Like clockwork, I begin to question my sanity the day we begin to get ready for the trip. In addition to taking what we need to transplant our lives from New Jersey to the Florida Keys for 10 weeks each winter, there is also one additional detail…the boat.
The vessel in question is only 19 feet long but on the trailer it’s 26 feet overall. When you add in 16 feet of SUV, the rigs tops out at 42 feet. My wife is uncomfortable driving this nautical semi, so I’m behind the wheel the whole way down.
After twelve gas stops and two and a half days on the road we arrive at our final destination…Islamorada – The Purple Islands – so named by Spanish explorers due to the proliferation of purple Bougainvillea indigenous to the island.
It takes about two days for us to unpack and unwind from the stress of the ride. It’s almost like a vehicular jet lag that you need to recover from, but on about day three the boat gets dropped in at the local marina and we motor over to Smuggler’s Cove on Snake Creek, buy some bait and head out to see what’s around.
As you probably already know, Islamorada is considered the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, and for good reason. First, unlike my 45-minute commute from slip to ocean back in New Jersey, in Islamorada, you transit from slip to the edge of the reef and a hundred feet of water in under fifteen minutes. The second monumental difference between The Keys and anywhere else I’ve fished is that it is virtually impossible to cast a line into Hawks Channel or the Straits of Florida and not catch something.
During our first winter in the Keys I learned quickly from the locals that with certain fisheries, “It’s all about the chum.” Up north, the only time I used the stuff was during a shark fishing trip out to the Canyon. I remember hauling five gallon buckets of this pungent slop into the cockpit of my buddy’s 31 Bertram and then ladling said slop over the side for hours once we arrived at the fishing grounds.
In the Keys, however, it’s a less strenuous and much neater affair. You buy it in small, easily handled boxes that are suitable for gift wrapping, and simply drop the frozen brick contained within into a chum bag, tie it off to a cleat and throw it over the side. The next step is to tie a ⅛-ounce slipper jig dressed with a piece of fresh shrimp the size of your thumbnail to the end of some 12-pound fluorocarbon leader. The leader is made fast to 30-pound braid spooled onto a medium weight spinning outfit. The final step is to let fly this assemblage into your chum slick and keep the bail open, allowing the baited jig to drift back with the chum slick, away from the boat.
Our fish du jour is yellow tail snapper and a more “leader shy” species you will never encounter, so fluorocarbon is a must. I’ve seen yellow tail approach a hooked piece of shrimp through a pea soup thick fog of chum just below the surface, sniff it, and back away.
The remedy here is another trick taught to me by the locals, which revolves around taking a block of chum and dropping it into a five gallon bucket of seawater the night before your trip. The resultant chum soup you’ll find the next morning is mixed with a 1-pound bag of oats also purchased at the bait shop. This mix is then stirred for exactly 7-1/2 minutes with the handle of your boat hook, with eyes closed, head tilted back, facing east, while reciting a native “Conch” hymn to His Majesty, King Neptune. This concoction is then ladled over the side, creating a slick so thick you can practically walk on it, thus rendering the yellowtail visually impaired and more likely to strike your baited hook.
The last element for success, to borrow some NFL parlance, is to “go deep.” During our first forays into Keys yellow-tailing years back, we were two miles offshore over patch reefs in 20 feet of water, with nothing coming over the side but 12 to 15 inch fish. Current regs allow you to keep yellowtail at 12 inches, but after filleting a fish that small, you wind up with what amounts to an hors d’oeuvre. We soon learned that the deeper the water, the bigger the fish, and started anchoring over some wrecks and reefs in 100 feet of water, which translates into fish measuring in at 20 plus inches.
During the winter season you can also expect hookups with hog fish, mangrove and mutton snapper, mackerel and myriad other species when you’re in close. When venturing further offshore, kingfish, wahoo, cobia, mahi and sails are pretty standard fare. And if you are sans boat, no problem. The island has a wide range of charter possibilities ranging from single person charters out on the flats to small group charters and a fleet of head boats. Your first stop should be the Islamorada Visitor’s Center which has an entire section dedicated to the above.
For your angling resume to be complete, this is a trip you need to take. There is nothing more dreamlike than being on the blue waters off the Florida Keys in the dead of winter, when everyone up north is being spanked by polar vortices and shoveling snow. And if you feel that you can’t afford it at this particular point in your life, here’s some advice. Beg, borrow and steal to make it happen. You’ll thank me later.