Mar 13

Interview with Capt. John O’Hearn

John O’Hearn is a Key West Guide. That wild, beautiful little island has a reputation, some earned, some more folklore than fact, but it is an interesting place, for sure. I went there as a kid and remember fondly the Mel Fisher museum and my dad eating conch salad (and me thinking he was crazy). I loved it there, and I haven’t been back since. Reading John’s interview, I want to make it back there and I likely will.

John with a Redfish

John with a Redfish

Key West has a reputation for being a really colorful place. How deserved is the reputation?
Key west reputation as a colorful place is well deserved.  It all stems from the undercurrent of the island’s (and the whole lower keys really) attitude.  down here no one cares what you do with your life.  So long as personal decisions don’t greatly impact the lives of others, you are good to go.
This manifests itself in a variety of ways.  It might be the 60 year dude who jogs ever morning wearing only shoes tiny bright red shorts and a woman’s red sun hat.  Or it might mean that bartenders end up becoming close friends.  Or it might mean the city holds a week long party where all forms of debauchery are encouraged (Fantasy Fest).  Or might mean you wake up at ludicrously early hours, get in a tiny boat, run for an hour in the dark and try to catch prehistoric fish with a hook in a shrimp costume.   
I was in Key West when I was about 10. I wanted to be Mel Fisher and find sunken treasure. How do you think Key West is or has changed?

This same “I don’t give a shit what you do with your life” attitude is attractive to the larger world.  Many people just come here to have a week of it, before they return to their “reality”.  Sadly, this same attitude opened the door for some to “commoditize” this attitude and sell the place out.  Essentially, trying to make the place into some sort of Debauched Disney World.

Take for example a recent debate over the widening/dredging of the harbor in key west so that mega cruise ships can fit into port.  Despite the fact that the harbor is part of a marine sanctuary that prohibits dredging.  Despite the fact that the majority of lower keys residents are against the idea.  Despite the fact that dredging would displace or destroy endangered species of coral.  There is a very real chance it might get pushed thru.  It is the same old political story, that those in power stand to profit from it, so they are trying to make it happen.  
In Oct. of this year, there will be a referendum held to decide if the first steps (a feasibility study) should be taken in the dredging process.  This referendum only includes key west voters, despite the obvious effects it will have on all residents in the lower keys. This feasibility study, of approved would be paid for by the cruise ship industry. And this feasibility study will be done by the army corp of engineers, the masterminds behind the destruction of the Everglades and the Mississippi River gulf outlet (MRGO) that led directly to the flooding of New Orleans in hurricane Katrina. Troubling thoughts all.
I guess that is a long way of saying key west is perilously close to selling it soul.
Google Image Search says this is John with a Cuda.

Google Image Search says this is John with a Cuda.

When you are on the water a lot, you see interesting things. What’s something really odd you’ve seen out there on the water?

Weirdest thing on the water:  adults dressed in oddly colored shirts swinging expensive sticks, with line and costumed hook attached, at prehistoric fish and accompanied by micro managing masked fascist on elevated platforms holding bigger and even more expensive sticks.  
(Well played on that answer, by the way)
Also weird is that Google Image Search says THIS is John O'Hearn, but I'm thinking maybe not.

Also weird is that Google Image Search says THIS is John O’Hearn, but I’m thinking maybe not.

 You have a favorite bar in Key West?

 My favorite bar in key west would have to the the Conch Republic Seafood Factory.  It is on the water and had all the looks of a tourist trap, which it us if you eat there.  But slide up to the bar for happy hour, make friends with the bar tender and enjoy the 2 for 1 drinks.  Regulars get a lot of comps.  My favorite bar in the keys is Coconuts on Big Pine.  It is definitely not a tourist trap.  Mounted fish on the walls, drunk fishing guides, and pool tables.

There is a lot of history out there when it comes to saltwater fly fishing. How does that history influence you as a guide?
I am fascinated by the history of this place, but your average keys guide/fisherman is pretty tight lipped.  I love the code names for places; the eccentrics, the snack bar, the monkey box, the animal farm, the bongos, the list goes on.   As a tip of my hat to those who laid the foundations of this sport, I am religious about fishing igfa legal ( more a concern with poon leaders than anything else).  I licked into an old wood tarpon stretcher box owned by billy pate, that is a prized possession, and used daily.
In a place where the fish see a lot of flies, do you think the Gotcha still works or do you start to need to start throwing other patterns?
For everything but the largest of the downtown Islamorada, most any pattern will work, provided it is weighted correctly for the water being fished and it is drab-ish in color.  I have caught many bonefish on Gotchas.  The only drawback, it is too hard to tie.  Lead eyes, a tan ring and a colored head is all you need.  Strip them right and most flies work great.
 What’s your go-to rod/reel for bonefishing?
My all time favorite setup is a 4px G Loomis cross-current glx 8wt, a Loop speed runner and a Sharkskin line.  Cherry!
 What are your concerns when you look at the KW fishery from a conservation standpoint?
My biggest concern is for the future of the fishery.  Literately I am concerned that we are running out of bonefish to catch.  We had an historically cold winter in 2010, and our fishing has not been the same since.  Bonefish are managed well (catch and release only) but I fear habitat loss and water quality issues might prove to be insurmountable obstacles.  I hope I am wrong.
Thanks for your time John and I hope the Keys remains a magical place for years and years to come.

Feb 13

Interview with April Vokey

To understand April Vokey, you may want to check out her interview over at Eat More Brook Trout, or read this blog post she wrote herself.   I don’t know much about April, but I know that she can fish and women who can fish are a role model for my little girl. April is a steelheader, primarily, as makes sense if you are up in BC. As happens to all sorts of anglers, the salt finds a way in. April was also recently included in Buccaneers and Bones, a crew I’d very much like to be a part of.

Nice fish, April.

Nice fish, April.

April, you are known more for your pursuit of freshwater chrome than for silver bullets or kings. How do bonefish fit into your fishing life?

 Saltwater fishing won my heart some time ago. 

For me (with every fishery) it is the allure of the hunt that fills me with excitement; the stalking, the silence, the necessary precision and ‘no room for error’ tendencies…

Naturally, the ever skittish bonefish keeps me in predatory mode and I have admittedly fallen in love with large solo flat wanderers who peel me straight to backing.

I saw you were included in Buccaneers and Bones. How was that experience?

It was a fun one (a short one as I was only there for three days)… but certainly a good time.

The guys were nothing short of entertaining and each of them was a pleasure to fish with.  The Bahamas is a very special place and this particular location had some beauties strolling the flats.

April and Tom, just two Buccaneers

April and Tom, just two Buccaneers

Is there someone you can think of that had a particularly big influence on your saltwater fly fishing life? Who were they and what did they share with you?

Hmmm, good question.

From a casting standpoint, it was relatively simple to just apply the techniques from freshwater fishing to the salt. 

As far as gaining an appreciation for tides, species, techniques, etc., I have a few friends who come to mind; Travis Holeman taught me to pole a boat and helped me to understand the ocean’s behavior (from the marshes of Louisiana to the Florida Keys flats), James Christmas (in the Seychelles) helped me to understand permit and kicked my butt until I was competent on a 12 weight, Wil Flack in Belize touched my heart with island culture and opened my eyes to the importance of conservation of the flats.

What steelhead skills have you developed which have proven particularly useful for chasing bonefish, permit or tarpon?

Understanding the ocean current and how my fly might react to the flows (no lie, I hooked a permit while swinging my fly) and having creative casts when the wind is blowing in my face.

Ms. Vokey knows Steelhead.

Ms. Vokey knows Steelhead.

I’m wondering if being a woman is a plus or a negative when you head to a place like the Caribbean to fish. Is it a negative, a plus or a mixed bag?

This really depends.  I would say that the number one commonality is the assumption that I won’t be able to cast (though to be fair, I would say that this is the number one assumption of all of us guides towards a new client). 

From a cultural standpoint, with the exception of strange stares from people in the airplane, I don’t receive much more attention than what I would assume the guys get.  I get far more response in North America (both positive and negative).

What’s your go to rod/reel for bonefish?

An eight weight Loomis NRX (or Cross Current) and a Hatch 7 Plus.

Which do you feel is more important when it comes to bonefishing… the rod or the reel, and why?

This is a hard question…  instinctively, I want to say it’s the reel.  Palming a screaming reel on already sunburnt and cut hands simply doesn’t sound that appealing to me.  However, without a properly loaded rod, I risk the chance of a sloppy turnover and that excites me (and the fish) even less.

If I had to choose?  I’ll say the rod as I would rather hook the fish and deal with the repercussions later.

Thanks April. I appreciate the time you took to get this done. Thanks for all you do to promote the sport, the fish and the fisheries.

Feb 13

Interview with Capt. Joel Dickey

Another interview from readers suggestions. This time it is Capt. Joel Dickey, another Keys guide. Joel has been out with the Gink & Gasoline guys and knows one or two dozen good thing to know about fishing in the Keys.

How much of an off-season do you get down there in Florida and what do you do when
you aren’t guiding?

Well in my honest opinion there are great opportunities for fishing year round in the Keys. I would put it in that there is a “softer” season as opposed to an off season. The Keys is famous for tarpon season which runs from March until mid July. However some of the best opportunities for the “grand slam” is from late June till September. From September to mid November is spectacular bone fishing and permit fishing.. And yes there are still some tarpon around then too. as for the ” soft season ” I would say mid-November to the end of January. Don’t get me wrong though the big three can still be caught during these months the weather just has to be right. As far as what I do in the off season? Fish of course! What else is a guide to do? I also tie flies, come up with new patterns for the upcoming season. I also like to take photos during my trips and this is a time I can really edit photos. However this year I plan on hosting some trips to the Bahamas and other places for my clients. In the Keys you have shots at all of the Big 3.

Where do bonefish rank there for you and what do you like about them?

I don’t think I can really answer that one because there are aspects about all three that Ilove. That wouldn’t be very fair to the fish now would it lol. The sheer power of atarpon, the unbelievable speed of the bonefish and the stubbornness and craftiness ofthe permit are things that I highly respect of each and these traits give each auniqueness that everyone should experience. As far as bones though speed says it all.Pound for pound I don’t think there is a more explosive fish swimming. Just look at theway they are built.. The engineering from the Big Guy above is nothing less thanperfect. I also like their eagerness to eat a properly placed and fished fly. If your adecent angler the refusals are cut to a minimum. Lets not forget a lot of this happens inless than 10 in. of water so you can wade for these fish very easily which is a treat initself. But let’s be honest tarpon is what brought me down here as is with most everyone else!

Photo by Joel Dickey, and a nice photo it is.

Photo by Joel Dickey, and a nice photo it is.

Often times there are people who play a big part in our evolution as anglers. Is there someone that helped you become the angler or guide you are now?

To be fair, as you know “it takes a village” and I have been very fortunate to know some really respected guides and anglers in the industry. The people who have inspired me the most would first and foremost be my late brother Brett and my late grandfather who introduced Brett and I to fly fishing. Some of my favorite memories are when Brett would come home for college every weekend and as soon as he got home we would hit the river no matter the conditions. Even in the dead of winter in of which back then we didn’t have waders and wet waded a lot of times in 30-40 deg. temps. The fishing was so good on the Toccoa back then we hardly noticed the cold. It was his dream to become a guide and back then in North Georgia that was just unheard of especially a fly fishing guide. Of course I can’t forget to mention Lee Howard who gave me my first guide gig for a legit fly shop and who taught me a lot about all aspects of fishing. Last but not least Capt. Bruce Chard for pushing me daily to be the best guide I can be and helped get me established here in the Keys and in the fly fishing industry itself.

Guiding is not fishing. What do you think it takes to be a good guide that is different from
being a good angler?

First and foremost to be a good guide I feel as though one needs to be a superior angler and I do mean far superior than most. I think you need to have an understanding that is almost like ESP of what the fish are doing. Not only that you have to be able to teach this to your client. Now that sounds easy but really it’s not. You have to be able to convey the information not only as so your client can understand it but be able to perform what you explained when asked. A lot of guides can regurgitate information to clients but you also need the understanding of why you make a cast this way or fish a fly that way and teach the client why also. I cannot tell you how many times a client has thanked me for explaining why a particular flat is productive instead of just going to a flat and saying ok there are fish here. Why are the fish here? Where and what direction are they coming from? Why? These are simple questions a guide should explain. A lot don’t. To do this properly you need to read people and focus on the aspects of fly fishing they are good at and set up your fishing to enhance what they are good at and while doing that teach and work on the aspects they are lacking in. Let’s not forget to do all this in a way so they will enjoy it!( that was a mouthful). I also think that the better guides in the industry are the ones who can evolve to changes. Evolve in the changes of the fishery, flies, and techniques.

Joel bonefish

Photo by Joel Dickey.

What is your go-to rod/reel for bonefishing? For tarpon?

Well my favorite bone fish set up is the Thomas and Thomas TNT 7wt with a Hatch 7+ reel.
My fav tarpon set up is Thomas and Thomas TNT 11wt with a Hatch 11+ reel.

Everyone tells me there will come a time when I embrace permit. That hasn’t happened yet. The pace just is too slow for me. What’s your take on permit?

Well permit for sure is a different animal and not for the faint of heart. I like most have a     love hate relationship with permit. Love seeing them, love hooking and landing them but absolutely hate getting denied time after time by them. However, I personally think that most people fish for the wrong fish.. To elaborate more on what I mean I think there are a few types of permit that come onto the flats and which type a guide targets has a determining factor to how successful the angler is. There are tons of flats that you can take a client where there are plenty of permit “cruising” but not really eating. The chances of hooking these fish are extremely low no matter how good the cast is. Then there are flats where fish are actually there to eat. They move slowly and methodically looking for the opportunity to pounce. I think the shallower the flat the more likely to hook one. Then there are tailing and mudding fish who are in the process of eating in of which your chances go way up with a properly placed cast. The point of this is the permit most anglers see are the “cruising” type and they get frustrated when they don’t eat. Thing is they might not have eating on their mind when they are in the “cruising” state of mind so we tend to be too hard on ourselves. What you have to do is find the last two types with of course the tailing and mudding being the best shot at getting one to take a fly.

Permit and photo by Joel Dickey.

Permit and photo by Joel Dickey.

I’ve heard stories about incredible fishing that can take place after a hurricane. Have you had any post-hurricane fishing experiences and if so, how did they compare?

I have and yes it can be off the chart.. The reason being is when a hurricane comes through an area it is obviously the strongest system in the region and acts like a vacuum cleaner and sucks every other cloud and pollution in the air up and takes it along with it in which ever direction it goes. So that means the next few days are the absolute most clear and beautiful days for visibility you will ever have and in sight  fishing when you can see it further away the better the chances are to catch it. Not only that, but think about being hunkered down in a channel for a few days with nothing to eat. You would be hungry too! So now you have the best of both worlds it’s as if the planets align, you have great visibility, weather and really hungry fish.