Posted by: 1000fish | March 24, 2011

Communing With Manatees

Dateline – March 24, 2011: Islamorada, Florida

We all have bad days; I certainly had a string of them in late March. And on our bad days, we can find comfort in strange places, but this had to be the strangest ever for me, and not least because a vegetarian was involved.

So, with the IGFA awards banquet coming up in Miami on March 26, (more on that later), I decided to spend a couple of days in the Florida Keys, chasing the few species that had somehow eluded me on my many trips to this true fishing mecca. I couldn’t bear the thought of being within a short drive of Islamorada and not going there.

The Keys are one of my favorite places to fish on the planet. Wonderful scenery, great people, awesome food, a tackle store on every corner, and an amazingly laid back “Margaritaville” culture that just makes me want to pummel Jimmy Buffett, mostly because that song got stuck in my head on the way down and stayed there all week, becoming the unofficial soundtrack of the trip. (Check if you don’t know the tune in question.)

Nibbling on sponge cake, watching the sun bake all of those tourists covered with oil

Strumming my six string, out on my front porch swing, the smell of shrimp, they’re beginning to boil

I never even really liked that song, but it was burned into my brain all the way from Miami airport down to Bud and Mary’s Marina about 85 miles south.  It can be a long drive in traffic, but all I needed to do was get down to the marina, check in, unpack my gear, and eat something. This is not so much to ask, especially considering my rather simple dietary requirements, which can be met by the daily special at any Waffle House.

It goes from urban to scenic very quickly south of Miami.

Got there just in time to see the sun set. This view is looking out the back door of one of the biggest tackle stores in the universe, so it’s amazing I noticed.

This time, I went all-out and rented one of the houseboats on the outer perimeter of the harbor – more space for gear, it’s quiet, and it has a great view. Bud and Mary’s is like an aquarium without the walls – teeming with tarpon and other types of fish, all off limits. It’s frustrating to the average fisherman to look at all that fishy activity without being able to take a cast, but it still gives one a good idea of what’s swimming around out there.

(See for an example – and yes, this drives me nuts.)  Once I settled in, I went out on the deck of my houseboat and shined a flashlight in the water, and there were tarpon and snappers right under me, a fact which would figure prominently in an embarrassing moment less than 48 hours later. (See next blog.) In the morning, I would be fishing with Vinnie Biondoletti.

Vinnie Biondoletti, ever smiling, more quizzically at some times than others. He can be reached at 305 852-3496.

As long as I have been going to the Keys, I have been fishing with Vinnie. He is one of the premier flats guides in the area, and has put countless clients into countless bonefish, permit, tarpon, and snook. Like any expert, he is focused on the glamour species, which is why fishing with me must clearly be retribution for something he did wrong in a past life. He knew there was something terribly wrong with me from our first trip together in August of 1999, but he has stuck it out and it has become a personal challenge for him to find some new and bizarre fish every time I show up. Apart from my first tarpon and bonefish, this has also led to unlikely triumphs like the Redfin Needlefish, the Porkfish, and of course the Dwarf Sand Perch.

Wasting away again in Margaritaville, searching for my lost shaker of salt

Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame, but I know it’s nobody’s fault

Mornings in the Keys are special. It is still cool before what usually becomes tropical heat; it is still quiet before the channels get filled with boats roaring off to the back country or offshore. The flats are full of wading birds in the still dawn, searching out small, rare fish that I have never caught. Looking out the “back door” of my houseboat was like stepping into a postcard. But stepping out the back door would have been stepping into 5 feet of water, so I didn’t do that, especially as the place is absolutely full of sharks.

The morning view out the back door of my houseboat.

The darn birds really were eating some kind of goby I have never caught.

It was good to see Vinnie again. He greeted me with that quizzical smile he always wears when he announces that the Tarpon are biting like crazy and I ask if he can find me an Oyster Toadfish.

We then spent some time looking for big sharks. We poked around the back country a bit, endless grassy flats with small islands here and there out to the horizon, all separated by narrow deeper channels that hold all kinds of predatory creatures. We spent several hours soaking ridiculously large baits. I passed the time pitching small baits behind us to see if some oddball would show up, but the only thing that showed up was Pinfish.  Legions of Pinfish – half of which ate my baits, the other half of which formed a protective cordon around the area and kept any other species from getting near my baits. The shark rigs remained undisturbed, and as the tide reached bottom, we considered other options.

These are Pinfish. Like my relatives, they are evil and travel in large groups.

Don’t know the reason, stayed here all season, nothing to show but this brand new tattoo

But it’s a real beauty, a Mexican cutie, how it got here I haven’t a clue

We ran out on the ocean side for a couple of hours to poke around the coral patches and try to get a couple of tropical oddities. Unfortunately, the Grunts were thick and aggressive (like me), and we couldn’t get to the reef weird stuff. We did get a couple of nice Porgies and some Snappers, and I did catch one Chub, a vegetarian reef pest that has a nasty habit of spraying poop everywhere. There is a story from May of 2008 that involves Spellman, a new yellow Columbia flats shirt, and a big, dyspeptic Chub with excellent aim. But I’ll skip that for now. (We all know how that one ends, don’t we? Say it with me … “Spellman stood there, stunned and covered in …” (For more on Spellman, see

I always photograph Chubs, because there are actually two species in the area, the Yellow and the Bermuda, and I only have the Yellow. And according to that fountain of fish knowledge, Dr. Alfredo Carvalho, this one I’d just caught was in fact the Bermuda and I had added a new if unglamorous species. Vinny smiled in bewilderment when I told him later.

This thing might look harmless, but it can spray poop for a yard in any direction. Spellman quivered in terror just seeing the photo.

 A Jolthead Porgy, one of the more delicious nearshore reef residents.

The Bluehead Wrasse. They’re called that because their heads are blue.

Calm down, you conservative types – that’s not a terrorist in the background, it’s just Vinnie dressed like one. The fish is called a Sergeant Major.

For the late afternoon, it was back to the channels on the gulf side of the island for another shot at the sharks. Which meant more Pinfish. And more Pinfish. It was hot, windless, sultry, and the sharkswere not to be found. Vinnie reluctantly gave up after about 2 hours of overtime. So the day was not a massive species triumph, but these are the risks we take to go after stupidly big fish. I knew we would try it again tomorrow, with perhaps a bit more time on the ocean side looking for some new critters on the nearshore reefs.

Wasting away again in Margaritaville, looking for my lost shaker of salt

Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame, now I think, hell it could be my fault

We got back in to the harbor late in the afternoon. Although I was bone-tired, there is always one pilgrimage that must be made on every trip to Islamorada – the Worldwide Sportsman Store. This is a several-acre mecca of fishing gear, where they have every lure in every size and every color. This one place has accounted for the majority of the tackle that sits unopened in my garage to the present day.

The Worldwide Sportsman store. They have tackle, an aquarium, a bathroom, clean underwear, and a restaurant. I could live here.

On the way back to my houseboat, I saw something amazing in the harbor. One of the guides had a freshwater hose out to rinse off his gear, and a Manatee – a huge, peaceful, harmless vegetarian thing – came out of nowhere and began slurping water from the hose, like a baby nursing.  Pure fresh water is hard to come by for them, so they really go after sources like this. Interestingly, Manatees are thought to be the origin of the mermaid myth – their scientific family is even called Sirenidae. Looking at one up close, I have to say I just don’t get it. Sure, their tail is a flipper, but they weigh 500 pounds and have hair in some odd places. That’s just not a mistake anyone (who isn’t Polish) could make while sober – if there was ever a testimony about the evils of rum, this would be it.

Adorable, yes. But hardly a Victoria’s Secret model.

And because I hadn’t really had enough fishing in the first 10 hours on the water, I took a bag of shrimp and headed under the Tea Table bridge to fish some more. I put in a good couple of hours before dinner; alas, no new species to report, although I got a few attractive little beasts – see below. The sun set over the back country flats to the west, and I started thinking about food.

A French Grunt. They call them that because they surrender easily.

I put this one in just because it is named – and you can look this up – a Slippery Dick. I am not making this up. It’s in Val Kell’s book – buy it and see:

The place to eat is right next door – Lazy Days restaurant. You can bring in your own fish for them to cook – I brought the Porgy and it was great. They also have an excellent all-you-can-eat selection, which I like to call the Jimmy Buffet. After the requisite piece of Key lime pie and a margarita, I wandered back over to the houseboat.

I blew out my flip flop, stepped on a pop top, cut my heel had to cruise on back home

But there’s booze in the blender, and soon it will render that frozen concoction that helps me hang on …

It was getting late, but I couldn’t really sleep. The reason for the bad days – Marta and I  have split up – and my mind was working way too much to get any rest. Nothing tabloid-worthy, folks, just things that happen over time, and she is an awesome person and will always be an important part of my life. But it still stinks to go through this. At least now I can try to go out and get those damn 6 species she has that I don’t. In any case, I couldn’t sleep and there was no one around to talk to, so I just went out for a walk. It was very late that night, or more likely early the next morning, and I went back through the harbor. It was dead quiet – absolutely no one there. I found the washdown hose and turned it on. After a moment, the manatee glided out of the shadows and approached me. She gently picked up the end of the hose, and began to drink. Her eyes were trusting, almost kindly, and I felt like everything would somehow be OK.  I sat there for what seemed like hours but was just a few minutes, giving a Manatee a drink in the middle of a Florida Keys night.


Wasting away again in Margaritaville, looking for my lost shaker of salt

 Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame, now I know, it’s my own damn fault

Jimmy Buffett


  1. I’m sorry for your heartache. That you managed to weave fishing, Jimmy Buffett and a nursing manatee into a story with real pathos speaks to your gift for writing and ability to connect with people.
    Take good care,

  2. Nice post Woz – brings back a ton of memories about fishing in Islamorada – not the least of which about that Damn fish – at least it provides you with some copy for this blog. Let’s hit Tomales soon – we’re goin’ a sharkin’.

  3. Steve,
    I grew up in Massachusetts and as a kid, two things I had to complete in this lifetime was catch a snook and fish out of Bud&Marys in Islamorada. Living in central Florida, both tasks have been completed.
    Islamorada must be the place where GOD sends all good fishermen(women) at the end of their lives. Fishing under the bridges with a bit of shrimp is such a wonderful experience that many anglers don’t understand. Simplicity is wonderful.
    Thanks for the keys report and if you ever get a little off track, fishing for fresh water exotics along Tamiami Trail (Rt 41). Oscars and Mayan Cichlids are like Bluegills on steroids.
    Keep the adventures coming.
    God bless,

    The Incomplete Angler

    • A man after my own heart. And keep an eye on the blog two episodes hence – the Tamiami trail plays a starring role.



  4. Hey Steve! Andy Batcho sent me this blog info. Great post! I got # 327 out of Flamingo the other day. The Grass Porgy! WooHoo! I’m looking forward to your next post! Heading to Isla Morada in a couple weeks for my BDAY. I’ll look Vinnie up and see if he’s available! I still have a *&#$#%^& Bonefish. The only one I had hooked up got eaten by a shark! Keep up the good work! Mark

  5. Have you come across one of these yet? The Tongue eating Sea Louse.

    I will spare you from the more distrubing and up close images on the web. Gives me chills everytime I think about it.

    • These things are positively nasty. We see them or some close relative from time to time on our coastal fish out here in California. Eech. Of course, it would be a lot of fun to put one of these in Jaime Hamamoto’s salsa.



  6. […] had tried to catch a sawfish before – see – and I was not successful. (Which may actually have been for the best – depending on whether […]

  7. […] the boat out a few miles and set up on a grass flat to catch our bait, the dreaded pinfish. (See These vicious little beasts tend to be the “dominant pest” wherever they are found, […]

  8. […] the morning, we hit the road for Manatee Springs. I like Manatees. (More details HERE.) It hit me that in three weeks of driving, we had never once turned on the radio. We had put on […]

  9. […] trip to South Florida was on August 9, 1999 – the day I caught my 100th species – with legendary guide Vinnie Biondoletti. (So you older species hunters can take some solace in this late start, and yes I mean you, Gerry […]

  10. […] the way home from that Brazil trip, I stopped in Florida and fished with Vinnie Biondoletti, legendary Islamorada flats guide and bonefish expert. While we did indeed get a bonefish, Vinnie […]

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