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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFLjuj-l_fE 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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyMwP373cuE 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.
The target we had discussed for this trip was a Sawfish. 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. Saws are truly a “home run” fish – they are quite rare, but they grow to prodigious sizes – 12 to 18 feet for an adult. They are basically a shark with a chainsaw for a nose, and when they get swinging it, it’s best if someone else is in the way. They have killed people and sunk boats, which is probably part of the appeal for me, but Vinnie made it clear that we were going to keep the boat a good distance away if we actually managed to hook one. 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 Sawfish 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 https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/the-cottonwood-death-march/.)
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 Sawfish. Which meant more Pinfish. And more Pinfish. It was hot, windless, sultry, and the Sawfish were 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: http://www.amazon.com/Field-Guide-Coastal-Fishes-Maine/dp/0801898382
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