Wishin’ I Was Knee Deep In The Water Somewhere
Got the Blue Sky, Breeze, And It Don’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!
Bahia Honda means “deep bay” in Spanish, and the name appeared on maps and nautical charts as far back as the 16th Century. As you will find, however, the Spanish pronunciation—Bah—EE—ah OWN-dah—has been transmogrified by Anglos into “Bay-ah Honda” to sound a bit like a Japanese auto. Caution: You’ll get a quizzical look from locals if you use the correct Spanish pronunciation.
According to park rangers, since about 1870 botanists from all over the world have come to the key to study its unique plant life brought by birds, hurricane winds, and ocean tides from all over the Caribbean. Very rare plants like the West Indies satinwood, Jamaica morning glory, and wild dilly are found growing as native plants only here. The distinctive flora attracts some very distinctive insect life—beautiful butterflies abound, although in reduced numbers in the wake of Irma. And just offshore you’ll find gorgeous beds of sponges—loggerhead, vase, and many others.
The key’s next claim to fame came thanks to oil mogul Henry Flagler when he built the iconic Over-The Sea Railroad between the mainland and Key West in the early 1900s. Construction workers were housed in a couple of big dormitories on the island and an almost mile-long spectacularly beautiful steel bridge was erected to span the Bahia Honda channel to West Summerland/Spanish Harbor Key to the west. Used by cars until 1972, the bridge today is a national historic landmark and stands as a silent testimonial to those days of brash ideas and can-do spirit in America. A “modern” wider bridge has replaced the metal one and another, shorter arched concrete structure links Bahia Honda to Ohio Key to the east. Fortunately , the fish seem to like those bridges plenty! More on that in a bit.
I decide to take a couple of days to thoroughly explore the fishing around Bahia Honda and its close neighbors—Spanish Harbor and Ohio Keys.
Given the havoc Hurricane Irma wreaked on nearby Big Pine Key where I have set up my mobile fish camp, I thought I’d better do a little reconnaissance at Bahia Honda before planning a day-long wade/kayak fishing outing. Glad I did! Everything has been rearranged–from access to campgrounds to beaches to fishing. Only the main campgrounds on the western tip of the islands are open; those on the beaches along the south Atlantic shoreline are gone!
And with that, the only places to fish from the shoreline are very limited—just from those surviving campgrounds, where access is restricted to paying campers only. Shoreline fishing near the iconic Flagler train bridge is prohibited. (Note: As of January 2019 short sections of shoreline on either side of the train bridge have been reopened for fishing.) Additionally, at least for now, no wading or boats are allowed within 400 feet of the south/oceanside shoreline even if you want to hop out of your kayak or motor boat. If you are intent on fishing around Bahia Honda, you will need to bring a watercraft. Fortunately, the excellent boat ramp and marina on the west end of the key is open and in good shape. There is no charge for launching a kayak or canoe, and you can rent a kayak at the marina. The state park reportedly intends to renourish the beaches, repair the roads, and rebuild the campgrounds, but it may take several years by the looks of things. Of course that may change, so before you go check things out on-line or call the state park office for an update. I would strongly advise a scouting visit before you plan an outing.
I’m at the front gate just off the Overseas Highway at 8 a.m. sharp when the park opens. That’s as early as you can get into the park and cast off, unless you are staying at one of the campgrounds which fill up months ahead of time. By 8:30 I am pedaling out of the little marina harbor in my Hobie Outback and turn south, skirting the beach, towards the Flagler Railroad Bridge that can be a hotspot for jacks and tarpon. Already bigger boats are lined up along the newer highway bridge to the north, waiting for the big tarpon that frequent the bridge piers.
A tall fence lines the shoreline that formerly was open for fishing at the end of the railroad bridge, but no longer. ( Note: As of January 2019 the park opened short sections of shoreline on either side of the old railroad bridge for fishing.) The tide is just turning, and it runs strong under the bridge, making me particularly happy I can pedal into the current while casting. But beware, when I say strong, I mean very strong, and the channel is deep. Wearing a life vest here is smart.
I weave in and out of the railroad bridge piers, hoping to spot some action by jacks or tarpon. I am pitching a big white paddletail softbait on a ¼ oz red jig head, but the fish are AWOL. I have caught some nice jacks here in the past, but today come up empty. Next I head to a little no-name island south of the bridge where I like to hop out of my yak and wade fish, but see that little is left—just one scraggly forlorn beat-up mangrove tree. I hook a little barracuda on a shiny Mirrolure MR17 lure with a turquoise back , but that’s it. Could be a long day.
Then it’s back towards the shoreline, where I find the coral and sand flats have been devastated. In places they are covered with a foot or more of sand thanks to Irma, and in others they have just been blown out altogether. Heeding the state park’s admonitions, I stay 400 feet offshore where there has been less damage, but it’s too deep to wade. A few guides are poling their boats several hundred yards to the south, probably looking for tarpon, but don’t seem to be doing any good. Finally, a couple of small cudas take pity on me and fall for the Mirrolure. Well, at least won’t be skunked today. Then I get a serious jolt and am fast onto something more substantial. Not a permit or bone, but putting up a good tussle. When I finally boat the critter, I am surprised to see it’s a big Lane snapper. Go figure, but the way things are going, I am happy with anything that swims.
By noon time, I have beaten the water to a froth with little to show for it. I am at the far east tip of Bahia Honda and decide to take a lunch break across the narrow channel on the south side of Ohio Key. Interestingly, the coral rocky flats on Ohio Key appear to have fared much better than those on Bahia Honda. I pull my kayak up on the small sandy beach and discover some local has created a nice little lunch spot replete with salvaged chairs and tables under the shading mangroves that have somehow survived. I feel a bit lit Robinson Crusoe in this little hideaway.
After a short rest and relaxation, I kayak and wade the south undeveloped shoreline of Ohio Key (which is also accessible by walking in from the east side of the key near the Ohio-Missouri Channel Bridge). Again, a few smaller cuda make things interesting, but I don’t see any jacks, bones, or tarpon. Finally I swing back around to the Bahia/Ohio Key channel and just along the drop off on the east side hook into another hefty, feisty Lane Snapper. Feeling my mojo is back, I increase my speed and shoot towards the bridge spanning the channel…thereby immediately spooking a giant four-foot barracuda hovering in the deeper water.
I slow things down and proceed more carefully and spot another big cuda just south of the bridge. I loft my MR17 his way, and the big fish jets forward and nails it! He dives for the bridge pier, but I shift my pedals into reverse and winch him away and into open water. After a good fight, he eases to the boat, a respectable three feet.
Now the tide is ripping in and blows me under the bridge and into the deep water on the north side. I execute a U-turn and as I do, see a huge commotion along one of the bridge piers to the west, fish smashing bait! Tarpon? Jacks? I pitch my lure into the hubbub and something immediately nails it—a good-sized jack!! Fight on.
I haul him away from the pier into quieter water and can see a half-dozen of his buddies chasing him, hoping for a morsel. He comes to the boat grudgingly for a quick release. For the next half hour, I work the piers heading west, following the action. I hook more jacks, execute a number of long-distance releases and manage to boat another four. The grab bag grows!
As I near the west end of the bridge, I look down in the clear water and see a school of five-foot tarpon gliding silently underneath my boat. I grab my tarpon rod rigged with a large gold paddletail on a jig head and cast beyond the lead fish, which accelerates forward, giving me a slight cardiac infarction but only feigning interest. Three more quick casts as I pedal furiously after the school, but all with the same result. Fickle fish. Next time I’ll bring along a few live crabs or pinfish.
I start back east, weaving in and out of the bridge piers. I switch to a deeper diving green Rapala and pick up several lurking jacks. Then another school of big tarpon slide by in front of me. I give chase, pitching the gold paddle tail into their midst. A get a jolting strike, but it’s another jack, part of a school trailing the tarpon. As I continue to prowl around the bridge, I notice a big downed mangrove submerged in mid-channel just north of the bridge. The water is clear, so I have a looking-glass view of the life teeming below—a couple of small sharks, colorful reef fish, jacks…a real menagerie! What a treat.
I have another shot at a big barracuda that I surprise lurking in the shallows at the east end of the bridge, but flub the cast and take that as a sign to move on. I head north around the east end of Bahia Honda Key, skirting the big Sunshine Key RV Park on Ohio Key that was wiped out by Irma. A major rehab effort is currently underway, but the park was still closed when I pedaled by.
The shallow flats on the north side of Bahia Honda are littered with downed mangroves that have been blown out into the water. Not sure how long they will be there, but for now practically every one harbors barracuda lurking in the submerged branches or in the little holes the tides have dug out underneath the trunks. I switch to a Jumping Minnow topwater plug and have fun as the cuda smash the lure as I crank it light speed across the surface.
Then I see a fin pierce the surface a few hundred feet out on the flat in deeper water. And another!! It’s a small school of good-sized permit searching for a meal. I quickly pedal into casting position while grabbing my permit/bonefish rod already rigged with a light brown flats candy lure that resembles a little shrimp or crab. I carefully pitch it 20 feet in front of the cruising fish, let it sink, then twitch it ever so gently as the lead critter zig-zags within range. He jets forward, looks things over, and then insouciantly continues on, followed by his buddies. I reel in quickly and throw another cast that lands too close to the school, and they scatter as if a bomb had gone off in their midst. Such is permit fishing from a kayak, but still a thrill.
Finally the breeze kicks up from the northeast, ending my fun as bigger waves start to roll across the flats. I switch back to the MR17 and pick up a cuda here and there as I continue down the scenic shoreline that offers a number of good resting spots under the shade of some of the surviving mangroves. Soon I am at a spot that is a favorite of boaters—a big white sandy strip of beach that is exposed at low tide—a good place to get out and wade and for kids to frolic.
But don’t overlook the little lagoon at the west end of the beach. On my trip a year ago I spied something big chasing little barracuda among the mangrove islands that dot the shallow lagoon. As soon as my Mirrolure landed, it was smashed by a three-foot plus barracuda that put up a tremendous battle.
Further west, I come to the deep man-made lagoon that is lined with state park campsites and cabins. The rock-ringed mouth of the lagoon is a good spot to anchor up or hop out on the rocks and work the waters slowly with deeper diving lures. I’m greeted here by a beautiful great white heron who lets me know quite boldly that I am intruding on his fishing spot!
So I continue around the bend and hit a barracuda bonanza! On practically every cast I hook up with a toothy cuda, nothing big but a blast of action as the day starts to come to an end.
Now I am gliding under the big highway bridge, riding the swift current back south. I am tempted to cast for some tarpon around the bridge piers, but am just too tuckered out to fight the tide that is blasting through. Maybe next time. I continue on along the shoreline that is lined with friendly campers who have their lines out in the water and shout approval as I land a couple of more small barracuda at the mouth of the lagoon where NOAA research vessels are anchored. I scoot into the lagoon and am treated to the sight of some gargantuan manatee lolling in the deep, quiet waters. What giant, gentle creatures they are, often coming right to the kayak for a curious look.
Finally the siren’s call of a mango margarita waiting back at camp lures me to the marina. Things have been rearranged substantially on Bahia Honda, but the island is coming back and the fishing is as good as ever! Just got to get in a kayak and go with the flow.
Wade Fishing: Spanish and Ohio Key Options
With the restrictions placed on shoreline access by the state park, wade fishing around Bahia Honda is kaput except in a very few spots that can only be accessed by kayak. But never fear, nearby Spanish Harbor/Summerland Key and Ohio Key offer some great options.
One of my favorite spots is on the south side of Spanish Harbor Key about mid island. Look for a short seawall that comes hard up against the highway. Here you can park on the side of the road and pick your way carefully down to the shoreline to access some beautiful hard coral/sand flats that extend out hundreds of feet into the ocean.
The sharp rocks call for some good flats wading boots and careful navigation, but the rewards are plentiful. On my third cast I hook and land a truculent three-foot plus barracuda, followed by two more big boys in quick succession. Quite a thrill to try to land a toothy, thrashing barracuda that is eyeing you testily with those big eyes while you are standing in waist-deep water.
Then I work west towards the sadly derelict Girl and Boy Scout Camps that were trashed by Irma. But the fish are there, including some baby tarpon that follow my lure but refuse to fall for the fake meal.
Another interesting spot to wade fish on Spanish Harbor Key is the square-shaped Blue Lagoon on the north side. I have caught jacks, snapper, and cuda here plus had shots at permit. Be careful as the shoreline drops off quickly into deep water.
Similar flats can be found to the east of Bahia Honda on the south Atlantic side of Ohio Key. Foot access can be gained near the Ohio-Missouri Channel Bridge, then wading south and west. At low tide, the deep Ohio-Missouri Channel where some big tarpon, sharks, and barracuda lurk can be reached by wading anglers with a long cast. Otherwise, it’s a grab bag of cuda, jacks, and snapper closer to shore. Again, good thick-soled flats wading boots are highly recommended on the sharp coral rocks.