A Keys Report: Fishing the Backcountry with Executive Editor Mike Toth

Hawk's Cay Resort occupies 60 acres of Duck Key. Route 1, heading south to Marathon and Key West, is on the right.

In the Florida Keys, you're never more than a few steps away from fishing, some of it the best in the country. And when you're staying at Hawk's Cay Resort on Duck Key, located halfway down the island chain, you're in the middle of it all--with flats-cruising bonefish and tarpon and redfish in Florida Bay, and dolphin and billfish offshore.

Hawk's Cay can host up to 2000 guests in both inn rooms and villas on its 60 acres. Fishing is everywhere you look: Hire one of the resort's five offshore and backcountry guides, rent a boat and go for snappers and grouper on your own, or just fish from shore--the entrance bridge is a nighttime hotspot for tarpon and sharks.

One of the many enjoyable aspects of Keys fishing is that you never know what you might catch, even if you're targeting a particular species.

Hawk's Cay was developed in 1984 from the original 1960s-era Indies Inn on Duck Key, which survived the otherwise devastating Hurricane Donna. It was greatly expanded in the 1990s, and how has both standard guest rooms and fully furnished villas. I wanted to be as close to the fishing as possible, so my wife, two children, and I opted for a two-bedroom, two-bath villa with full kitchen that overlooked a cove. I walked out the door and fished every day, catching grunts and snappers and missing a barracuda.

Fishing is a pervasive theme here. On the wall near the front desk is a mounted 158-pound tarpon, caught by resort manager Don Johnson near Tom's Harbor Bridge, the span that leads to the resort.

The store at the marina on site sells bait and tackle, so gearing up is easy. Bring the family, because those who don't fish can snorkel nearby reefs, kayak to an uninhabited island (which has a bonefish flat; next time I'll stow a rod in the -¿yak), and swim the pools and private lagoon here. For information on rates, floor plans, and fishing opportunities, go tohawkscay.com or call 800-432-2242.

One other advantage of Hawk's Cay: If you want to try fishing elsewhere, all you need to do is leave the resort and make a left, which will bring to you to Marathon, the Seven Mile Bridge, and Key West. Make a right and you'll head up the island chain to Islamorada and the world famous Bud N' Mary's Fishing Marina (800-742-7945; budnmarys.com), which is what I did one day, and had one of my best days of fishing ever.

TIP: One of the many enjoyable aspects of Keys fishing is that you never know what you might catch, even if you're targeting a particular species. If you intend to keep fish, stay legal by picking up "Fish With Limits,-¿ an 8x10-inch laminated chart that has color illustrations of Florida species along with applicable length, limit, and season information (see image above). The snapper species are especially difficult to identify, and this card makes it easy. It costs around $7.

The dock at Bud N' Mary's Fishing Marina in Islamorada, Florida Keys.

Boy in the Backcountry: A Florida Fishing Adventure
By: Mike Toth

It was the very same joke I'd heard more than 30 years ago, right at this very spot, when I was a teenager.

"I need to get some ballyhoo,-¿ announces a fisherman in the small crowd gathered outside the luncheonette window at Bud N' Mary's Fishing Marina.

"Bally who?" asks another.

I'd caught a 7-foot-plus Atlantic sailfish that time, so I took the lame baitfish pun as a positive sign. I was here now with my son, Joe, early on a June morning because Bud N' Mary's owner Richard Stanczyk had told me the tarpon, snook, and redfish were biting in the backcountry region of Florida Bay. I wanted to give Joe a day he'd never forget, much like mine when I'd caught that big sail. If that joke was an omen, we were well on our way

Empty boat slips mean busy fishermen at Bud N' Mary's Fishing Marina.

"You guys got your lunch?" asked Captain Jim Willcox (305-393-1128; www.ultimatekeysfishing.com), the backcountry fishing guide that Stanczyk had booked for us. "Then let's go catch some fish." Joe and I stowed our sandwiches and drinks in Willcox's 18-foot Action Craft flats boat, sat on the front bench, and we were underway, slowly motoring away from the marina, under Route 1's Tea Table Relief bridge, and into Florida Bay, the northwest portion of the Gulf of Mexico that borders the Florida Keys.

Our destination was the tip of the Everglades, about a 45-minute run northwest of the marina. The bridge and the Keys were soon out of sight, and we saw nothing but water, low scrub islands, and two small boats heading in different directions. And more water. Because this region of Florida Bay is part of Everglades National Park, the few land areas won't ever be developed, and it takes a long boat ride to get here from areas that are. "Backcountry" is a bit of a misnomer. "Way the hell back in the middle of nowhere" would be more apt.

TIP: You'll need to get a Florida saltwater fishing license only if you go fishing without a guide. They're inexpensive; a 3-day nonresident license is $7. Get one at the tackle shop when you buy your bait.

Captain Jim Willcox throws a castnet for baitfish in Florida Bay.

"We'll need some bait," said Willcox, and he slowed down in an area that to my Northeast eye looked like any other part of the expanse of blue around us. Willcox dropped a bag of chum over the side, told Joe to shake it, and started draping sections of a 10-foot-diameter castnet over his shoulder. After four throws we had about six dozen 2- to 4-inch pilchards and pinfish in the baitwell. "These work well, especially the pinfish," said Willcox, as we scrabbled around the deck, grabbing the bait that flipped out of the net. "Ow!" said Joe, wincing as one of the sharp-dorsal-finned baitfish snapped out of his palm. "That's why they're called pinfish," said Willcox. "OK, this is fun, but we have enough bait. Let's go."

TIP: Live shrimp are the default bait for most Keys shore species--snappers, grunts, bonefish, even "baby" tarpon, which means a fish weighing up to 20 pounds or so. Don't take up valuable luggage space by packing a bait bucket; buy an inexpensive one at any tackle shop and give it to a fellow fishermen before you go home.

Photo by Mike Toth

Joe Toth and Willcox get a handful of Toth's first tarpon.

We ran another mile or so and entered the mouth of a slow-moving river bordered on both sides by mangrove roots and seemingly unending scrub. The tide was going out. We heard the smacks of jumping fish as soon as Willcox slowed the motor.

"Oh, this is good," said the guide, anchoring from the bow and getting out a couple of medium-weight spinning rods rigged with hook and cork bobber. He handed one to me, then baited and cast another. "Rig it up with a pilchard, put it as close to the roots as possible, and let it drift" he said. "I'm going to drop one downcurrent with no bobber and get one out on the other side. Fish everywhere here. Oh, this is good. Here we go!" The back rod dipped and Willcox grabbed it and handed it to Joe. "He's on!"

Joe started reeling, pausing when the fish took line. I took my bait in, quick-stepped back onto the stern, and started looking for a net. Joe and Willcox were struggling to get the third outfit out of the way. A rod dropped in the water and Willcox clawed down and got it before it sank. Joe's drag started peeling again. Then the fish jumped--a tarpon, about 10 pounds. I hooted, Joe pleaded with the fish to stay on, and Willcox was giving urgent instructions and encouragement: "Tight line! Good! No slack! Bow when he jumps! That's it! OK, bring him over!"

We'd been anchored all of ten minutes, and already it was turning into the kind of day I'd been hoping for.

TIP: A 15-pound-test spinning outfit will cover most of your needs from shore. If you think you'll fish a bonefish flat, drop down to 12-pound test. If you're going to be casting to tarpon at night, go up to 20.

Photo by Mike Toth

Joe Toth's beautiful Florida Bay backcounty snook, caught on a live pinfish.

Joe got that tarpon, his first. We put it back and I shook his hand. "So what do you think? Fun?" "Awesome!" he said, using the word appropriately for once. "Now you get one."

A good plan, but it wasn't my turn. Not yet, anyway. Joe's rod went down again, and time it was a nice snook. The fish raced back and forth in the river and we did our three-man dance on the flats boat, switching rods, cranking in line, trading spots, lunging for the net.

The snook, about a 20-incher, finally slowed, and Willcox got it in the net. There's a limited season on these fish--it's open from September through April, and only those between 26 and 34 inches are legal--so back in the river it went.

We had a few more hits and misses, and two fish that threw the hook. Willcox saw a school of small mullet go by and readied the cast net. "Good bait," he said. "They're worth going after."

TIP: Many larger species--tarpon, barracuda, grouper--feed on baitfish, and pinfish are tops. You can cast-net for them from a boat, but that takes time and expertise that you may not have. I baited small hooks with pieces of shrimp to catch the small fish and used them as bait for the bigger species.

Photo by Mike Toth

The author, pleased with his Florida Bay redfish.

I put one of the three-inch mullet on my hook and cast out next to the mangroves. The bobber drifted, slowed, then jerked nervously. "Something there," I said, and the bobber disappeared. I reeled in and avoided the urge to set the hook, which was unneccesary with the Gamakatsu Octopus circles that Willcox used. The fish bulled its way toward the bank. "Keep it out of the roots!-¿ shouted Jim, not a second too soon. I put some pressure on the fish and got it out into the current, where it kept its head on the bottom. Eventually I got it to the surface-a beautiful bright redfish, "Jim, I said, "we're not looking to fill the cooler. But my whole family's here, and we all eat fish. So if this one's legal, we'll bring it to a restaurant tonight."

The fish measured 22 inches--right in the middle of keeper range, which is 18 to 27 inches. "Your dinner fish," said Jim, and he put it in the box.

Three different species, and a lot of excitement, and a great-eating fish to bring back.

TIP: Many area restaurants will prepare the fish you catch, so it pays to take a cooler filled with ice. We brought our fish to to Lazy Days Restaurant in Islamorada (305-664-5256), just a stone's throw from Bud N' Mary's Fishing Marina. They can prepare your catch in a number of different ways, from blackened to battered. We had the variety platter, and it was superb.

The author with a throwback seatrout. Bigger ones followed after this photograph was taken.

We moved around the rest of the morning, catching hardhead catfish (which Willcox unhooked with a long disgorger, to avoid the venomous spines in its dorsal and pectoral fins) and even a young goliath grouper, or jewfish (a protected species). It was the kind of fishing during which you eat your lunch in gulps between spots so you don't miss a cast.

Early in the afternoon Willcox brought us out to a light-bottomed flat and handed us light spinning rods rigged with jigs. "We might get some trout here," he said. "Tip the jig with a piece of shrimp, cast out, and and hop it back."

I quickly caught a trout under the slot size (minimum 15 inches, maximum 20 inches), then a hard-fighting jack crevalle. "I'll unhook that jack for you," said Willcox. "Swing it over." Joe and I, intent on catching more trout, didn't see Willcox take the jack and use it to bait up a large conventional rod.

I got a couple of keeper trout, which went into the cooler alongside the keeper redfish. We now had plenty for dinner, but the day was far from over.

Joe was having problems hooking the light-biting trout-he was feeling the hits but missing the hookset. He turned to look at Willcox, who was quietly paying out line on the conventional rod.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"You'll see," said Willcox.

TIP: The Keys climate is subtropical, which means strong sun and plenty of it. Cover up with hat and sunglasses, and apply sunscreen before you go out. Reapply during the day. A fishing trip is not the time to get a nice tan; you'll fry in the boat and damage your skin. Long-time Keys guide Captain Jim Willcox wears long pants, long-sleeve shirt, and even fingerless gloves, plus hat and sunglasses, on the water.

Willcox subdues a 60-pound-class blacktip shark at boatside.

A few minutes later, the reel spool started spinning under Willcox's thumb. He waited a bit, then set the hook, hard. "Joe, come here," he said. Joe was still a little unsure about what was going on, but he grabbed the big conventional rod, whose reel was now in gear. The fish was taking line against the drag. Willcox pulled a fighting belt out of the hold and strapped it around Joe's waist. "Put the rod butt in here," said Willcox, "and fight the shark by moving around the boat."

"Shark?" said Joe.

But there was no time to explain. No need to, either. The shark, a blacktip weighing about 60 pounds, gave a good show of the species' tremendous fighting ability. It forced Joe all over the boat as it tried to exit the flat. But Joe put pressure on the fish and he finally brought it to boatside, where Willcox grabbed the leader as the shark thrashed and sprayed us with water. There was no point bringing the fish on board, and it soon threw the hook.

"I just caught a shark!" said Joe.

"Let's try to get another," said Willcox.

A big lemon shark circles the boat as Willcox prepares line for a tailrope.

Willcox rebaited the hook, and a few minutes later, a monstrous fish-a lemon shark, about 7 feet long, 200 pounds easy-was putting a dangerous bend in the rod, making Joe scramble yet again. Willcox grabbed the leader and tried to temporarily tailrope the fish for photographs, but the lemon was not about to be subdued and it soon parted from the hook. That was just as well, because the three of us were tired, which is no condition to be in when you're dealing with large, toothy sharks. We stowed our rods and Willcox turned the boat south to head back to the marina.

"Before I finally moved down to the Keys, I'd been coming down here with my family for 19 years," said Willcox as we sped through the cobalt and turquoise waters. "We'd spend all of December here. The worst day of the year was when we had to leave."

It was easy to see why. What fisherman wants to leave paradise?

TIP: Even if you're planning to fish solely with a guide who provides all tackle, you'll probably regret not having a rod and reel at hand. There's just too much good fishing available down here to risk traveling rodless. Go ahead and invest in a pack rod. Look at Cabela's Fish Eagle (cabelas.com) and Albright (albrighttackle.com) travel rods. You'll find a variety of models suitable for the Keys.