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June 09, 2009

The Florida Keys: Then and Now

The face of paradise is changing, but fishing still excels

The land would be used to re-establish a more healthy, natural flow of water through wetlands damaged by years of agricultural runoff. Proponents see the move as a major step toward stemming the pollution of Florida Bay and the Keys.

"When I came here 30 years ago," Stanczyk says, "the waters near shore were clean, beautiful, green, grass-covered flats with white sand sparkling in between. You could see bonefish, tarpon, permit and baitfish everywhere. That's not the case today. The water is dirty. It doesn't matter how this donkey got into the ditch; we have to get it out. We have to stop pollution from running into the Keys."

Changing Rules and Practices
Islamorada isn't the only place in the Keys experiencing change.  Big Pine Key in the Lower Keys is only 30 miles from bustling Key West, where lore says that Ernest Hemingway stumbled onto big-game fishing in 1929. With a beer in his hand, Hemingway apparently walked up to a captain cleaning several 12/0 reels. "What the hell do you do with reels that big?" he asked. The question spawned the author's swashbuckling big-game career.

I asked Capt. Jim Sharpe, who started fishing this part of the Lower Keys back in the 1940s with his father, just what changes he has witnessed. Sharpe remembers taking out his first solo charter when he was only 12 years old. He ran a 45-foot corporate boat with no mate aboard. The charter business was very different; rates were $55 for a half day and $110 for a full day of fishing. A $5 tip was average. With today's slumping economy and fuel costs, Sharpe now charges $1,100 for a full day.

Sharpe also remembers commercial fishing in the 1940s for kingfish.  "Hundreds of boats were out there using wire to catch kingfish. We caught 800 to 1,000 pounds a day and would sell them for 10 cents a pound," he says. "No one wanted wahoo back then, and they were thrown away if mixed in with the kingfish. Wahoo, with their tasty white flesh, were not considered oily enough for cooking and smoking."

In the 1960s, says Sharpe, catching snook in the 30- to 36-pound class was common (state officials made snook a game fish in 1957). And in some areas, the tarpon schooled so thick that they'd steal live baits before a snook could even get to them. There were no seasons and almost no fishing regulations in those days, but there also weren't as many fishermen.

Lee Schlesinger, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says the first fishing regulations that really affected the Keys came in 1983 when the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission was created. However, the bulk of the size and bag limits came in the late 1980s.

Says Stu Apte, who started guiding out of Little Torch Key in 1957 for $55 a day: "For sure, fishing is getting worse, and it's more difficult than it was. But I don't believe the average fisherman kills as many fish as he used to. We're learning to be more conservation-minded."

Fishing today has also become more competitive, and making a living in the recreational fishing business has grown tougher. Increasing charter rates as well as high fuel and overhead costs have driven some charter captains and guides out of business. To make matters worse, some experienced captains have begun discovering that other guides and private boaters are using radar to track those top captains to their secret hot spots and wrecks, locations that took years to discover.

"It's easy," says Sharpe, "to track a charter boat on radar and record the locations on GPS until you know all the captain's secret honey holes." These tactics inevitably have resulted in more pressure on fish, especially the resident reef species. There are no more secrets."

Balancing Paradise
Despite occasional unethical practices and increased pressure, Keys fishing remains nearly unsurpassed. "We can never get back the old days," Sharpe says, "but our fishing ethics seem to be improving with the times. Sailfishing, for example, has improved over the years because of catch-and-release practices. No one kills a sailfish in the Keys today. The goliath grouper is another example of a species that has also staged a comeback after years of sound management."

Longtime Keys angler Stuart Newman started fishing back in the 1940s, and his son Andy began his angling career in the 1960s. Together, they have probably witnessed more than 50 years of changes in the Keys.

Today, NewmanPR handles public relations for the Keys. "Diversity is a tremendous attraction to fishing in the Keys," Andy Newman says. "Where else can you catch sailfish and dolphin in the morning, then spend the afternoon catching bonefish and 125-pound tarpon? Sure, a lot has changed in the Keys, but I believe more records have been set here than anywhere else in the world."

What does the future hold for the Florida Keys? Is it paradise lost?  Not likely. Dave Score, commander and superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, says the Keys are "still fishy" and produce more and bigger fish than the frequently highly touted Caribbean waters. "We're more proactive in the Keys when it comes to fisheries management than the Caribbean and probably more aware of the effectiveness of fisheries management than most other waters in the world."

I might have missed the "good old days," but after 15 years of fishing the Keys - from Flamingo through the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay to the humps off Islamorada and Marathon - I'm convinced that I have already experienced the best saltwater fishing in the world. I know of no other place that can offer such a consistent year-round variety of fish.   The Florida Keys belong on every fisherman's bucket list.

Vin T. Sparano is editor emeritus and senior field editor of Outdoor Life magazine. He lives on the New Jersey shore and catches striped bass off Barnegat Inlet. But Sparano's true passion is fishing the Florida Keys, where he spends his winters beyond the reef and in the backcountry.