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.

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