In the Keys, we salt margaritas, not sidewalks…..Anon.
I’m heading to Big Pine Key, not far from Key West, on my annual Florida Keys fishing expedition. As I trundle down the Overseas Highway pulling my mobile fish camp behind, I am amazed at all the festively colored kayaks–red, yellow, orange, blue–stacked outside of marinas, dive shops, and even convenience stores. Like everywhere, kayaking is booming in popularity in the Keys. I’m wondering if I’ll have to fight my way through flotillas of paddlers and ecotour groups wending their way along the mangrove islands to find my quarry.
I’ve left my power boat at home and opted for chasing fish in my yak in the Lower Keys, bucking conventional wisdom that you need a motor to get a permit, tarpon, redfish, sharks, or giant barracuda. At the very least in the bargain, I know I’ll see some great wildlife that abound down here in these pristine tropical waters.
I am staying at the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge that has some sweet RV trailer spots right on the Gulf. It’s a great place with views of the long Overseas Highway Bridge as it curves away into a sunrise. Did I mention the happy hour a couple of times a week on the pool deck where the mango margarita machine works overtime ? After setting up, my first stop is venerable Jigs Bait and Tackle down the road in Big Pine Key to get the skinny from James Milsap (Ronnie’s cousin) on what’s biting and where. I’ve been kayak fishing down here for the past three years, so know my way around, but it always helps to pick a local fishing guru’s brain. Then it’s back to camp to rig up my rods, get the trusty Hobie Outback pedal kayak ready to rumble, and knock off a little wine before hitting the hay. The alarm’s set at 4:30 a.m!! Day One of Four Perfect Days coming up!!
DAY 1: Knock-In-Em Out On Knockemdown Key
It’s pitch black out as I pull out on the highway, headed south to Cudjoe Key. I creep along at 35 mph, obeying the warning signs that this is Key Deer habitat. The Lilliputian little deer are found nowhere else the world, and only about 1,000 are all that exist. Their midget size helps them survive in the overgrown mangrove swamps that are nearly impossible to penetrate, at least for humans. My destination is the boat launch up Blimp Road, so-called because it’s the base for Fat Albert, a US Air Force blimp that spies on drug runners, commie Cubans, and other ne’er do wells, real and imagined. I want to catch the tide just as it starts to come in, so I’m on the water just after 6:30 a.m. I find that game fish like to wait in the deeper channels off the keys for the tides to roll up and over the shallow flats so they can chase forage fish, crabs, and other delicacies. My yak is loaded down with essential gear like four rods. Three are 6 1/2 and 7 foot light/medium spinning rods with 30# test fluorocarbon leaders, two rigged with lures and added lengths of wire leaders for barracuda and other toothy fish. The other dangles a white jig head to which I can add an imitation or real shrimp or crab for permit and bones. The last one is a 7 1/2 foot, medium-heavy rod for shark with a long wire leader to keep them from chomping off the line. With the rods bristling at ominous angles, I always think the kayak looks like a mini-battleship!
As the sun starts to peek out, I am paddling east towards a little unnamed key I call Dove Island. As I get closer I can hear the hundreds of doves that sleep here cooing and calling. I pitch a cast towards the shore and something slams my go-to barracuda lure, an MR18 Mirrolure.
In truth, I find that anything shiny that wriggles wildly when you crank it fast will grab a cuda’s attention–they like flash and speed!! The fish is a little guy, but the perfect size to keep for shark bait! Barracuda are aromatic to say the least, something the sharks can’t seem to resist.
Now it’s on to Knockemdown Key, just a short pedal across the Kemp Channel. The wind is still quiet, so I exit the kayak in the shallow, clear water and start to wade, pulling the Hobie behind me attached to my belt with a 10-foot length of rope. I love wading across these hard flats, feeling the cool water around my legs, seeing the sponges and coral up close. I quickly catch a half dozen small cuda on the Mirrolure and start to if it’s going to be one of the those days where numbers far exceed size. Then I see something roll heavily and smash some bait at the tip of one of the little islets where the tides are rushing over a ledge into deeper water. I put on a shiny Yozuri surface lure, a walk-the-dog pencil plug that gurgles and churns along the surface when retrieved. WHOOSH!! A big cuda engulfs the lure, creating a small geyser, and takes off running. He zings through the shallows like a torpedo, my line singing as it slices through the water to my left. I haul back to turn the critter….and the lure pops loose. AARRGH!! The same scene is repeated twice more, so now I am really dejected. I may have blown it….those big cuda, three feet and more, aren’t so easy to come by on the flats.
As I work south, I continue casting among the broken mangrove islets that dot the north end of Knockemdown. I pick up sporadic cuda while keeping my eye out for some prized permit that frequent these flats at times. By the time I get to the deeper channel that sweeps around the north end of Knockemdown, I ready for a snack, so pitch out the little mushroom anchor and pull out an apple, keeping my eyes peeled for any fishy looking activity. And I don’t have to wait long. I spy several black tip shark on the prowl in the clear, shallow water, so to salve my bruised ego, I decide it’s time to connect with something bigger than the little cuda I’ve been catching. I put a chunk of cuda on the size 6/0 circle hook dangling from my shark rod and pitch it out into the slight depression where the shark are scrounging for a meal. It doesn’t take long, and they are on the scent. But they are a little on the small side, a couple of feet long, so I decide to hold out, teasing them by lifting the bait away from them to the surface, laughing while they pursue it, chomping their teeth on the surface in greedy pursuit. Then a big one, pushing four feet, slashes in and rams into one of them, chasing off the little guys and staking his claim. The competition eliminated, he circles back and chomps down on the cuda chunk. When I set the hook, he goes wild, jumping and porpoising through the mangroves. I bail out of the kayak in pursuit in the thigh-deep water, then think better of it as the little guys return in a frenzy, chasing him, apparently hoping to steal a morsel. While my skinny ankles wouldn’t provide much of a meal, I don’t want to be an untended casualty and vault back in the kayak. I pedal furiously to get to open water before the shark can tangle up in the mangroves. Fortunately my rod is stout, and I’m able to winch him away from the tangle of menacing roots he’s headed for. A few minutes later he’s next to the kayak, where
I assiduously avoid the rows of sharp teeth that line his mouth as I remove the hook. My technique is to grab the shark right behind the head and hold on tight as he writhes and wiggles. Sharks don’t have a rigid back bone so can twist around and bite if you grab them only by the tail. He finally calms down, and the extraction is quick and successful. I hold him in the current till he revives, then off he goes looking for his next meal. I make a mental note to learn how to clean a shark for eating. Some restaurants down here are starting to feature shark, and they are delicious. A lot like swordfish but without the guilt trip of eating a species like a swordfish that are being overfished throughout the world. Black tips are in plentiful supply down here in the Keys, so maybe if I take one home occasionally will be OK.
Now it’s time to head north to the Budd Keys where I know there will be a bunch of barracuda, and usually a few sizable ones. The wind from the east has started to kick up so I decide to head to the west side of what I call Middle Budd. It’s bordered by another hard-bottom flats and pocked with several lagoons that barracuda like to haunt at high tide. I time it perfectly and am immediately into some fiesty, high-jumping two-footers that crush the shiny Mirrolure. Often three or four zoom after the lure, but don’t always hit. I have finally perfected a technique that seems to coax the doubters to hit, or hit again if they strike it and avoid the hooks. In the past, I have tried speeding up the retrieve when I sight pursuers, but that doesn’t usually trigger a strike, and slowing down the lure is definitely a loser, the cudas immediately loosing interest. Here’s the winning approach: When you see the cudas following or one hits and misses, raise your rod time and bring the lure to the surface and jiggle it around like a wounded fish, creating a commotion on the surface or just below. It works about 25% of the time, which is better than anything else I have tried. And what fun it is to have a cuda slam that lure right near the boat as you watch him bite!!
One other bit of cuda wisdom, which will exhaust my storehouse for now: Be sure your hands are completely dry before you handle a cuda and try to remove the hook from its menacing mouth. They have the slickest coating I have ever seen on a fish, no doubt helping them slash through the water in pursuit of prey. If you grab one with an even semi-wet hand to extract the hook, I guarantee that eventually one will surprise you by going from docile to flopping or wriggling violently in a flash, the result being the hook firmly embedded in your hand or other bodily part. Trust me, this is experience speaking. And the smaller they are, the more unpredictable they can be. I carry a small sponge and towel on board just for this purpose to dry off my hands after handling a cuda.
By now it’s 2 in the afternoon, so with stomach growling, I hunt for some shade, finding it under a few overhanging mangroves at the edge of the lagoon. Thankfully, the no-see-ums are taking a nap, so lunch is bug free. I can sit here and watch the sharks and cudas cruising the shallows, looking for that last meal before the tide starts to fall in a few minutes. I think about all the fun I’ve had with the barracuda today–probably have caught and released 50 or 60 already. It’s a little perplexing why some fellow anglers and guides turned their noses up so long at cuda. They are great fighters, take lures readily, there are scads of them, and some say they are even good eating.
Just seems like barracuda just can’t get no respect!! Given the fact that almost everyone knows what a barracuda is, and the fish even has a car named after it (My first car was a beloved ’65 Plymouth Barracuda, just like the one in the photo except mine had chrome reverse rims!) as well as some pop songs (remember Heart’s big hit, “Barracuda” back in 1977), you might think wildlife biologists would know a lot about them. Guess again. We don’t know for sure where they spawn (supposedly offshore), and only a small number of studies have been undertaken to document barracuda movement and behavior. Cuda aficionados like myself know that in addition to deeper channels between mangrove islands and near-shore coral reefs and wrecks, these saltwater assassins also like in-shore flats with sea grasses, soft corals, and sponges over hard bottoms–I rarely catch them in muddy water or over soft bottoms. We do know that the Great Barracuda ranges from North Carolina to South America in the Atlantic. It loves tropical water and is particularly plentiful in South Florida, but is also found in the Red and Mediterranean Seas. The West Coast has its very own species, the California Barracuda. It is a somewhat smaller and more of a near-shore ocean-going fish, concentrated in southern California and waters off the Baja.
Barracuda are built for lightning, vicious attacks–no surprise there. With a powerful tail fin and torpedo-shaped sleek body, they can reach almost 30 miles per hour over short distances. I’d swear at least 200 mph. They are so well camouflaged that it’s not unusual for one of them to nail my lure without me even seeing it coming in clear water until the last second. And I don’t attribute that only to my aging eyes. Four footers aren’t unusual in the Keys and some grow to five feet plus and can live past 15 years. With their nasty sharp, fang-like teeth protruding from large pointed heads with an underbite, they look particularly menacing and will eat just about any unfortunate prey that swims in front of them–mullet, jacks, grunts, and groupers, among others. Attacks on people extremely rare. Fortunately, barracuda grow very fast in Keys–often 15 inches in one year! And males mature in only one-to-two years when they will reach 25-32 inches and females in two-to-four years (at 28-39 inches).
I am pleased to report that barracuda are moving beyond Rodney Dangerfield status. Responding to a campaign led by the Lower Keys Guide Association, the Florida Wildlife Commission recently reclassified them as gamefish and imposed two-a-day limit on them. I’m hoping for further protections, like a requirement that any fish over 36″–the big spawners–have to be released, something the commission is now considering.
As I am packing up my lunch and getting ready to shove off, I am treated to a couple of cool spectacles. First, a Great White Heron, unique to the Keys, wings in close for inspection. Then a whole flight of Magnificent Frigate Birds appears, and they join in a vortex, riding an updraft high in the sky. I swear they were the models for the ominous birds that circled the castle of the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz! The little ecotour continues as I head west across the channel to Big Budd Key. I startle a couple of big stingrays that scoot off, wings flapping like mad, then come face-to-face with a green sea turtle who pops his head above the water right in front of the kayak. He spooks and shoots across the flats at breakneck speed. I am always amazed at the head of steam these seemingly ungainly creatures can generate as they zoom to safety.
When I hit the west shoreline, I catch a couple of small cuda and another blacktip shark, then round the bend and out of the wind on the leeward side of Big Budd. I’ve caught big barracuda here before, and when I spy a downed mangrove think finally going to get one of the bruisers. The mojo is there. I loft my cast carefully just a few feet from the gnarly limbs, crank the reel handle a couple of times and get a jolt. But I soon realize it’s just a little cutie cuda that might go 12 inches. Darn! As I reel in the little one something big slashes in from out of nowhere, but misses and scoots off. A big cuda!! Fortunately the little one shakes off so I can immediately recast in the general direction of the fleeing monster. I’m shocked when he boils up around the lure, churning the water to a froth. He’s on!! The big guy rockets off towards the deep channel off shore, towing the kayak with me pedaling furiously to keep up with him. A couple of more jumps and runs and I bring him under control and to the boat. I pedal back to the shallows, slide out of the kayak, remove the hook, and cradle the fish in my hands until he’s revived. Then a quick picture and he’s on his way–a beautiful 3-foot creature, all silvery and sleek. What a great way to end the day. Haven’t seen a soul since I cast off almost 12 hours ago, only a few motor boats running by in the distance. My visions of hordes of kayak fishermen descending on my favorite spots never materialize. Sweet solitude! As I pedal towards the put in, Fat Albert, the big surveillance blimp nods from high above in the clouds, having witnessed it all.
But the ending is even sweeter and more heartwarming than I could have imagined. As I paddle up to the boat ramp, I see an old gal–she must be in her 80s or even 90s–sitting in a canvas folding chair in the shade, wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat and studying a book with a magnifying glass. She looks up slowly and smiles. As I unload my gear, she asks sincerely if she can help me. I smile and politely decline. She watches me for awhile, then slowly closes what is a bird book and points out to the shallows to the south of the ramp. “That’s my husband out there,” she says proudly, her eyes bright and face animated. “He’s fly fishing.” I smile back at her and choke up a bit, thinking how lucky she and her beau are–and hoping that all of us, when we are octogenarians and beyond, will be so fortunate to be able to enjoy nature together with a partner as they are and to share that kind of love and companionship.