I glanced over at my partner, Hank, who nodded at me to take the shot. "Go for it, that pod of fish is only a few inches from the bank."
All my energy was focused on the feeding fish, as I slid my feet across the hard-packed sand and crept into position: not too close, but close enough to make a comfortable, accurate cast without straining. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the fish exploded in a glitter of fine spray and vanished below the agitated surface.
"They're gone," Hank sighed. "No," I begged, "they can't be. We didn't do a thing." "Yeah, well maybe not, but something sure scared 'em off." As we stood there in the ankle-deep water, puzzling over what happened, more tails broke the surface 150 feet away. The tide was moving down the shore and the fish were feeding into the flow. I needed desperately to get above their position so I could cast back toward them.
I waded out to deeper water and without thinking, began running parallel to the bank, far enough out, I hoped, to arrive unnoticed. When I caught up with the fish, they were feeding steadily and seemed undisturbed by my hasty and decidedly "un-cool" approach.
I closed in, wiped the sweat from my eyes with the sleeve of my T-shirt and squinted through fogged-up glasses. Looking back, I could see that Hank was coming up from behind. I made one deliberately short cast to calculate the range, stripped out about ten more feet of line and snuck a little closer. When I was certain their heads were buried in the soft mud, I cast straight at the closest feeding fish and held my breath . . . they didn't spook. I waited half-a-second for the fly to settle, then gradually began to creep my snapping shrimp pattern along the bottom.
Nothing. I cast again, and stripped the fly with a little more action.
Nothing. They were working into the tide and moving along at a good pace.
I maneuvered ahead of them as quietly as I could, dropped my fly into their path, about 15 feet up-tide, and waited. When I estimated the lead fish was close, I gave a short, quick strip to get its attention and began a slow steady retrieve. Two fish broke from the pack and came after my fly.
"Eat it, oh please, eat it," I hissed and continued to strip line as the pair of curious bonefish followed the fly at a safe distance. When I felt the bump of my line-to-leader connection catching the tip-top of my rod, I knew I was out of line . . . and out of luck. Slowly, I sank to my knees and lowered my rod to the water, bowed my head and attempted to accomplish virtual invisibility. Confused by the abruptly motionless fly, the two bonefish lost interest and scattered - one to the left, the other to my right. I followed the fish on my left as it swam out of sight, confused but seemingly undisturbed. When my heart stopped racing, I let go of the breath I felt I'd been holding for the last 20 minutes. I looked back at Hank who just shook his head. Before moving on we took a moment to look around in case any more fish were in our immediate area - but none was.
It was late fall and a great time to look for double-digit bonefish in the cooling waters along the Florida Keys. The sun was barely up and the air was perfectly still. The surface of the water was as slick as a sea of black oil. As we waded along, parallel to the mangrove covered beach, we were overwhelmed by the activity accompanying the first light of day: black and white spotted leopard rays; restless sharks, prowling in circles; and over patches of white sand, indolent barracuda stared as we waded by. Along the shoreline, curious white egrets and dun-colored herons looked up to gawk before continuing to stalk baitfish in the soft gray mud. For a quiet couple of hours we had the ocean to ourselves.
I've caught scores of bonefish on the flats of Mexico and Belize, and out into the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, but the bonefish in the Florida Keys have always been the definitive challenge. Keys fish are big and cunning, and catching one usually requires a perfect performance. I have yet to find a dumb bonefish in the Keys.
My good buddy, Hank, was temporarily out of work and short on funds - but long on free time. We'd agreed that a week of bonefishing would be therapeutically beneficia and financially manageable but we would have to fish without a guide, have breakfast in our room, and eat lunch out of a cooler. With an experienced guide we could have taken full advantage of the best tides, and run from flat to flat, covering a lot more ground-but guides, reasonably, expect to get paid for their services, and the funds were just not available on this trip. As we were to learn, once you get a grip on the progression of the tides, you can find fish on most every flat you can drive to.
Highway 1, the Overseas Highway, runs from Key Largo to Key West, and from Islamorada down there are loads of pull-offs and parking areas that will give you access to many wadeable flats. You can find bargain prices on flights into Miami International Airport and weekly car rentals by shopping around. It's about 75 miles from the Miami Airport to Islamorada. If you prefer to drive the whole way, it takes about 14 hours from Atlanta to Marathon.
There are plenty of moderately-priced motels ($50. and up), and many include refrigerators and microwaves. Numerous public and private camping areas are readily accessible, as well. If you can live without an ocean-front view, rooms are almost cheap. For general information on the Keys you can call the Visitors Information Bureau at (800) FLA-KEYS, write them at P.O. Box 1146, Key West, FL, 33041, or visit their web site at www.fla.keys. For the Fishing Hotline, call (888) FISH-KEYS. If you want to be close to the most-accessible wading flats, you'll probably want to stay somewhere between Marathon and Islamorada, an area which includes Upper and Lower Metecumbe Key, Long Key, Conch Key, Duck Key, Grassy Key and Vaca Key. The Islamorada chamber of commerce can be reached at (800) 322-5397; the Marathon chamber is at (800) 262-7284. AA Accommodation Center is a rental agency that offers a free reservation service and general information, Monday through Saturday (800) 732-2006; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. There's a beach-front campground at Long Key State Park where you can park and fish or pitch a tent right on a productive, hard-bottom coral flat. The entrance gate is open from approximately 8:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M., but if you ask and pay your parking fee in advance, the gatekeeper will give you the combination to the lock so you can drive in before sunup and out after dark.
We had a great week, we caught a lot of bonefish, and we spent a lot less than I ever would have believed possible. A bonefish trip to the Florida Keys is within striking distance, and within the budget of every southeastern fly angler.
Farrow Allen is Fly Fish America's previous Southeast Regional editor. This article run with permission of its author. Photo credits to Bob Rogers, current FFA Florida Regional co-editor.
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