Here’s a quick look at the great day we had in NW PA last week.
You’re okay with learning from my mistakes, right? If we are only gonna discuss the things I did correctly, this entry could pretty much stop here. Hindsight blah-blah-blah-blah…I enjoy making mistakes because I know not to make them again, plus, it means I’m learning, and that allows me to pick up new tips that I can try on my home waters. Anyway…
I’m not a rich guy. Just ain’t no way I’m gonna be making dedicated fly fishing trips a common occurrence. But, like many of us, I get sent on work trips or make long weekend getaways with my bride. Often times (i.e., every single time) I wanna try my hand at waving around my fly rod in this new location. Welp, my beautiful two-weeks-to-be-my-wife and I found ourselves with a couple days to explore the Keys. A first for both of us.
Any yahoo who can get a fly caught in a tree knows that the Keys is one of the storied fly fishing destinations in the world. Certainly carries a lot of fame as THE saltwater spot in North America. I just had to find a way to wet a line in our short time on the islands.
My first step was to obsess about it. Watched all sorts of videos about people DIYing it in the Keys. Read blogs, forums, articles, and quickly realized that it’s gonna be an overwhelming experience. There’s 100 miles of Keys, with prime water, literally, everywhere. In the back of my mind I felt like I needed to GPS a few spots to try. But there’s almost no spot within 3 miles of Oceanside that won’t hold salty fish of some kind.
Great news, right?
Welp, getting TO the water is tough. Where land meets water is mangroves. Almost everywhere. And, these islands are covered with private residences and businesses. As you’re driving down the Overseas Highway, it’s tough to even catch a glimpse of the blue-green palette of the waters. Where there is an opening, there’s surely a wealthy property owner who holds dear to his/her little piece of paradise.
Took us about 25 miles of driving from Key Largo to get to Anne’s Beach, on the southeastern tip of Islamorada. And it wasn’t even a beach! It was just a public couple-hundred-yard stretch of coast that had a few less mangroves than everywhere else. But, my wife and I had been in the car all day and we were yearning to actually immerse ourselves in the Keys. It was bath water warm. Mix of sand and grass flats that went as far as we could see. We knew we had to find a vessel to allow us to explore.
Seems like there was a really high boat-to-person ratio in Islamorada. Boats getting trailered around, boats on the water, boats in dealerships, boats on the side of the road, boats in slips and marinas. We didn’t have time to book a fishing guide, and really didn’t want to spend that kinda money. We coulda rented a boat, but you gotta have your FL boaters education class completed. Charter boats abound, but that wasn’t the kind of fishing experience I wanted.
Kayaks were our best bet. Even then, you need to find a kayak rental shop that is near a spot that you want to be in. The Keys are vast, and even though there are islands everywhere, when your vessel is powered by your shoulders, those spots look a little farther away.
We chose to go to John Pennekamp State Park on Key Largo. I could go on and on about the features and facilities of the Park – it’s an amazing public resource for a plethora of activities. Anyway, the reason we chose JPSP is because of the varied environments we would paddle through: bay, lagoons, mangrove creeks, and oceanside flats.
The Park was beautiful. And bustling! We prepared well: had some snacks, sunscreen, cameras, and my 9′ 4pc 8wt. The kids running the kayak shack were stoked to see us show up! Told them we wanted to go to the ocean and the staff all lit up. Couple young guys pulled out some maps to show us which trails would get us out in the open. Another young man was happy to point out the open water trail where we could get in to some tarpon and snook. Can’t say enough great things about the Park staff.
We hop in our boats. Wife gets the ceremonious picture of us casting off. And within minutes of paddling we are in the serene narrow mangrove creeks of the Keys. It was magical. Water was clean and clear. Little mangrove snapper and needlefish everywhere you look. A few more minutes later, we were alone. We could hear the drone of boats idling through a nearby creek channel, but we saw no other paddlers the rest of our journey. Here’s why…
This paddling was not for the faint of heart. We had a map that highlighted a safe route out of the way of the offshore-bound boats. It had us going through creeks that were 40′ wide. Then creeks that were 15′ wide. And then we were in a creek so narrow we had to tuck the paddles in the boat and pull our way through on mangrove limbs! That miniature waterway opened up to a 12′ wide creek. That’s where a full-grown manatee swam right under our boats. Wildlife was bountiful in the mangroves: rays, snapper, parrot fish, turtles, egrets. The creek opened up to the ocean flats. It was a sight. We were in inches of water with sea grasses kissing the bottoms of our kayaks.
We picked a key to paddle to, maybe a half mile away. The banks of the island looked sandy from afar, but upon arriving and grounding the boats on the coral/rocky shore, we were wishing we had our wading shoes.
I tied on a seducer, and started casting in to the wind. On my second or third cast, bam! Good take! Fish went acrobatic and darted in towards me. I couldn’t strip in fast enough and it shook off the fly. With my Costas on I could see fish swimming around out to 60′ away from me. Casting back out, I could see them chasing my fly. Bam! This fish headed straight away from me and broke the line. I had 20 and 30lb leaders with a 16lb tippet. These fish weren’t big enough to be breaking me off like that.
Unless they had teeth.
Hooked in to another one. I fought him ever so gingerly. He darted back and forth in front of me and I barely caught a close enough view to confirm that it was young barracuda. He chomped me off, too. There were frays in the busted tippet. After losing four flies in the mouths of cuda I had to switch to white and chartreuse clousers. First cast got an immediate take. This was a bigger fish. He took off straight out, and broke me off. I wasn’t frustrated. I was willing to throw my whole chest pack at them – desperate and determined to get one to hand.
Then. The smallest barracuda that has ever swimmed the seas granted me a beautiful corner-mouth hookset. I played him with great finesse. He tired quickly. No match for my 8wt, I surfboarded the fish across the surface to a rocky jetee where my bride could snap a couple pictures.
Relief! I conquered DIY fly fishing in the Keys! Sincerely, though he was small, it was big excitement. Minutes later, snorkelers went by and told us it wasn’t worth fishing there because it was just a bunch of small cuda. Whatevs, dude. I was proud of my catch.
Casted around a bit more. But we were hot and running low on water, so we paddled back in to the mangroves.
The tide was slowly carrying us back in. Made casting in the mangroves pretty easy. I had several follows from mangrove snapper. Hooked one teeny fish and got him to hand. Maybe 6″ long, but a humbling pleasure to hold a species I’d never fished before.
Right after that, a tarpon circled right by me. I casted to him, then lost sight. As the tide creeped us in, the “baby” tarpon (guessing 40″ long), kept pushing in with us. I made another cast and got him to look at me. All he took was my breath. Honored to have been that close to one. It wouldn’t have been a complete fishing trip without one more barracuda snapping a fly off on me. That made six flies I lost in a fish’s mouth.
Never lost one in a tree, tho.
We figured, since we passed no one else on the kayak trails out to the ocean, we were the only ones on the busy Sunday, July 2, that kayaked out there. The staff at the kayak landing was genuinely happy to see us return safely and asked how our ocean trip went. We will definitely visit there again.
We were parched. Drinks were necessary. Found an out-of-the-way but on-the-waterfront little bar that had one local, Joe, sitting there smoking and drinking Coors Light in a zip-up bottle coozie that he brought with him. Joe was 57. Lived there since 1980. An electrician. Content to live on Key Largo in his 1965, paid-off, mobile home. Can’t blame the guy. He has a flats boat that he uses to fish the bayside for big mangrove snapper. He even told us his secret recipe for snapper n’ veggies. Great guy, bought Elizabeth a glass of wine, and exchanged promises of a trip on his flats boat for my promise of teaching him how to fly cast. Guess that means we definitely have to go back. Right?
Every time I destination-fish, I obsess and have grandiose images in my head of posting pics of me holding some near-world-record fish that I caught on a beautiful sunny day. Hasn’t happened yet. But, I always find myself in an adventure. Even when we only have one full day to do it in. I’m especially thankful for my wife, who not only puts up with my obsessions, but paddles by my side the whole time. She’s a treasure. And! She has been saying she wouldn’t mind learning to fly fish, despite having onset icthyophobia! So, I don’t really have the secret answer for DIY fly fishing the Keys. I’m gonna say that my trip was a big success. But, success is all in how we measure it. You might need to hire a guide. Or spend a whole week doing nothing but fishing. Maybe go offshore? Me? I caught fish, in salt, on my own, in the Keys, with the love of my life there to experience it with me.
Written by: Tim Linehan, Linehan Outfitting Co.
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