Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Northbound (It Ends)

The official cookie of our vacation.

I finally got a chance to cast my surf-rod at Matanzas Inlet, near Crescent Beach. Aside from hooking and losing a couple bluefish in an angry surf, the fishing wasn’t stellar. But, as the sun set on our final day in Florida, I was strangely satisfied.

I rared back and fired my weighted spoon towards the breakers. The noise of the crashing waves easily overwhelmed the sound of the lure hitting the water. A huge flock of skimmers flew overhead, bouncing back and forth from the entrance of the inlet. Betsy wandered the beach nearby, collecting shells and stuffing them in my tackle bag.

Tomorrow, we’d head back home to responsibility, cold weather (reports from home actually mentioned snow on the ground in Tennessee) and bills. Our cats would be there too, along with our own bed and our own couch and TV, softening the burden of resuming normalcy.

I reeled the spoon through the wash of the waves onto the shell-laden shore, flipped it up into my left hand, then cut the line with a pair of rusted needle-nosed pliers which had been resting in my back pocket. The spoon went into my tackle bag, and I zipped it up. That was that.

Casting to bluefish at the Matanzas Inlet.

The sun set beyond the dunes and sea oats. Betsy and I walked slowly through the sand and shells back to our parked car. Darkness settled upon us as we washed our feet at the picnic pavilion, then we packed up the fishing gear and drove up A1A to downtown St. Augustine, the oldest city in the country.

We wandered the cobblestone streets, past old Spanish churches and dozens of tourist-driven establishments. There was a big crowd out that night, and most of the restaurants offered substantial wait times. Instead of standing around with a lighted pager, we landed at the Taberna Del Gallo, a tiny 200-year-old tavern in the Spanish Quarter section of “old town.” The place was lit only by torches and our bar keep was a surly pirate who made sangria instead of swallowing swords. It was cool. Betsy and I played “Shut the Box,” then bought a version of the game to take home.

Officially, our last dinner in Florida was from the drive-thru at a Krystal’s next to the interstate. It was terrible, but we didn’t really care. We stayed the night in Jacksonville, and slept as a line of thunderstorms rattled the hotel and dumped torrential rain on the city. In the morning, the storms were gone, but the wind was blowing in a cold front.

The impressively monstrous Dame Point bridge in Jacksonville.

Nine hours later, we arrived home. We were tired. Maybe close to broke. But in a weird way, complete. On the way home, we had tried our best to recall what we had done over the past 10 days, then laughed when we couldn’t agree on what happened on what day. It had been a wonderful trip – one we definitely felt blessed to have enjoyed, and one we would remember and reflect upon for the rest of our days.

Betsy and I sat side-by-side on our couch, guarded closely by our three cats who had patiently waited for our return and who now didn’t want us to leave their sight. The TV was on, but the sound was muted. I leaned back and put my arm around Betsy and pulled her closer.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


People assuredly come to Key West for a variety of things … to fish the diverse and fertile waters that surround it, to party like Buffett and Hemingway on Duval Street, to wait in line to get their picture made next to the Southernmost buoy, to dress up like a pirate and yell at people to watch you swallow swords … all sorts of things.

On this picture-perfect, 80-degree-and-sunny morning, Betsy and I came to Key West to look at butterflies. The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory sits at the relatively quiet southern end of Duval Street, and it was probably the most enjoyable and interesting thing we did in the historic city.

After donating a few bucks to the cause, we spent the next hour wandering in the tropical setting of the climate-controlled and impressively-exotic conservatory. Thousands of butterflies and moths fluttered about us, many of which displayed colors and color-combinations that truly defied description. We snapped dozens of photos, as we tried in vain to capture the beauty of these remarkable bugs.


We were so awe-struck by the experience, we donated significantly more bucks to the cause to purchase a butterfly display case from the gift shop. It was well worth it, though, and the case was anxiously waiting for us on our front porch a few days later.

Post-butterflies, we strolled down to Duval to grab a bite to eat and to eventually join the swarm of tourists at the famous Sloppy Joe’s salon. After coordinating our positioning in front of the establishment’s webcam (to the delight of my mother-in-law, who had been trying her best to keep up with our meanderings throughout the Keys), we bellied up to the bar and ordered a brew.

To have and have a lot.

Later, we walked off the beer by strolling one more time through a much-less-crowded Mallory Square. Even though it was mid-afternoon, the street vendors – including the frustrated sword-swallowing pirate – were already staking claim to spots for the upcoming sunset rush. Roosters, chickens and regiments of peeping chicks controlled the perimeter of the square, as seagulls soared above. We snapped a few more photos before making a long walk past Hemingway’s house to our parked car.

Chick magnet.

There are lots of chicks in Key West. I've got a ton of these ...

Key West was interesting. So many words come to mind to describe it, yet for each word, it's antonym would also be appropriate. It's historic, scenic, significant … but also expensive, overrun with tourist-y attractions, and commercialized to near disturbing levels. It was not the same Key West Hemingway lived in, nor was it close to the place Betsy enjoyed when she visited it in her teens. But, we were glad to give it a shot and we had a good time, but we were perfectly fine leaving it all behind in our rear view mirror.


For the first time in over a week, we drove north. As the sun set behind us, we motored along in the orange light towards our next destination: Zaza Pizzeria Napoletana in Sugar Loaf Key. Betsy had read about it in Keys’ visitor magazine, and after eight straight days of seafood and one stray burger, we were craving pizza. The restaurant is authentically Italian, yet presents almost zero curb appeal, mainly because it’s hidden in the relatively nondescript Sugar Loaf Lodge (which we drove right by, despite being on the lookout for it). Yet, it was packed with people. Always a good sign. We ordered a pizza to go, then enjoyed the hell of out it as we followed red tail lights past Bahia-Honda, the Seven-Mile Bridge, Hawk’s Cay, our beloved Islamorada, Key Largo and the eastern edge of the python-infested Everglades.

We planned to find a place to stay just north of Miami, which would position us for a variety of opportunities the following day. Unfortunately, an enormous Miami boat show and an equally impressive West Palm Beach horse show had every hotel booked solid. So, we drove along I-95 in the dark as crotch-rockets and halogen-lit sports cars rattled our Honda as they darted about the six lanes of traffic, risking their lives and ours in order to quickly make it to wherever they had to be. Where were Crockett and Tubbs when you needed them?

At 2 a.m., we pulled into the Hilton Garden Inn in Fort Pierce, almost 290 miles from Key West, and much farther than we had planned to drive when we exited the Old Town. Exhausted, we dragged our overnight bags and a cooler of melted ice and bottled water to the front desk clerk, who was as nice and helpful as anyone we had encountered on this wonderful trip. Discounted, but not defeated, we were asleep within minutes of putting the “Do Not Disturb” hanger on our door. Tomorrow, we thought we’d drive the coast up to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the country.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


The coffee seemed to be getting cold very quickly. As we sat – for one last time – on the plastic lawn furniture set up on the little porch of unit No. 12, a European couple strolled nearby, the mother trying to round up her young boys who were playing near the pool while the husband loaded suitcases into the trunk of their car. Overhead, an osprey appeared. It was flying just a few feet over Pines and Palms, permitting us a good, long look at its striking white under-plumage and menacing fish-catching claws. Seconds later, another osprey appeared. Then another. Followed by a fourth. Soon, there were five of the birds circling the resort. Eventually, the lead bird – presumably the matriarch of the clan – dove towards the water and temporarily disappeared behind the cottages in front of us. Seconds later, it reappeared, clutching a doomed needlefish. The bird called to the four smaller birds following it as to say, “That’s how it’s done, children.”

We just soaked it all in. We had reached the final day of our stay in Islamorada, and we were torn between hitting the road for new adventures and wanting to stay forever on the Purple Island. I munched on a black-and-white cookie and downed the last swallow of lukewarm coffee from my mug.

After checking out of Pines and Palms, we visited a few galleries and tried to make some connections for possibly placing my art. We were somewhat successful, and I hope to eventually have a few pieces of work for display and sale in Islamorada.

Then, we headed west. Our loose plan was to visit the famous Bahia Honda State Park and check out Sandspur Beach, one of the more famous beaches in the Keys. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea. The solitude and obscurity of Curry Hammock SP was a distant memory as we slowly drove through the parking lot, waiting for another car to leave so we could take the empty spot. It was very Wal-Mart-y and the park was simply littered with people.

There were also no empty spots on the beach, so we opted to sight-see instead, taking in some wonderful views of the keys and the bridges spanning the Bahia-Honda channel. Again, like everything else down here, it just made me want to fish very badly.

The old Bahia-Honda bridge.

With no way to avoid the crowd, we enjoyed a picnic lunch on the dashboard of our car. We had no plans for the rest of the day, so I suggested we continue heading west, just for the hell of it.

So we did. Big Pine Key, Cudjoe, Big Coppitt, Stock Island … they slowly went by our car windows as we tried to keep pace with the sun. The only detour was the Key Deer National Refuge on Big Pine, where we lucked out and spotted several of the reclusive little cousins of the white-tailed deer that frequent our backyard in Tennessee.

The rare and elusive Key deer.

We didn’t plan on going to Key West, but it sucked us in like a tractor beam. Before we knew it, we were amongst a throng of traffic on Duval Street, Key West’s famous avenue, which was bracketed by sidewalks filled with boat-drink-toting visitors who darted in and out of the multitude of restaurants, shops and curiosities that have turned this historical town into a full-fledged tourist trap.

It took a while, but eventually found a parking spot, grabbed our camera and joined the crowd, which we figured had at least a six-beer head-start on us. We then set several personal southernmost records (however, I refused the opportunity to wait in line to get a picture next to the gaudy landmark), before making a long walk past Hemingway's house and on to Mallory Square for the daily sunset celebration.

Mallory Square. Cruise ships and sword swallowers.

This was a spectacle. Hundreds of people filled the square, and interspersed among them were street entertainers and vendors hawking acrobatic antics and Caribbean cocktails, while pigeons, seagulls and pelicans provided aerial accompaniment. We found a good spot by a pier railing to enjoy the setting sun, which was shared by a colorfully-dressed pirate who screamed in vain at passersby to watch his sword-swallowing routine. We kind of felt bad for him. He was working so harrrrrrd.

As the sun finally set, we took a gazillion photos before raising our glasses to salute the end of another day at the southernmost city in the U.S. As was tradition on this trip, we spent the next couple of hours trying to find a place to stay, but unlike the previous six stops, we encountered some major trouble in locating a hotel. Everything was booked solid, as a weekend crowd had descended upon us. Through major effort and some considerable help from Key West's friendly residents, we eventually landed a pretty cool spot in the "new town," and called it a night.

Betsy meets Spongesquatch.

I took the first shower, then sat on our hotel bed while Betsy took her turn. Staring at my reflection in the black screen of our in-room TV, I looked tired. Maybe a little fat, too. Yet, happy. I let out a little laugh and shook my head before grabbing the remote and clicking on Sports Center. It took us eight days to do it, but we had finally made it to Key West.

It was all uphill from here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lazy days

The second day in Islamorada was a relentlessly laid-back affair. We purposely woke up late, made a pot of coffee and lazily hung around Pines and Palms for a good part of the morning. Unfortunately, Betsy found herself tangled up with some work back home, so while she talked on the phone and tried to work a real estate deal from 955 miles away, I grabbed my 8-wt and 7-wt fly rods, and headed down to the end of the dock.

The morning sun lit up the choppy water, causing a strobe effect on the surface and making it difficult to spot fish on the shallow flat behind the property. The only thing visible under the waves was a school of small needlefish. It didn’t really matter. I was on vacation, and determined to launch a few casts into the Atlantic Ocean via the private dock at Pines and Palms.

While I was mainly interested in seeing how my new flies worked, I would’ve loved to have had the incredible fortune to encounter one of the Keys’ legendary denizens. But, there were no rolling tarpon, no bonefish on the flats in front of me, no permit tailing in the nearby turtlegrass. Just needlefish. The cold front that had provided our tailwind down to the Keys had escorted most of the desired species out of the shallows and into deeper water. But, the flies worked great, and I had fun casting for a few minutes while Betsy tangled with normal life back home.

Major poonage.

Our lazy Tuesday continued, as we drove down to MM 77.5 to check out Robbie’s Marina, where I plopped down a few bucks to earn the right to feed the enormous resident tarpon. There just aren’t many opportunities in life to hand feed 200 lb fish, after all. As I elbowed my way into the scrum of tourists leaning over the dock and gazing into the water, Betsy snapped photos as I dangled sardines into the gluttonous maws of the pet tarpon. It was great fun, but it really just made me really want to go fishing.

At Robbie's, feeding the pets.

After picking up some fresh shrimp at Islamorada Fish Company and grabbing a really good seaside lunch at the Island Grill, we cruised down A1A towards Marathon, taking in the scenery and not really having a plan of what we would do with the afternoon. As the day too quickly raced by, we stumbled upon the sleepy state park known as Curry Hammock and spent the last couple of hours by ourselves, hanging out by the ocean. Betsy sat on the secluded beach, wearing her new red hat and watching me wade a nearby flat to cast to tarpon and bonefish, which, of course, weren’t there.

But, it was an incredibly relaxing day, and it ended with a spectacular sunset and a short, satiated drive home. Back at No. 12, we enjoyed our first home-cooked meal in several days, dining on some boiled fresh shrimp and some local veggies. Over dinner, we decided to spend the next day on the water.

Curry-Hammock State Park. A treasure.

Bud N’ Mary’s is one of the most famous marinas in the world. This Islamorada landmark is downright legendary, and it's the perfect launching spot in the Sportfishing Capital of the World. It was also the spot where Betsy and I teamed up with Captain Dave Butler for an afternoon adventure among the mangroves and potholes of the backcountry of Florida Bay.

My wife, the flats guide.

Packing a cooler full of drinks and a bag full o' snacks, we left the dock just after noon on a sun-bleached, bluebird-sky day. Captain Dave was a fantastic host for our trip; a longtime resident and angler of the Keys and an expert of everything that goes on in the remote and wild area of the Everglades National Park.

I hope heaven looks like this.

After meeting with Dave at the dock, we quickly boarded his skiff and within minutes, we were rocketing through a mangrove-lined channel en route to the fish-filled flats of the backcountry. Our first stop was a productive one, as we found a small cut among one of the many mosquito-filled islands and sight-casted to cruising redfish. We had an absolute blast catching several slot reds and a few puppy drum, as the fish were eager eaters of our shrimp offerings.

I asked Dave for some variety on this trip, and he definitely provided it. Over the next four hours, we skipped across the water from island to island, from channel to channel, and caught fish at nearly every stop. Redfish and mangrove snapper were the primary forage, as the more glamorous permit, tarpon and bonefish were still offshore in the warmer depths. The wildlife we encountered was phenomenal – pods of dolphin, a golden eagle, a bald eagle, several osprey, white pelicans, blue heron, horseshoe crabs and a free-jumping spinner shark were among the huge variety of animals we saw during our afternoon on the water.

Captain Dave provides some assistance with Betsy's freshly caught Mangrove Snapper.

The most astounding part of the trip was the complete seclusion we enjoyed. There were no boats within miles; just Capt. Dave, Betsy and me. During most of the journey, we appeared to have the entire lower Everglades to ourselves. That was really unexpected, as I’ve seen so many fishing shows devoted to fishing these waters. I just assumed there’d be a crowd, but I’m so glad my assumptions were wrong.

After we returned to the dock, Captain Dave cleaned a few snapper we kept for dinner and devoted some significant time talking with Betsy and me about our travel, our lives and our mutual admiration for exploring new things. Dave was a really good dude, and we were so fortunate to spend some quality time with him on – and off – the water. Like all great guides, he taught us a great deal and those lessons will certainly be put into use the next time we get a chance to fish the Keys. If you ever go to Islamorada, go to Bud N’ Mary’s and fish with Captain Dave Butler. You will not regret it.

Freeloaders at Bud N' Mary's.

Per Dave’s advice, we took our snapper fillets to nearby Lazy Days, another Islamorada landmark. They carefully confiscated our fish and made us a reservation for later that evening. After heading back to the cottage to clean off the sunscreen and fish slime, we returned to the restaurant and enjoyed quite possibly the best fish we’ve ever had. Our freshly-caught snapper was prepared three different ways, and each were equally and incredibly good. After dinner, we waddled to our car like out-of-water manatees.

Back at Pines and Palms, we tried to stretch minutes into hours, as we didn’t want this part of the trip to end. We had passed the half-way mark of our journey, and already, the stress and rigors of everyday life and responsibility were starting to creep back into the periphery of our minds. But, we were determined to let the tide carry all of that back out to sea.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Purple Island

Miami has basically devoured southeastern Florida. The sprawling city and its art-deco’d seaside suburbs seemingly stretch 90-plus miles of the coast, from West Palm Beach to Homestead. After three days of bouncing around a two-lane, oceanfront highway through quiet resort towns and past a million concrete manatee mailboxes, we now cruised down I-95 at around 75 m.p.h. … just a mere 20 to 30 m.p.h. less than everyone else on the interstate. I'm sure Miami is a lot of fun to a whole lot of people ... but we couldn't wait to get through it.

Alas, the city wouldn’t let us leave. A miscalculation had us crawling through a tangled web of traffic lights as we tried to make our way through South Miami on A1A (here it is again!). It took us about an hour to creep about five miles, as we lamented our decision to eschew the bypass for what looked to be a scenic trip through some of the more colorful areas of the city's suburbs. At red-lights, we scanned the palm trees for green parrots. Didn’t see any.
Eventually, we re-routed our way to the by-pass and quickly made up the rest of the distance to Homestead and the beginning of the Florida Keys. As we cruised past the green and tan marshland that made up the far eastern part of Everglades National Park, we began traversing bridges over waters that challenged us to offer an accurate description of their various shades of blue. Betsy and I didn’t talk during the portion of the trip – we just looked around, taking in the scenery unfolding outside our car windows.

There was only pre-determined destination on this crazy journey: the village of islands known as Islamorada. We booked a place recommended by George Poveromo, the host of the TV show called World of Saltwater Fishing. About three weeks before we decided to head south on this trip, Betsy and I were running through some DVR'd fishing shows at our house on a frigid Saturday morning. As we chased away the post-sleep grogginess with a pot of good coffee, we sat in the living room and watched the World of Saltwater Fishing as George and buddy caught a bunch of dolphin, jacks and snapper just off the coast of Islamorada. Near the end of the show, the host took a few moments to talk about the place where he stayed in the purple island – the Pines and Palms resort.

“We should go there,” I said. Betsy had already grabbed the laptop and began looking up the website. Within minutes, we had booked a three-day stay in a stand-alone bungalow in the retro-resort. George described it as “old Florida.” We called it perfect.

And, that's how this whole adventure began.

Not too long after we put Key Largo into the rearview mirror, we crossed a small bridge and entered Matecumbe Key and the community of Islamorada. With the Atlantic Ocean on one bank and Florida Bay and the Everglades National Park on the other, I had entered fishing heaven.

The Pines and Palms resort rested on the Atlantic side of A1A, at MM82 (mile marker 82, for those unfamiliar with the Keys … Key West is at MM1). It was just as George described. Extremely clean, fantastically neat and decidedly laid-back. Our bungalow – No. 12 – was a four-sided, white-washed one-story house, heavily windowed and sparsely decorated. A squeaky but comfortable bed, a small kitchen, a living room which shared space with a dining area, and a covered porch which faced the ocean (if you were Superman and could see through the bungalows which stood in our way). The grounds were immaculately kept; the sand of the private “beach” was raked daily, there were no leaves or palm fronds found loose on the ground and the small private pool was spotless. The boat ramp and private dock were almost always patrolled by seagulls and the entire place was in a flight pattern for brown pelicans and a family of osprey. We loved the place.

Number 12

We dropped our bags and went exploring. Our first stop was the Bass Pro Shops/World Wide Sportsman, just down the street from Pines and Palms. We hadn’t walked 20 feet into the store before I compulsively began stockpiling tarpon and bonefish flies that I knew I wouldn’t need or use, but had to have anyway. Betsy shook her head and went searching the women's clothing section for some beach attire (that I knew she wouldn’t need or use). 

About an hour later, we donated a generous amount of loose change to the store in exchange for flies, a handful of jigs and a bright red hat for Betsy.
With a camera bag slung over my shoulder and my pale-as-the-underside-of-a-shark complexion, I’m sure I was the walking stereotype of a tourist on vacation from his cubicle. But, the crowd at Lorelei’s didn’t mind, as Betsy and I found a couple of sun-bleached plastic chairs and a matching table next to the water in the restaurant's backyard beach. We plopped down as the sun fell in the west, just behind some nearby (purple) islands. As the stress from travel, work and everything else that makes up everyday life rose out of our bodies like steam from freshly boiled shrimp, we each took vastly deep breaths the salt air, exhaled slowly and literally melted into the scenery.

Seriously. I'm not thinking of anything.

While we crunched on conch fritters, a typical island band played typical island music to the typical island crowd. It was all good. So good, we ordered some stone crab claws … which we’re even better. The sun sunk lower, and the sky turned gray and blue as the water glowed brilliant gold. For a brief minute or two, things got weird when a late-model, pink Cadillac parted the waters a few hundred yards from shore. But, the Nautilimo’s crew simply waved to the crowd and then saluted the setting sun as Betsy and I said goodbye to our first day in Islamorada.

After paying our bill, we navigated through the throng of retirees, locals, European tourists and more than a few folks who looked a whole lot like us, and made our way back to unit No. 12 at Pine and Palms. The best thing about the upcoming day was we wouldn’t be traveling. The second best thing was we didn’t have a clue what we’d do.

But, before going to bed, I had to rig up some fly rods … you know, just in case.
Keys sunset No. 1