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March 18, 2004

Forgotten Keys

Enjoy an abundance of fish and a shortage of crowds between Marathon and Key West.

Planning to fish the Florida Keys? Then you must be planning to visit either Islamorada/Marathon in the middle Keys or to head on down to Key West, right? Seems reasonable; those great fishing destinations have certainly earned their fame.

But Andy Newman told me last year that "many visitors simply never think of Big Pine Key and the lower Keys, completely forgetting about all the great fishing in that area" - whereupon I dubbed these "the forgotten keys."

With that scolding, Newman, who handles public relations for the Keys and is an angler himself, persuaded me to spend some time fishing some of the vast, unspoiled waters from Seven Mile Bridge west nearly to Key West. (Admittedly, this didn't require great powers of persuasion.)

Newman's exactly right: Many fishermen either never see these waters because they stop in the middle Keys or never notice them as they zip right on down to Key West. That's a mistake.

Picture-Perfect and Nearly Alone
The tarpon were sticking to the mangroves tighter than Spandex to J-Lo's hips. But they were in there.

"See that one?" Capt. Tim Carlile asked from the casting platform. He pointed to a well-shaded opening in the overhanging branches along one of the Barracuda Keys, about 5 miles from Sugarloaf Marina.

I didn't see him. But since I wasn't holding a rod, that didn't matter. It mattered more that Andy Mezirow saw him. One of Alaska's top charter skippers, who hails from Seward, Mezirow and light-tackle specialist Doug Faulds of Edmonds, Washington, were our designated anglers this trip.

"I've got him," Mezirow said quietly, as he stood with his index finger on the 10-pound mono, the bail of his spinning rod open.

After some exciting but disappointing missed shots at singles and schools, we'd put away a nice permit pushing 20 pounds earlier and a bonefish shortly thereafter. Knowing that if we could release a tarpon, we'd have a slam for the boat by 11 a.m. only added to the tension.

But it wasn't to be. By the time Mezirow could flip his live crab into the small opening, the shadowy shape had vanished. The crab slowly sank in the shallow water, unmolested.

We had a few more chances, but the fish weren't playing ball, hardly venturing out from the labyrinth of mangrove roots. "These big tides tend to push the tarpon farther back up under the mangroves," Carlile explained.

Still, we might have persisted and gotten that slam but for a school of eternally hungry jacks that came arcing around the boat on the side opposite the mangroves, silver sides flashing. With the tarpon keeping a low profile, it was hard to resist tossing a bait into the jacks. Faulds and Mezirow didn't resist; instantly they had on a double. One of the fish made a long run, which Mezirow couldn't stop before it reached a little clump of mangroves, and that was all she wrote. After making clear its reluctance to come alongside Carlile's 18-foot Hewes skiff, the other jack finally gave up, and Faulds released the 7-pounder.

A little while later, Carlile had poled us farther down along the island, still looking for tarpon. In my trademark impatience, I put my camera down and, just for the heck of it, picked up my spinning outfit. I saw no more jacks, but, standing on the starboard stern corner, let sail out into the open water of Florida Bay the chartreuse Popa Dog lure I'd tied on before we left the dock early that morning. Nothing. But on the second cast, wham!

Out of nowhere, a big spinner shark shattered the calm, charging the noisy topwater and throwing up a frightening wake. No doubt a fish that size was used to having its way on these flats, and it wasn't to be denied. Thinking of the mismatch between the rows of razor teeth and my 40-pound mono leader, I skittered the lure in pretty fast - but not fast enough. Suddenly, instead of reeling I was holding on to a screaming reel and bucking rod as the beast launched itself from the water and came down with a terrific commotion, then surged erratically this way and that. After an exhilarating two minutes, the hook pulled before the fish's skin could wear through the line.

Even without the tarpon, the combination of permit, bonefish, jacks and sharks had made for a very satisfying morning. And even though the day was picture-perfect for flats fishing, with light winds and constant, bright sun, we had seen only one or two other skiffs at any time.

Surrounded by Sharks
The shark attack proved such a rush that we suggested to Carlile some targeted effort for sharks the next day. He obliged, taking us to one of his favorite shark flats, this time on the Atlantic (versus Gulf) side of the Overseas Highway. Cudjoe Basin is a renowned tarpon spot as well - and not just for small fish.

"The flats off Cudjoe [Key] have become one of the most productive, most popular areas in the state for big tarpon in shallow water. We hook 150-pounders from March into June," Carlile says. "It's a great time for fly-fishermen." It has become a serious alternative to the great Homosassa fishery, and Carlile guides world-class big-tarpon anglers here, such as Stu Apte.

In fact, we agreed to hold off on sharking long enough to see if some smaller tarpon (this being fall, when they average 40 to 50 pounds) might be around. We anchored next to a channel near Loggerhead Key (which gained fame and infamy, thanks to its inhabitants - until recently - rhesus monkeys used for research). Out to our east, we could clearly see American Shoals light, towering as a lone sentinel over the reef edge near blue water.

"There, 2 o'clock. Big school of ... wait: Those aren't tarpon. They're permit!" Sure enough. But we didn't connect until an hour later when the school moved back by. This time Mezirow put his crab right there and had his permit for the day. He almost had his tarpon as well, hooking up long enough to get one grand jump, straight up and down

headfirst, then a second. Discouraged, Mezirow reeled in the last few feet of his slack line as Carlile hollered, "Here he is, right here! He's still hooked up!" Sure enough, the tarpon cruised by not 10 feet away. Apparently it saw us about the same time, but this time when it bolted, the hook really did pull out. Carlile cited the unusual turn of events as one of the reasons he likes high-vis lines.

We spent the rest of the day looking for sharks, particularly larger lemons, and found them in abundance. Once again we started with jacks. "Cast into that school!" Carlile said, pointing off the port side at several jacks. "Those jacks are often traveling with lemon sharks."

I did as I was told, once again throwing out the same chartreuse Popa Dog, and quickly hooked up. Then things happened fast. As the jack of maybe 4 or 5 pounds began to struggle and dart this way and that, one of the largest sharks I've seen in just 3 feet of water loomed out of nowhere, the rest of the jacks trailing off his back as if following a slipstream. The lemon, which probably only looked to be 8 feet long, was clearly excited and homed in on the low-frequency vibes of my hooked jack faster than a presidential candidate can locate a microphone.

The jack got the message, and as my little spinner wailed a loud protest, the fish turned on the afterburners and took off across the flat for the Overseas Highway. But to no avail. With a great commotion, 200 feet out the jack became dinner. I reeled in the slack line.

Faulds landed another jack, which Carlile cut up and hung over the side as chum. Every little while for the next couple of hours, we spotted lemons, sometimes a few feet long, sometimes quite a bit bigger. Occasionally we'd see two or three at once and often a cruising bonnethead to boot. Bottom line: We had action and excitement all morning. Nearly all that came on bait, though one good lemon did make a sudden U-turn and charge a red/white topwater. The shark followed my lure perhaps 20 feet, its gaping maw and snout just inches behind it, but finally lost interest about 10 feet from the boat.

"Hit the Wall" for a Marlin
When a blue-water skipper in the lower Keys says, "We've hit the wall!" don't despair. It's good news.

This "wall" refers to a vast ledge that runs along the continental shelf drop-off, starting around Big Pine Key and extending south, off the Marquesas. From about 2,000 feet, the wall ascends nearly vertically to about 950 feet. Fissures known as the west crack, the east crack and the middle crack offer still further relief.

The wall is often a tentative destination, as it was on the picture-perfect fall morning we joined Capt. Jim Sharpe aboard Sea Boots, his 43-foot custom Torres convertible. Because it's a 24-mile run to The Wall from Summerland Key, where Sharpe's trips start, there's lots of blue water on the way. That means lots of opportunity to encounter many species of pelagic game fish en route, depending on an angler's objectives and the season. You might well encounter sailfish balling bait (especially November through March), schools of blackfin tuna (also in the winter), cobia, dolphin and more.

Though for sheer numbers summer months offer the most dolphin, winter can produce some hogs. And just about any day could be a dolphin day; out here, you never know.

By our autumnal outing, we'd passed the warm-weather dolphin peak, and the cold-weather sailfish bite hadn't started happening yet. We did spot one sail chasing baitfish at the mirror-calm surface in about 150 feet of water. But by the time Sharpe had eased Sea Boots into the area, the sail had gone down.

We continued trolling south, and, as the bottom dropped off to about 700 feet, I could see ahead a nice weed line pressed up against a lovely current break that extended off to the horizon. It had to be teeming with fish - but it wasn't. So after a short time, Sharpe trolled on out a couple more miles. In addition, He ran one Z-lander on a county line from the bridge.

No sooner had we reached the wall than a blind strike tore 50-pound line off the International at a pretty impressive clip. By the time we could get lines in enough to start backing down on the fish, not a whole lot of line remained on the spool. The fish refused to show itself and fought deep, as Mezirow, a bulldog-tough veteran recreational and commercial angler, did his best to move it. About 20 minutes later, Sharpe said he had no doubt that we'd hooked the man in the blue suit and that it was a good one.

Confirming that assessment well over a half-hour into the battle was mate Steve Sanders. As the line began angling up, Mezirow worked the rod hard. Shortly, Sanders, peering into the blue depths, caught a glimpse of the marlin about the same time the hook pulled. Best guess: at least 600 pounds. So near and yet so far.

Sharpe wasn't surprised at the fish's size. "These are the same waters that Hemingway used to marlin-fish," he points out. Big billfish prowl this wall regularly. Case in point, Sharpe says that just a week or so before I fished on Sea Boots, "We were pulling a Mold Craft Enormous Johnson on a teaser when a blue of about 700 pounds came up and busted on it so hard, it broke the [teaser] cable!" Sharpe favors late summer and fall for marlin, noting that the biggest blues traditionally show in November (when he has caught them to 850 pounds according to length/girth calculations).

We couldn't muster another shot from a marlin that morning but enjoyed action from several dolphin of modest size. Of course, that stands to reason: Dolphin are a specialty of Sharpe's - he's the man who wrote the book

Dolphin: The Perfect Gamefish (see www.seaboots.com for information). While acknowledging that May through September offers the fastest, surest dolphin action off the lower Keys, Sharpe says they are a year-round fish, with good catches coming even in winter, particularly "if the wind goes to the south for a few days." Schoolies abound, but so do larger fish: Sea Boots' biggest to date is a 55-pounder, but Sharpe says larger fish have been lost at the boat.

Starting about November and continuing into spring, he likes to focus on sails, and April is often a dynamite month. At the same time, cobia move in along outer reef drop-offs out to about 200 feet. Having a pitch bait or two rigged and ready for sails makes it easy to double-dip for cobes when they're sighted - as they are on many days. Sharpe says 40- to 60-pounders are common.

Blackfin tuna offer a third target since they hunt in schools in the same general area as sails and cobia. These Caribbean tuna, which move in around late October and remain through April, hit best on trolled ballyhoo. Their larger cousins, yellowfin, pass through the waters here in December and January, offering a great incidental catch if not in numbers sufficient to target. However, some winters, Sharpe says, they take a fair number of yellowfin - the best year producing 45 in the three-month period. "And these are big fish," he adds. "We get quite a few in the 100- to 150-pound range," with some breaking 200.

Sharks patrol the waters and can show up at any time. A month before we fished on Sea Boots, Sharpe's anglers had released a mako estimated at 400 pounds. Occasionally threshers are spotted and, on rare occasion, hooked. Sharpe has landed two, the largest a 468 on 80-pound stand-up. (That required two hours for a topnotch angler to land. "I truly believe if we'd hooked that shark on line any lighter, we never would have landed it," Sharpe recalls.) A few weeks before that, he spotted from the bridge what he thought was a whale shark. Upon turning around for a better look, the skipper pointed out to clients and crew what he realized was clearly the largest white shark he'd ever seen. At 18 to 20 feet long, it had to weigh well over 5,000 pounds, Sharpe figures.

Wahoo offer a possibility any month, their numbers often making up for their size. Sharpe has also caught white marlin and spearfish over a long and accomplished career. But when it comes to big-game action, what really has him fired up these days is swordfish.

"Swordfishing has just been incredible here," Sharpe says. He fishes the nocturnal bite out along The Wall, where he drops live and/or fresh baits with both electric lights and Cyalume lightsticks. "We've had swords coming right up to the boat, chasing bait!" he says.

In fact, Sanders recalled a recent night he'd been out with a friend. Just after they had gotten a couple of lines in the water and were still rigging, Sanders noticed a light next to the boat and said to his buddy, who was still holding a rod, "Joe, you can go ahead and drop that one back down."

"Joe said, 'I never pulled it up!' Suddenly we realized that a swordfish was on ... was hooked! He just didn't know it - and neither did we; he'd swum right up alongside the boat!"

Water-Level Adventure
Florida Bay's flats offer a very different kind of experience from chasing broadbill offshore - kayak fishing. And with a kayak outfitter right on Big Pine Key, it's an affordable and accessible experience.

After breakfast one morning, we met Capt. Bill Keogh, who runs Big Pine Kayak Adventures, at The Old Wooden Bridge Fishing Camp on Big Pine. Faulds helped him load three kayaks onto his skiff while Mezirow and I got some cold drinks and live shrimp, and off we went. Keogh shuttles kayak anglers back into Florida Bay to fish quiet waters from stealthy Old Town Loon kayaks.

Exactly where he points the Carolina Skiff's bow depends on what his anglers want to catch, and on conditions (wind, tide, season); typically, anglers want to start by targeting the glamour fish - permit, bones, tarpon. But sometimes experienced anglers and most of the time tourists are happy to cast to barracuda, sharks (bonnets, blacktips, lemons) and whatever else happens along. (And with some reason, since any fish hooked from a kayak, with the angler at water level, is a much different experience from hooking that same fish while you're standing in a 19-foot flats boat.)

The wind that started at a bit less than 10 knots the morning we went out was gusting to a solid 15 by the time we hit the back side of Little Pine Key. Keogh's first choice would have been to run us out to the Content Keys, but, he explained, there's not enough protected area there for a breezy day.

Instead, we fished the lee of Little Pine and, it being high tide, worked the edge of the mangroves. While anything might have cruised along such an area, our action proved limited to 'cudas and various sharks. But even on a "slow morning," all anglers agreed that the opportunity to fish the Keys while doing your own thing for a few hours was a real kick.

Keogh, who has been doing this for years, stays around in the skiff. This allows him to help any angler who might need it, to act as a base ship for fish storage, cold drinks, more bait and the like, and to reload skiffs for a run to a new area at any time. I just hope next time I kayak-fish with Keogh, I'll get a chance to spend a quiet day working the more remote Content Keys flats.

Shallow Patches to Deep Wrecks
Between the lower Keys' flats and blue water lies Hawk Channel with its abundant patch reefs (in 20 to 30 feet of water) and the deeper reefs beyond that, past American Shoals light, where they drop off into azure depths.

Both patches and deeper reefs offer action year round. "There's always something going on," Capt. John Sahagian, who lives on Little Torch Key, told us as he pulled up another pinfish trap. His Fun Yet Charters takes anglers to fish the reefs 150 to 200 days each year. Just what is likely to be going on, he emphasized, depends upon the season.

Typically, that means snapper all summer but more grouper in the winter months when they move up onto shallower reefs. Over deeper reefs or just beyond, dolphin are the ticket all summer, while sailfish and kings move in during cold weather. Spring spells cobia, Sahagian says. Amber-jack and almaco jacks can be taken most of the year.

Over perhaps 15 minutes, Sahagian pulled a half-dozen of the pinfish traps he keeps scattered in grass beds of Florida Bay near his dock, enough to give us a generous day's supply of live pins the size of a youngster's hand. Then he fired up the twin 175 Evinrudes on his 30-foot custom center console, and we headed out - to a very gray horizon.

This increasingly stormy day would make it difficult for us to fish a couple of the deeper wrecks on which Sahagian occasionally drops, though we did our best. The boat's 11-foot beam makes a great fishing platform, with its huge, wide-open aft deck. Its minimal deadrise offers wonderful stability adrift, but of course while running into any kind of head sea, it can be rather jarring.

So we took it easy on the 17-mile run to the Wilkes-Barre, one of the two wrecks that Sahagian says are "within striking distance." The 600-foot destroyer was deep-sixed in 1972 during military bombing practice. Fairly quickly, dropping live baits and bucktails, Faulds managed to boat a decent mutton snapper while Mezirow hung something a little bigger and lot tougher: an almaco jack. Of course, there were the fish that got away; couple 20- and 30-pound line with some unknown monsters near a wreck and, well, the inevitable happens. A gray snapper's better, or at least bigger, half went to feed one of the big barracuda that almost always home in on a boat, drifting with lines out over a wreck. Sahagian also tried to give us a shot at the deeper wreck, this one a sub at 340 feet. As the wind picked up, we got our lines down, but other than one amberjack and a small snowy grouper, we couldn't dredge up much interest in the short time we had our lines down.

In November, when the season's first real cold fronts start marching down the peninsula, Sahagian turns much of his attention to patch-reef fishing. "I'm a patch fan!" he declares. Though he also fishes blue water for sailfish, Sahagian likes the variety and action for cero, grouper, snapper and many other species while fishing what Australians call the "bommies." Many anglers also appreciate those brisk winter days when this fishery in Hawk's Channel offers some protection from often-stiff frontal winds.

But the fact is, there's almost always something going on in the lower Keys when it comes to fishing. When it comes to most everything else, there's not a lot going on - which is just the way most residents of and visitors to this quiet stretch of bridges and sandy islands like it. "You don't really realize what the lower Keys are until you spend some time here," said first-time visitor Mezirow after taking a day off from fishing to do some sight-seeing. "I drove down to Key West and then up to Islamorada and realized just how secluded most of this area [in the lower Keys] still is."

Getting There
Although, you can access the lower Keys by boat, of course, most visitors drive or fly and drive. Closest airports are Key West (30 to 45 minutes by car) and Miami International (about three hours by car). As detailed in the feature and chart, certain seasons are better than others for certain species, but the bottom line is this: You should find fish and fishing any month here.

You'll also find a variety of accommodations, though not many of the mega resort hotels that line Key West. Most are smaller motels, resorts, bed-and-breakfasts and the like. You'll find the prices somewhat smaller, as well. Parmer's Resort fits the area nicely since it's tucked away off the main highway on Little Torch Key, and its one- and two-story accommodations are spread over a large area of palms and landscaped vegetation with a considerable collection of tropical birds all around.

For more information or reservations (all non-toll-free phone listings use area code 305):

Capt. Tim Carlile, The Outcast (flats), Sugarloaf Key - 745-1503.

Capt. Bill Keogh, Big Pine Kayak Adventures (flats), Big Pine Key - www.keyskayaktours.com; 877-595-2925 or 872-7474.

Capt. John Sahagian, Fun Yet Charters (reefs, some offshore), Little Torch Key - www.funyetcharters.com; 800-413-2048 or 872-3407.

Capt. Jim Sharpe, Sea Boots (offshore), Summerland Key - www.seaboots.com; 800-238-1746 or 745-1530.

Parmer's Resort, Little Torch Key - www.parmersresort.com; 872-2157.

The Old Wooden Bridge Fishing Camp, Big Pine Key - www.oldwoodenbridge.com, 872-2241.

Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce, Big Pine Key - www.lowerkeyschamber.com; 800-872-3722 or 872-2411 (request Visitor's Map & Guide).

Florida Keys - www.fla-keys.com; 800-FLA-KEYS.