The Hidden Keys

Tricky Tarpon, picky permit and bones that won’t bite mean it’s time for you to discover the other Florida Keys…
By Scott Bannerot

Tricky Tarpon, picky permit and bones that won’t bite mean it’s time for you to discover the other Florida Keys.

Mere mention of the Florida Keys immediately conjures up images of stalking elusive greenish-silver glimpses of bonefish, poling toward the black sickle fins of permit or shooting streamers out in front of the dark shadows of tarpon. The thrill lies in the aesthetics and the chase, but the truth is that, on average, many hard, hot hours — sometimes days — can separate bends in your rod. Highly publicized techniques and locations for chasing the marquee species have made that aspect of Keys’ fishing a well-traveled road. A growing number of anglers are choosing to balance time on the flats with therapeutic episodes of frantic fly-rod action by chasing some of the Keys’ more inconspicuous residents.

Fly-Rod Fun
I’d just returned home to the Keys from a three-year stint in South Pacific waters when Islamorada guide and captain Skip Nielsen called to fill me in on what he’d been doing. “I get people coming down who’ve read the magazines, bought the clothing and gear and done their best to develop some casting ability, thinking they’ll wear themselves out on tarpon, bonefish and permit right away. Fact is some of them have never caught a saltwater fish on fly. Getting a little salt behind their ears first, mixing it up with a few fish and breaking in that new equipment does them a world of good before they try to swing for a home run. On the other hand, I get customers who’ve never dreamt of fly-fishing who end up catching fish with my 6-weight in the backcountry, and they’re hooked. Besides, even the most skilled fly-anglers love a day of blistering-hot action,” he said. That was enough to pique my interest.

Backcountry Bliss
My 4-year-old son, Ryan, and I joined Nielsen and his wife, Cyd, to chase the less-glamorous species that call the waters around the Keys home. As we skimmed across the mirror finish of Florida Bay on a cool, late-fall morning, I wondered how he planned to keep my son entertained for eight hours while the three of us hammered all manner of fish on fly. The answer was orchestration.

Miles out in the middle of nowhere, Nielsen abruptly slowed, hung a chum bag over the side and began idling in a wide circle, peering intently at his GPS and sounder. He swung the wheel, paused, and anchored in 6 feet of water. When we came tight, I could see the swirling current carrying chum back over the faint outline of a sizable white halo in the rich grass bed. Nielsen explained that bombing practice during World War II, along with oil exploration in the late 1940s, reputedly created a series of depressions on these flats. They’re only a couple of feet deeper than the surrounding area, but most have exposed rocks and undercut lips around the edges. According to Nielsen, these holes are filled with mangrove snappers and gag grouper at certain times of the year. Seatrout, ladyfish and bluefish move through frequently, and jack crevalle and blue runners attack off and on, too. The odd cobia sometimes shows up, but our mainstay that day would be Spanish mackerel. As Nielsen explained the strategy to us, he was in constant motion, whipping out flies and hooking them on the steering wheel, extracting a container of chum, and propping open the lid to the livewell to check the pilchards we’d cast-netted earlier.

Cyd stripped out some line on her 6-weight, and Nielsen tossed out a few live pilchards, chopped pilchards and several small handfuls of glass minnows. No one cast as Nielson chummed almost rhythmically. He then got Ryan baited up for snapper with half a pilchard on a spinning outfit. “We want those fish to be happy, comfortable and feeding aggressively before we do any fly-fishing,” he said.

Ten minutes passed, and Cyd began casting into the cloud of chum, mending to get a natural drift. “If you don’t get a hit after 60 feet or so, retrieve it in sharp, short strips but be ready to strike, particularly at pauses between strips,” said Nielsen. By the time she had gone through this routine three times without a bite, Ryan had landed two fat mangrove snappers and a blue runner and was clamoring for more. On Cyd’s fourth cast, the rod doubled over and the drag sang out. The macks had arrived! Nielsen quickly landed the first one, which was only a pound and a half, but his expression showed he knew this was only the beginning.

Keeping Them Hot
The dark, darting shapes and silver flashes of Spanish mackerel soon greeted every new handful of chum. Nielsen judiciously tossed a few pilchards now and then — never enough to satiate our visitors, just enough to sustain their frenzied feeding — which translated into consistent bites for Cyd. The hottest fly was a version of a Clouser for mackerel that Nielsen ties — white with silver flash and a splash of pink or red near the head. About a third of the strikes occurred on the drift, usually when several mackerel plunged into the cloud of pilchard chunks, snapping and swirling competitively. By now Cyd was in well into double digits. We had nonstop action in the same spot for a solid four hours, releasing 35 or so Spanish mackerel up to 5 pounds. Nielsen took a few turns with the 6-weight, making beautiful casts and hooking up on nearly every one. He bagged a few fat bluefish, two jacks and a large remora. I got a turn and quickly caught four or five macks and one nice 6-pound bluefish.

The mackerel tally was high, and Ryan had switched back to bottom baits for snapper, also pulling up an occasional juvenile gag grouper. I asked Nielsen about the effectiveness of fly-fishing below the mackerel, and it turned out he had a well-established routine that worked very nicely. He pulled out an 8-weight with a sinking line and tied on a large black-and-purple baitfish pattern. He let the fly sink down into the white hole, then worked it along the bottom, which quickly yielded a small trout and a fat gag grouper. He then switched flies and began catching mangrove snappers. Clearly the fallout of chum particles from the attacking mackerel was sufficient to support a menagerie of midwater and bottom feeders, and with the right retrieve they consistently ate flies.

Switching Sides
Fresh from the backcountry trip with nonstop fly-rod battles, I eagerly accepted Nielsen’s offer to join him and local angler Glenn Scott for a lesson on fly-fishing the ocean side of Islamorada. We fished from Scott’s 28-foot boat, First Growth, which Nielsen uses for most of his offshore charters. Today’s techniques would be similar to the ones we employed in the bay — drifting the right patterns through chum and fishing larger flies down deep with sinking lines. The only change was that we added live shrimp to the menu.

Barely a stone’s throw from Bud N’ Mary’s Marina, where Nielsen is based, he pulled back the throttles and prepared to drop the anchor at the first spot we came to. He said it was one of his favorite places to catch good-sized yellowtails on fly. As soon as the chum bag went over the side, he stationed himself at the transom, flipping out live pilchards and metering out handfuls of glass minnows and chopped pilchards. Scott stood ready with a sinking line and a chartreuse streamer pattern he designed called an Evolution. Again, Nielsen cautioned against putting flies into the water too soon, suggesting we first allow the fish to rise in the chum slick.

Unlike on our backcountry outing, when it took maybe 30 minutes to really get things going, Scott hooked up with a hard-pulling, dogged fighter on our first drift that turned out to be a blue runner. The next two drifts yielded two fat yellowtail snapper, followed by a yellow jack, a mangrove snapper and another blue runner. Occasionally he’d miss a hookup or lose a fish, but virtually every presentation got hit, about as often on the drift as on the retrieve. The action continued for 45 minutes and then slowed noticeably. We pulled the anchor and were off again, working our way from patch to patch southward along the ocean side of Lower Matecumbe to northern Long Key, fishing depths from 18 to 29 feet.

Details Make the Difference
I spent two days on the patch reefs with Nielsen and Scott, who couldn’t have done a better job of showing me how fun and exciting (and productive) fly-fishing the Florida Keys can be. I’d guided hundreds of trips for the same species, using conventional tackle and mostly natural bait, and it was a real eye-opener to see these guys bend fly rods all day on snappers, groupers, jacks, mackerel and other odds and ends that guides and visitors assume are taken only on bait. On the second day a blustery cold front moved in with at least 20-knot winds, conditions that would discourage many fly-fishers but did not affect our success. The wheelhouse sheltered the cockpit from the brunt of the wind, and 20- to 35-foot dink casts on top of the chum proved ideal.

At the same time it was clear that, like most experienced performers, they made it look easy. Scott’s ability to manage slack and instantly react to a strike resulted in his high success rate. And his fly choice helped — he used patterns with sink rates similar to those of the chopped pilchard pieces and glass minnows.
Also, producing nearly constant action for the day required someone totally dedicated to maintaining a chumming cadence. Overall, it was clear that local knowledge is as fundamental for this kind of fly-fishing as it is on the flats.
So the next time the bonefish have you bamboozled and the permit look at your fly like a kid looks at brussel sprouts, remember that there is always a viable alternative in the Florida Keys.