After years of discussion and planning, we make it to the Keys for our dream fishing trip. We’ve dreamt of balmy weather and airborne tarpon all winter—my buddy Parker and I—while buried beneath piles of Maine snow. But the weather is against us here too. Mid-March cold fronts have water temps below optimal range for tarpon fishing. We’re disappointed, but we’re also about to find out what the Keys’ fishery offers to those willing to re-imagine their expectations and get a little creative.
Our guide, Rich, turns to me on our first morning run to the backcountry, “With these light winds, everyone’s looking for tarpon,” he says, “even though water temperatures aren’t right. Days like this, backcountry fishing will be on fire, and we won’t see many boats.”
Backcountry fishing means redfish, snook, sea trout—a solid “Plan B” for any angler—but I’m not convinced it can rival, or surpass, the tarpon fishing I’ve been yearning for. Over the past frigid months, Parker and I have been practicing in preparation for this trip to Islamorada: Casting to sticks jammed in snowbanks and imagining them as finicky tarpon; tucking loops beneath overhanging, skeletal bushes we pretended to be mangroves.
Seated up front, Parker takes in the sights as Rich navigates narrow channels, bonefish flats, small mangrove isles. Cormorants drop from branches and take flight; pelicans dive bomb unsuspecting mullet. Behind us, the immense Florida sun cracks the horizon. The sky is void of clouds, perfect for sight-fishing.
We run for 15 minutes or so, then Rich takes the skiff off plane, and we glide toward a shallow flat that looks exactly like the myriad others we’ve passed. I take the bow; Rich climbs the poling platform. We’re in less than two feet of water, the bottom a mix of turtle grass and small sand holes.
“Think of this as target practice,” Rich says. “You’ll both get plenty of shots at redfish in here.”
Within minutes, he spots several reds rooting around for crabs and shrimp. I make a few lousy casts, then some better ones. I land a small red—a 2 pounder covered by copper scales, the signature black spot near its tail.
Then it’s Parker’s turn. He makes a great cast, and lands his first redfish on fly, a 3 pounder he spotted on his own. “Nice work!” Rich shouts.
Parker catches a spotted sea trout—relative of the northern weakfish we target back home—then a couple more mini-reds. We alternate shots until the action slows, which takes a while. Rich poles off the flat and we run to another spot. As predicted, we’re the only boat around.
“There’s usually big snook hanging on this drop-off,” Rich says, already back on the platform. I’d imagined snook fishing around mangroves or deadfalls, but we’re wide open in the backcountry; why snook would hold here is beyond me. I switch to a 9-weight, rigged with a black snook fly. Within minutes, Rich calls one out, at two o’clock, 60 feet. “Floating right at the edge of that sand hole—see it?”
I can’t see much of anything in the murky water. My cast lands in the wrong spot, and the snook flushes, leaving a large swirl of muddy water. “They’re spooky in here,” Rich says. “They don’t get big by being stupid.”
Rich turns the bow so the light is behind us. “Look for black lines in the water, any kind of shape that looks different from the bottom,” he says. “OK, here comes a group of them, one o’clock, 70 feet, see ‘em?”
This time, I do. Three large snook approach in a string, like tarpon. I lead the front fish and bump the fly a couple times, short strips that make the black marabou tail pulse. The snook noses the fly, kicks its tail and sips it in. I strip until the line gets tight, then set the hook. The snook turns and tries to rejoin the others as they zoom away. It leaps and shakes its head, then peels line from my reel.
Rich calls out instructions: smooth hands, steady pressure, but not too much. He’s worried the snook might chew through the thirty-pound fluorocarbon leader. I gain line, then the snook takes off. Soon the fish is a boat-length away, tipped on its side at the surface. I lead its wide head toward Rich, who kneels at the gunwale. He lips the snook and lifts it into the skiff: 37 inches, pushing 15 pounds. We high five and take photos.
“I was so nervous,” Rich says, “I’m still shaking! You guys have no idea, that’s a world-class snook on fly.”
The snook’s black lateral line is like a horizon down its flank, contrasting silver-grey scales. Impossibly fat from gills to tail, it’s shaped like a gorged northern pike or striper. As Rich revives it and it swims off, several more snook flush ahead of us. “They’re still here,” Rich says. “Parker, grab that spinning rod—there’s no way we’re leaving this spot.”
Parker makes tentative casts, spooking more snook. Rich takes the rod and shows him how to chuck the plastic swimbait so that it lands splash-less. He casts to a group of snook Parker couldn’t reach, bumps the bait erratically and water erupts. He sets the hook and hands the rod to Parker, then bolts back to the poling platform to give chase.
“This one’s even bigger!” Rich says. Parker couldn’t care less that he didn’t hook it—he’s happy for the battle and lands the snook in a few minutes. It’s just under forty inches, fatter than mine, one of the biggest snook Rich has taken on his boat. We stay on the same bank all afternoon, casting to snook, landing a few more and losing just as many.
The next morning, we make a long run to the edge of the Gulf. We idle past lobster buoys, looking for tripletail—an ugly but apparently delicious species that often floats beneath buoys or flotsam. Rich spots a giant one, laid up under an algae-covered buoy, and he gives us a tripletail tutorial: whole shrimp on a small hook, cast up-current, direct the shrimp with the rod tip, then sink it in the fish’s path. His first cast is perfect. The tripletail tips on its side as the shrimp nears, sucks it in and Rich sets the hook. Tripletail are shaped like oversized saucers, with mottled brown-gray coloration and a prehistoric head. When the fish sounds, the hook pops free. Rich is apoplectic; Parker and I take the opportunity to rib him a little. “We would have eaten like kings!”
The three of us take turns casting shrimp to smaller tripletail. We catch a couple, though none of them meet the 18-inch size requirement to come home for dinner.
Our last morning, with water temps still chilly, we return to the bank where we’d landed the big snook. Rich brings three spinning rods rigged with bucktail jigs and top-water plugs. Soon after we arrive, he spots a school of fish pushing water in the shallows.
“Those look like big redfish,” he says. He poles closer, as quietly as possible, Parker at the ready on the casting platform, me behind him on the bow. “Parker, once we’re close enough, you take the first shot, then Ryan, you cast, then I’ll cast after you.”
Once in range, Parker launches the bucktail jig, and a large redfish eats it on the drop. I throw the top-water plug, and a ten-pound jack crevalle smacks it on the first twitch. Rich throws his jig and a redfish inhales it. Parker’s redfish is a monster, by Florida standards, and he fights it cautiously. Rich lands and releases his red while I land the jack, which fights like a bluefish on steroids. Parker puts the finishing touches on his redfish, a mid-30-inch specimen, with an enormous head and copper-gold scales.
“That was ridiculous,” Parker says, after his red’s been photographed and released.
“Crazy, isn’t it?” Rich says. “We could have beat our heads against a wall for three days, trying to find tarpon. But we’d have missed out on all of this.”
I realize he’s right: we took what the conditions gave us, and our open-mindedness paid off. The backcountry fishing exceeded my expectations: trophy snook and redfish, tripletail, jacks, sea trout. Parker didn’t jump his first tarpon on this trip, but he’s not complaining. In fact, he’s still on the bow, grinning like a little kid, wiping his hands of redfish slime.