On a typical day in May, there are the normal trade winds from the southeast. These blow, usually between five and 15 knots and help keep the climate bearable as the temperature rises. One grows accustomed to this pattern, particularly if you are inclined to be on the water. For a backcountry fisherman, this means where you fish, find fish, and how you get to those spots become a well worn path. The path is well worn for a reason, fish, conditions, deeper understanding of the specific locations. You learn all the underwater terrain, the currents, the mangrove creeks, and how the wildlife lives in those environments. For those animals, that is there entire world, and you try to learn it. Each spot, you observe, study and learn. So much so, your world, when you are there, becomes their world. You strive, and hopefully, become just another part of this daily routine in the backcountry.
However, as modern humans, our world tends to be a bit larger, and we have the ability to expand or contract our world as things change. So, on Saturday, when the trade winds shifted to a west-southwest wind, the opportunity presented itself to expand my backcountry world a bit. I say opportunity, but really it was a gamble. I didn’t know what I would find when I got there. Would the conditions be right, what’s the bottom like, what’s the mangrove shore like, how deep or shallow, what birds, fish, currents, tides? Many unknowns. Much like our ancestors, with a choice to stay in the same place or see what’s beyond that mountain or across that river or ocean, I had a choice; expand my world a bit or remain in my same comfortable known world. On this day, however, the latter meant, keeping the small world even smaller, as even the known spots would be inaccessible with the wind, so I would remain shore bound. So, I tapped into my explorer DNA and decided to take the chance and expand my world a bit.
One of the many benefits we have today as opposed to our ancestors, is access to knowledge. And in this case it’s access to reliable weather forecasts, accurate maps and charts, tide predictions, and the accumulated knowledge of marine ecology. Armed with these tools, I set out to plan my expedition into the relative unknown. The winds, from the South West would put the southeast and east sides of the Keys in the lee. Checking the tides, my best chance was on the early incoming water. Examining the charts, the Johnson Keys looked to be the best. I would start on the southeast end of Little Pine Key and work my way back around to the Johnson Keys. I had my plan, and set out to go beyond my knowledge of “the known world” of the keys, my trip to the “backside of the moon”. Maybe a little dramatic, but hey, on a small scale, it was a small trip into the unknown for me.
Charlie and I set out that morning, heading west out the canal on the Ole Salt. Now, a little bit about the Ole Salt. She is, in my opinion, the perfect boat for exploring the backcountry: flats, mangrove shores and creeks, estuaries and bays and shallow inshore reefs. She is named for my father, he had a classic car which he called ole salt, and I believe, it did for him what this boat does for me, that is transports me to places both physically and spiritually. An 18ft bay boat, Ole Salt floats in 10 inches of water, but can take on light and moderate chop with ease. Fitted with a 90HP Yamaha, jack-plate and four-bladed prop, she can move upwards of 30 miles per hour if needed, but mostly we cruise around at a brisk 25. This gets us just about anywhere I want to go. The trolling motor on the bow can take us quietly and quickly on to the flats, into the creeks and shallows to chase fish, birds or any other items of interest. The stick anchor on the motor mount, gives me a quick and easy way to fix my position on the flats. Finally, the small swim platform on the stern enables simple on and off for snorkeling, spearing and wading ashore. Put the Bimini top up for some shade and, voila, the perfect shallow water boat.
On this day, we rounded the north point of Big Pine and headed south east towards our destination. The trip through the “grasses” is always exciting, and for the inexperienced can be pretty tense. Picking the wrong side of the stakes can leave the inexperienced captain aground until the next high tide. Fortunately for Charlie and me, we’ve made this trip many times and for us, it’s a chance to take Ole Salt though some “high speed” maneuvers and navigate the channel. The change in wind opened fishing spots for others too. In this case the mangroves on the north east side of Big Pine. As flats skiff was arriving in the shallows just as we rounded the point. I’ve always wondered about that spot, and I hoped the anglers found a hidden gem on this incoming water. Charlie and I waved and kept on our course passing between Mayo and Porpoise Key and headed north up Big Spanish Channel. We crossed the flats north of the Water Keys and into the channel often referred to as “in between the Keys”.
The incoming tide was making its way around the keys, so we stoped in a point on the east side of little pine key, as this is where I’d seen fish before, both tarpon and permit. The spot did not disappoint and I spotted some small rolling tarpon. It was hard to get close for a shot, and we ended up not connecting. Typically, the guiding principle is not to leave fish for an unknown spot. That said, when I set out on this trip, the main plan was to do just that, to explore places I’d not been. So, as the tide made its way to the yet to be explored area, we headed to the backside of the Keys, and into the “unknown”.
This side of the keys, particularly this time of year, receives the brunt of the trade winds making them difficult if not impossible to sight fish in the winter and spring. I had never fished the east side of these keys, and it’s flats were a new place to learn. We headed around the south point and up the east side, I came across incredible spots. The flats had the right depth, contours, and just enough structure to make it a prime weigh station on the way to the Atlantic. One downed tree provided me a reference marker, and a spot for resting cormorants and gulls. It just so happened that it also marked the spot for small tarpon, what a bonus. I was optimistic, and thankful for the trade winds that protected this area from daily fishing pressure, and that the weather spirts gave me the chance to visit this spot.
As an aside, for those unfamiliar with the fishes of Key’s flats, (I’ll spend an entire piece on the fishes of the Keys), the Permit is one of the most prized. Just to see them on the flats is a religious experience for the more spiritually dedicated angling zealots. Their size, wariness, finicky habits and just plain cool factor, Permit rise to the top of most flats anglers bucket lists. Are bucket lists still a thing or have we renamed them? I digress.
On the east side of the key, the flat connected with the main channel leading to the Atlantic. This channel was and still is one of the main highways for the fabled tarpon migration. On this day, Charlie and I were to be visited by an even more elusive and impressive creature. As we passed the fallen tree, the west wind had picked up and created a slight chop on this lee side calm. This chop, combined with the ever so slightly increased depth, and the incoming tide, created the holy of holies spot (in both place and time). And, as if the backcountry spirits looked down on us and smiled, there, off our starboard bows, the black scythe tails and fins emerged from the water. The school moving on and off the flat from the channel on their way to the Ocean.
We chased them, moved to cut them off, get ahead of them and all manner of tactics to position the boat. All to no avail, even when the cast landed in the reported “right spot”. Not that it mattered, we found the spot. Two schools of good sized permit passed within casting range. In true permit fashion, I was too excited, the fish too wary and all and all, we did not connect. However, the discovery of this spot, location and time, was the reward. Permit can be a fickle partner in the flats game, and they did not disappoint. While not actually hooking a fish, I was reassured of my ability to find fish, and that is no small thing.
So, as the winds began to pick up, the tide advanced further, we decided it was time to head home. Much like the fabled village of Brigadoon, the winds would change this location back to the windswept, unfishable side, hidden from fly anglers by winds and waves, only returning when the trade winds shift.