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January 20, 2011

2010: A Skiff Odyssey

How four guys in two boats fished the Florida Keys in four days

As I held NOAA  chart No. 11450 in my hands last September, I could hardly fathom that the series of pen markings from Miami to Key West and back revealed that we had boated 415 miles in four days' time. I found it even more mind-boggling that we traversed every single mile in two skiffs.

My Cape Canaveral-based friends Derek Redwine, Tyler Shealey, Chris "Bootsy" Wilson and I had cracked open the shell of everyday life to follow our yearning for adventure by circumnavigating - and fishing - the Florida Keys by skiff. We let our instincts and passion to explore lead the way, but we carried paper charts, aerial photos and tide tables, which had helped us choose in advance which locations to fish. We outfitted an 18-foot-8-inch Hell's Bay Neptune and an equally seaworthy Chittum Islamorada 18 as the platforms for our exploreathon.

However, the National Weather Service forecast 15- to 20-knot southeast winds the day before our departure. We wondered: "Should we do it? Is it wise to go?" With "the safety in numbers" philosophy and only 12 hours to spare, we agreed to go for it and meet in Miami at 7 a.m. the next day.

Day One: Key Biscayne to Islamorada

permit Florida Keys6 a.m.: Derek called me: "Tyler slept in, we're leaving Merritt Island now." Brief silence. "Kiiidding! We are an hour away, passing through Palm Beach."

I towed the second skiff from Fort Lauderdale to Gordon's Bait and Tackle in Miami (305-856-4665), a convenient place to buy bait early in the morning, and then met the others at Crandon Park Marina.

We felt some anxiety about leaving our vehicles and trailers at the ramp for four days, but with 24-hour security at the marina, we decided to take the risk. (Ramp parking costs $12 weekdays; $15 a day for weekends/holidays.)

8:30 a.m.: We spent two hours organizing gear, officially documenting our ­departure at 10:30. We calculated our plan: Eight hours of available daylight, traveling 85 miles to Islamorada and averaging 30 mph would leave us about three hours of running and five hours of fishing time.

We couldn't account for potential weather delays, but Tyler could pull up the local radar on his iPhone as long as he was near shore. So he became the "Shealey-Weather-Genie."

11 a.m.: We ran to the shoals of Biscayne Bay's Stiltsville and poled past the ­silhouettes of seven remaining houses. Calm conditions seemed to contradict recent advisories, but we could see towering dark clouds moving our way from Homestead.

With foul weather looming and unproductive slack-low-tide ­conditions, we pressed south into the Upper Keys. When we veered around Christmas Point into Caesar's Creek, the storms passed behind us and the tide began rising. At the creek's Hurricane and Rubicon flats, we saw permit.

One of Derek's bull's-eye casts to a school of five lay rejected at first, but two fish whisked around to circle the crab again and then beelined it to a nearby channel. "Psyyyyche!" I said, while Derek still held the rod up high, maybe hoping his ­kamikaze crab might swim after the permit.

We fished for an hour. Tyler caught a bonefish. Derek hooked a scrappy bonnethead shark - his consolation prize.

1 p.m.: Winds picked up to 20 knots from the southeast. Poling the flats from the Ocean Reef Club to Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo became a less-than-electrifying plan of attack. Instead, we stopped randomly along the way and drifted, peppering 3- to 4-foot-deep grass flats with artificial lures. Tube lures out-produced Zara Spooks and spoons on 2- to 3-foot barracudas, but the detonation of each missed topwater strike zeroed out the scorekeeping.

Bud n4 p.m.: At Tavernier Key, we detoured to the Gulf side through Tavernier Creek to run the leeward waters to Islamorada. A few miles south of the creek, a communications tower marked the location of Islamorada Fish Company, the perfect place for four anglers jonesing for pints of barley pop and cheeseburgers.

6:30 p.m.: We pulled in at Bud N' Mary's Marina (305-664-2461, and met with owner Richard Stanczyk. We had reserved a houseboat, but Stanzyck graciously upgraded us to a gorgeous three-bedroom beach cottage, complete with 25 feet of dock for both skiffs.