There’s more on down the road, but there’s also great fishing and diving right here. Don’t miss it!
Years ago while driving south on the “18-mile stretch” connecting Homestead to the Florida Keys on U.S. Highway 1, a Florida Highway Patrolman pulled me over. It was 5 a.m.
“What’s the hurry?” he asked.
“Officer, I’m heading to Key Largo to catch the rising tide for shots at bonefish.”
“Ah, that’s exactly why I moved to South Florida,” he said, eying the rodtips jutting from the back window. “Be on your way, but go the speed limit—or at least slower than a hooked bonefish.”
Whew, a comedic cop. The good fortune of avoiding a ticket heralded a memorable day. I launched my 12-foot aluminum boat at Harry Harris Park at the southwest end of Key Largo. Quietly poling segments of Key Largo’s rocky Atlantic shoreline, I admired the sun’s creeping curtain of light turning the brine’s color from gray to green.
I encountered several pods of bonefish anxious for the incoming tide to expose crustacean consumables. By the time my own lunchtime hunger pangs hit, I’d made some good casts of a live shrimp on 8-pound spin gear resulting in five hookups and three releases. Several not-so-good casts blew out a few schools—par for the course. I returned home to Miami with zero speeding tickets and feeling pretty chipper.
My love affair for Key Largo extends to the days when 56K was powerful memory. While Islamorada garners the accolades for bonefish, tarpon and the like, I prefer prowling the Atlantic shoreline of Key Largo—fewer skiffs, fewer rowdy joyriders to deal with.
In the old days, you could pull over most anywhere you could find water and wade fish with a fly rod or a bait bucket tied to your belt. Nowadays the best bets are to hire a guide, acquire a local friend with a skiff (which might set you back a sizeable bar tab), rent a boat or trailer your own. Schedule your fishing during the first phase of the ocean-side incoming tide, and slowly glide along and watch for fish signs. I often hop out and wade promising areas.
A nice option for snook, trout and snapper when the wind howls is the protected waters of Barnes Sound and Card Sound. Those large bodies of water lie west of the northern portion of Key Largo and east of Florida’s mainland. On a recent visit, wife Kelly and I shoved off in Capt. Lain Goodwin’s 24-foot Wellcraft from the dock at Sundowner’s Restaurant. We ran under the Jewfish Creek Bridge to Barnes Sound and farther on to Card Sound. Goodwin, a Cajun who grew up near New Orleans, has been guiding for 18 years. He also runs an 18-foot Maverick skiff for flats fishing and he’s rigged both boats with all the modern gear and electronics.
We hoped to catch a snook near the Card Sound Bridge channel, but none showed interest, snubbing even our chummed pilchards. We did best a bevy of trout and feisty jack crevalle on topwater plugs. “Most of my anglers actually favor jacks,” said Goodwin. “They’re always willing and fight hard.” Our spin gear consisted of 10-pound braided line with three feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and a 3/0 hook.
Goodwin says the most effective baits are shrimp (bonefish, trout and snapper); pilchards (snook, juvenile tarpon); mullet (large tarpon); crabs (permit) and cut bait (redfish, sharks) Favorite lures include topwater plugs, Gulp! shrimp on a popping cork, bucktail jigs, 5-inch jerk shads and spoons. Permit will sometimes succumb to a brown, pink or white bucktail jig. Goodwin has found the best times for target species around Key Largo as follows:
Spring — big trout, permit, sharks
Fall — snook, redfish
April to October — juvenile tarpon
April to August — large tarpon
Year-round — schoolie trout, snapper
Capt. Lain Goodwin specializes in light-tackle trips all around Key Largo: dirtywaterscharters.com, (305) 304-2212.
SOMEBODY BET ON THE BAY
My most memorable story about being initiated to Florida Bay appears in Florida’s Fishing Legends and Pioneers. I’d moved to the Keys in 1987 and began writing fishing columns for a local newspaper. Although he no longer guided, I wanted to meet Jimmie Albright for an article. Albright was one of the Keys premier guides starting in the 1950s. He not only agreed to an interview, he invited me to go fishing.
“If you’ve got a boat, I’ll show you a few secrets about fishing Florida Bay,” he said.
Thrilled beyond words, I picked up Albright a few days hence in my 20-foot Mako. He navigated us through narrow channels and hidden passes as yet unfamiliar to me. We soon reached a distant cove in the northeast region of Florida Bay. I staked out and baited a live shrimp.
“Wade over there quietly and cast that big shrimp right in the mouth of the creek,” said Albright.
I slid over the side of the boat and quickly sank thigh-deep into the silty muck. With shoes anchored as if in concrete, the current cleared the murky water just below my waist. I freaked out at the sight of a massive blue crab with claws agape scurrying toward my vulnerables.
With both hands I gripped the boat’s gunnel and catapulted onto the deck. I finally stood, covered head to toe in dark mud as if a giant Dove Bar. Albright crackled in laughter, his face turning from red to purple. I worried that the old fellow might suffer a heart attack.
“Welcome to Florida Bay,” he finally sputtered.
BEING OFF KEY
When it comes to big-game fishing off Key Largo, the usual drill entails hunting 10 to 30 miles out anywhere from Pacific Light off Miami to Alligator Reef off Islamorada.
One such frequent hunter is Jimmy Johnson, he of championship coaching fame and in more recent years a Fox NFL Sunday analyst. Although an Islamorada resident, Johnson fishes either his 39- or 43-foot SeaVee when and where conditions dictate.
“I’m looking for debris, weedlines and birds—especially frigate birds,” he said. Usually back to his dock by noon, Johnson enjoys solo trips whereby he runs the boat, finds the fish and lands them all by himself. That’s no small feat, considering some of his catches include world-class blue marlin, wahoo and dolphin.
His typical spread consists of a green Rattle Jet on one outrigger, a blue-and-white Ilander with ballyhoo on the other side; one flat line with a skirted ballyhoo, the other flat line an Ilander sporting a ballyhoo; and a center line of a skirted ballyhoo fished deep behind a cigar weight.
“Four out of five times, I’ll get the hit on the green Rattle Jet,” said Johnson, who added that he doesn’t mind sharing that little secret.
One of Johnson’s successful wahoo tactics involves shutting down next to floating debris such as a board. “Drop a bait 100 to 200 feet below the board and you’ll often find a wahoo lurking there,” Johnson said.
On the occasions when he does take friends fishing, they’re often pro or college football celebrities. I asked Johnson whom among them he considered the best angler.
He thought a moment before a sly grin creased his face. “I’ll put it this way — it’s not Bill Belichick,” he joked. Belichick is head coach of the New England Patriots and a close friend of Johnson’s.
I always love visiting Key Largo to eat, drink, fish and be merry—especially when I can avoid speeding tickets.
WHERE TO STAY
For old Key Largo tropical ambiance, it’s Kona Kai Resort. While offering all the amenities one would expect from an upscale resort such as an art gallery, pool, Jacuzzi, tennis courts and only 13 beautifully appointed rooms and suites, the absence of a tiki bar and noisy neighbors delivers peaceful bliss. Palm trees, lounge chairs and hammocks punctuate the sandy frontage, and then there’s a protected harbor, pier (a great perch to behold sunsets), and complimentary use of kayaks and paddleboards. This is Keys elegance that’s earned a faithful following: konakairesort.com, (305) 852-7200. Along U.S. 1 in Key Largo are numerous other small hotels, and national brands are represented with local flavor, such as the Holiday Inn Key Largo and Courtyard by Marriott Key Largo.
WHERE TO EAT
Among the many excellent seafood restaurants in Key Largo, two of our favorites are Sundowners and Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen II. On a recent trip, Kelly savored a flavorful Florida lobster tail at Sundowners while I munched a delightful shrimp and scallop pasta. The show stealer turned out to be Bimini bread sprinkled with coconut, stuffed with pineapple and served with honey butter: sundownerskeylargo.com, (305) 451-4502.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen II is nestled between the north and south lanes of U.S. Highway 1. Don’t fail to order the smoked fish dip, a splendid mix of kingfish, wahoo and whitefish. We couldn’t resist pigging out on humongous stone crab claws, followed by their award-winning key lime pie: mrsmacskitchen.com, (305) 451-3722.
WHERE TO FISH, DIVE, BOAT
Key Largo is unique among the island chain in that it doesn’t have a large natural channel connecting the bay to Atlantic. The Marvin Adams Waterway, which you might drive over with hardly a glance at mile marker 103.6, is a manmade channel providing this link. Adams was a Miami insurance man and Key Largo landowner who mobilized construction of the waterway, completed in 1961. The 15-foot box-like walls attest to the work of dynamite and draglines. Boaters should be aware that there are vertical clearance limitations (U.S. 1 bridge) and boats with significant helm bridges and towers will likely not be able to navigate under. A northern passage to the Atlantic side off north Key Largo by way of Jewfish Creek (via Barnes and Card Sounds), and a southern passage through Tavernier Creek, are the other options.
The surrounding waters of the Florida Keys are enveloped in the 2,900-nautical-square-mile Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Accordingly, keep a lookout for the 30-inch-diameter yellow buoys designating a variety of zones where no fishing is allowed or paddle/pushpole only.
Among our favorite local sightseeing opportunities include a 2 1/2-hour glass-bottom boat ride in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (pennekamppark.com, (305) 451-6300) and watersports galore at Caribbean Watersports (caribbeanwatersports.com, (305) 852-4707).
Scuba diving and snorkeling are world-class, and Key Largo is home to several dive shops and outfitters. The above-mentioned Pennekamp State Park offers dive and snorkel tours at reasonable rates, as well as a very attractive fleet of rental boats. The park’s 21-foot Release center consoles at $359 per day are probably Florida’s best DIY dive-and-fish deal; a 2- to 4-mile run puts you on convenient mooring buoys on famous dive reefs such as Grecian Rocks, French Reef, Three Sisters and the Dry Rocks. A little farther offshore, and you’re in yellowtail and dolphin water!
The waterproof Florida Sportsman Fishing Chart for the Upper Keys and Florida Bay ($12.99 at floridasportsmanstore.com) is a good resource for some fishing spots. Several bait shops in the area, too; one that’s easy to recognize, for obvious reasons, is the Yellow Bait House, (305) 451-0921.
Guided fishing rates, generally speaking: Full-day backcountry about $700-$750. Full-day offshore ranges from $1,100-$1,300 base price, depending on boat without tip. Partyboat fishing is a great option here, too. The Gulfstream at Ocean Bay Marina offers full-day fishing for $65 adults, $45 children, and it’s great fishing, too—accessing some of the best yellowtail and mutton fishing anywhere.
For a list of additional marinas, boat ramps, hotels and everything else you might need, call (800) FLAKEYS (press 1) or visit fla-keys.com/keylargo. FS
Also in this months issue…
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