Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Florida Keys

The Florida Keys (so many things to do, so little time)

One place that I have been wanting to go for as long as I can remember is the Florida Keys. It's an extremely long drive but so worth it in so many ways, it really is a sportsman's paradise. This trip would be everything and more and set the bar for future road trips. Fourteen days in a paradise for fishing, photography, snorkeling-everything my family enjoys.

The first day we drove to Pensacola Florida-very uneventful and yet all of us were excited about getting to the keys-especially my twelve year old son. We had been planning our fishing trips, snorkeling places and getting excited about the amazing seafood. We stayed the night in Pensacola and moved on to Sunrise Florida the next day. We could see alligators as we got into the area near Sunrise, there are canals around the area and alligators can be seen on the banks and in the water. We visited Naples Florida which was an upscale area on a canal where yacht clubs were abundant and we could watch jacks and tarpon as they patrolled the many docks that surrounded the area. We had an amazing dinner and had drinks in a small restaurant that sat on a harbor. The smell of the sea air and the incredibly fresh seafood was everything we had looked forward to.

We drove many miles along alligator alley which is an area that is the beginning of the everglades and there are many alligators as it is named for. We also found out later from a fishing guide that there are juvenile tarpon running through the channels as well-just have to talk the alligators into sharing their banks with you I guess-we never actually got to fish there but will definitely get back in the future.

The next day we went close to Miami for a chance at fishing for Peacock bass, a fish you usually go for in South America. These bass are ferocious and an amazing fight and they are beautifully marked, closer to a tropical cichlid than a bass actually. The peacock bass has been introduced in freshwater Florida waterways to feed on the non-native Midas cichlids, Oscar and Tilapia. The speckled variety did not flourish but the butterfly variety did well, they are a tropical fish and can not tolerate colder temperatures of water. The reputation of them being great fighters was not an exaggeration as they attack the bait ferociously and even the smaller ones put up a great fight. My son, as always out fished me but I did pretty respectful on getting several decent size peacocks and a Midas cichlid as well. It was a great day-much of the fishing was sight fishing and the scenery was very beautiful. The canals go through residential areas, city parks and the landscaping was amazing with many species of crimson hibiscus and a tree that was huge with large red flowers in abundance.

That evening we had clams and crab from a local restaurant and the next day we would be heading to the Keys which was another day of traveling south, we were also excited about seeing the everglades which we would be driving through the next day. One thing that really struck me about Florida during that time of the year-June is the rainy season which means everyday in the middle of the afternoon a great dramatic storm would come through for just a short period of time but during the storm the dramatic lightning and the clouds converging on the horizon was both dramatic and thrilling with a backdrop of the palmetto trees and the edge of the glades. We all kept our eyes alert for Florida panthers and the many gators we could see-no luck on the panthers though.

Just as soon as we got to the keys, I was happy to be there, my son got sick of songs like Key Largo and margueritaville in a goofy way we are famous for, okay famous in our own circle-the album comes out next year, but I digress. On the way through the first key and out of the everglades we were watching for American crocodiles and again-no luck. It's like driving through a zoo but we tend to get skunked each time-much like my fishing recently but I am still hopeful.

We stayed at a house that overlooked a bay area-the view from the balcony was breathtaking and I had the impression of what the pirates must have felt like moving through the areas back in the day, it was so remote and pristine. We fished for Barracuda and searched for bone fish, no luck on the bone fish but we did get some barracuda and a mangrove snapper. We walked out into the area that surrounded the mangrove thicket-there we hit into some barracuda as well. I am happy to say we all kept our fingers-barracuda have lots of sharp teeth.

The pace in the keys is slow and peaceful, just the kind of place I was looking for and it lived up to my expectations. The seafood restaurants, the Jamaican rum and the scenery that surrounded every place you went made it a very memorable trip. We were determined to find a guide that would fish the flats-the real flats that supposed to surround the area but we never actually found the Permit or bone fish we were expecting-wrong time of the year-always too late or early. There was a recent die off of Snook and the Permit were not plentiful at the time so we decided to go for Tarpon.

At the restaurants that are close to the water you can see the tarpon coming in, they feed them off the balconies and I've seen people actually reach in and feed them by hand. It is amazing to see such a huge fish so close, especially when it is sort of the holy grail among fishermen.

We visited Annes Beach, a place where you can snorkel, we didn't see many fish but the walk out to the area where you snorkel was beautiful and the water was clear and very comfortable. We chased the fish close to shore and continued to explore for a while and the kids got to swim. We spent the day at the beach and enjoyed some great seafood along the way.

The next day we went to the Dolphin Research Center where my niece got to pet the dolphins. We got to photograph the iguanas and meet the many dolphins they have while learning about the area and how they came about, the trainers and attendants were very friendly and knowledgeable. We spent the early afternoon with the dolphins, ate at a wonderful pub nearby and looked for places to snorkel.

We found a place called Bahia Honda, after swimming around the grass beds and finding sparse amounts of fish we decided to go to the edge of the park where it opens to deep water and a rocky wall falls into a steep drop off into deep water. There we found barracuda, multiple kinds of jacks and various bait fish and a very large snook that came through. It was a great snorkeling area and every time we swam through the area there were new species to explore. A barracuda eyed us as we swam closer to the deeper water.

Looking out across the edge of the sandy bottom, there was an amazing coral blue that got deeper as you looked farther where the bright blue turned into a deep turquoise-it reminded me of the beauty and intensity of scuba diving at night-if you look up you could see the moon shining through the water and the color of the water was an intense deep Prussian blue but the darkness was transparent and silhouettes of fish passing through the intense color. To bring me back to reality-I realized I had forgotten to prepare for snorkeling and was still carrying something you shouldn't swim with....

Unfortunately I found my cellphone was not waterproof-who would have thought?-The excitement of snorkeling kind of got the better of me and before I realized it, I had been swimming with my phone for the entire time. No drying on a heater would save any part of the phone-with the saltwater it became a decorative paper weight. After snorkeling for a while we fished at several areas around the park and got to see a large sea turtle across the water that looked like a large crocodile from our vantage point. Still no luck in finding the illusive American Crocodile, but we were still hopeful.

The next day was really a highlight of the trip-we went to John Pennekamp State Park and went on a snorkeling trip. They drive you out into the ocean, maybe five miles or so and you jump out of the boat and you are in a reserve. There was a shark sighted, unfortunately we didn't see it but we saw large jacks, angelfish, spiny lobster and so many other fish I lost count. The reef is a large area of corals and sea fans surrounded by areas of sandy bottom which we were instructed that we could not touch as it was a protected preserve. The fish were large and the coral and outcrops of sea fans were amazing. I could have stayed all day, we ended up there for an hour or so, just in time for the afternoon storm to roll in. The rain was cold and the wind picked up and it was one of the more memorable and dramatic moments of the trip as my son still remembers the storm we drove back to the dock through.

That evening we got to finally fish for the holy grail of fishing-the tarpon, my son got on to a nurse shark and than he got the first tarpon. I think he was amazed with the strength of this fish, I have never seen such an intense battle and was so proud that he was able to handle him and successfully landed his. Soon after, another shark for him and I was on to mine, it was over one hundred pounds, a bit larger than his and by the time it was over, I was content-I've never fought such raw power on the other end of the line and was extremely happy that they don't even take them out of the water, they let them go with as little stress as possible. I have a new respect for tarpon and everything else will seem to pale in comparison, I was glad we both were able to land one. That night we ate at Bass Pro and talked about the days' fishing.

The next day I went back to John Penekamp for a forgotten souvenir and on the way back to the house I stopped by the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center. It was a great experience to do alone, surrounded by egrets and herons as I walked along the dock. I was about due for some time alone and it fit the bill perfectly. You walk through this area of birds in various cages, all rescued in some way or another and you are surrounded by egrets and pelicans all curious about your presence. I have never gotten so close to the wild bird species.

After returning home, we decided to go kayaking, we rented kayaks down the street and took them out, again I was skunked but my son and nephew caught several barracuda and mangrove snapper. I got caught out in open water as a storm came in-I could see the rain coming and there was no escape-wish I would have had a video of me turning around and trying to escape from the pouring rain that was quickly inundating me and the kayak. Again, it's things like this you remember-the rain was cold, sudden, loud and did I mention cold? It was a great end to a fishing trip but I really missed my own kayak which we had just started to learn to use at the time.

That evening we went to Key West and ate at the Conch Republic Seafood Company. One of the most incredible places we ate, you are on a harbor area looking out over the water. All of the food was good but one thing stood out-a melt in your mouth fillet Mignon that was as flavorful as it was tender. You are surrounded by shops and local color, you could watch the tarpon along the docks and just take in a bit of the Florida Keys at its best. Across the street was a key lime pie baker where you can get all kinds of novelties and ice cream, we had dessert while sitting around a small pond where cichlids and gold fish were beautiful to watch. I could have walked through that town for the rest of the evening, the energy was wonderful. After eating, we visited Mark Twains' house and explored tourist attractions around the area including the farthest point south which we all took a photograph by.

On the way home, it was sad to leave the Keys but we were excited about exploring the Everglades a bit more-we went to several places looking for American Crocodiles and on one exploration we all walked along a small pond until we were attacked by a swarm-I mean a serious swarm of hungry mosquitoes. They chased us into the car and we found ourselves smashing one after another-We decided to explore the glades from our car with a closed window-still not crocs-they say they are illusive and we'd have to agree. There is also a visitor center that we checked out quickly and we were back on the road to Navarre Beach.

We ended up staying the night in Pensacola and  got to walk the streets at night. We ate pizza at New York Pizza Depot- for lunch which was great as usual with a bit of local dark beer it was a nice end to our vacation-enjoying pizza and beer in a familiar place where we had vacationed many times. Later in the evening we ate a Flounders, another great place we had visited-try the diesel fuel-it really did the trick. We all got to walk the beach and enjoy the peaceful pace of Pensacola before we had to get back to our hectic lives. We also were able to fish the Navarre Beach Pier, we got to fight some reds and I had a king mackerel to hit my bait. It was a wonderful end of the trip for all of us.

The next trip my son and I would plan in California-along the same lines-caves, zoos, seafood, and anything else we could discover. Stay tuned and get out and explore-the road is waiting..... or the ocean, or the mountains, well you get the idea.

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