I have the coolest friends. I recently returned from a five day trip to the Florida Keys that three of my friends put together and told me when to show up at the airport. Scott Wessels of The Bears Den, one of the first people in Fly World to get behind my flies and who has supported me more than anyone over the years both on and off the vise. Scott wasn’t making this trip but thought I needed a change of scenery. Fellow Mainer Joe Babino who I met on a shark fishing trip with Cheeky Fly Fishing last year, now an ex-pat living on Grassy Key with his fiancée Lindsay. Joe reps for Cheeky and Diablo Paddlesports when he’s not working on his own business, Wikdfly, and a real job. And Sam Demarco who I met when he worked at The Bears Den. Also a New England ex-pat, Sam now lives in Jupiter and has become one of the most talented fly tiers I know and owns Aqueous Flies.
In the weeks leading up to the trip I had replayed visions of tarpon, reds, lemon sharks, jacks…basically everything…at the end of my fly line. Standing at Logan looking at the Departures sign and watching the rest of the travelers staring into their mobile devices, I put aside expectations, catch lists, grip-and-grin photo ops and blog ideas. I get enough of the “pressure to perform” fifty hours a week. This trip was about fishing, learning new things and being with friends.
Sam picked me up in Miami and we headed south for Mile Marker 58 on the road to paradise. Since we are both fly nerds, we talked about flies, materials, hooks and techniques basically the entire way.
We met up with Joe at Florida Keys Outfitters in Islamorada, got the latest wind report and headed for Joe’s place on Grassy Key. Joe’s dog Hank greeted me like a long lost friend and I was introduced to Bruce, the newest member of the clan. Bruce wasn’t much into tennis balls.
Joe and Lindsay basically live in Paradise. Their backyard is a beach. My mornings before everyone got up were spent sitting in a chair staring at the water with Hank.
Once the dogs settled down, we rigged rods, loaded the gear and cooler into the boat and splashed it at a ramp just a short way down the road. We headed out as the sun began to drop with the plan of fishing dock lights for snook and jacks. The wind and snook were not overly cooperative but the jacks were.
One late afternoon we decided to head to Key West to fish in the lee provided by the waterfront. We found a group of really angry jacks around the pilings and did battle with them for quite awhile. And then the angels sang. We floated around a pier next to one of the restaurants and as we turned the corner, there they were, tarpon between twenty and a hundred pounds rolling under the dock lights. I was standing on the bow and without stopping to think I dropped a back cast in under the pier and stripped my fly into the light. It happened so quickly I didn’t have time to think, I just went on autopilot. A forty pound poon slammed my fly, I strip set the hook, bowed to the beast as it cleared the water 3 times and just kept telling myself not to think. Joe and Sam scrambled around trying to capture everything on video on their phones. I got the fish boat side and as I stepped off the bow platform to reach for the fish I raised the tip of my rod. The fish jumped again and with the change in angle it spit the fly. I was pissed at myself and disappointed the video did not come out but as I cracked a beer and watched Sam casting at more fish, I was thankful for the time the tarpon gave me and that my friends had been a part of it. We messed with those fish for hours. Sam was relentless and was treated to a lot of follows and several hits as was Joe, but in the end the fish won. They had caught us.
The wind continued to be a factor over the next few days. We covered a lot of water in the backcountry off Cudjoe, in and around Tom’s Harbor, Key Colony and some places that didn't show on the chart...probably because it was dark out and two guys from Maine were navigating. We even set up one afternoon with chum for sharks and had a great slick going drawing all sorts of bait into it. Things were looking good but then the lights went out. Visibility in the water was virtually non-existent so we never saw any shark in the slick but I’m pretty sure something came in and shut it down.
We didn’t go fishless. We managed a few snapper or small ‘cuda each day. That was fine with me; I don’t get to catch them every day.
Our last full day of fishing was spent on the flats off Key West. We saw a lot more life than we had in the previous days. Bonnetheads, a few reds, a few tarpon, rays with jacks in tow. At one point we were pretty sure we had permit close by but couldn’t get close enough for a good shot.
We gave those tarpon under the lights one more try before we left Key West that night. Sam gave a noble effort; they just were not going to eat. I’m pretty sure we needed to have a deep fried fly or some MSG to get them to chew.
It wasn’t all fishing. Lindsay works as a trainer at Dolphin Connection at Hawk’s Cay and invited us to meet the dolphins. Being face to face with these amazing creatures never gets old. Once you look into a dolphin’s eye you are never the same.
And before leaving we had to make a stop at Robbie’s to feed the tarpon. I was supposed to not only get bit but surrender my forearm to the tarpon of Sam’s choosing. Although I will tell you I’m fearless, I am in fact not and I couldn’t do it. I did however get bit by the damn pelicans.
Sam and I headed out after Robbie’s for the airport. On the way we stopped in South Miami to check out some urban fishing behind a mall.
We had been told this was a good place for a shot at some peacock bass. Just as Sam was relentless with the Key West tarpon, so he was with a couple of peacocks we spotted along the bank of the canal. He spent twenty minutes literally face to face with those two fish and finally got one to eat steel, a fitting way to end a great trip with good friends.
As I stared out the window into the darkness on the flight back to Boston I replayed the images of the trip in my mind. I’ve been on fishing trips to a lot of really cool places but this one will always stand out. Conditions were tough, fish were hard to find but we made it up as we went along and had a blast. I thought of a sign I saw at the end of Blimp Road.
Adventure begins where the road ends.
Adventures with these guys will continue. I look forward to every minute.
Thank you Scott, Joe, Lindsay and Sam!
Grassy Key, FL
18 Nov 2013