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June 09, 2009

The Florida Keys: Then and Now

The face of paradise is changing, but fishing still excels

Florida Keys. Just the mention of the name brings to memory a glorious history of romance and intrigue. Do you remember Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart challenging each other's wits while a hurricane pounded the house shutters in Key Largo[[ital]]? And those stories of Ernest Hemingway sleeping it off in the back room at Sloppy Joe's in Key West?

The Keys also remind us of Jimmy Buffett, margaritas and legendary guide Jimmie Albright, who tied the first Albright knot in Islamorada before shoving off to fish with his buddy - baseball great Ted Williams.

Ah yes, the fishing: Though some may dispute it, the Florida Keys offer more variety and more world-class angling opportunities than just about anywhere else on the planet. But the Keys have changed; their reputation for being a place to drop in and drop out is slowly fading.

I'm not a native Conch, but I've lived in the Keys long enough to see this evolution. This 128-mile stretch of coral reef and bridges used to represent refuge from a world that didn't accept idyllic ideas - a place for flip-flops, tiki bars, great fishing and zero stress. During the past two decades, expensive resorts, private marinas and exploding tourism have replaced mom-and-pop motels, roadside restaurants and laid-back residents.

Gone are such landmarks as Papa Joe's in Islamorada, replaced by high-end restaurants such as Pierre's and Morada Bay. Small bait-and-tackle shops have lost ground to fishing-specialty and big-box stores such as the enormous (and enormously popular) Worldwide Sportsman. Small Keys cottages have given way to expensive condos and waterfront homes. Wealthy fishermen and land developers are buying out the early Keys settlers, making them profitable offers they can't refuse. Even with declining real-estate prices, the Florida Keys is still an expensive place to live.

People Pressure
A few years ago, I sat down next to a man at a bar in Key West. It was hot, yet he wore a lot of hair stacked under a knit cap. He was eating a cheeseburger. (What else in Key West?)

"How's the fishing," I asked. Boy, that turned on the spigot.

"What fishing?" he exclaimed. "I can't afford to fish here anymore.  "Not like the old days when I could fish anywhere. Everything was cheap.  Now it's all big boats and big money."

I wanted to remind him that the fishing in the Keys was too good to keep secret, but what he said had a good dose of truth in it. Fishing has become big business in the Keys, and it keeps changing every year.

I can recall a lunch years ago with the late Cecil Keith, one of the guides who helped bring fly-fishing to the flats. Keith had a guide's license for more than 50 years, dating back to the 1940s.

"In those days," Keith said, "my boat was a 16-footer with a 5 hp outboard motor. We never had to go far from the dock because fish, especially bonefish, were everywhere.

"Lots of people think saltwater fly-fishing is something new, but I started fly-fishing for tarpon in the early 1950s. We used freshwater flies because no one ever heard of saltwater flies, and we would bust six or seven bamboo fly rods, jumping 30 or 40 tarpon in one afternoon. Fly rods only cost $20 in those days.

"Today's pressure is too hard on the fish, and it's going to get worse," he said. "Too many boats running over the flats. People retire down here, buy a boat and run over everything."

I like the modern safe and stable flats boats, but Keith's words made a lot of sense. With a 5 hp outboard, a guide couldn't cover much water, so a lot of fish could safely hide in the great expanses of Florida Bay.

Not today. I've watched fishermen leave the dock with 16- and 18-footers rigged with big 150 and 200 hp motors. They can make the 24-mile run at 35 mph from Islamorada to Flamingo in less than an hour. In the 1950s, most of that water was virtually unexplored. In Cecil Keith's days, no guide could cover that much water.

Richard Stanczyk, who has owned and operated Bud N' Mary's Fishing Marina in Islamorada for more than 30 years, agrees with Keith about the old days. "Bonefish and tarpon were everywhere when I bought [the marina] back in 1978. There was a time when you were the only boat out there," Stanczyk reminisces, "and thousands of tarpon came right at you. Today, there would be 40 boats in the same area.  There are only 10 percent of the bonefish here today as there were 20 years ago."

Overfishing has hurt some species, he adds, especially fish such as groupers and snappers. And GPS probably has played a major role in decreasing fish populations.

While most locals would agree that Islamorada is not what it used to be, here's the irony: If you've never been there before, you'd say the fishing is great. "There's no other place on earth where you can catch such a variety of fish. It's the most unique place in the world," Stanczyk says.

Stanczyk also believes that declining water quality contributes to Keys' fishing issues. Pollutants flow south from Miami and other mainland cities through the Everglades, into Florida Bay and eventually into the Keys.

This scenario could change with the pending sale of U.S. Sugar's 181,000 acres of land to the state for Everglades' restoration. However, at press time, Gov. Charlie Crist had scaled back the purchase by more than half because of the frail economy.