The Fantastic Four:  Fishing The Forgotten State Parks Of The Middle Keys

January 2019

 Most visitors to the Florida Keys whiz down the OverSeas Highway (US 1) heading for destinations in the Lower Keys like Bahia Honda State Park (Florida’s most popular) or Key West, oblivious to the natural beauty, solitude, and hungry fish literally a stone’s throw away in four fabulous state parks—Indian Key, Lignumvitae, Curry Hammock, and Long Key.  I have to confess that for many years I did.  A fortuitous convergence of unfavorable wind and tides on Big Pine Key–where I usually set up my mobile fish camp every year for a couple of weeks–got me to doing some research.  I wasn’t about to sit at home all day in my travel trailer twiddling my thumbs with fish to be caught.  A little on-line sleuthing revealed more favorable tides and breezes back up the road about an hour between Marathon and Islamorada, as well as a string of state parks that would give me access to a lot of water. 

Four Secluded, Lightly Visited State Parks Can Be Found Between Marathon and Islamorada

It paid off in a bonanza of barracuda, jacks, and snapper with shots at bones, permit, and sharks.

In contrast to Bahia Honda State Park near Big Pine Key that hosts over 400,000 visitors annually, with long lines of cars waiting to get in most days, the parking lots of the hidden four are rarely full.  These smaller parks get only 1/10th the number of visitors every year.  Rarely do I run into other kayakers and even more rarely other anglers, and even if I do there are miles of shoreline and flats to fish.

These four state parks have now become a destination for me, not an afterthought.  In the series of articles that follow on each of the hidden gems, I will take you on an angling tour with some fascinating history and nature tidbits thrown in.  I start at Indian Key near Islamorada and work down to Curry Hammock near Marathon.

INDIAN KEY HISTORIC STATE PARK

Indian Key Historic State Park, located just offshore near Mile Marker 78 on Highway 1, is a perfect half day outing that offers a fascinating mix of history and scads of toothy marauding barracuda, occasional snappers and jacks, and in-season shots at permit, reds, and tarpon to boot.  You’ll need a boat to reach the island (Kayaks can be rented at nearby Robbie’s.), but it’s a very short 15-20 minute paddle and suitable even for novice anglers and kayakers.

 

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Indian Key And Boat Ramp Near MM 78

I like to use the small gravel Indian Key boat ramp on the north side of the highway then pedal southwest down the boat channel and under the bridge south to Indian Key.  Just keep an eye out for the motorboats that sometimes speed down the channel ignoring the “minimum wake” signs.  I used to launch from the sandy south shoreline of the highway, but Hurricane Irma has caused serious damage to the road edge that has yet to be fixed.  Because of the very shallow flats between the highway and the island, the best time is on a rising, near-high tide.  It’s a particularly good trip when the wind is blowing from the north because the highway provides shelter. And after you circumnavigate the island and catch your fill of fish, don’t miss taking a self-guided tour of the historic park.  It’s hard to believe that back in the early 1800s it was the county seat of Dade County (Miami) and a thriving town with a dozen of houses, a hotel, and even a post office.  More about that in a bit after the fishing expedition.

It’s 8:00 a.m. and I’m pedaling my trusty Hobie Outback kayak over the pristine grassy flats just south of the highway.

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On The Water To Indian Key

I’ve timed the trip to take advantage of the tide that is already rolling in, scheduled to peak at 10:15 this morning.  There are a few clouds, but in a jiffy they will burn off for a sunny and balmy January day–already 75 degrees–with a gentle breeze from the north.  Perfect!!  The flats soon are soon almost mirror-like in the calm winds so I pedal carefully, hoping to see some permit or redfish hunting in the shallows like I did last May.  It’s a long shot in winter, but one never knows.  I cast a flats candy jig into the potholes scattered in the beautiful sea grass but come up empty.  Then it’s on to the island.

As I get within casting distance on the west side of the key I switch rods to one rigged with my go-to cuda lure—a shiny-sided Mirrolure MR17 with a turquoise back.  Barracuda like a lot of flash.  Don’t forget to use a wire leader.  Mine is a shiny one, 12 inches long and 30# test.  On the first cast I reel and jig the lure at warp speed, imitating a frenzied, injured bait fish.  Then WHAM, and the water erupts as a barracuda slashes in from out of nowhere to intercept the lure.  After a valiant battle, I ease the truculent critter to the boat—what a trophy!  He’s at least eight inches!!

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Baby Cuda Falls For MR17 Lure

I have to laugh.  Fortunately, that will not be the last nor the largest I catch.  Many more to come.

Today I find the barracuda are either up against the shoreline chasing small glass minnows or 50-60 feet off shore lurking on the edge of sandy potholes waiting to ambush anything brave enough to risk exposure in the open expanse.  When I cast under some overhanging mangroves and see some snapper chasing the lure, I switch rods again and skip a white Gulp shrimp on a chartreuse jig head under the branches.  Soon I’m pulling in some decent fish.  It’s a little dicey since I don’t use a wire leader for the snapper, but fortunately the cuda aren’t interested.

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Snapper Add To The Fun Around Indian Key

I circle back further from the shoreline over the beautiful grassy flats and throw a long cast over a pothole to its far edge.  Something rockets from the sea grass and nails the lure.  It’s my first good one of the day, pushing two feet.  When I get the fish close, I am surprised to see how lightly colored this barracuda is, almost white reflecting his environment.

First Sizable Barracuda

Soon I am pedaling past the designated kayak landing about one-half way down the west shoreline.  This is the ONLY legal, designated place to land and go on shore.

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Kayak Landing On West Side Of Key

On-line postings from 2016 and earlier indicated you can land your kayak on the north end of the key, but a sternly worded sign will warn you off that protected area today.  Respect this pristine area and use the designated spot.  I also discover that the dock just a little further down the shoreline on the west side is damaged and closed, not usable by motor boats.  It’s now become a favorite spot of the local bird population.

Dock Closed Courtesy Of Ms Irma
Avian Sunbathers

Based on prior experience, I expect to find some good fish lurking under the dock, but multiple casts with the MR17 and the Gulp shrimp come up empty.  The resident cormorants and pelicans add to the insult with a cacophony of derisive hoots and gurgles.  I exit hastily around the south end of the island that has produced jacks in the past and where tarpon cruise on the beautiful rocky flats in May, but today I get zilch.  But I know the best is yet to come.

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Rocky South End Of Indian Key–Beware Of Tides And Strong Currents

 The east side is textbook cuda country where they can ambush baitfish in the sandy patches scattered throughout the sea grass and coral shallows.

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Cuda Hang Out On The Edges Of Sandy Patches On Flats

I make a long cast parallel to the shoreline across a couple of the sandy patches and a good one immediately smashes the MR17, creating a giant boil on the surface.  He bends my rod double and starts the reel to singing as line peels off.  Some people say barracuda, like white guys, can’t jump….but that’s not true on light spin tackle like I am using—a 6 ½ foot light/medium rod, 2500 series reel, with 30# test line and 30# wire leader.  He executes a couple of high-flying cartwheels  before coming reluctantly to the boat, a nice two-footer. 

I carefully remove the hooks, reminding myself to replace the nasty trebles before my next trip with the new in-line single hooks that are every bit as goodeffective, less damaging to the fish, and much easier to remove.  At a minimum, crimp the barbs down on those trebles.  A word of caution to anyone who hasn’t caught a barracuda before—make sure your hands are dry before you handle one and try to remove a hook from their sharp toothy mouths.  I carry a sponge with a scrub surface to make sure I get all the slime off and my hand is dry before I handle the next cuda.  If you don’t, please practice beforehand removing hooks from your fingers.  And whatever you do, don’t handle the cuda then reach for your cell phone for a pix.  It likely will squirt into the deep like mine did a few years back.  Also remember that barracuda are newly designated sport fish in Florida and subject to size limits—the slot for keepers is 15 to 36 inches, with one fish over 36 inches allowed to be kept per boat.

For the next hour I have a ball circling the shoreline and probing the shallows and patches.  Sometimes I have a half-dozen small cudas chasing the lure lickety split which makes me laugh out loud.  Such eagerness in pursuit of a meal!!  Last may I caught a good one here that went just over three feet, but today the biggest are about 24-30 inches.  But keep an eye open.  Often the big ones will be cruising in solitary fashion across the flats, giving you a shot at a four-foot monster. I keep widening my hunting circle till I reach the edge of the deep marked channel for powerboats to the east.  Good-sized jacks often lay in wait here, but today I just get a couple of dinks on a white Gulp curlytail.

By now it’s eleven and my stomach is already growling so I head back to the kayak landing on the west side of the island.  I beach my kayak and find a couple of other boaters are there already to tour the island.  Neither has a fishing rod.  After a leisurely lunch in the shade, I decide to explore.  A pay box for the $2.50 entry fee is next to the landing but I have a state parks pass so proceed.  The state parks people have done an admirable job of laying out a system of discreet gravel and shell paths throughout the small eleven-acre island along with informative signage.

Today the island is mostly overgrown; it is hard to believe in the early 1800s there was a thriving small town here.  But a satellite view of the island reveals the original grid system with a large town square.  A good place to get an initial birds-eye look at the terrain is from the tall observation tower on the north side of the key.  Just follow the path straight east from the kayak landing.  The island was inhabited as early as 1733 by Spanish survivors of a treasure fleet that wrecked on the dangerous reefs offshore.  They were followed by a rough bunch of Bahamian and Cuban wreckers who salvaged ships that routinely ran aground.  The first permanent settlement was built up in the 1830s, again the population made up primarily of salvagers.  A tough young sea captain named John Jacob Housman, who reportedly didn’t win many popularity contests, bought up most of the island and ruled it with an iron hand.  As a wrecking port, Indian Key prospered and by the late 1830s had a population of 70 people and the aptly named Tropical Hotel with a nine-pin bowling alley and restaurant, post office, and other businesses around a traditional town square with dozens of homes scattered throughout the island.  Houseman was even able to get the Florida territorial legislature to split the area off from Monroe County and Key West to form Dade County, with the island as its county seat.  James J. Audobon was a prominent visitor, and several of his paintings depicted scenes of birds from the island.

But all of that came to a bloody end in 1840 during the Second Seminole War when the Indians mounted a sneak attack, killing 13 people and driving off the rest.  For the next 50 years the island was occupied only periodically by the U.S. Navy and a few families of salvagers.  As the town declined, it lost its county seat status to a small community to the northeast called Miami.

Take your time to walk around the island, enjoying the lush vegetation featuring huge yucca and century plants along with cactus. 

Century Plants, Yucca, and Cactus Thrive On Indian Key

It truly is a desert island with no source of fresh water, as witnessed by the cisterns scattered around that were built back in the 1800 to capture rainwater for the settlers. 

Cisterns Captured Rainwater For Drinking

Building Foundations Dot The Island

The archeological digs are fascinating as well, standing in stark contrast to the wildness that has taken over during the last two centuries.  Kudos to the Florida State Park system and its staff that have protected this grand resource, wisely balancing nature with history while allowing visitors to sample both.

With a tip of my cap to them I head in to the ramp, visions of a cool brew and sizzling burger at nearby Robbie’s dancing in my head!

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