I had done countless hours of cyber-scouting for this adventure, and knew where I wanted to start out. It would have been right from the resort, if not for a seriously steady wind from the east. Early the next morning we headed to the spot on the west side, and quickly found the one issue with scouting from a satellite image: no access. There were gates in a few spots that only a select few get to use, and more “No Trespassing” signs than I ever care to see. There was access, but it was hard to find and hard to use. Steep, twisting banks lined with sharp coral had me wishing I had not brought so much danged gear! When you make the trip, have a plan B, C, or D and be prepared to use them. There is a ton of water, but not nearly enough access to it.
We had been to the Keys in the winter when the wind blows constantly, so when we scheduled this trip we did not figure wind was going to be an issue. Old Mom Nature gave us a big old poke in the eye with six days of 20mph sustained wind, and gusts just under the speed of sound. We had to find every backwater hole we could to try to stay out of it. These places were loaded with small barracuda and mangrove snapper. The cudas made short work of our flukes, though, and I quickly had to add a short piece of wire to everyone’s lines. It doesn’t have to be long or heavy - just enough to keep the line and bait off those razor-sharp cutters. Barracuda and sharks can both reduce a soft plastic bait to nothing but a nub; even those made from the super-stretchy stuff. Make sure you carry plenty of them if you use soft plastics. Fresh pieces of shrimp fished weightless around the mangrove pockets will get you all the mangrove snappers you can handle.
This was to be a multi-species trip, so we fished inshore but also secured a guide for a reef trip. Capt. Chris from On the Reef charters took us out for a couple days of critter chasing as well. The waves beat us up pretty badly and one full day of offshore was all we could handle, but it was an incredible experience. When he tossed the chum block over the side of the boat, the water changed color for 100’ behind the boat. It took a minute to figure out it was fish, as deep and as far as I could see, coming up to the boat! It just a few minutes we were all battling our first yellowtail snapper. The variety of fish below the boat was incredible, and I went to work adding to my species list with a Bermuda chub and a gnarly looking critter called a file fish. My son Ethan had a powerful fish on, and it turned out to be a gorgeous blue parrot fish.
I fought a strong fish that had made a long run, and was finally making headway when it came running to the surface. A large shadow loomed underneath it, then the water turned into a bloody mess. Turns out I had a very large bonita, and an 8’ bull shark ate a chunk of it for supper.
The next day, we had to stay close to shore to avoid the pounding waves. We soaked crabs around the bridge pass in hopes of a tarpon, but none wanted to play. We hit some patch reefs in shallow water and started catching more yellowtails, as well as some monster nurse sharks. Small pinfish dropped to the bottom were smashed by grouper, and it was a chore to keep them out of the rocks. I caught a nice mutton snapper, and my bride caught a beautiful yellow, black, and white porkfish. It was far too pretty to have such a goofy name! We figured out that I am some sort of grunt-catching wizard, and I proved that by catching no less than 200 grunts on this trip.
I have to admit that getting off at the dock at the resort where you are crashing is pretty darn cool. After Captain Chris and I finished cleaning the catch and I stowed the gear, my family and I collapsed into the pool. That was living right there!
We played tourist for dinner and chased down several seafood joints while we were there. We ate enough fried shrimp to feed a small country, and enjoyed every minute of it. While on the subject of being a tourist, if you go you have to take a trip to Robbie’s and feed the tarpon. There is just something incredible about having a 150lb fish slurp a chunk of bait out of your hand. As a guy who still has yet to catch a tarpon, I have to admit I really wanted to put a hook in my bait.
The last day we were back in the kayaks and having a blast with the little barracuda again. Having seen some monster members of their family slice our catch to bits the previous days really gave us a new respect for them. We learned that the barracudas and bull sharks were not the only toothy critters to be concerned with, as an American crocodile slipped out from under the mangroves. It was only a six or seven-footer, but it came out right beside Ethan’s kayak and was quite a surprise. He was not expecting to see his first one at an arm’s length away. We all kept a little further from the mangrove edge after that!
The entire adventure was a great time for my family despite the wind, and I am thankful for the memories we made. I added many first time species to my list, as did my crew. Tight lines always make for a good trip, and bringing home a few bags of tasty fillets makes it even better. With good conditions we could have fished the nearshore reefs out of the kayaks with no issue, but I never got that chance on this trip. That and what I learned about tarpon fishing gives me all the more reason to return and try again. I bet I could talk my crew into a return trip, as well!