May 18, 2016
It’s the fourth day of my annual Florida Keys fishing expedition, and I am itching to go further afield from my fish camp on Big Pine Key. Years ago I fished down near Key West with guide Luke Kelly where we connected with some tarpon in an area called the Shark Channel. I’m hoping for a repeat as I plot my route and hit the hay early so I can be on the water at first light.
Next morning I’m trundling down the Overseas Highway before sunrise, joining the morning rush into Key West. I am keeping sharp eye out for the put-in for this trip, the Shark Key boat ramp at Mile Marker 11, about 30 minutes south of Big Pine Key. Distracted by the sight of several boats out on the water, I naturally whiz by the ramp that is on the other side of the highway. The signage for this ramp is minimal, so take slow. I execute a u-turn and pull into the long narrow drive that leads to the ramp, load up the yak, and park my SUV on the other side of the road, heeding the no parking signs around the ramp.
I scope out the tarpon boats and don’t see any action, so I head east and sidle up towards the bridge as the tide starts falling…and fast. I cast a big tarpon plug behind the bridge pilings, hoping some bruisers are skulking in the depths, but after 15 minutes, come up empty. So I buck the swift current and head towards the east side of O’Hara Key, which looks extremely fishy. But looks prove to be deceiving–I only pick up a couple of baby barracuda.
I spot a cluster of islets further east and turn the kayak that way, again pedaling against the swift current. There’s a nice gutter around the first islet, so I fish it carefully with a tarpon plug, then the old reliable Mirrolure Heavydine 18 with its shiny sides that flash in the water. I’m grateful for the pedal kayak, which allows me to hold myself in position to cast by pedaling slowly into the current. I pitch a good cast up against the islet in the deeper water and something explodes on the plug. A long torpedo shape blasts off, peeling line off my reel and dragging the kayak behind!
The Shark Channel ramp is on the oceanside of U.S. Highway 1 at Mile Marker 11. There is no parking at the ramp–leave your vehicle/trailer across the highway on the wide grassy shoulder.Don’t be tempted to use the informal Saddlebunch launch at MM 13 as suggested in Bill Keogh’s Florida Keys Paddling Guide. It’s too rough and steep, and the water around it is very shallow.
Once on the water, you can fish the the wide expanse of Similiar Sound that is a known tarpon haunt, especially in and around the submerged pilings along the channel. On this trip, I head east from the ramp, then under the highway bridge, aiming northwest towards O’Hara Key which has some attractive shoreline to probe. From there, a series of small islets beckon further east. There are good firm flats and shoreline to explore on the way to Old Finds Bight. Enroute, keep an eye out for mullet muds. Old Finds Bight has a good firm bottom and lots of cruising sharks and barracuda, but you’ll need a high tide to navigate its very shallow waters.
On the return loop, you can shoot northwest and hit Whiting, Crane, and Round Keys before circling west of O’Hara Key and back to the ramp. Caution: If the tide is rising in the Shark Channel on your return, you will burn of some significant calories getting back under the bridge to the ramp.
Trip Notes (May 2016)
As my line screams and line peels off my reel, I’m thinking nice tarpon–but then see the big barracuda porpoise a couple of times, its silver side glinting in the early morning sun. The fish tows the kayak a ways before I can
pitch the anchor overboard and put the brakes on him. He elevates from the water in his best tarpon imitation, then charges the boat. In a few minutes, I have wrestled him to the kayak to pose for a quick photo, and then he is on his way. A strong forty-inches, one of the biggest of the trip so far! I continue exploring the shoreline and flats to the northeast, catching
sporadic three-foot blacktip sharks on my 7 1/2 foot shark rod featuring a nice barracuda chunk after they refuse all my artificial offerings. I hit a channel between two of the larger Saddlebunch Keys where the current is swirling and pick up some bigger barracuda and a few small jacks. Then in the distance to the northeast, I spot a milky apparition–a big mullet mud at the point that rounds into Old Finds Bite.
Mullet are vegetarians and one of the few fish that have gizzards like chickens so they can grind up the greenery for digestion. When schooling up and foraging over shallow areas, they stir up the sandy bottom creating big white patches in the water called mullet muds. These muds are signals to just about every game fish in the Keys that dinner is served, often creating a frenzy as the hunters slash into the schools for a treat.
With this in mind, I pedal post haste in that direction and am welcomed by a beautiful sight: Finger mullet swirling everywhere,
occasionally taking to the air to avoid some critter giving chase. Jacks, cudas, and sharks are crashing bait left and right, in and around the edge of the large mud.
My go-to lure in a mullet mud is a white 5″ Rapala lipped diver. I set up on the edge of the mud and heave the plug towards the middle…and it delivers. Several medium-sized jacks crush it, then a big one. He makes a run for open water, towing the kayak like a water skier. I pedal furiously like I’m in a bike race and finally catch up and bring him to the kayak. But surprise, the jack isn’t tuckered out yet and as I reach for him, he dives under and “CRACK,” snaps my rod in half. Undaunted, I reach around the back of the kayak with the stub and continue the battle. Finally he relents!
The action continues hot and heavy for two hours as I move up the shoreline fishing a succession of muds. I switch to a red and white Mirrodine 18, and the fun continues.
I hook and lose two 40-inch plus barracuda and finally land a three-footer and several more jacks. Then a very large red surfaces in the middle of the mud and chases my lure, but disappears without hitting. A few minutes later a five-foot shark of unknown variety chases the Rapala right up to the kayak but scares off at the last second. I get my shark rig out and exact revenge on three black-tips that go over three feet. What a blast!
I hit two more mullet muds to the north of the first one, then it’s around the bend into Old Finds Bight, reputed to be loaded with fish. But I immediately run aground with my pedal kayak fins, and then have to paddle and pole to the cluster of islets scattered throughout the shallow bay. I catch several small-to-medium barracuda as I make a loop and several more black tip sharks that are cruising everywhere. But it’s a tough go in the hot sun, which persuades me to start the loop back to the ramp, hoping to see more mullet muds. Not to be. The mullet have disappeared and along with them everything except the ubiquitous barracuda. I do see a big mud north of CraneKey, but that would mean at least a 30 minute pedal. Lesson: Don’t leave a mullet mud when the fish are still biting!
Fortunately the reliable barracuda keep me occupied as I skirt Round Key and turn back south toward the ramp. To my chagrin, the tide has turned again and is running in; now I will be pedaling and paddling in shallow water into a strong current. Great timing! Oh well, it’s been a fun and educational day getting to play in the mullet muds. I’ll be on the look out for more tomorrow on my trip out of Sugarloaf Marina around Dreguez Key.