Jun 15

Day 5 of Tarponless Tarpon Fishing with Bill and Dan

Day 5 was ugly. The wind was up in a big way and ruled out most of what we would have wanted to do. I was fishing with Bill Horn, the guy who wrote the (or at least a) book about the Keys. He’s also on the Board for the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. Also in the boat was Dan Dow, who works at BTT.

It is always good to be in the boat with Bill. He has his home waters dialed and managed a couple of wizard-like moments in conditions that were beyond rough. We were taking green rollers over the bow. The bottom was stirred up and visibility was sketchy. Bill still managed to put us in the path of some tarpon. How he did that… I can only suspect witchcraft of some kind.

Not great conditions

Not great conditions

We actually got a couple of shots, but the fish were so close to the boat by the time we could see them the shots were not high quality.

We were watching the weather form out beyond us and when it was clear we were in its way we made a run back toward Vaca Cut. The first squall line had moved beyond us by the time we got there and as we tried to make our way to his slip we ran smack into the second squall line. Pretty impressive weather to get stuck in. We hid under the bridge and when the storm passed we even got to try for some of the smaller tarpon rolling in the inexplicably placid waters before the wind came back up.

Yeah... that's some weather.

Yeah… that’s some weather.

That's Dan and Bill, under the rain drop.

That’s Dan and Bill, under the rain drop.

The day was over and I was fish-less again on Day 5. It was a good day though and it was great to share the water with Bill and Dan. I learned a lot from Bill, as I do every time I get on the water with him. Dan… I didn’t learn anything from Dan (kidding), but it was fun to fish with him anyway.

Jun 15

Truths I don’t want to hear

Not fishing, not catching, most like running from the storm!

Not fishing, not catching, most like running from the storm!

There are these sayings one hears (I’ve heard them come out of my own mouth even) that can really drive you mad.

Maybe it is a tolerance thing and you hit it at a certain point, say, day 3 without a tarpon really even looking at your fly. Maybe it is 4 days. Regardless, there is a point when you you can see it coming, you know someone is going to say one of these things and you want to run up the tracks and flag down the locomotive before it hits the washed out bridge (you, fishless, or rather me, fishless on day 3-4 is the washed out bridge in this case).

Two of the most egregious of these sayings are:

  1. You can only catch fish when you have your line in the water.” Yes… true, but the other side of that is the “There is a fine line between fishing and waving a rod around in the air like an idiot.”
  2. That’s why the call it fishing, not catching.” True… but I’m out there to catch things, not just share their water. I know I’m supposed to enjoy “just being here” and all that, and I do, but I am there because I want to connect with the sliver king, because I want to do some catching.

These are thoughts you have when you mostly don’t catch anything. I had lots of time to think about these things since my hours on the bows of various skiffs was mostly not taken up with casting to or fighting fish.

Sure, I can laugh at it all too, so don’t take anything above too seriously. At the end of the day, I don’t. But a good rant is cathartic.

Dec 13

The decline of the Key bonefish

My one Florida Bonefish

My one Florida Bonefish

An article by Bill Horn, via BTT, via The Angling Report.

Things are not going swimmingly for bonefish in the Keys. The numbers are down in the place where bonefish became a species to pursue. It’s a bit chilling.

I heard these stories when we were down in Florida last summer. I heard plenty of stories about how bones were getting harder to find and how redfish, more and more often, were the fish you found on the bonefish flats.

The article is a good read and a must-read if you live in, or plan to visit, Florida.

Veteran Keys guides and anglers saw a direct connection to bonefish, too. When the C-111 Canal was opened in south Dade County to dry up adjacent lands for farming and to divert water away from Taylor Slough (inside ENP) and Florida Bay, Jimmie Albright predicted trouble for upper Keys bonies, and he was right.

Join the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.

Jul 13

Breaking Bill’s Rod

Bill Horn wrote a book about fishing the Keys through the seasons. It’s a good read and it is illustrated by Bob White. That’s what got me interested in the first place.

I did an interview with Bill and then when we knew we were coming down he offered to take us out on the water for a day.

Bill just started living in the Keys year round and has been punished for that decision with gale after gale, but I think he’s still pretty happy about it. He lives in Marathon on a canal, minutes from the tarpon. When Adrienne and I got there and finally got situated the run to the fishing grounds was about 8 minutes.

Pretty much paradise.

As we got out it was a bit threatening and when Bill checked his phone and saw a squall centering over us we simply ran back to his house, waited it out while we talked to his wife and went back out after the weather passed.

While Bill hasn’t been a year-rounder for long, it is safe to say he has the pulse of the area. He predicted, with alarming accuracy, when we’d see our first meatball of fish. He pegged it within 15 minutes. He staked us out perfectly and we had SHOTS. This was the first time I really saw the huge schools we had traveled all this way to see.

Doing the two handed thing.

Doing the two handed thing.

Adrienne had an eat. I saw the fish suck in the fly, but she never felt it and it was spit out before the violence happened. She had a lot of shots and the fish were reacting to the fly, which was good. You could just feel that something had changed. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen now.

I got up on deck and Bill handed me one of his rods, what he said was a Biscayne. It was a one piece rod, impractical for travel but nice if you are fortunate enough to live in a place you never have to break down you rods. Bill vouched for the rod, but apologized for the line which he said was old and prone to coiling.

Soon after I was up there were fish. They were heading my way. They were happy.

I made the cast, placed the rod under my arm and started the two hand retrieve. I’ve never really done that before and I found it a really good way to keep from trout setting. Hard to trout set if the rod isn’t in your hands.

I cast at a mass of tarpon. I know you are supposed to cast to an individual fish and I’d love to say I did. I didn’t. I cast at the big mass of darkness over the light patch and a single fish emerged from the pack tracking the fly. About 10 feet from the boat it simply ate the damn thing.

Unable to trout set I simply strip set and strip set again, still holding the line in both hands. The fish was displeased by this turn of events and quickly went airborne. According to protocol, I bowed. The fish, still attached, got pissed and started a run.

Here’s where it all starts to go pear-shaped. Out of the corner of my eye I can see a rather impressive rats nest rising off the deck. This rats nest is likely not going to make it through the guides. I know it, but I can’t do anything about it. Then the physics problem happened when the bulk of the knot tried to pass through the guides, failed, creating forces greater than the tolerances of the tippet/knots, or for that matter, the guide, and things broke. The fly broke off. The guide broke. I nearly broke.

Well, there's your problem right there.

Well, there’s your problem right there.

If I didn’t break, I bent pretty far. I kneeled down on the deck and shook. Oddly, I didn’t feel the wave of frustration or anger I really expected to feel. I felt, well, kind of happy. I just kept saying “wow” over and over. I had fed and jumped a beautiful creature. Bill estimated it at a little over 100 pounds. I felt rather fortunate to have had the opportunity, to have felt the power of the fish with both hands on the line, to see it jump high out of the water and contort its body before crashing back to the water.

Sure, I would have liked to land that fish, to look into its massive eye and get to know it a bit more. I would have liked to see it separate itself from the water a few more times. But this was good and I wasn’t going to diminish it.

Adrienne got the photo. I got the photo of the photo.

Adrienne got the photo. I got the photo of the photo.

That turned out to be end end, or close enough not to matter. A black wall had formed out in front of us. It was bigger than the first squall and we could see the blue water boats running before it. It was going to hit us, as much as we would have preferred it didn’t. We ran back to Bill’s house and saw on the weather website that this was substantial. The rain was driving horizontally.

Something wicked this way comes.

Something wicked this way comes.

The day was done.

Fishing with Bill was great. He had wonderful stories and knew layer upon layer of the Keys and he freely shared his knowledge with us. I felt fortunate for that as well… I also felt a bit bad about breaking his rod, but he told me he fixed the rod himself and it was no big deal.

Seeing the number of tarpon we saw on that day is something that will both delight my memories and haunt my dreams.

Basically, I need to get back there.

On the way back to Islamorada a couple things happened. We drove out of the weather and we went to Robbies.

"Yeah, we fed, like, a couple dozen tarpon..."

“Yeah, we fed, like, a couple dozen tarpon…”

Jun 13

Florida’s memorable moments

I wanted to share a few memorable moments from the FL trip. Every trip has those little nuggets and they are what sticks with us.

  • The moment, fishing with Martin Carranza (website, blog) and Adrienne in Biscayne Bay that the cuda I had on the line came up to the surface and flared it’s gills like a tarpon. So awesome.
  • Being on Derek Rust’s (Captderekrust@gmail.com) boat with Davin, telling stories and hearing about Derek’s guiding experiences, and blowing some shots at big tarpon.
Derek and Davin, rocking the Skinny Water Culture

Derek and Davin, rocking the Skinny Water Culture

  • Hearing my rod tip buzz while wading a flat with Matt. Asking Matt if he was buzzing and him confirming it. (Next time, I’m going to GTFO of there instead of staying around, looking for fish)
  • Seeing my first meatball of tarpon raging down a flat while fishing with Bill Horn and Adrienne. Man… so. many. fish.
  • Listening to Eric Estrada talk about his permit paintings.

It was a good trip.


Oct 12

The Keys, Coming to Me

It isn’t often you get the Keys to show up in your mailbox. Really, I would have thought they were way too big to do that. However, that’s what just happened.

Bill Horn’s book “Seasons on the Flats” arrived today and it appears to be a really excellent primer for Keys Bound anglers. This isn’t a “how-to” or “Where are they biting” kind of book. It follows the season, the main sections of the book tracking with Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter and you get a sense of what is happening with the keys, the history and ecology of the place.

Another thing I dig about the book is that the illustrations are done by Bob White, who has some serious skills on full display.

Get this book.

The Keys, in book form.



Jul 12

Interview with Bill Horn – Seasons on the Flats

I first learned about Seasons on the Flats by seeing some of the art work for the book done by Bob White.  That got me interested and so I tracked down Bill Horn and asked him to do an interview.  That we did.  It took me a while (like, 3 months) to sit down to transcribe it and it was at that point I realized the recording must not have started on the phone call… “0 Seconds” is all it said.


So, Bill finally sent me an email on something else and I had to confess that I had failed to record the initial interview and he quickly, and graciously, offered to do it a second time.  So, I’m glad to have this interview with Bill Horn, author of the upcoming Seasons on the Flats (out this month), to share with all of you.

The Author, Bill Horn

Your book is called “Seasons on the Flats,” what was it that drove you to write this book?

I did a few magazine articles (my first ventures into outdoor writing) and submitted one titled “Tarpon Camp” that got rejected.  Started to rework it and got the idea of taking a Keys’ visitors through an angler’s season.  That idea, and the fun of telling tales about these wonderful little islands, got me going and the “book” just poured out in the next few weeks. “Seasons” is my love letter to the Keys.

Given the book chronicles the seasons, which is your favorite to be there?

Ouch – that’s a tough question as each season has its distinct pleasures.  Summer is probably my favorite with good bonefishing, permit, junior tarpon in the backcountry, enough big poons to make it interesting, lobster season, night reef fishing, and hanging out on sandbars in warm clear waters with a cold one in hand.  Of course, this gets interrupted periodically by hurricanes and tropical storms but it’s the price you pay for being in subtropical latitudes.

 The Keys have a reputation as being a bit rough… the fishing is difficult, the guides prone to yelling and the number of people to contend with are growing… how do you feel the stereotypes match the reality?

The Keys’ flats demand your “A” game but that’s what makes it great — it is never boring.  These are the major leagues for flats anglers.  The tarpon and permit fishing remain excellent and bonefish are still there (just not in the numbers in places like the Bahamas or Mexico). And newcomers shouldn’t shy away.  The guides might be intense (the days of yelling are years past) but damn they’re good and a few days with a veteran Keys’ guide is a great learning experience. Crowding and conflicts with others do occur, especially during spring tarpon and in the Upper Keys, but that’s why there’s summer and fall and the Middle Keys.

This is my kind of thing.

When you look at the future of fishing in the Keys, what are the biggest threats?

Water quality is the big threat but the outlook is good. The Keys are systematically retiring their septic systems and that should improve inshore waters. Plus the Everglades restoration projects are finally getting into gear and in a few years water flowing into Florida Bay (quantity and quality) should also get better.   Although not a threat per se, the years of not knowing much about bonefish, permit and tarpon are ending. Research by BTT and the Florida Wildlife Commission are shedding new light on fish migrations, spawning behavior, rearing habitats, etc.  With this kind of information finally available, there will be new opportunities to make good fishery management decisions to bring back the bonefish to historical levels and hold onto the great tarpon and permit fisheries we presently enjoy.

When looking for bonefish, what is your go-to rig (rod/reel)?

I’m pretty old school – been using the same 8 weight Scott STS and Abel 3N for years.  I like to upline my rods and have grown partial to the Wulff Bermdua lines. Use as long as leader as you can and my favorite Keys bonefish fly may be a surprise – a big old #2 Red Headed Gotcha.

The Keys are also knows for their characters.  You have a story about one of those?

Being the end of the road, an eclectic entertaining bunch of souls do collect in the Keys. For regular chuckles, check out the “crime reports” in the Key West newspaper.  Last year’s favorite was a minor car wreck caused by a woman shaving her nether regions while driving to her boyfriend’s house with her ex-husband in the car.

I have seen some of the illustrations in the book done by Bob White.  How did you come to work with him?

Met Bob about 20 years ago when he was head guide for Tikchik Narrows Lodge in Alaska.  We fished together and I was an instant admirer of his art.  When the book was almost done, I wanted it to look classy and that meant one thing – get Bob to do the illustrations. It took one phone call to make it happen.  His 15 pencil sketches in “Seasons” are wonderful;  the three maps and the hammerhead shark are my favorites and you can purchase originals or prints from him.

Work by Bob White

In our fishing lives we run into people who, for one reason or another, give of their knowledge to help us out.  Is there someone who has been instrumental to your growth as a flats fisherman down in the Keys?

Getting introduced to Albert Ponzoa, Bus Bergmann, and Rich Keating – three outstanding Marathon guides –  really opened the door to the Keys’ flats.  I had fished the Keys as a kid in the 50’s, and caught my first bonefish in 1974, but these guys took me to a whole new level. They taught me a lot, prodded me to improve my skills, laughed and cheered when we enjoyed success, and cried with me when the fish kicked my ass.  An angler, and friend, can’t ask for more.

Thanks for doing this twice Bill and I look forward to reading that book!