Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Key West Fishing Paradise

I am finally getting time to report on last weeks adventure. After spending 5 days in warm Florida this post is being written from San Jose, California. It is not as warm as the Keys but certainly more comfortable than the -5 degree blizzard they are having in Minnesota right now! The conference went well and as the host I made my mark by arranging a presentation by my friend Fred Lehman. Fred is probably one of the most interesting persons you could ever meet and although his hour long presentation on the Structure of the Milky Way was somewhat unrelated to the transformer business, for most part our attendees were spellbound. You can see Fred's work at http://www.starfred.com/.

After being stuck for 3 days indoors hosting the conference in West Palm Beach, my business partner Lyle and I headed to Key West a couple days of leisure. The highlight of our time included a 6 hour fishing adventure with with Captain Steve Rodger of Spear One Charters. This would be my first time in the Keys and I was not disappointed. The trip began at a local marina convenient from our hotel, meeting Captain Steve at 7:20. The first thing I noticed were the twin 300hp Mercury Verado's hanging off the back of the boat. The boat was a 28 foot Conch, open bow with a center console, 2 very large livewells, insulated storage, it was set up beautifully. I could only imagine what this boat could do. After stowing our gear it was off to catch our bait. Our strategy was to catch at least 500 or so pilchards and fill the baitwell. We cruised the shallow areas along the shorelines looking for pelicans diving into the water, as this would indicate the presence of baitfish below. With my boating experience, I was directed to run the boat while Captain Steve threw the cast net into the school. The water was less than 2 feet deep and because it was rather windy, the water was less than ideal for locating these schools. My job entailed watching the Captain and as soon as he threw the net, stop the motors and trim them all the way down, driving the skags into the bottom, anchoring the boat. I was surprised how well the cast net worked with up to 100 fish with each throw. We did get the boat stuck a few times before we had our compliment of lively 4 - 6 inch pilchards, similar to the shiners we use in Minnesota. The water in shore was this beautiful turquoise color caused by the white coral sand on the bottom. My first picture was taken on our way back but it really shows this amazing effect.

Our first location was an underwater reef rising to 60 feet surrounded by 160 foot water. Did I mention it was windy? The waves were at least 8 feet from bottom to top (we in Minnesota would call them 8 footers but on the ocean they are officially 4 foot seas). The tide was running almost opposite the wind, which made conditions difficult. We would anchor on the edge of the reef and start chumming for fish. This meant putting a block of frozen ground up fish into our chum bag as well throwing live pilchards into the water to attract fish. It didn't take long for the fish to show up. You could see them gathering behind the chum line in flashes of brilliant blue, yellow and silver. The key was to fish those out of sight as they were pretty finicky. Our equipment included a heavy spinning rod and reel with mono or braided line and a fluorocarbon leader. We used a plain Mustad live bait hook with no weights, letting the bait drift with the current, creating it's own action. It took some getting use to as the wind worked against the current causing a substantial bow in the line. It didn't take long to get the first fish, a bar jack. These fish fight like crazy! Being a good fish to eat we had one in the box. The next fish to come on board was a yellow tail snapper, what we were really after. These are some of the best tasting fish caught and are plentiful. Unfortunately sharks love them as well. My first yellow tail was greeted by a 6 foot shark that decided it wanted the fish more than I did. Grabbing the fish
and diving, there was little to do but break the line. This played itself out many times and one soon learned that you cannot give the sharks the opportunity for an easy feast. According to our Captain, these sharks have learned where the easy meals are and show up frequently. The good news is we managed to get 7 nice yellow tails. The second picture is me holding the bar jack and a yellow tail.

Being a seasoned fisherman it did not take me long to figure out the system. These fish hit hard and once hooked they take off. On the other hand for Lyle this was his first trip fishing on the ocean and with a guide. It was important that to make sure he was having a great time. It took him some time to get comfortable with the waves, managing your presentation, and landing the fish. Although the fish practically hooked themselves, the real challenge was to get them to the
boat before the sharks. Lyle became the sharks best friend! It took a while but Lyle did pretty well. The first nice fish was this cobia he is holding with Captain Steve. These fish fight like crazy and the sharks would rather dine on yellow tail so he had a better chance of landing it. Although cobia are a great eating fish, there is a minimum length and this one was just a tad too short. Notice the spines just before the dorsal fin. These can inflict a very painful sting, which might explain the shark avoidance.

One of our issues was a pending storm approaching the Keys. A line of thunderstorms had stalled for a few days and on Saturday morning it had let loose. With only a few hours before it would be on us, we decided to try for larger fish like Mahi Mahi, tuna, wahoo, and sailfish. Because reefs tend to draw all species of fish this time of year we headed out about a mile and drifted back in. The strategy was the same, throw a ton of bait into the water to attract the fish and hope they would take the ones with hooks in them. It didn't take long for the tuna to arrive. The first on was a small skip jack tuna, not as good as yellow fin but acceptable. The next fish I caught was a bonita, a very dark fleshed member of the tuna family good for cat food or cut bait. The Captain saved it for future clients. Finally Lyle hooked into a nice fish. To Lyle's credit he works out at the gym frequently and this fish provided him with his daily routine! After a grueling 15 minute fight we gaffed this nice black fin tuna, the prize for the day. With the storm front clearly in view there was time for another short drift. Although we emptied our bait well in an attempt to entice our quarry, this drift produced nothing.

It was time to leave with 10 miles between us and the dock. I was amazed at how well the boat handled in the waves as we struck the storm head on. Just like on Mille Lacs, the wind shifted from the north at 40 mph as we hit the wall of rain. Once into the turquoise waters again, the shallows dissipated the waves and we were able to let those Verado's breath. Once at the dock the rain stopped and hints of blue sky had already shown itself. We gathered our fish and Captain Steve began to fillet. The table was mounted right at the end of the dock edge with a compliment of pelicans waiting for a free lunch. Wanting to learn how to clean these fish I assisted in skinning and removing rib cages and bones. Tossing the scraps out into the water produced a huge swirl before the pelicans could get to the morsel. I looked into the water and there were 6 huge tarpon cruising around too, looking for handouts. A couple of them were over 6 feet long. Apparently like the pelicans they have made this their permanent home living on the scraps of each days fishing adventures. It was pretty interesting to say the least.

Although we did not catch a lot of fish or any large ones, it truly was a fabulous experience. I would recommend Captain Steve to anyone as he was knowledgeable, patient, had first class equipment and provided what you should get from a guide, a great time. After learning my lesson when I brought fish back from Cabo, we cut them up into dinner sized portions, the hotel allowed us to use their freezer, and on the way back we purchased a cooler and some dry ice for the airplane ride home. The fish were good an froze and I look forward to having some yellow tail snapper next week. Although I have spent the last 8 out of 10 days in balmy weather, it is supposed to be below zero this week and I might just be able to get out on first ice this weekend. Lets hope!


Anonymous said...

sounds like a great time and it is a good thing you are a true water boy with 8 footers most people would have spent there time on the boat wanting to get off. Oh what about the oranges??????

John said...

You guys really got to catch a wide variety of fish and seeing the shark and tarpon would have been very instersting. I thought you would enjoy this link about Leech from my buddy at the DNR, opener is only 5 months away.


Dewey said...

Ok, Mr. Anderson, You've let me down on the cigar, how about a "Sconnie" calender??

NeenahPete said...

Very nice. Doing something you really like to do, in Paradise, and missing the big snowstorm and frigid weather back home........ it doesn't get any better than that.

Dave Anderson said...


I asked for cuban's and all I got were funny looks. I do have 2 calendars however and will get them out promptly!