The Keys Kayak Experiment

Can two fishermen escape the icebound Northeast and find warm water, solitude, and fantastic fishing all on their own for dollars a day? March 2010, central New Jersey. Dirty gray skies above. A foot of crusty snow on the ground covering another compacted 4 inches from February that never melted. Buried under it are my kayak and any desperate hope for an early start to using it. I'm visiting my friend John Braun. We're drinking coffee at his kitchen table, carping about the weather and failing to get enthused about the stripers and fluke we'll go after in Barnegat Bay from our kayaks--if the snowpack ever recedes. Both of us have houses that aren't paid off, kids in college, and wallets bulging with credit card receipts. As much as our souls need it, neither of us is in a financial position to fly to Abaco, get poled around a white-sand bonefish flat by a smiling barefoot guide, and recount the adventure during a mango-colored sunset over minty mojitos in a tiki bar. So instead we stand in our damp garages with cans of beer and replace corroded treble hooks while wet snow pelts the windows. "We need to get out of Jersey next winter," I tell John. "Find some warm weather and a lot of fish. That we can kayak to. Do it ourselves." John, who has been tearing apart reels and building rods through four blizzards, doesn't even take a glance at his wife sitting next to him. "I'm in." That's settled. Now all we have to do is find a place we can afford. John Braun paddles toward a deep cut that looks like a home to keeper mangrove snappers alongside Johnson Key.
March 2011, Big Pine Key, Florida Keys. The sign on the small trim building next to the dock says BEER BAIT TACKLE. A bridge with splayed concrete pilings crosses the aquamarine water beyond. The sign at its foot reads NO NAME KEY. It is 83 degrees and palm fronds rustle in the occasional breeze. We see no cars. We hear no airplanes. We see no people except for a man and woman sitting near a large outdoor bait tank, gazing out at a small lagoonlike marina. All of our research the past year--the weekend phone calls, the e-mails from the office, the surreptitious texts during family dinners and business meetings--has led us here, to Old Wooden Bridge Guest Cottages and Marina. "Let's get the rods out," says John, hungrily eyeing the bridge pilings. We've come loaded for bonefish, tarpon, and permit, those popular and charismatic Keys trophy species. What will be yanking those rods over the next seven days here, however, are fish that couldn't be more perfect for two frugal kayak anglers looking for a thrilling fish fight--along with delicious fillets to bring home--in miles of water with no other fishermen in sight. Braun prepares to lob a shrimp into a snapper hole. This sounds easy but actually requires some dexterity with a fishing rod, because you can't add a lot of weight to the line and the target zone is directly beneath the mangrove branches.
Someone Forgot These Keys A popular tourist and fishing destination off the southern mainland tip for nearly a century, the Florida Keys see 2.5 million people every year moving down the chain of islands to visit resorts, motels, restaurants, and marinas. Fishing, boating, diving, and doing nothing in the warm sunshine are their primary goals. Many tourists, once they've passed through historic Key Largo, sportfishing-famous Islamorada, and laid-back Marathon, cross over the Seven Mile Bridge and race the 35 miles down U.S. 1 to Key West, where cruise ships dock, spring breakers dance in the streets, and clothes (and more than a few previous lives) are occasionally discarded. Paddling down a creek bisecting a tiny island below No Name Key. The bird noise--croaks, cries, and shrieks--was loud and a bit unnerving. But the mangrove snappers--like the 14-incher Braun is holding--would slam your bait if presented just right.
Hidden off that route to Jimmy Buffett's inspiration for "Margaritaville" are the Lower Keys, which differ from the other Keys not only in ecology and culture but in identity as well. The island chain widens south of Marathon, with much of the landmass hidden from the road. It's an area that resembles the Everglades with its rich vegetation, sources of freshwater, and abundant wildlife. What few resorts and restaurants are found here cater to campers, fishermen, and families that don't desire or can't afford the five-star upscale resort experience. "We're the hicks of the Keys," says Bonnie Tillman, who was one of the people sitting by the bait tank and will sell you, if you're polite, that beer, bait, and tackle. Indeed, looking around, it's as if several dozen chunks of rural Florida, people and all, broke off from the mainland decades ago, drifted 60 miles, and got stuck on a reef. Those chunks, with mile after mile of undeveloped shoreline, make outstanding fish habitat. This shallow tidal basin, located literally at the end of the road on Big Torch Key, turned out be a perfect launch site for fishing the Gulf side of the island…
A Hidden Subtropical Wilderness The entrance to the mangrove-lined creek is a deceptively welcoming 15 feet wide. But it progressively narrows as I paddle. Now, at its end, junglelike croaks and cries come at me from all directions. In the water, hidden in the forest of forearm-thick mangrove roots, are schools of gray snappers, referred to as mangrove snappers down here. Other than John, whom I've left near the mouth, there's no one else here. Or within a mile of here. Bill Keogh, part owner of Old Wooden Bridge and the proprietor of Big Pine Kayak Adventures, sent us here after instructing us in the ways of mangrove snappers. "A mangrove island is like a mushroom," he said. "Leaves and branches extend out over the water, but the submerged roots are much narrower. The snappers will come out of the roots to hit a shrimp, but you have to drop your bait under the canopy, within inches of the roots." …if you knew to push through the small tunnel through the mangroves, as we did, to find the big water.
Early this morning, we left our housekeeping cottage at Old Wooden Bridge and pedaled our 12-foot Hobie Mirage Outbacks along Bogie Channel, fishing our way to No Name Key's south end. There, in a shallow bay just within sight of U.S. 1's Bahia Honda Bridge, Keogh said we'd find a tiny uninhabited key bisected by a creek full of keeper mangrove snappers. "It's close quarters," he told us. "You won't need to cast much." That was an understatement. What starts at the creek's mouth as an underhanded lob to the opposite bank quickly evolves to a flip with the rod tip. It's similar to fishing an ant fly tight to a wooded bank on a trout stream--cast too close and you'll snag the branches above, cast too shy and you're out of the zone. Here, if your cast is accurate, you may see one or more snappers race out of the roots to get to your live shrimp. The impossibly strong fish will bow your rod and peel your drag as they turn to go back to the mangroves--if they don't clean your hook first, which happens to me time after time. This bridge, which connects Big Pine key to No Name Key, was within casting distance of Old Wooden Bridge Guest Cottages and Marina (and was the site of the original old wooden bridge. We had a shot at a tarpon right under the bridge one morning, but couldn't connect.
I fish my way up the creek, losing more shrimp as I go. Now I can't paddle any farther, and I'm out of bait. I add a fresh 2-foot length of 15-pound fluorocarbon onto the line, tie on a 2/0 Owner circle hook, and squeeze a small split shot a foot above it. After baiting up with a 3-inch Gulp! shrimp, I reach out to where the creek is no more than a foot wide and flip it in. A foot-long snapper is a blur as it rushes out and grabs the fake. My St. Croix pack rod bows and 2 feet of line peel out as the fish speeds back to the roots. I quickly raise the rod and turn the fish just as it enters the shadows, wrestling it into what little open water there is. A few seconds later the fish is flopping at my feet--a fat mangrove that, as I will find, tastes even better than the more famous and commercially available red snapper. The ruckus has put off the fishing in the corner, so I pedal back to John. He's heading my way with a 13- and a 14-incher that he's caught in the same manner. "There was a bigger one with the 14," he says, "but I couldn't get him to come back out of the roots." Still, we are more than halfway to a dinner. The Hobie Outback kayaks, with their pedal-powered MirageDrives, enabled us to navigate the current and wind in the more open waters while still manipulating a fishing rod. When we needed to navigate shallow water, we simply pulled the drives from the wells and used paddles.
We pedal out of the creek and find a 15-foot-deep sand patch adjacent to another small mangrove island. "Every little sand patch around the mangroves has snappers on it, too," Keogh told us. "They'll wait in the weedy edges and ambush prey as it passes over the light-colored bottom." This looks like what he was talking about. I add another split shot to my line, bum some shrimp from John, cast out, drift 5 feet, and almost have the rod yanked out of my hands. "Big snapper!" I yell. The fish tows me toward the mangroves, and I simply hold on. Looking down into the clear water I see the mangrove, easily a 3-pounder, bulling his way to the roots. But he is slowing. "We've got dinner and then some!" And as soon as my whoop echoes off the mangrove thicket, the line pops. I yell something else, and we drift in silence. A nice keeper mangrove snapper, with a portion of the old Overseas Railway Bridge in the background. That railway was completed 100 years ago and was considered an engineering and construction marvel of its time.
Tiny Deer = Epic Fishing A major factor in the existence of all this water with comparatively few people is the key deer, an endangered whitetail subspecies native only to the Lower Keys. About 800 of them roam the region, swimming from island to island for water and forage needs--and they're not immune to attacks from sharks. A big key buck weighs in at 75 pounds. Because they've lost most of their fear of man, about one deer per week dies in a vehicle collision; John and I had to swerve around a velvet 8-pointer (the rut begins early down here) when we drove to the main road for supplies one evening. The establishment of the 9,200-acre National Key Deer Refuge on islands throughout the Lower Keys helped protect the key deer population--which at one point had dwindled to 50--from poaching and habitat loss. That refuge, along with the adjacent 7,600-acre Great White Heron NWR and harsh building restrictions on populated keys, also effectively curbed the rampant development seen elsewhere in Florida over the last century. We were thrilled to catch keeper yellowtail snappers from the kayaks. These fish are typically taken by anglers farther out on reefs in bigger water, but we found some around the bridges.
"A little deer has all the power down here," Keogh told us. Those little deer helped protect innumerable mangroves that provide precious habitat for fish. "Fringing mangrove communities around the Lower Keys may be our most critical nearshore habitat," says John Hunt, a marine biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and director of the state research lab in the Keys. "All the nooks and crannies in a mangrove system provide great protection for snappers, as well as for the crustaceans and arthropods they eat--all of which are fed and replenished by falling mangrove leaves." What's more, all that wild, protected, outstanding fish-producing habitat in the region allowed a couple of Jersey kayak fishermen to have the fishing beneath an entire Florida Keys bridge all to themselves. Pedaling back to the launch on Spanish Harbor key at sunset--a pleasant trip made even more enjoyable because we had fish in the 'yaks.
You Take the Gulf,
I'll Take the Atlantic
Keogh had mentioned a launch area at the base of the Bahia Honda Bridge where we'd have access to the deep, swift channels. There, the pedal-powered Hobie kayaks would be essential--we'd be able to work one hole or drift a likely section easily because our feet would control the kayak in the wind and current, leaving our hands free to cast and retrieve. Around three hours before dark, we carry the Hobies down to the coral-studded shoreline and put in. Our bait buckets have plenty of live shrimp in them, and I also have a few blue crabs in case some tarpon show up. The tide is running south to north--from Atlantic to Gulf--and we begin drifting from the pilings of the defunct 99-year-old railroad bridge to those of the U.S. 1 bridge, a distance of about 200 yards. We start catching fish immediately--heavyweight blue-striped grunts ("grits and grunts" is a well-known meal for the more self-subsistent types in the Keys) and porgies. The sun sets quickly in southern latitudes, and if you're not prepared to navigate a vessel in the dark, you can't delay heading back. That means you can only make one last cast six times or so, instead of the usual dozen.
I notice the edge of a sand patch on one drift and pedal back, lining myself up so my drift will bring me straight over it. As soon as the sinker and shrimp hit that sand patch, the rod jerks over. I look in the water and see the familiar bronze flash. "Mangrove!" I shout to John, who is drifting a stretch of water one piling over. "Flag!" he shouts back. "What?" "Flag! Big yellowtail snapper! I just lost one!" Yellowtail snappers from a kayak? I can deal with this. So can my freezer back home. We put a few keeper-size fish in the 'yaks, then the mangroves start biting again. John, however, wants to find his lost flag, so he pedals out to the midsection of the old bridge where the water is a bit rougher and the current somewhat stronger. Fifteen minutes later he comes pedaling back. "Either someone is hiding up on that old railroad bridge and dropping cinder blocks into the water out there," he says, a little wild-eyed, "or something huge is crashing bait out there. Fourth piling." Grunts, porgies, and mangrove snappers on the fillet table at Parmer's Resort on Little Torch Key. Mangroves turn an attractive pink-orange hue when chilled.
That bridge is cut off from the mainland, which can mean only one thing: tarpon. I grab my heavier rod, rig a crab to a 4/0 hook, and pedal out. The Florida Keys are the accepted border between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Though both bodies of water appear serene, even tranquil, from the roads and bridges and the shaded outdoor lounges during happy hour, things are different when you're actually on that water. And out here, under the middle of the old bridge at sunset, with swells slapping powerfully against the aged pilings and the noise echoing hollowly off the span above you and nothing but ocean separating you from Cuba 90 miles to the south and the desolate Everglades marshes 30 miles to the north and who knows what swimming beneath your suddenly small 12-foot kayak--and no one around at all except your buddy, busily fighting a fish far away--you realize at once that the Keys are just tiny islands in the middle of a vast ocean. I cast out my crab. In a perfect angling world, a 100-pound tarpon would have inhaled the bait and taken me on what 'yakkers call a "Nantucket sleigh ride," in which a big fish that you can't control tows you fast enough to churn water from the bow. Although I will later learn that huge pods of giant tarpon moved through the Keys about a week after our departure, the fish that are here now don't want my crab. And perhaps that's a good thing. My Spanish is very rusty. A limit of fat mangrove snappers lines the well of the author's Hobie Outback kayak.
Fishing the Backside of Paradise The island that borders Key West is Boca Chica Key, a romantic, tropical-sounding name belied by the fact that a U.S. Naval Air Station largely occupies the place. At the southern end of Boca Chica, however, is a hook of land that extends back east. It's called Geiger Key, home to some modest residences and the Geiger Key Marina, which bills itself as being located on "the Backside of Paradise." Just the place to go for our last day of fishing before returning to the cold and damp Northeast. We slide the kayaks down the sidewalk-wide ramp adjacent to the marina and pedal out. Again--as we've experienced all week--no one else is around. One reason is that much of the water in the Lower Keys is shallow. Any boat with an outboard would have to stay in the channels to get to deeper offshore grounds, and therefore would be forced to pass up a lot of great water lying behind flats and reefs and bars. When John and I encounter shallows that even our shallow-drafting kayaks can't navigate, we just get out, pull them across, and climb back in. Braun's Outback had the very same scene as the author's. Mangrove snappers, also called gray snappers, are one of the best-tasting fish in the Keys.
After crossing a big flat, we consult our maps. We planned to fish a larger, deeper area about an hour's pedal beyond, where Keogh had said we might find a permit or two, but now we see that our schedule doesn't allow it. I tie on a shrimp and drift through a dropoff on one side of a sandbar. Tap, tap, bang! My rod bows and the fish starts towing the kayak. In a few minutes I have a beautifully hued mutton snapper in my hands. But after a few hits from short mangroves, the fishing turns off. "What do you think?" I ask John. "Start heading back?" "Yeah, but let's try that little island we passed on the way in. I think I saw some blue water near the shoreline." We pedal over, push stakeout poles into the bottom, let the wind push us to within casting distance, and tie off. John is right--the water is a gorgeous sapphire where it meets the mangroves, and deep. It looks good…but it won't be easy to drop a shrimp into the target zone. I make a long lob. Bull's-eye. Just as I close the bail, the line zips sideways. I reel up and the drag tells me I'm onto a keeper mangrove. The author holds a mutton snapper he caught off Geiger Key on--what else?--a live shrimp.
Once I get the fish in, I rebait and cast out. A miss. Reel, recast, hit the zone, bam! Another mangrove--this one, bigger than the first, buzzes the drag all the way in. Less than an hour later I have my limit of five keeper snappers at my feet. I pull the pole and pedal over to John, who is unhooking a 16-incher. "How'd you make out?" He drops the fish into the pedal well. "I'm done." I look in his 'yak and see five big mangroves. "But this place is unbelievable! We need to come back. Get a shot at a permit." I look around. Palm trees, mangrove islands, water everywhere, no other anglers. I have fish at my feet. It is in the 30s back home. I look back at John. "I'm in." Getting around the Keys with two kayaks was easy. Pickup trucks aren't typically available at rental agencies, and are expensive when they are. So we rented a minivan at a very economical price, lowered the back seats, slid the 'yaks inside (Outbacks nest nicely), and lashed them down.
KAYAKS We used Hobie Outback kayaks, equipped with pedal-powered MirageDrives, to fish the Lower Keys. These drives, which operate fins beneath the hull, free up both hands to fish because your feet propel the boat. You can remain in one spot in wind or current, or make a controlled drift through a section of water, without putting your rod down. They were essential to our ability to fish the bridges, where a fisherman in a standard kayak would have to paddle constantly to maintain control. With the MirageDrive you can navigate until you enter the shallowest of waters, at which point you simply remove the pedal unit and use a paddle. Outbacks start at $1,849 (hobie.com). You can rent kayaks at several marinas throughout the Keys. Florida Bay Outfitters (305-451-3018) in Key Largo has a vast supply.
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RODS** The 7- and 71⁄2-foot St. Croix Tidemaster Inshore travel rods ($210-$250; stcroixrods.com) were perfect for fishing the Keys: The three-piece rods fit in a duffel, are soft enough to cast a shrimp without snapping it off the hook, and have enough backbone to tame a powerful fish. The lengths allow you to keep a straight line to the fish when it crosses in front of the 'yak; the shorter butt sections mean you don't have to hold the rod out in front of you when reeling from a kayak seat.
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REELS, LINE** We fished with sealed-drag Abu Garcia Soron SX reels, now redesigned as the Abu Garcia Orra SX ($70 and up; abugarcia.com) loaded with 10-pound-test mono and 15-pound fluorocarbon leaders for the shallows, and 17-pound line with 25-pound fluoro around the bridges. We also kept spare spools of 30-pound braid and 50-pound fluoro for heavier fish. BAIT Everything in the Keys eats shrimp, and the fresher yours are, the better. Freshly dead shrimp are better than frozen, and Gulp! shrimp will catch snappers. Circle hooks are required when fishing for reef species in the Gulf of Mexico; we used size 1/0 to 4/0 circles, depending on the size of the shrimp we had on. In many cases a split shot or two was enough weight to keep the shrimp close to the bottom when we were drifting, even near the bridges. Where legal, we also used 1⁄16-ounce jigs tipped with a shrimp. Jig's Bait and Tackle (305-872-1040; jigsbaitandtackle.com) on U.S. 1 in Big Pine Key sells a variety of bait at reasonable prices.
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ACCOMMODATIONS** The rustic housekeeping cabins at Old Wooden Bridge Guest Cottages and Marina (305-872-2241; oldwoodenbridge.com) on Big Pine Key start at $95 per night. There are kayaks (and a boat launch) on site, as well as a marina and a fully stocked bait and tackle shop. Part owner Capt. Bill Keogh offers charter kayak fishing trips (keyskayaktours.com). If you don't want to prepare your own meals, Parmer's Resort (305-872-2157; parmersresort.com) on nearby Little Torch Key offers spacious and comfortable rooms and suites, along with a free breakfast, starting at $99 per night. RESOURCES The Florida Keys Paddling Guide by Bill Keogh lists every kayak launch (official and otherwise) from Key Largo to Key West, and has maps and descriptions of paddling routes. Florida Keys Paddling Atlas by Bill and Mary Burnham has detailed charts of all Florida Keys waters, including water depths and habitat types. For general information about the Keys, go to fla-keys.com. This is where you buy the essentials (which are beer, bait, and tackle, according to the signs outside) at Old Wooden Bridge Guest Cottages and Marina. Old Wooden Bridge, on Big Pine Key, and Parmer's Resort, on Little Torch Key, are ideal, affordable accommodations for fishermen and their families in the Lower Keys.

You can also read this story in the December, 2011 double issue of Field & Stream magazine.