Our exclusive report on storm-related impacts to Florida fishing and boating.
Hurricane Irma was a complex weather system which affected many parts of Florida, from severe winds in the Keys to coastal flooding in the northeast. And as we clean up, let’s not forget the terrible damage and tragic loss of life to our east, in Barbuda, St. Martin, St. John and other Caribbean Islands which faced the full fury of Irma’s Category 5 winds. Social media and the national news continue to deliver heart-breaking images, reports and videos showing the destruction, and Floridians are certain to reach out to offer help—financial or material–through various aid services.
For most of the Sunshine State, there were signs of recovery early in the week. Many fishing guides and tackle shops were open for business just as soon as power came back… and as of 4 p.m. Tuesday, it was coming back quickly.
The Florida Sportsman office in Stuart was up and running as of 9 a.m. Tuesday, September 12. All day long, staff was busy contacting the magazine’s extensive network of writers, photographers, fishing guides, conservation authorities and other relevant sources.
One of the earliest reports came from Thomas Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association (NMMA), who provided a link to FEMA resources and tools for businesses and individuals: www.disasterassistance.gov/get-assistance/other-recovery-help.
Here’s a rundown of statewide updates organized by the magazine’s Action Spotter regions, from south to north:
Captain Pepe Gonzalez of Key West, safe with his family in South Carolina, called Tuesday morning to let us know that he was meeting with the CEO of Pure Fishing and Penn to find ways to help the charter captains and their families in the Keys who’ve been devastated by Hurricane Irma.“Many people have lost everything. Homes are destroyed. Boats are gone. It’s devastation right now,” Pepe said.
As of Tuesday morning, evacuees from the Lower Keys were still not able to drive to their homes on U.S. 1. Wreckage in the seas is so heavy that navigation is dangerous.
“Anything north of Big Coppitt suffered devastation. It even took away the pavement on the streets there, all the way up to Islamorada. Even all the way up to Key Largo had major flooding. There’s no water, no electricity, no sewer in Key West and most of the Keys.
“We’re trying to come up with a plan with Penn to give the charter guys a break somehow to help them rebuild their livelihoods. They’re starting to brainstorm to how to help. For myself, I just heard that my house only had minimal damage, and for that I’m blessed. Now I’m only waiting to get back in the Keys with my family and start helping other people rebuild. We’ll keep you posted.”
Capt. James Chappell, of Islamorada, reports that it’s like a war zone from Lower Matecumbe south. “It’s pretty terrible. I’ve had a lot of people tell me it’s unbelievable. I plan to return with my family tomorrow.”
Ten Thousand Islands
“People are mostly fine here in Estero, where I live,” said Steve Dall, regional field editor. “There’s no power, cell signal is extremely spotty. My boats and house had little damage, lots of downed trees. But it’s on a town-by-town basis along our coast how people and property fared.”
“Pretty grim in Marco. They’re under a lot of water and under sand. Some buildings are wiped clean. Many people there tethered their boats well and lost them and don’t even know where they are. Walkers Marina in Goodland, from my understanding, has taken a ton of damage. Calusa Island Marina has significant damage as well. Obviously Choko and Everglades City are really bad, pretty grim conditions under water.
“In ’05 Wilma ground zeroed Cape Romano, and amazingly, it’s the same ground zero. It certainly scared us in Naples. We sustained damage, but we’re fine. Our marina, Bonita Bay Marina, fortunately is fine, but they won’t start pulling boats out of the barn until Thursday. Naples Bay literally had no water in it, just a big mud flat. I’ve never seen it like that. We went through it at home in Estero and I’ve been through so many before but I probably won’t again.
“From Fort Myers down, going south, towns will recover progressively to the south. I’ve heard that FPL is going to work the I-75 corridor inland first from Fort Myers. If we have power within a week we’d be happy. Some business are already open in Estero.”
Dall reports that the Naples Pier, featured in the September newsstand issue, fared well. “From everything I’ve been told, the pier hasn’t been compromised at all. The storm surge came through there quickly and put a foot of water downtown but then receded really fast. If the storm had been 20 miles to the west that area would have been decimated.”
From Punta Gorda, which was near the western side of the remnant eyewall as Irma passed north, FS Southwest Field Editor Capt. Ralph Allen reports no structural damage to Fisherman’s Village Marina (www.fishville.com), nor to his charterboats with the Kingfisher Fleet. Allen said he expected Fisherman’s Village to be open by the end of the week. Inshore fishing charters may resume by then as well, but offshore fishing may be “pretty mucked up” for about another week, Allen said.
Allen noted that many seawalls had collapsed in and around the Punta Gorda area, likely because of a combination of saturated ground pressure behind the walls, and the sudden evacuation of bay water from strong offshore winds preceding Irma’s arrival . “We had the lowest water we’ve ever seen as Irma approached, and that’s when the seawalls started popping loose,” said Allen. “I suspect it’s one of most expensive bits of damage to Punta Gorda area, and unreported so far. Otherwise, damage here is about one-tenth of what we saw from Charley [Cat. 4, Aug. 2004].”
Bait and tackle shops were getting power back quickly, said Capt. Buck Durrance (863-634-1191) in Okeechobee. He said the lake—practically an inland sea, heavily affected by storm-force winds–has been sloshing around a lot, but he was eager to get out on his airboat to survey the scene. “When the water rushes up as it did and then pulls back, it tends to pull a lot of vegetation, which should open up some new spawning areas,” he noted. He said he was ready for charters any time, but that fishing would probably be slow for a few days. “It was going strong right up to the storm,” he said. “We had some trips back up on the airboat where we had 70- and 80-fish days on shiners.”
Captain Jimbo Thomas said the electricity was back on aboard his Bayside Marketplace charterboat, the Thomas Flyer, but not yet at his house. “I could sleep on the boat to get some A/C,” he joked Tuesday afternoon. Thomas said he’s ready for charters (www.thomasflyerfishing.com) just as soon as he gets some fuel in the boat and the ice-maker finishes its cycle—which could be as early as Wednesday Sept. 13. “I expect there’ll be some good dolphin fishing, and before the storm we had big kingfish along the beach. Also after these storms we usually have good bottom fishing—a lot of red groupers, mutton snappers and other fish out in 100 feet or deeper. They seem to move out of the shallow water during the storms.”
Just across the causeway, on South Beach, Allison Stattner at Shore Thing Bait and Tackle [https://www.facebook.com/ShoreThingBeachAndTackle/] on South Beach reported no damage to her store, and she’d heard of a possible Iron Man partyboat trip on the Reward Fleet gearing for the weekend.
Captain George LaBonte, of Hobe Sound, is Florida Sportsman Boating Editor and a veteran charter captain out of Jupiter Inlet. LaBonte said the Jupiter inlet and marinas seem to have been spared paralyzing damage. LaBonte, on Tuesday, was scheming up a dolphin trip offshore with friend Rick Ankiel, aboard Ankiel’s 34 Venture. “I saw footage from the West Palm Beach NBC helicopter flying up the coast, and you can see the big northeast swell and all the black water coming out of St. Lucie Inlet, running down to Peck Lake,” LaBonte said. “Offshore, I bet there’s a phenomenal rip where all that dirty water meets blue water, and lots of debris.”
Tommy Thompson of the Big Bend Region has had no reports of bad coastal damage in his region. He said that the tide stayed out two days before coming in at regular strength late yesterday.
“I’m headed to Steinhatchee tomorrow and will able to report more then. We only lost power for 18 hours here. Luckily we had trees at the house trimmed last week. Creek next to office flooded up close to the door but rains quit early and saved us. More tomorrow.”
Bill Greer in the Northwest Region reported that his power went back on early this morning.
“We had no damage but the rest of Tallahassee had trees down and power out. Coastal areas are pretty much ok. Carrabelle didn’t lose power. I think everyone up here is grateful that it wasn’t worse.”
Downtown Jacksonville experienced severe flooding along the lower St. Johns River. The stretch of waterway featured in the June 2017 article in Florida Sportsman Magazine, “Tight Lines on the River,” is visible in this dramatic news footage from NBC:
Jacksonville local Capt. Chris Holleman wrote that June article, and we spoke with him Tuesday afternoon. Holleman is a fishing guide (Blue Cyclone Fishing), tournament angler and investigator with the FWC Law Enforcement. “There’s supposed to be a pro redfish tournament this Saturday, and organizers are saying it’s a go,” Holleman said. “The water under the Dames Point Bridge is crazy high, so I guess this’ll be a spinnerbait tournament. And they’re going to need to find a high tide launch—some of these launches right now would put you in the parking lot!” Holleman pointed out that the high water on the St. Johns very likely reflects a surge of salty ocean water, much like followed Hurricane Matthew last summer. And that could mean interesting prospects for fishing. “After Matthew we had bluefish and Spanish mackerel in downtown Jacksonville, very rare,” he recalled. “We also had huge schools of redfish on the surface by the little jetties. I’m thinking this is the same kind of surge.”
Farther north, Capt. Terry Lacoss, owner of Amelia Angler Outfitters in Fernandina Beach, said there were many downed oaks in the area, apparently from tornados. “I heard the freight trains coming through at night,” he said. His shop, on historic Centre Street, escaped damage. By Wednesday morning, Sept. 13, he was ready to take calls to arrange fishing charters (904-261-2870). “The marinas look great—including the yacht harbor and the basin, where charter and pleasure boats run out of,” said Lacoss. “The ramp at Fernandina City marina is in good shape; the floating docks are still intact and boaters are able to go out right now.” Lacoss, a contributing editor at Florida Sportsman Magazine, has an upcoming feature article on flounder fishing in the October 2017 issue of the magazine—“Tri-City Flatties.” He said the flounder fishing should remain good around the docks and jetties despite the influx of dirty, fresh water. “Might take a few weeks for the redfish and trout bite to return,” he said. “And offshore it’s been really rough.”
Bahamas and Caribbean
National news continues to bring harrowing stories from the Leeward Islands.
Still awaiting word from Bahama Out Islands. Bimini Big Game Club closed until further notice. Valentine’s Yacht Club on Harbour Island, Eleuthera, was open for business as of early this week, with no damage whatsoever.