Saturday, April 12, 2014

Islamorado Florida for Redfish - April 2, 2014

Finally took the family on vacation to Jupiter/West Palm Beach, Florida.  I have family down there and the lure of warm weather and the beach was just too much.  We spent a couple of days in WPB, then headed down to the Keys for a couple of days and enjoy the island life.  I hooked up a guide for myself and my uncle on Wednesday to do some flats fishing.  After a long previous night of heavy drinking at the beachside restaurant and then the hotel, then not sleeping in anticipation of fishing the next day, I was a little sluggish to get up and get going.  We drove from Islamorada to Tavernier and met our guide at the marina about 7:30am. 

I had originally wanted to go bonefishing, but the night before our trip the guide told me it might be a little cold for the bones and that if we wanted to get/see some fish we needed to do redfish.  I reluctantly agreed.  We boated his tiny 17 foot boat and were soon after we were skimming through the creek headed for the ocean.  I had no idea, but we'd be going an hour north west into Everglades National Park, where it is a 900 sq mile protected flats area of ocean that all sorts of fish occupy.  After an hour, passing hundreds of small/medium sized islands and over 24 miles later we cut the engines and drifted over some middy shallows. 

There is not a whole lot to tell of the area - you basically hunker down behind islands when it is windy or you fish in the middle of the flats and fight the wind.  The water is pretty shallow, I think the deepest spot is 10 ft and the rest is mostly 3 or less feet deep.  It is patches of brown mud and mostly green grass.  The islands are bird habitats with mangrove trees and lots of skinny mud flats at low tide.

Our guide started me out on the deck first with a fly rod.  Since I wasn't used to throwing a huge rod, he gave me some pointers and I stood at the front of the boat with butterflies in my stomach trying to remember everything he said and hoping I wouldn't do the 500 things he said would spook the fish (don't hit your back cast on the water, don't rock the boat with your cast, no false casting, no talking, no big splash, don't cast on top of the fish.....).  We poled around for an hour and didn't even see a fish - I stood there with a fly that looked like a carpet bug carp fly squeezed between my fingers at attention and ready to cast, and didn't even throw a cast.  The water was too high, the light was wrong, there was a ray mudding, too much wind, etc.  By 10:30am I hadn't even thrown a cast at a fish.  We did see a couple of fish blow up near the boat - some in the 8-10 lb range, which was pretty impressive.

We moved spots and I decided to let my Uncle Danny fish - he was a spin rod guy and a lefty.  Not much changed.  I think he stood there for 45 minutes with nothing in site.  There was a couple of chances of fish way too far away - but we didn't have much luck.

The guide asked us if we wanted to go into the Flamingo Welcome Center in Everglades National Park that was close by and get some lunch and maybe see a crocodile.  We agreed and soon we were docked and walking through a ghost town of a place to a food truck (Buttonwood Café) located in the first floor of an abandoned building.  We had grouper sandwiches, some cold drinks and then walked over to see the croc - along the way we saw some impressive osprey nests and a few huge ospreys.  We did manage to see a 10 ft croc, but he didn't want to be bothered and hit the bottom when we poled close.  We headed back out to the flats to fish.

We wanted to make sure we caught fish, so we fish a 10 ft channel nearby and managed to catch some very small fish - Danny caught some catfish, a couple of jacks and a bay grouper - all were less than 12 inches long and honestly didn't give much of a fight.  I stuck to the fly rod and threw on a deceiver and manager one small catfish of maybe 12 inches.  We then had about an hour left before heading back and we decided to hit the flats again.  I decided to switch to a spin rod just to get a better chance.  We started seeing fish and had opportunities, but I suck with a spin rod and couldn't get the fly/bait in range. 

One time we did see a school of about 25 redfish I got one cast to it, one fish peeled away from the group - but I never hooked up.  I probably screwed up 5 or 6 opportunities and finally let Danny fish.  He had multiple chances at fish as well.  Finally about 2:00 he had a fish nosing about 20 feet away, he cast way past it and reeled in to just in front of the fish - now we were 5 feet from going over the fish, but the fish was nose down and didn't notice us - then we thought the fish blew up, but the line started tearing off as well - and he had a fish on.  The fish fought ok, but nothing crazy.  The guide landed him, boga-gripped him, shoved the fish in front of Danny while I took a pic and then nearly ripped it out of his hands and released it. 


Now, I'm a huge catch and release guy, I know we need to protect all these fish and that being out of the water for any period of time is not good.  But this guide was ridiculous.  He didn't use a net - which was fine I guess, but wouldn't let Danny touch it, land it, or release it (except for his hand under it's belly for the pic).  I didn't get great pics because I was using video - but did manage a couple.
The fish was beautiful, I loved the black spot on its tail and the big pucker lips - I'd guess it was 4-5 lbs.  Danny was pumped and we were pumped the day wasn't a skunking. 
I jumped back on the casting platform and proceeded to blow up fish after fish with the guide getting pissy at me telling me to "get the next one".  I didn't get the next one and soon it was 3pm and we needed to make the hour long trip back to the marina.
We saw lots of cool things - which I assume are common out there, but new to me.  We saw a small shark (I forget the name) that was maybe 14 inches long, 2 snook (which Danny had a couple shots at), lots of rays mudding (including one that was 4 feet wide and waving his wings out of the water), lots of bottle nose dolphins (who feed like crazy at low tides chasing bait), a croc, a bunch of ospreys, and tons of birds too many to name.  I learned a lot about the Everglades, how to cast a big fly rod and how to remember to put sunscreen on the back of my calves.
I'm glad I got the chance to fish Florida, especially with my Uncle who is a classy guy and always manages to have fun.  Unfortunately, I also learned a bunch of lessons during the trip after it was too late.  If you get a bad feeling about a guide before the trip - don't wait, find another (like when a guide says he is willing to refer you to another guide if he was busy but for $25 - red flag!).  If you really want to fish for something specific, don't be talked out of it (tough one to determine - do you take a guide's advise or stick with your gut?)  Find out exactly where you are going before you agree to something - going an hour out to the Everglades that was 24 miles away and essentially parallel to the mainland of Florida would have been a hell of a lot shorter trip if I got a guide on the mainland - but I was 20+ miles down the Keys island chain in Islamorada - plenty of places to fish closer.  Don't wait for the guide to help you out, if something isn't working for you - tell him you want to change it.
I'm not saying our guide was a bad guide, I'm sure he has had major success with lots of clients and I'm sure I suck at casting, fishing, being guided, being nice, etc - but he just didn't work for me.  And I kind of had that feeling from the start, and should have looked elsewhere.  I would have liked to have gone bonefishing and should have stuck to my guns.  I've had success in the past bonefishing and I would have been more comfortable.
It amazed me to see the flies he was using - the carpet fly, which is barbell eyes, a marabou tail, and three pieces of carpet yarn tied in sideways up the body and then teased out with some dubbing around the carpet yarn was exactly the fly I have tied for carp here in Colorado.  We used a deceiver that was an easy tie.  So all those funky flies you want to tie for Florida?  Don't.
Just a note, we went to dinner that night and there is a feeding area for tarpon - and we saw tarpon in there for up to 160 lbs and 6 feet long - amazing.  I have no clue how anyone could wrestle one of those things in on a fly rod.