In the Keys, we salt margaritas, not sidewalks…..Anon.
For Day 2 trip see:
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.
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
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 wonder 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,
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
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
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.
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
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.
Also check out the link below to my November 2016 article from Florida Sportsman on bridge, wade, and kayak fishing in the Keys.