museum is full of Hemingway memorabilia, and guided tours are available.
The home is the largest private residence in Key West.
Photos of Hemingway and his various wives, and of him on different fishing adventures, adorn the walls. A spirited tour guide gives an explanation of Hemingway's history, the time he spent in Key West, and an overall explanation of the man's life to give an appreciation of the place for all those interested.
Renderings of scenes from Hemingway's novels, like this depiction from The Old Man and The Sea, decorate other rooms in the house. Walking through the house, you realize that you are only 90 miles from the setting of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel.
You will also encounter a great many cats, like Audrey Hepburn here, named for people that played a role in Hemingway's life.
The drive through the keys, coming or going, is something that is in of itself worth the journey. Sunsets like this one you've got to pull over the appreciate.
I had every intention of making my way back to the mainland of Florida, but somehow, thanks to kind fishermen and like-minded souls, I got trapped again in Islamorada.
One such soul is Pasta Pantaleo. He was playing the bongo drums for a band called Marlin Too when I met him at a bar called Smuggler's Cove. A well-known local artist, Pasta paints marine life in a stunning way. If you're a fisherman, or lover of the sea looking to fill wall space, check out www.artbypasta.com.
I went to check out Pasta's gallery, and, although I'm admittedly not an art connoisseur, his work included some impressive representations of some of the more stunning visual aspects of our sport. Here he poses between a tuna piece he's working on, and a more colorful work that is already finished. Some of his commercial work includes magazine and catalog covers.
He's best known for paintings like this representation of a swordfish in motion.
He started this piece as a message after the oil spill, in an attempt to represent the effect it's having on the marine life.
He also has started dabbling in some sculpture, like this work in progress. He uses photos from saltwater magazines to make sure he's got the piece correct down to the smallest detail.
You can't go to Islamorada without visiting Bud and Mary's. The motel and marina is a big piece of the Islamorada legend. It's been around for more than half a century and it's a staple in the island's fishing community.
You can spend hours in the shop just staring at the photos. The place is just soaked in Keys legend.
Some of the best Islamorada fishermen have slips at Bud And Mary's, and there's always a story to be heard back at the dock at the end of the day.
If you Go… Key West: Johnny Irwin Islamorada: Bud and Mary's