Got the Blue Sky, Breeze, And It Doesn’t Seem Fair
Only Worry In The World
Is The Tide Gonna Reach My Chair–Jimmy Buffet
Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Florida Keys is routinely on lists of the ten best beaches in the USA, and coupled with its well-appointed seaside campgrounds, crystal clear waters, and scenic historic railroad bridge, it’s not surprising it is one of the state’s most popular parks. But what about the fishing?? Can tarpon, snapper, permit, and barracuda find happiness among the sun worshippers who throng to the white sand beaches of Bahia Honda Key?? And what havoc did Hurricane Irma wreak on the island? I fished around Bahia Honda a couple of years ago and had shots at some nice permit and caught scads of voracious barracuda. I’m back on my annual May trip to the Keys and decide to spend a couple of days wade and kayak fishing here, circumnavigating Bahia Honda in my kayak as well as sampling the waters of nearby Spanish Harbor and Ohio Keys. What I discovered was both shocking and encouraging—Irma drastically reshaped the landscape and the fishing. The Good News: The fishing is as good as ever!
On my fishing trip yesterday, on the cusp of Father’s Day, I thought a lot about my Dad, Benjamin Franklin Duerksen. Now how many men do you know named after that Founding Father! I am sure he was smiling at the fun I was having catching those frisky trout. He gave me my love of the outdoors—we spent many days and nights on the banks of the Little Ar-Kansas River near my hometown in Kansas fishing with worms and frogs for channel catfish, bullhead, and anything else that would bite. Dad was also a pro at noodling—illegal handfishing for big flathead catfish. Even Mennonites have vices!!
We later graduated to minnows and lures in lakes and chasing white bass, crappie, and anything else that would bite. On those exciting overnight trips to Kanopolis Reservoir, 60 miles away, we just slept in the big old 1951 DeSoto car, Dad in the front seat and me in the back.
We also spent a lot of time bird watching, especially on Sunday. After Sunday School he would head out into the sandhills in the DeSoto with my sister Susan and me while Mom was fixing our dinner (noon meal). I still have my first Audobon bird book…a prized possession.
Dad was a simple, laid-back Mennonite farm boy. He played football in college at 5’8” and 150 pounds, married Mom the day after she graduated from high school in 1942, served on the crew of a B-17 bomber in the Army Air Corps in WWII (which was highly unusual for a Mennonite kid given Mennonites are a pacifist religion). He came back home to farm with his father after the war, then started teaching in the 1950s to supplement the farm income when a couple of wheat crops got hailed out. He taught math and social studies for over 30 years in nearby small-town grade schools, sometimes serving as principal, always coaching basketball and baseball. A couple of years he coached my Cub Scout baseball team to the regional championship. We sat in front of the radio and listened and went to a lot of Hutch Juco and Wichita State basketball games together back then. On special trips to Kansas City, we watched the old KC Athletics at Municipal Stadium—still remember seeing Mantle and Maris hit back-to-back homers in 1960, the year Maris broke Ruth’s record. I got us into trouble when I jumped onto the field after the game to run the bases. Fortunately he rescued me before the umps could corral me. Thankfully he continued to farm so I got to spend a lot of time with him every summer driving tractor, hauling wheat to the mills, plowing fields, planting wheat in the fall while listening to the World Series on my transistor radio. Not many boys get to spend so much what we now call “quality” time with their dads. Not saying at the time I fully appreciated the dawn-to-dark work regimen during plowing season!
Dad was very easy-going. I only saw him lose his temper a couple of times and the closest he came to cussing was saying “by damn!” But he was also very competitive—never ever did he let me beat him at ping-pong or checkers, although I could best him on the b-ball court in H-O-R-S-E. He still shot a two-handed set shot of his day so I called jump and hook shots which he had trouble with. Mom was the day-to-day disciplinarian in the family, but believe me I remember well each of the three spankings I got from him. The worst was when as a teenager I was disrespectful of my Mom. Yikes!! Lesson learned!!
Dad never pushed me in sports or academics, and indeed he didn’t say a word when in my junior year in college I switched my long-time plan to be a doctor and instead went to law school. But I think I got his slight nod of approval the day after my graduation from law school, which he and Mom had driven to Chicago to attend. He was leaning back in a big easy chair in our apartment when he looked at me and asked, “So how much does a young lawyer make these days?” That was an unusual question from a Mennonite–they don’t dwell much on money. I answered, “About $16,000.” Which was about twice what he was making as a teacher after years in the classroom. His response? “Hmmm, I guess being a lawyer isn’t so bad after all.” I still can’t stop laughing when I think about that!! Thanks, Dad, for everything. Miss you.
When I was a kid, my parents moved a lot! But I always found them!!
I’ve just landed a muscular fish over 20 inches that smashed my Gulp! swimming mullet lure like a freight train, then ran hard and deep like a redfish. I’m already salivating over the thought of savoring one of the best tasting fish in Florida over dinner tonight. So why is my fishing buddy laughing, his nose turned up slightly in disdain?? Because it’s Bagrus marinus, popularly known as a gafftopsail catfish.
Okay, okay, I’ll have to deal with the gelatinous snot it’s left on my leader, and yes I’ll have to dodge those wicked, venomous spines to get my hook out, but sail cats just can’t get no respect—just like Rodney Dangerfield and the way it used to be for barracuda before Keys angling guides pushed to have it listed as a gamefish. In other southern states, anglers appreciate saltwater catfish, but not so much in Florida. It’s time for a change! By the end of the day, after landing numerous sail cats on light spin tackle, my fishing buddy Bob Wayne, a renowned saltwater flyfisherman who has chased fish worldwide and appeared on covers of several national fly fishing magazines, is a devoted convert to the gafftopsail!
Click on the link below to view a pdf of my article on sailcat fishing that appeared in the June 2018 issue of Florida Sportsman
It’s barely 50 degrees—frigid for South Florida–as I load up my yak and push off at 8:00 a.m. for a day of snook fishing on the Faka Union River, one of my favorite Everglades upcountry waters.
Riding a falling tide, I glide through a tight mangrove tunnel for 30 minutes and finally emerge into the first shallow lake. Belying the weatherman’s prediction of calm winds, there’s a stiff breeze blowing out of the north, and my usual honey hole, where I caught a couple of dozen snook only a few weeks ago, fails to produce. I valiantly try to take a video, but almost get blown off the water. I pedal on dejectedly. I manage a few smaller snook in the next lake and connecting creek but it’s beginning to look like an ecotour rather than the epic fishing day I had hoped for.
Then I hit what I call snook flats, a nondescript stretch offshore of a mangrove-studded shoreline further downstream that produced a couple of 25” plus snook back in February. It may be my last hope. This trip the snook seemed to be ignoring my usual redoubtable white Gulp curlytail, so I switch to a gold DOA paddletail. The old veteran anglers down here swear gold is the ticket for big snook.
I pitch a long cast out in front of the kayak and start to crank it back. Something big swirls and my rod nearly jumps from my hands….a big snook erupts from the surface and a furious fight is on.
“So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And walked off to look for America.”
America…Simon and Garfunkel
It’s time for my annual migration to Florida and warmer climes. The late fall and early winter weather in the Colorado mountains has been positively pleasing, allowing extra sunny days to explore remote canyons and chase wild trout. But now the cold is seeping in, so I get ready to hightail it to the subtropics.
I like to take the back roads when pulling my travel trailer (aka mobile fish camp) on the long 2,000+ mile journey, avoiding the big trucks roaring by on the interstates with their big backwash that sets my rig to swerving back and forth on the hitch. Anyway, it’s lots more fun, relaxing, and enlightening to get off the straight-as-an arrow highways and see the real America. Back in the 60’s the Simon and Garfunkel tune “America” was my generation’s anthem….they’ve all gone to look for America. I continue to do so. More and more it seems like a country and place I don’t always understand. When I served as a city councilman in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in the 80s I always felt that if citizens got the facts they would eventually make the right common-sense decisions in the country’s and fellow American’s best interests. Now I am not so sure. But each year I come away from my peregrinations around the country feeling hopeful, optimistic. So here we go…