The 700 Club!
It’s official, Irma is now a nasty four letter word. This horrific storm’s eye made landfall in the Lower Keys, significantly ruining with winds well over 100mph, most everything in those areas, notably Big Pine, Ramrod and Sugarloaf. Marathon and Long Key were also greatly affected, and Islamorada to Ocean Reef saw wind and water damages mostly on the Oceanside properties. Interestingly, bird life, even local pelicans, mockingbirds and flycatchers, normally abundant in September, had all vanished nearly 5 days before Irma’s arrival. Shallow water fishing was unchanged prior to the event, and was immediately normal in the aftermath of this destructive monster. This report is with much respect, prayers and well wishes to all in the state and beyond, who suffered any losses, major or minor due to Irma.
Andy Smith from Houston, TX, who took a shot from Hurricane Harvey just days after leaving Islamorada, enjoyed his first Grand Slam ever. He jumped a monster 140 pound tarpon on a crab pre-dawn, and then landed a 50 pounder on a live pinfish with 17 pound test spin. At the beginning of the outgoing tide, Smith had 2 permit eat crabs on a point in Indian Key Channel, catching one of 14 pounds. Andy later fired a shrimp into a dense group of 50 mudding bones and sealed the deal with a zipping 3 pounder.
Father & son Alan and Zach Routman from Ft. Lauderdale caught tarpon of 50 & 60 pounds out of 5 bites on nervous live pinfish in the morning darkness. At dawn in 25mph winds, the pair counted off 7 bonefish up to 5 pounds taken on live shrimp and 10 pound spinning. In the early afternoon, they found 1/2 dozen schools of headwaking, tailing and mudding permit near Peterson Key Banks, and caught one out of 3 bites to complete a Slam.
My friend since 1975, Vic Unterbrink was in Islamorada for a quick visit and volunteered himself to come out late one morning and assist in the collection of pinfish. Chumming and hook & lining are necessary to target the slightly larger 4 inchers that seem to attract the most tarpon attention in the blackness of the morning. The pinfishing was great and we had 4 dozen perfect baits in an hour. Vic then suggested that he pole the boat to let me fish. Only an 8 weight flyrod was on board, and winds were light, visibility was excellent, so…why not? Our first flat was void of life, and we were quickly approaching dead high water. The next stop was an outside shoreline near Duck Key. A single bonefish nosed down and mudded. He obviously saw the small olive merkin sinking. The bite was a firm “tap”. The line came tight and he was violently thrashing at boatside moments later. Another mud revealed a group of 10 identically sized 3 pounders on the prowl. Again the merkin was hammered, as one of the charging bones somehow outdistanced the others and got stuck. A repeat of the 2 minutes of sprinting, changing directions and dashes under the boat. The hook was carefully removed and while flyline was being stripped back out, Vic yelled, “Big wake coming at 12 o’clock.”
Indeed it was, a fifty foot wide rumble, crowded with black fins and white lips, and it was closing fast. The fly somehow landed about where it needed to and was buried by 20 or more small permits. The unlucky one raced Oceanward a couple of hundred feet in just seconds. Fly line sizzled on the surface as the permit ran left, then right. Finally the zig zagging and circling closed tighter and the silver disc was on its side and done. In unison, we both blurted out, “Now let’s find a tarpon.”
With rising water nearly stopped, there was one chance within practical running range, a strip of shoreline that had been holding a few groups of baby poons. Vic poled in silently from a couple of hundred yards out and we saw the first roller, followed closely by a second and then a third. We closed the distance until we could clearly see the dark mass of 8 fish parked on the grass.
Even though my hands were shaking, the fly landed in a reasonably good spot. The bite was instantaneous, and nearly pulled the line from my hand! But just as fast, disappointment as we saw the golden sides of a struggling 2 pound jack. The tarpons first circled the troubled crevalle, then scurried away at high speed down the shoreline. I was crushed. Vic did NOT know at this time that I had never caught my own Grand Slam on fly.
Vic poled in the direction we last saw the tarpon headed, while the jack was thrown many yards more than needed for its safe release. Vic then pointed frantically behind the boat to a tarpon that should not have been there. Was he coming from behind, or a holdout from the spooked school? How did we miss him? But there he was and the awkward shot was dead at 6 o’clock. The fly was 4 or 5 feet out of the normally effective “kill zone”, but it mad no difference. The 3 foot tarpon paddled forward and inhaled. He raced for the mangroves, but miraculously did not, would not go in. After seven hold your breath jumps, the tarpon was under control and smiling for pictures. Finally a Slam on fly, guided and gifted by my friend of over 40 years, making it twice as sweet! This turned out to be #699 for the boat.
Number 700 would come only days later with Andy Novak, owner of LMR Tackle in Ft. Lauderdale, and Capt Carl Ball, extraordinary Biscayne Bay flats guide. These good friends teamed up for 3 early tarpons, 2 on pinfish and one on crab, fish of 45, 40 and 30 pounds in the Teatable Channel area. Carl boated 2 of these and then added an 8 pound permit on crab and 2 bonefish of 2 and 3 pounds on shrimp near Lignum Vitae Key. After a long run to the Channel Key banks, Bayside of Tom’s Harbor Key, Carl spotted a pair of permit and fired a bull’s eye to hook up solid on an 18 pounder. Early in the fight, identical permit #2 stayed close in tow and Andy dropped a perfect cast that the permit could not turn down. This double header was landed, photographed and released in perfect condition. Carl’s double Slam took our Slam count to 700 and then 701!
– by Capt. Mark Krowka