Dateline: November 13, 2011 – Islamorada, Florida
Sometimes, the magic of a place is best remembered through someone else’s eyes. While I could never get tired of the Florida Keys, seeing a friend fish there for the first time reminded me of why it is such a very special place.
Sunset in Islamorada, where it’s always time to buy more fishing tackle at the Worldwide Sportsman store.
The idea for this trip was hatched far, far from the Keys, in an office building in Sao Paolo, Brazil. While in this office, during an exuberant argument over a contract, I met co-worker Cristiano Bernarde. He’s our head legal counsel for Latin America, but otherwise a good guy. I noticed a picture on his shelf – a big Peacock Bass – and we got chatting. Cris has done some amazing fishing throughout Brazil, and we decided that we needed to get on the water together someday.
That’s Cristiano Bernarde, Brazilian fishing buddy, posing with a Mayan Cichlid I caught behind the Miami Hilton early one morning before work. The bait? Bread from the breakfast bar. And yes, now that you mention it, he does have perfect teeth. Apparently they don’t play hockey in Brazil.
“Someday” turned out to be the weekend after our meetings in Miami. While November is not the perfect time to go to Islamorada, Cris had never fished the area, but for years, he had read about the Keys in fishing magazines.
For me, fishing the Keys means fishing with Vinnie Biondoletti. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/fishburger-in-paradise/) But – gasp – Vinnie was not around this particular weekend. I do not react well to change. Kindly, Vinnie found us another guide, one Skip Nielsen, and once I did my research, I realized that we had been left in excellent hands. Skip is something of a Keys legend, and has guided here for over 40 years. This was sort of like finding out your private golf lesson with Jack Nicklaus was cancelled, but getting Arnold Palmer as a sub.
Cris and I drove down from Miami Friday evening after work, and it brought back a lot of great memories. Winding down Highway 1, the scenery goes from suburban Miami to back country quickly, and soon, we started seeing road signs for towns familiar from fishing magazines – Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon. I couldn’t wait to get back to the familiar surroundings of Bud and Mary’s Marina, Lazy Days restaurant, and the requisite, financially draining visit to the Worldwide Sportsman store. Cris may have spent more than I did, but to be fair, he was bringing gifts back for 2 kids.
Imagine a Costco filled with nothing but fishing gear. Imagine trying to get me to leave voluntarily.
Cris and I stayed up late talking about the fishing possibilities for the next day, and it is at least theoretically possible he was more excited than I was. I realized there weren’t a lot of potential new species – although there was always some chance for a Green Moray or a Sea Bream. Still, the fishing would likely be very good, and with all the miniscule fish that have dominated the last few posts, I thought it would be nice to catch something bigger than a tube of toothpaste. (Travel size.)
Morning broke clear and beautiful, but the wind that had tormented me and Marty had followed us South. The palms swayed ominously. We met Skip at the dock, and before we had even been properly introduced, I asked where we could find a Sea Bream. “Vinnie warned me about you.” he said in a fatherly tone. His knowledge of the area was amazing, and he even mentioned a place we might find a Sea Bream later in the day. But for now, the good fishing was going to be on the patch reefs on the seaward side of Islamorada.
It was not going to be pretty on the ocean. But that’s where the fish were, so that’s where we went. It was miserably rough, and we bashed and sprayed our way to a few of Skip’s favorite reefs. It was nothing like the “glass bottom boat” experience I had in March of 2011, but as soon as we anchored, the fish took every bait – we caught a nice variety of Groupers, Snapper, Porgies, and other assorted whatsits. Skip repeatedly hauled up the anchor and moved us around so we could fish all of his top spots – not an easy thing in the blustery conditions.
Skip, Steve, and the first fish of the day, a Black Grouper. If you’re going to be in the area, give Skip a call on 305 664-9314.
The place was dirty with small groupers – mine is a Gag Grouper, Cris’ is a Red. We caught more than 50 this size, an absolute ball on light gear.
A nice Hogfish, which fits under the “assorted whatsit” category. While Cris is not nearly as bad as Guido, we still need to work on his fish photos and getting those hands out of the picture. In his favor, Cris does not own any dark athletic socks.
Another “assorted” – a Bonnethead Shark. These small relatives of the Hammerhead can be common in this area and put up a great fight. Cris made me take a photo on his phone so he could send it to his son right away.
Cris and his solid Mutton Snapper, clearly the fish of the day. Of course, if you want to see a picture of a REALLY big Mutton Snapper, see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/a-ray-of-hope/.
Watching Cris reel in fish after fish for hours was a lot of fun – even when he caught something bigger than me. (Well, not really.) It helped me remember what a magical place this is, and how I will love fishing here long after I have caught every resident species possible. I don’t think Cris stopped smiling all day. Well, except once. See below.
After several hours of abuse form wind and waves, Skip mentioned that we could try for the elusive Sea Bream – and get out of the sloppy conditions. (That’s a win-win in my book.) We tucked into a small canal west of town and started tossing shrimp baits. We caught Jacks, Ladyfish, and some stray Snappers.
Cris was casting right behind the boat when I heard a splash and he said “Wow – nice Snook.” I snidely told him it was likely a small Tarpon – I had never seen a Snook in this area. He insisted it was a Snook. I threw a bait in the fish’s direction just to be contrary, and of course, I caught a nice Snook. A Snook that belonged to Cris every bit as much as that big Oscar belonged to Marty. I felt briefly guilty and Cris stopped smiling, just for a split second. But then, with a slight twinkle in his eye, he mentioned “See, I told you it was a Snook.”
The stolen Snook. Cris forces a patient smile in the background.
But my highlight of this first day came a few minutes later, while casting a small hook and a bit of shrimp. I locked into something fairly spirited on my light rod – a larger Pinfish, perhaps? I brought the fish to the surface, and to my great joy, it was a Sea Bream, a creature that would be considered a Pinfish by everyone else but has slight differences that are important to me and a few ichthyologists. Against all odds, I had added a species.
The Sea Bream. I can only describe the look on Skip’s face as equal parts satisfaction and bewilderment.
That evening, we made peace about the Snook and celebrated our day by feasting on Cris’ big snapper at Lazy Days restaurant, which is a 3 minute walk (or 6 minute stumble) from the marina. We again visited Worldwide Sportsman, hopefully leaving me enough money to pay the mortgage, and we spoke well into the evening about the other fishing seasons here, especially the spring when the big Tarpon move in to spawn. He was already planning to bring his son Eric here in a year or two.
On Sunday, the wind continued unabated. We felt that another bashing on the patch reefs was a bad idea, so we decided to go take a bashing in the back country – different species, different landscape, same wind. Skip was relentless in his pursuit of a great fishing spot, and we ended up taking a 40 mile boat ride before he was satisfied.
When we finally anchored, near what I could swear was a “Welcome to Louisiana” sign, the action was immediate. We started getting nice Spotted Seatrout, and then Blacktip Sharks started showing up. Cris was thrilled – and I remembered the adrenaline of my first Blacktip, caught not too far from here almost 9 years ago. “Oh, I wish Eric was here.” he said after every big fish.
Cris does battle with a hefty Blacktip Shark.
Chris with one of the smaller Blacktip Sharks. Most of the others would not have been able to be safely lifted in this fashion.
This is why you do not want a Blacktip in the boat with you. Any questions?
Skip and his years of knowledge had turned what should have been disappointing day in port into an epic light-tackle fishathon. We moved twice, once to a spot that was crowded with big Speckled Seatrout, then to an isolated hole that was teeming with Spanish Mackerel, Ladyfish, Bluefish, and something that ate my shrimp and is still going with a spool full of my 8# line. Cris tried to be funny and suggested “Perhaps it was a very large Snook.”
“Ha ha.” I responded. I swear I heard Jaime Hamamoto giggling in the distance. Even Skip, the consummate quiet professional, cracked a wan smile.
A beautiful Spotted Seatrout, also called a “speck.” We got 25 of these in less than an hour.
A ladyfish. I don’t know why they’re called that.
A solid Spanish Mackerel – a very close relative of the Cero.
Among the other great catches of the day, Cris got the most positively beastly Inshore Lizardfish I have ever seen – King Lizard. Lizardzilla.
The Lizardfish that ate Miami.
But my best catch was actually the smallest critter to come on board all day. From time to time, we catch common Sharksuckers, which have a hefty all-tackle record to beat. Once in a blue moon, though, I catch a Whitefin Sharksucker, a smaller species with no current record – I have never seen one even close to the required 1 pound weight. So imagine my surprise when I reeled in a positively beastly Whitefin – well over a pound, and the new pending record.
The pending world record Whitefin Sharksucker.
These sorts of things are only important to me and a handful of others. I never thought I would get a world record in Florida – folks seem very aware of the IGFA stuff here, mostly because the Arosteguis live just up the road and they’ve caught EVERYTHING.
Cris and I took our time heading back up Miami, stopping for another great dinner at Lazy Days and of course another round of shopping at Worldwide Sportsman. They have an amazing aquarium full of local gamefish, and Cris said “Look at the size of that Snook.”
I responded “Are you sure it isn’t a Tarpon?”
“Ha ha.” he said, hinting that I was a better fisherman than comedian. Well, at least I was amused. And while I may have stolen Cris’ first Florida Snook, I’m sure he’ll be back to catch many more with his son. Let’s hope he gets a record.