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.
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.
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. Several 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 scooting down the Overseas Highway before sunrise, joining the morning rush into Key West. I am keeping a 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 it 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!