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 winds and tides on Big Pine Key where I usually set up my mobile fish camp for a couple of weeks every year got me to doing some research. I wasn’t about to sit at home all day in my travel trailer twiddling my thumbs. 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. 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 and overall they have fewer than 10% of the tourist numbers. 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. This is the second of the series featuring an offshore key with good fishing as well as an intriguing botanical oddity, a rare lignumvitae tree stand whose wood is so dense it will sink in water, was used for key parts of the first U.S. nuclear sub and Pete Seeger’s favorite banjo!! Talk about versatility.
LIGNUMVITAE KEY BOTANICAL STATE PARK
Want a shot at toothy barracuda, jacks, big bones, and maybe a tarpon while plying some of the most pristine shorelines I’ve seen in Florida while getting an intriguing botanical and history lesson to boot? Look no further than Lignumvitae Key. While reachable only by private boat or tour, the paddle out to Lignumvitae is a just short 1 ¼ mile from the Indian Key Boat Ramp near Mile Marker 79 on the Overseas Highway. It can be combined in a long day trip with a visit to Indian Key Historical State Park just to the south of the highway (See the first article in this series for more on Indian Key.) The park and island are named after the rare virgin stand of unusual Lignumvitae (Tree of Life) trees in the tropical hardwood forest that covers the key.
For the angler, the key consideration for this trip is the tides. Some of the most productive flats around the island are accessible only at higher tides, especially those on the south side of the island. Also, if the wind is howling out of the north, stay home. Today it’s a gentle 5-10 mph breeze. So planning accordingly, I am pedaling towards Lignumvitae Key in my Hobie Outback late morning under a brilliant blue sky. I take some time fishing around the bridge pilings as I glide west from the Indian Key Ramp, get a couple of strikes on a Gulp curlytail mounted on a 1/8 ounce jig head, but come up empty. Finally the allure of the turquoise water around the key are just too much to resist so I make a beeline north where I can see some scattered sandy potholes in the broad sea grass and coral flats that promise barracuda and maybe some jacks.
During the warmer months permit and bones can be found here also. I grab my standard 6 ½ light/medium spinning rig as I speed along. I’ve already tied on my favorite cuda lure, the shiny Mirrolure MR17 with a turquoise back and get ready to hunt….just in time to run head-on into a giant torpedo shape that veers sharply away from the kayak. Aargghh! I’ve spooked a lone four-foot plus barracuda cruising the shallows for a meal. Seeing these solitary giants on the flats in the winter is a common occurrence, but in my haste I have blown a chance at the biggest fish I will see the entire week. Word to the wise: Scan the water for these leviathans as you make your way slowly and carefully over the flats to the shoreline.
When I finally do reach the shoreline, the tide is high so I have several feet of water to work with. I cast my plug towards a mangled little islet 20 yards offshore near key’s northeast point that Hurricane Irma has worked over. As soon as it hits, the water boils and my line starts slicing through the water. After a good battle, a two-foot barracuda comes to the boat. I carefully remove the hook with a pair of long-nose fishing pliers, release the critter, then rub my hands thoroughly with a scrub pad sponge to remove the slick fish slime from my hands. If you don’t, I guarantee taking that next fish off will be an adventure and in the meantime you may lose overboard anything you touch like a camera, phone, or rod. One reason barracuda can blast along at over 30 mph is they have one of the slickest coats among finny creatures.
I head down the shoreline, probing the nooks, crannies, and sandy potholes, getting barracuda here and there, mostly babies. In places the water is too shallow even with the tides in and I have to pedal further out. Then as I round the southwest tip of the key I spot a great-looking series of sandy patches running east to west a couple of hundred yards offshore. On my first cast across one of the patches to the sea grass border on the opposite side, three decent-sized barracuda come barreling after it, but break away when they see the boat. I cross over to the other side and cast back north. Before I can even start to crank the lure back a mini-geyser explodes around it, and a big barracuda is off to the races, but just as soon he’s off. I test to see if my hook is sharp, then cast a few feet to the right of the first strike…and BAM, another cuda nails it and again steams away but somehow comes off. Now I am thinking I am jinxed. Surely a third cast in the same spot won’t produce…but happily I’m wrong. The MR17 is immediately nailed by another good fish and this time stays hooked. He starts to tow the kayak over the honey hole so I throw the pedals into reverse land winch him away. It’s a nice 30-inch fish!
A quick release, and I am back at it. For the next thirty minutes I am whooping and hollering as the cudas attack my lure with abandon.
When the action ends the tide is falling fast, and I no longer can get anywhere near the shore on the west side of the island that produced some fast fishing for snapper and barracuda last May. I skirt the shallows and when the water finally deepens near the northwest point of the key where a marked boat channel comes close in, I score a few more small barracuda. Then I hit the glorious north shoreline with its rocky coral oceanfront and pristine sea grass and coral flats.
The flats taper off into some deeper water not far from shore, so I work the shoreline in an “S” pattern. I use the MR17 in the shallower areas and something switch to a second rod mounted with a white curlytail on a jig for the deeper water. It pays off—I catch some good two-foot plus cudas near the shoreline and some feisty jacks in the deeper water.
I also find several big schools of mangrove snappers against the shoreline around downed trees and get several bites, but no hookups. Next time I’ll bring some shrimp to feed them! All the while I am keeping my eyes out for bonefish. When I was here in May, I had multiple shots at a school of some of the biggest bonefish I have seen in the Keys, but they studiously ignored my offerings. Today I see no cruising schools, but honestly am not surprised given the time of year and the cool temperatures the last couple of days. Bonefish are hard to come by anywhere in the Keys in January, preferring warmer climes. However, late in the afternoon on a sunny day if the water temperatures reach the mid-70s and there is a falling tide, you may be in for a treat. The warmer water falling off the flats may well attrack bones, permit, and even tarpon to the channel edges. A pencil-style fishing thermometer can help you gauge your chances.
But not today. So I pedal off around the bend to the east shoreline that usually produces smaller barracudas all the way down, both along the shoreline and in deeper water. Today, however, the tide is falling rapidly, and I can’t get anywhere near the shoreline and fish of any kind are AWOL. I decide to take a little rest at the excellent kayak ramp near the tour boat dock about half way down the shoreline. It’s here that on Fridays through Sunday tours of the island are offered December through April at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Otherwise no visitors are allowed. (Check the park website for current hours of operation.) The admission fee is only $2.50.
Lignumvitae Key has a fascinating and somewhat offbeat history thanks to its namesake tree. The key is a relatively large one—almost 300 acres, and sports the highest point in the Florida Keys, a lofty 19 feet above sea level. Interestingly, the island was once a living coral reef submerged below the surface when world water levels were much higher. The mysterious Calusa Indians buried their dead here over 500 years ago and some believe may have built the beautiful rock and coral wall that extends almost a mile across the middle of the island. Maybe they were trying, like some latter-day politicians, to keep the Spanish out, but surprise, it didn’t work. The Spanish and the British took turns occupying the island in the 1700 and 1800s, and the valuable lignum vitae trees were cut and exported from here and Caribbean islands to Europe along with its resin that was used to treat coughs, arthritis, and syphilis!
The tree’s incredible hard wood—the hardest in the world–and its density, strength, and self-lubricating property made it a hot commodity. Over the next two centuries it was used in key parts of ships like propeller shafts and other products like cricket balls, British police truncheons (ouch!), mortars and pestles, clock gears, and fishing rods. It even was used in parts of the first U.S. nuke sub and the upper portion of Pete Seeger’s banjo. Quite a resume!! While the wood has been replaced commercially by synthetic and metal products, the handsome tree that grows slowly to a height of only 25 feet or so is a favorite ornamental plant. Today it is the national tree of the Bahamas and its luminescent lavender bloom the national flower of Jamaica.
In 1919 a wealthy owner of a chemical company named Matheson bought the entire island lock, stock, and barrel. He built a beautiful coral rock home that survived the devastating 1935 hurricane and that now serves as the park visitor center. Proposals were made in the 1960s to develop the island, but citizen protests led the state to purchase it in 1971 and create a state botanical park.
The wind kicking up snaps me out of my musings about how this placed evolved and the mystery of the Calusa wall. After stretching my legs a bit, I notice the sun is setting below the island canopy. Better shove off. I continue down the east shoreline, managing a couple of small barracuda, but decide in light of the rapidly falling tide, I’d better make haste and head back to the ramp across the deep boat channel that is bracketed by some very shallow, soft grass flats. No way do I want to be pulling my yak over that muck. Still I end up having to use a paddle as the water is too shallow to allow me to use my pedal kayak fins. Nothing like a vigorous upper body workout to end the day! I do probe the edges of the deep channel where tarpon sometimes lay up, but the tide is now roaring out south to the Atlantic Ocean, and the fish are long gone.
I glide south down the main channel riding the current and finally get near the Highway 1 Bridge and intersection of the channel leading back to the ramp. Take care here as you paddle the channel as some bozo motor boaters routinely ignore the minimum wake signs and will buzz right by you at full speed with an attendant big wake.
It’s been a great winter fishing day. I think of my buddies back in Colorado breaking through ice on the banks of the Arkansas to chase trout in the icy water, fingers numb and mustaches iced up. I decide to make a toast in their honor when I pull into Robbie’s Bar and Grill and grill just a few minutes down the road and watch the resident tarpon and pelicans put on a show feeding just off the dock.
I am already musing about a return trip to fish around Shell Key, another nearby large island that is managed as part of Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park and larger preserve. I can’t find anything on-line about kayaking or fishing around this mystery island. Who can resist!?!