The hot mid-October sun was already scorching at 9:30 a.m. when Capt. Andrew Asbury eased the Miss Islamorada out of its slip at Bud N Mary’s Marina in Islamorada, Florida Keys.
Asbury cruised the 65-foot party boat through a narrow channel flanked by a rock jetty and entered the patch reefs in the Atlantic Ocean just offshore of south Florida’s island chain.
Asbury motored on past the patch reefs, sparkling in shades of blue and green, and after 20 minutes reached the edge of the reef, about three miles offshore.
Once Asbury found the right spot, mate Jude Pollock first secured the anchor in 52 feet of water and then dropped a chum bag in the water on each corner of the stern.
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A crew of only 13 passengers alternated turns at the stern, six at a time.
The anglers on the stern, using medium-class spinning reel outfits tipped with 12-pound flourocarbon leaders, dropped back whole shrimp, minus the head and tail. A small jig (1/8-ounce or less) was the only terminal tackle.
The stern anglers began flat-lining the shrimp – leaving the bail open and letting the line ease off the reel at the speed of the current, keeping it right in the chum line. The time-tested method culminates when a fish takes the bait, the line typically accelerates off the reel, then the angler flips the bail and firmly, yet gently, raises the rod to hook the fish.
The other anglers dropped down assorted bottom rigs with cut ballyhoo, shrimp or squid in search of primarily grouper, mangrove snapper, mutton snapper and porgy.
For the flat-lining anglers, the main quarry – yellowtail snapper – quickly let its presence known.
Within a few minutes the anglers began pulling feisty no-doubter yellowtail over the rail, well over the 12-inch minimum size limit.
Over the course of the 6 1/2-hour trip, the serious anglers caught their Florida aggregate limit of 10 snapper, mostly yellowtail in the 14-18 inch range.
The bottom-fishing set-ups produced several mangrove snapper, a keeper black grouper, a few keeper mutton snapper, a few jolthead porgy and plenty of white grunts.
Three days later, the same trip featured the minimum of eight passengers, and Asbury returned to the same area that had been so productive for the yellowtail. This time the snappers lived up to their reputation of being finicky, and the flat-lining only produced occasional catches of yellowtail.
Asbury chose to make a move to the patch reefs a little over a mile offshore in only 25 feet of water. Once Pollock deployed the chum bags at the new spot, yellowtail and usually jittery mangrove snapper almost immediately showed up just off the stern near the surface, partaking of the chum.
For about 15 minutes, the flat-lined shrimp were hit after drifting only 5-10 feet below the surface, just yards off the stern. The grade of yellowtail was smaller, in the 10-13 inch range, but nice mangroves in the 2-3 pound range were also among the catch.
Then trouble showed up.
The chum party was over when a sizable barracuda zoomed into the slick behind the stern and dared any snappers to show up. A few yellowtail were caught from well behind the boat after the cuda showed, but the mangroves were long gone.
“The mangroves are a little leery,” said Asbury. “You’ll catch a few and they’ll kind of back off. The cuda doesn’t help for sure.”
Asbury returned to deep water beyond the reef to target grouper, mutton and large mangroves, with some success.
For yellowtail anglers, Pollock began serving up sand balls, a mix of menhaden chum, sand, oatmeal and the right amount of ocean water. The trick is to place a piece of cut shrimp or ballyhoo on the hook in the middle of a pasty concoction of the ingredients and form it into a baseball-sized presentation, then open the bail of the reel and easily toss it about 20-30 feet behind the boat.
The ball slowly breaks apart in a streak that clouds the water column well below the surface and presents treats for finicky flag yellowtail that are normally shy of line and bait. The method produced quite a few yellowtail in the 14-18 inch range on a day when they really didn’t want to cooperate.
Once again, nearly all the anglers went home with their Florida aggregate limit of 10 snapper, a nice mix of yellowtail and mangrove, along with a few keeper mutton and cero mackerel.
Five weeks earlier, Hurricane Irma made landfall a little over 50 miles to the southwest of Bud N’ Mary’s around Cudjoe Key on the morning of Sept. 10 as a Category 4 storm. The historic marina, established in 1944, sustained damage to the docks, boat storage facility and the on-site hotel.
But the resilient Islamorada residents bounced back quickly. The docks were repaired in quick order, electricity was restored, and some fishing trips were run once again only about three weeks after the storm.
The Atlantic Ocean side of the island chain was hard hit from Lower Matecumbe Key, just south of Bud N’ Mary’s, to Sugarloaf Key, located about 15 miles east of Key West.
In mid-October, pockets of storm debris still were seen along U.S. 1, well-known as the Overseas Highway. But an army of grapple trucks were on the job, hauling the debris to the mainland in rapid fashion, and the Keys were open for business, with conditions improving day by day for visitors.
A stroll through the tackle shop at Bud N’ Mary’s, established in 1944, reveals memorabilia of simpler times when many a famous visitor would venture down from the mainland to enjoy the incredible variety of fishing available here. Photos of Jimmy Stewart with a bonefish, Miami Dolphin fullback Larry Csonka with a sailfish, among many others are on display.
The famous folks, along with the regular tourists, will continue to return to Keys, where a devastating storm is only a bump in the road of the Overseas Highway.
Gregg Holshouser: firstname.lastname@example.org