For the first two articles in this series, see my earlier pieces on fishing Indian Key and Lignumvitae State Parks
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, Lignum Vitae, 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, snook, 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 each has 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 third of the series featuring a hidden gem of a park that offers solitude and excellent sheltered fishing cheek-to-jowl with the hubbub of Marathon along its own fascinating history involving a genteel southern teacher lady who made it all possible.
CURRY HAMMOCK STATE PARK
When the wind blows hard from the north as it often does in the Keys, especially in the winter, I load up my kayak and head for shelter and eager fish at Curry Hammock State Park near Marathon at Mile Marker 56.2 on the Overseas Highway. This thousand-acre park, the largest uninhabited parcel of land between Key Largo and Big Pine Key, actually encompasses several islands and spans both sides of the Overseas Highway—in other words, a lot of water to explore.
Curry Hammock is an environmental jewel that protects expansive mangrove swamps, rockland hammocks, and pristine seagrass beds and is a terrific spot to see wading and shorebirds. The park is situated on an important bird migration route, especially for raptors, and is part of the South Florida Birding Trail. It is a particularly great getaway spot for families with its attractive campground, restrooms with an outdoor shower, excellent beach with calm waters, playground, and picnic shelters. Kayaks are also available for rental. Still, with all of its attractive attributes, Curry Hammock is seldom crowded onshore and even less so on the water.
Nevertheless, I like to shove off as early as possible so I’ll have the place all to myself. The park opens at 8:00 a.m. unless you are staying at the campground. The entry fee is $4.50 for one person.
It’s another windy January day in the Keys, with the temperatures in the upper 60s, frigid for down here. I unload my kayak and hump it several hundred feet from the east end of the parking lot to the launch spot, a white sand beach between two clumps of mangroves.
Having fished the canals to the north on previous trips with little success other than snapper, I immediately pedal out into the Atlantic and turn right, past the campground, towards the two big bays on the west side of the park.
But today the tide is very low, and I can’t get close to the usually productive shoreline. I catch a few baby cuda on the old reliable shiny Mirrolure MR17 further offshore in the channel. The low tide also keeps me out of the deep bay to the northeast where I caught some big barracuda last May. I pick up some more small barracuda off the north shoreline, but again am foiled by the low tide so turn south towards the deeper channel north of Deer Key. Finally I start connecting, now with a few jacks and more barracuda, but the action is hardly what could be called fast.
With hope unabated, I come to the second big bay that extends all the way north to the Overseas Highway, this one much deeper than the one to the east. I have had good action here in the past later in the spring, but surprisingly, even though the water looks great, I can only coax a few snapper on the west shoreline. Finally, with the wind really kicking up and even creating a few whitecaps I fly the white flag and decide to get out of the gale by ducking into the canal that separates an upscale residential development from the west end of the park. I need some warmth!
Although the canal is deep and has some good-looking stretches lined with mangroves on one side and docks on the other, I haven’t had much luck here. But just as I am about to lose my mojo, I get strike in a nook in the mangroves on a white Gulp shrimp mounted on a 1/8 ounce yellow jig head. Then another and another. In the clear water I can see a big school of snapper giving chase, but they shy off when they see the kayak. I decide to let the jig sink deeper on the next cast and get a jolting strike. It’s a big snapper, the daddy of the clan.
After a quick photo and release, I circle back against the strong rising tide and score a couple more smaller ones. I edge further down the canal up against the mangroves, pitching my lure under the branches as I enjoying the warm sun…and come face-to-face with a big, fearsome-looking iguana perched in the mangroves, also soaking up rays. He’s a beauty, looking every bit like some medieval dragon! Fortunately being a reptile he’s still too cold to wrangle with me, so I glide by without incident.
As the action dies down along the mangroves, I cross over the canal and pitch my lure under one of the residential docks. I let the MR17 sink and WHAM, something big nails the lure and just as quickly vanishes. Maybe a cuda? A snook? Who knows. That will be the only decent bite I get in the residential canals that also failed to satisfy on previous trips.
After killing an hour or so in the canals, I figure the tide is high enough to test the flats on the south Atlantic side of Deer Key. On the way, I catch a couple of small snapper in the deep channel off the west side of the key, then hit a barracuda bonanza. The incoming tide has brought with it scads of marauding barracuda and some jacks, much to my enjoyment. For the next hour, I catch and release a several dozen fish, including a couple of two-footers.
Some are hunting up against the shoreline amid schools of bait fish, but the bigger boys seem to be a hundred yards or so offshore. I pedal in an “S” pattern to cover the water thoroughly. As I head east and reach the midpoint of the island, I see a long, dark form in the water heading my way. I execute a perfect cast 10 feet in front of the fish, and he promptly rockets away at warp speed towards Cuba—a big three-foot plus barracuda. Aarrgghh!! By far the biggest I will see all day!
With my arms getting weary and my stomach growling, I decide to head back across the channel to the picnic table on Crawl Key point for lunch. As I pedal down the shoreline, I am treated to an ornithological show featuring egrets, wading birds, and even a rare Great White Heron.
As I munch on lunch and quaff my RC Cola, I look over the official park brochure I was handed at the entry station. I am curious to learn about the history of the park….like where the name “Curry” came from. But there’s nary a mention in the guide or on any plaque in the park, so I had to do some on-line research later to find out about Lamar Louise Curry, a beloved Miami teacher who made it possible back in the 1990s.
Miss Curry, the privileged daughter of Alfred Curry who had purchased large tracts of land in the Keys, was characterized by one friend as “a genteel Southern lady, the true ‘steel magnolia” if there ever was one.” She declined to marry, once telling her friend, “I never met a man who measured up to my father.” A well-liked, stylish lady, Miss Curry taught for 35 years in Miami public schools and has a middle school named in her honor. When she passed away in 2011 at 105 years of age, the Miami Herald published a long tribute to her (See https://www.miamiherald.com/latest-news/article1945285.html).
In it, Bob Graham, the popular former U.S. senator and Florida governor and student of Miss Curry had this to say about her: “Nobody who came out of Miss Curry’s class could be accused of being historical illiterates. She expected you to know the date when the First World War ended, but was mainly concerned that you understood the rationale and major themes of American history. She was a wonderful storyteller. She taught history as an ongoing series of stories about human beings, not just dry recitations of wars and other hallmarks of history courses.” Graham recalled his first day in her class in 1953. “She was going over class rolls and putting a name to a face in alphabetical order. She said, ‘Robert, you see that desk by the blackboard? That’s where your brother Philip sat. Your sister Mary sat there and your brother William sat there. They were all very good students, and I expect you to be a very good student.” Graham added she was also a big Elvis fan.
After her father died, Miss Curry inherited his large landholdings and disposed of them shrewdly over the years to maintain an elegant, but quiet life-style in upscale Coral Gables. Her legacy includes the Buttonwood Bay development in Key Largo, upon which Miss Curry reportedly imposed tight conservation-minded deed restrictions to protect shoreline mangroves, as well as Curry Hammock State Park which she sold to the state in 1991 rather than offering it for development that was booming in the area at the time.
AFTERNOON BACK ON THE WATER
I decide to try to get into the first western bay that was too shallow earlier in the morning, but even with the tide rising, it’s still very shallow and devoid of any fish, at least cooperative ones. Then it’s off to the often-overlooked east end of the park. While technically outside the park, just a 10 minute paddle to the east along Crawl Key is a big sheltered bay, featuring a large island, that is loaded with barracuda.
A caveat: You can only gain access to this bay when the tide is high, but it’s definitely worth the effort. I manage to skim in over the flats into the bay and then have my way with the barracuda once again.
By 4:30 p.m. the sun is starting to sink behind the mangroves, and the air is getting even chillier. There’s still lots of water to cover in the park. Jacks and snapper like the extensive flats on the Atlantic side that also draw in bonefish and permit during warmer weather. That’s not to mention the several miles of shoreline on the north side of the Overseas Highway that I have yet to sample and that rarely see any kayak anglers. Alas, given the hour, I think it’s time to call it a day and start planning a return trip. But I intend to continue the barracuda-themed outing. I’m going to grab a shower and head to the fine dining at the aptly named Barracuda Grill in Marathon. With wonderful décor, great service, and excellent dishes, this restaurant has become my favorite in the Middle Keys…and a great way to tip your hat to Florida’s newest official gamefish!