After a couple of days of non-stop action and a severe case of ‘Cuda elbow, I took a day off to lollygag around camp, do a little reading and writing, and swill some margaritas on the sun deck at the Big Pine Key Lodge where I am staying in my mobile fish camp. Today I decide to go out, but stick closer to home. There are three keys within a stone’s throw of camp–Big Mangrove, Little Don Quixote, and No Name. All three have different personalities and offer great opportunities for a variety of fish, some big. No Name is frequented by tarpon, snook, and (of course) lots of barracuda. Big Mangrove is the haunt of snappers, cudas, and some hefty sharks. Don Quixote and the flats just to its north are favorites of permit, sharks, and occasionally some tarpon. This is a particularly good trip when the wind is blowing from the northeast after a front blasts through.
I am up early, timing my day to hit the flats between Don Quixote and No Name on an incoming tide. I could paddle out north from the ramp at the lodge, under the Overseas Highway Bridge, and directly to Big Mangrove Key, but my preferred route starts at the venerable Old Wooden Bridge Cottages towards the north end of No Name Key, about a 20-minute drive up the east side of Big Pine Key. I slip my $10 ramp fee under the office door and launch into the Bogie Channel, hankering for a shot at the sizeable snook that hide under the bridge that connects Big Pine to No Name Key. I pitch a white Gulp swimming mullet on a 1/8 oz jig head up against one of the bridge pilings, let it sink, and then….
Wham….something whacks it hard!
The best starting point for this outing is the ramp at Old Wooden Bridge Cottages on the west end of the now thoroughly modern concrete bridge connecting Big Pine Key with No Name Key. There is a modest fee for use of the ramp. By all means, avoid the free, primitive launch site just past the east end of the bridge on the south side of the road. It looks easy and inviting, but is a muck-filled nightmare, difficult to navigate even at high tide.
After carefully navigating the Bogie Channel that is frequented by speeding power boats, I usually turn south and carefully explore the west side of No Name. I rarely catch anything on the north end of No Name which is subject to the wash of power boats jetting up the channel as well as flotillas of ecotour groups on most days. At the south end of No Name, there are some small islands that are productive, and if the tides are high some shallow, extensive bays to poke into.
Depending of the tides and wind, I usually head southwest to Big Mangrove Key, skirting the broad flats to the east. If the wind is moderate and water clear, I like to pole the east side of Big Mangrove, looking for barracuda and sharks. Then I circle back around the west side which is much deeper, with overhanging mangroves where some big snapper and barracuda call home. Shots at some feisty sharks are also a distinct possibility off shore a hundred yards or so.
Then it’s off to the east, carefully fishing the pockets and drop
offs along the south edge of the flats that extend to Don Quixote. Timing the tides here is key–at low tide the water is very shallow and the flats almost impossible to fish. After circling Don Quixote, I paddle back about half way to No Name Key to the north and anchor up, waiting for a shot a marauding permit and sharks. Then it’s back up the west side of No Name Key, retracing the route to the ramp at Old Wooden Bridge Cottages.
Trip Notes–May 2016
I’m on the water at daybreak, pedaling out from the sheltered marina at Old Wooden Bridge Cottages. The wind is light, blowing from the southeast at 5-10 mph, meaning it’s quite on the lee side of Big No Name Key. The tide is falling hard and will bottom out about 10 a.m. at the bridge, about 1.5 hours ahead of the low tide at Spanish Harbor Bridge to the south. I’m aiming to be on the flats north of Don Quixote Key when the tide starts to roll in.
No Name Key has a fascinating history. It was settled in the late 1870s by a Russian farmer and his Anglo wife from the Bahamas. They were joined by a few more hardy families from the Bahamas and hung on for years. At that time, No Name Key had a hefty population of 20-30 people, much bigger than that of neighboring Big Pine Key that has boomed in recent decades. No Name had natural several advantages then–it was three-to-four feet higher than Big Pine, which served it well in hurricanes, and actually had a fair amount of fresh water–commercial electricity and water didn’t arrive till just a few years ago! For awhile it even had a ferry service! But as hurricanes and a hard life took its toll, the wilds closed back in. Indeed, the island was reputedly a hot bed of Cuban counter-revolutionary planning and activity in the 1960s. Today all that remains is a funky subdivision on the north end of the key.
After a couple of century barracuda days, I am determined to find some tarpon, permit, or snook today. I stood on the No Name Key bridge at dusk yesterday and saw some big three-foot plus snook skulking in the shadows behind the bridge piers. That’s my first stop. I pitch a white Gulp swimming mullet on a 1/8 oz jig head up against one of the bridge pilings, let it sink, and then….Wham….something whacks it hard! Alas, it’s a fat scrappy snapper, not a snook. The snapper prove to be eager, but the snook are AWOL, so I head south past the derelict boats, probing the western shoreline of No Name.
I have one rod rigged with the old reliable Mirrolure MR18 Heavydine for barracuda and miscellany , a second with a 5-inch gold-flecked white paddletail for tarpon, and third set up for shark with a barracuda chunk and wire leader. When I get to the flats between No Name and Don Quixote Key, I’ll focus on permit and exchange the paddletail for a small flats candy bucktail jig that resembles a shrimp or crab.
I cruise slowly down the west shoreline, fan casting from shoreline to 50 yards offshore. I immediately start picking up small barracuda, all the while keeping an eye out for tarpon wherever there are deeper water in gutters along the shoreline or at points. I hit a couple stretches where there is a nice patchy bottom mottled with coral and sea grass–a perfect ambush hiding place for bigger cudas, and sure enough I hook and land several frisky two-footers. Then I see some darker water along the shoreline, indicating a trough where tarpon might be lurking. I pedal very slowly that way, and sure enough, spy a couple of three-foot baby tarpon finning slowly in three feet of water, heads into the current. I grab the tarpon rig and shoot a cast 20 feet in front of the pair and let the lure sink back towards them, swim it slowly back towards the yakak. One moves forward slightly, but then retreats into position. No dice. The scene is repeated a half dozen times. I switch to the Mirrolure, but that just succeeds in spooking them. Aarrgghh.
Licking my wounds, I continue along the shoreline until I hit one of my favorite spots, two small islands with nice flats on either side and a nice deep channel in between. I boat some decent cuda and a couple of snapper on the west side then circle around to the channel, and what to my wondering eyes do appear but several tarpon rolling lazily in the deep hole. I quietly anchor up in shallow water at the north end of the channel and wait for a target. And I don’t wait long. A dorsal fin breaks the surface 30 feet in front of me. I lead the tarpon with the paddletail, let it sink a foot or two, and slowly crank it in. Nada. I wait another few minutes and another rolls close by. Goose egg. For the next fifteen minutes I have another half dozen shots and try a variety of lures, all to no avail. I grit my teeth and start casting for barracuda, letting the MR18 sink deep before retrieving.
Immediately a 30-incher nails the Mirrolure, then another, and another. I move closer to the second, smaller islet and land several nice-sized snapper along the shoreline. Bidding adieu to the recalcitrant tarpon, I circle to the shallower flats on the east side, and the action gets really wild. I hook and release 10 cuda on 15 casts, all around two feet long. Then with my bruised ego salved a bit, I continue hunting for the elusive tarpon.
The action is slow as I round the south tip of No Name and up the east shoreline. My map shows a good-looking bay just a few minutes north, but when I get there it is filled with seaweed, flotsam, and assorted trash, courtesy of the wind which has shifted to the east. So I turn tail and head back around the bend, pitching the MR18 into every nook and cranny. Up ahead I see something smashing bait under the mangroves in a little bay. Likely a big barracuda. I pedal up carefully and skip the MR18 under the mangroves… and the water erupts. I am shocked to see a 30-inch tarpon rocket into the air and begin a dance along the surface. He’s strong and begins to tow the kayak into the mangroves, so I pitch the anchor overboard and pull back hard on the rod, thankful for the 40 lb. test wire leader. He turns and heads out into the flat, circling the kayak. It’s several more high jumps and blistering runs before I finally bring him to the boat. Go figure–after getting brush off from picky tarpon all morning, I catch one on my favorite barracuda lure tied to a heavy wire leader. Ours is not to reason why….
It’s late morning by now and time to visit Big Mangrove Key if I want to catch the incoming
tide on the Don Quixote flats just right. I skirt the edge of the shallow flats as I head southwest to Big Mangrove. When I arrive, the water is low on the east side, so I decide to stand and do a little poling, keeping my eyes peeled for barracuda and shark that love this area. And just maybe a permit! By the time I round the south end of the key, I have caught some small cuda in the crystal clear water and spotted several shark that high-tail it when they spot me. The west side of Big Mangrove is much deeper than the east, and I usually can count on some good-sized barracuda, snapper, and shark here. It doesn’t take long, and I see a couple of 3-4 foot black tip sharks and some big nurses a hundred yards off shore. I lay a good cast about 10 feet in front of one of the black tips, and he charges ahead and gulps in the cuda chunk. On light
tackle, the shark puts up a terrific battle, thrashing the surface then diving deep. He’s a very unhappy boy by the time I get him to the boat. He’s too big to get my hand around the back of his head, but luckily I remembered to bring my long-handled hook remover so I can release him without getting my hands too close to his toothy maw.
Now I see sharks circling everywhere, attracted by the commotion. I pitch the cuda chunk towards a big fin that breaks the waterbove a long shadow and something substantial inhales it. But it feels like dead weight…definitely not a black tip. AARRGGHH, it’s a big gentle nurse shark. I slowly, but surely winch it to the surface and drag it to the boat for a quick release. I could sit here for an hour and catch some more sharks, but the permit are in the back of my mind, and I need to head east to Don Quixote. I pick my way north, casting into the deadfalls and holes along the beautiful shoreline. I hook several nice snapper on the MR18, then a big barracuda jets out from a downed mangrove trees and smashes it. He goes about three feet and puts up a great fight and finally comes to the boat, trailed by another one that looks to push four feet! I make a mental note of that.
I now retrace my tracks around the south side of Big Mangrove and aim east to Don Quixote. The tide is finally coming in but the water on the flats is still very skinny, so I work the edges with the MR18. I get some nice jacks in the deeper holes and a few barracuda. When I arrive at Don Quixote, the water is still shallow, too shallow for the tarpon I have seen here when the tide is higher. The Spanish Harbor Bridge just a stone’s throw to the south is a noted tarpon spot, and my theory is that the smaller tarpon follow the tide in to feed around Don Quixote. But not today.
By now there’s enough water to get on the flats to the north, so I pedal out and anchor up, hoping to spot the big permit that I have run across here on earlier trips. I can stand in the kayak and survey a long way in every direction. The first thing I spot is a large six-foot lemon shark. I know I shouldn’t take a shot at him–he’ll likely shred my line and maybe break my shark rod, but who can resist. I toss a ripe cuda chunk in front of him….and he studiously ignores it. I lose my head and throw the MR18 his way, but that sends him jetting towards Key Largo. I up anchor, vowing to ignore the sharks I can see circling everywhere and look for permit. I pole towards the west, keeping my eyes peeled for any surface activity. Several hundred yards away, I see a surface disturbance and something big pushing water. Probably a big shark. But as the wave gets closer, I see it’s a school of big permit, their dorsal fins slicing through the water as they swim in a fast random pattern across the flat. I quickly pedal into position where I can intercept them if they continue coming in the same general direction. And they do.
I’ve already switched to a tan flats candy bucktail jig that is usually deadly on permit. Here they come. I throw the lure 10 feet in front of the lead fish and wait till he is nearly on it before jigging it off the bottom. He flies by as if blind. I lead the school again, but they flash right by the lure. Finally I decide to cast right in the middle of them, but they merely accelerate and finally disappear. I pedal after them, then anchor up and keep my eyes peeled, but that’s the last I see of the school. That’s often par for the course with permit…but then the next time one will nail that lure as if it were their last meal. Maybe I should have brought some live crabs, like the ones being sold at the local bait shop for a pirate’s ransom!
They flats are full awash now and getting dirty as the wind picks
up from the east. It’s
time to head back to the ramp at the Cottages, inspecting as I go someone’s idea of a floating vacation home. The cuda are willing on the return, making for a pleasant return trip, visions of a big pizza and cold beer at the iconic No-Name Pub just down the street from the ramp and right on the way home.
Also check out the link below to my November 2016 article from Florida Sportsman on bridge, wade, and kayak fishing in the Keys.