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In the Middle of It All

Mix it up in the Middle Keys for some low stress fishing fun.

                                                                                                        by Ben Taylor

babytarjump_south Florida fishing charters and guides.jpg (62283 bytes)Baby tarpon rolled sporadically along the shoreline in front of us. Our host, Capt. Buddy LaPointe, quickly explained the drill to anglers John Eckert and Linda Cook. He head hooked live shrimp on light wire 1/0 hooks while suggesting they toss the baits to the tree line and slowly reel them back just under the surface. The fish were hungry and Linda and John managed to fool four or five before we put them down. Hooked fish bounced away in typical baby tarpon fashion.

LaPointe had chosen 10-pound spinning rigs for the task. A shock leader is necessary for tarpon of any size because of their rough mouths; LaPointe tied on lengths of 20-pound test monofilament, which he felt was plenty for the 5-10 pound fish we expected to find. The light leader would also leave us with a fair shot at wary bonefish and permit, frequent visitors to the edges.

We were seeking a mixed bag today, planning to take advantage of the best available fishing. First stop was here at this current-swept mangrove shoreline within sight of a major resort. The initial plan was for Buddy to pole down the edge while we sight fished for small tarpon tucked under the foliage. In the same situation, you could anchor within comfortable casting range and wait for fish to move through. Small tarpon don't sit well, and often cruise shoreline shadows. They dive into root systems as water levels rise. They fall out to the edges on a falling tide, making them easier to spot and catch. They are prime fly rod targets, but are very willing to eat a free-floating shrimp or small crab.

The Middle Keys offer a bit of nirvana for anglers visiting the Keys for the first time. Access to a variety of species is good and navigation is easier here than elsewhere in the island chain. Perhaps most appealing to newcomers and family anglers is the fact that you don't always need a specialized boat to enjoy the fishing. High freeboard craft designed for inshore use, and ranging in length from 17 to 23 feet can cover lots of water in the Middle Keys. You can have a ball with everything from shoreline tarpon, to Gulf of Mexico mackerel, and Atlantic patch reef snapper. Under the right circumstances, you might even get your shot at a bonefish or permit.

A 20 plus year veteran guide, Capt. Buddy LaPointe runs a shallow-water fishing business in a 23 footer. His boat, the Fishin' Buddy, is a customized Tremblay with a raised bow casting deck, a removable poling tower, and twin bait up front, one in the back. LaPointe sometimes fly fishes for bones, chums for mackerel out in the Gulf, and heads off toward Cape Sable for snook and reds all in a single day. Plus, he can comfortably sit in a stiff chop at the Long Key or Seven Mile Bridge during tarpon season, and reef fishing capability is a definite bonus.

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Locals consider the shorelines of Duck Key to Boot Key as "town," and often talk of fishing one end of town or the other. We cheated a bit, leaning toward the eastern end of town, and hitting some suburbs behind the Long Key Viaduct.

The Long Key viaduct is one of the more dependable tarpon spots in the Keys. Fish are here maybe 300 days a year. Sometimes there are not as many of them, and resident fish might average less than 40 pounds but they are available and willing to eat if you play their game. Like many bridge species, they light up on tide changes. We fished the shadow line of the bridge for about half an hour as the tide began to fall, fooling four fish by drifting small pinfish about 8 feet below a cork. It's action you can duplicate much of the year by searching for rolling fish around the ends of the tides. You'll find similar fishing around the Seven Mile Bridge too. I like the Marathon and Pigeon Key ends best for little fish.

Hooking small tarpon can be problematic as they offer little resistance when you pop the rod attempting to set the hook. You have to experiment with techniques for the bite of the day. Some anglers like to hold the rod at a right angle to the line and wait for the fish to pull the rod tip in an arc before they try to set the hook. Others prefer dropping the rod to the fish on a bite and hitting them as the line comes tight. What is best depends on your experience.

We did not have to run far to find a flat we could drift over, or a spot we could chum. Bonefish in this neighborhood are readily available for owners of comfy inshore boats. Buddy poled us along several shorelines so we could sight fish for bonefish. We found the best activity in areas of strong current, and had some shots at cruising and tailing bones in ankle-deep water. It was a hot and calm day though, and these fish wanted nothing to do with us.

chumpot_south Florida fishing charters and guides.jpg (14240 bytes)For fun, Buddy staked out the boat near cuts through the Channel Key bank and deployed a chum pot loaded with freshly diced shrimp. The "pot" was basically a plastic refrigerator jar with holes poked in it, a screw-on lid, and a monofilament tether to the boat. He had John and Linda tossing small shrimp-sweetened jigs out behind the chum pot. During the winter you might catch spanish mackerel or bluefish doing the same thing anywhere on numerous strip banks between here and the wide flow of water through the Seven Mile Bridge. Most of the time, you'll catch plenty of snappers, and when the wind blows, bonefish and permit often find their way into the scent trail. We caught some legal snapper big enough to make a nice sandwich. A school of barracuda also invaded the scent trail and kept us busy for a while.

The wind freshened in the afternoon, and it became a little rough for us to head offshore to the patch reefs as planned. We still had hopes for a bonefish, and headed off toward a prominent Duck Key cut to do some more chumming.

Many area pros prefer to use a chum tube or pot instead of simply tossing out freebie shrimp bits. Either method will draw bonefish, but enclosing the chum will cut down on some of the "picker" problems. Pickers are small fish capable of destroying any bait you toss around your chum. It's a tradeoff, as game species will linger to feed on bits of shrimp scattered about, but will quickly leave a tube or chumpot if they can't find food. Buddy solves this problem by using a chumpot and scattering an occasional handful of chopped shrimp tidbits down tide of the chumpot.

As a side note, many folks try to chum in water too shallow to keep their quarry comfortable. You can still see bonefish at 3-5 foot depths, and they aren't as spooky as they might be in a foot of water. You need to find good current to make chum work; channel edges or channel edge points are the way to set up.

bper_south Florida fishing charters and guides.jpg (12022 bytes)We kept a bait on the bottom around the chumpot, worked a jig through the chumline, and held a crab at the ready in case we saw a tarpon or permit. It wasn't long before we spotted the dark, undulating back of a permit as it rushed into our scent trail. John made a great cast with the crab. The fish leaned toward it for a second, then disappeared against the bottom. It's always a surprise when a permit refuses a well-presented crab, but worth noting that chummed fish, with the exception of sharks, often turn down a bait that smells different than the scent trail they were following. This fish swam right around what would have been an ideal bait, only to impale itself on a shrimp-sweetened jig.

The permit headed toward a massive sea fan forest between us and the shoreline. We gave chase, weaving through the sea fans in the wake of John's fish. Buddy kept John close, but close is a relative term with a permit. Few fish are tougher around the boat, and this one managed to stay out of range for about 20 minutes before Buddy finally got a net under it.

Able to respond to a variety of conditions as the day changed, we had a great time surrounded by the comfort of a roomy and especially versatile boat.


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The Middle Keys...the Best of Both Worlds

Duck Key, and especially Grassy Key provide some feeling of remoteness, though local facilities are excellent.  Marathon will feel like home to suburban dwellers, as it has all of the conveniences. You'll find lots of friendly folks and good professional assistance.

On the eastern end of town, you can launch at Hawk's Cay on Duck Key or Peg Leg's Marina on Grassy Key. In town, you'll find an excellent public ramp next to the Marathon Yacht Club. Several resorts offer good ramps too. In Marathon proper, bait is easy to come by at a number of excellent bait and tackle shops. They are too numerous to name but are all staffed by fishing nuts hoping you'll have a great trip.

The gear you use at home fits many Keys fishing situations. Seatrout gear is fine for most snapper fishing on both sides of the Keys, and might work for small tarpon as well. If your reels hold more than 200 yards of line, you're set for bonefish and permit. A simple shrimp and jighead combination will catch a great variety of flats and reef species. Pink seems to be an especially productive jig color in this area; vary the size depending on depth and current.

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This article was written by Ben Taylor, regional editor for Florida Sportsman magazine. It ran as a feature article in the February 2000 edition of Florida Sportsman.

The last two photos were also taken by Ben Taylor.



South Florida Fishing Charters and Guides
Capt. Buddy LaPointe
Post Office Box 522508
Marathon Shores, Florida 33052
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