Saltwater fishing: Exploring the KeysISLAMORADA, Fla. — The flag hanging limp from atop the World Wide Sportsman sporting goods store on this balmy April morning suggested this was going to be a perfect day for testing the waters of the Florida Keys. The huge tarpon cruising next to the dock at Bayside Marina — no fishing allowed — only added to the anticipation.
By: Brad Dokken, The Dickinson Press
ISLAMORADA, Fla. — The flag hanging limp from atop the World Wide Sportsman sporting goods store on this balmy April morning suggested this was going to be a perfect day for testing the waters of the Florida Keys.
The huge tarpon cruising next to the dock at Bayside Marina — no fishing allowed — only added to the anticipation.
For a foursome of fishermen more accustomed to walleyes and pike, this was going to be an adventure in every sense of the word.
“It’s going to be a beautiful day,” Capt. John Guastavino said as he steered his 20-foot fiberglass boat away from the dock.
Massive Florida Bay, which covers some 1,000 square miles between the Everglades and the Keys, lay before us like a giant blue mirror. The sun was barely above the horizon, and already the temperature flirted with 80 degrees.
Guastavino, 52, of Tavernier, Fla., has been guiding in the Florida Keys, an archipelago of islands extending some 120 miles south and west from Miami, for more than 20 years. His specialty is backcountry fishing, a gig that has him exploring the shallows of Florida Bay throughout the year for species such as tarpon, permit, bonefish, redfish and sea trout.
Considering Florida Bay has a maximum depth of 16 feet, Guastavino most of the time is fishing areas that are 10 feet or shallower. In places, the water is such a brilliant aquamarine it’s almost unearthly, like fishing in a giant swimming pool.
At least it appears that way to a group of North Country fishermen.
Setting the stage
Gary Moeller had set up this backcountry adventure the previous afternoon. Moeller, of Baudette, Minn., brought his family to Islamorada, a series of four islands connected by the bridges that span the Florida Keys from Miami south to Key West, in the spring of 2011, and the experience left him hungry for more.
So, he added a week to the trip this year and invited buddies Steve Martin of Baudette, Jeff Greteman of Carroll, Iowa, and myself to join him the second week after the rest of the family returned to Minnesota.
While Moeller and Greteman set out with another guide, Martin and I were in the boat with Guastavino, who works out of Bayside Marina. We’d spend most of our time anchored and fishing cutbait or live baitfish called pilchards for the plethora of species that roam the shallows.
This isn’t a place for novices to navigate, and unwary boaters quickly can find themselves grounded on shallow flats that seem to come up out of nowhere. Guastavino throttled his 150-horse Yamaha through the maze of buoys and jetties and shallow expanses — without a GPS — as naturally as a NASCAR driver navigates a racetrack.
As the Florida Keys faded into blue, Martin and I both were glad we didn’t have to worry about finding our way back to shore. We had a guide to take care of that and we were going fishing for species neither of us had caught in a setting that was unlike anything we’d ever experienced.
Lure of the Keys
A Maryland native, Guastavino grew up fishing Chesapeake Bay but also made several trips to the Florida Keys with his family. As an avid fisherman, the lure of the Keys eventually led him to take up permanent residence and a guiding career.
“That’s the reason I moved here and stayed here,” Guastavino said. “It’s the potential to fish and guide 365 days a year.
“I love being outdoors.”
After a 30-mile boat ride that seemed like forever to a pair of eager North Country anglers, Guastavino stopped in a spot that looked just like any other spot on the endless horizon and dropped anchor. The water was only 4 or 5 feet deep.
He rigged us up with shrimp threaded onto a plain hook below bright orange bobbers and instructed that we cast out and work the bobbers back to the boat in a popping motion.
The popping, he said, often triggers the fish to strike. I catch a small barracuda on my second cast, which Guastavino quickly unhooks.
We also land a half-dozen sea trout, strong fighters with formidable teeth that bear a faint resemblance to the brown trout that inhabit freshwater. There’s always better fishing somewhere else on big water, though, so we don’t stay long before Guastavino pulls anchor and joins our fishing partners a few miles away.
The water’s deeper here, more turbid, and we can’t see bottom. Guastavino resets the anchor and loads up a mesh bag with a commercial chum mixture to attract baitfish and larger predator species into striking range.
The chum attracts a large school of pinfish.
We’ve barely settled into our seats when a huge splash interrupts the morning. It’s an eagle ray, Guastavino says, a stingray species that can weigh hundreds of pounds.
“Sometimes, they’ve jumped in people’s boats before,” he said. “It gets kind of dangerous.”
The action the next couple of hours is steady for Spanish mackerel, sea trout, mutton snapper, jack crevalle and even a trio of 3- to 4-foot black-tipped sharks that put up the best fights of the bunch.
For obvious reasons, there’s no posing with the sharks for photos.
Quest for bait
There’s still time for tarpon — the big prize among shallow water anglers — and Guastavino steers the boat back toward the Keys. We’ll finish the day anchored near one of the bridges where tarpon stage this time of year to feed up before spawning.
First, though, Guastavino spends an hour trying to get close enough to small schools of mullet to snare with his throw net. A preferred tarpon bait, the mullet are crafty, and the effort produces only a single fish.
If we hook even one tarpon, the time will have been well-spent. Typical of large trophy fish, tarpon fishing isn’t necessarily a numbers game.
“Some days, it’s three to four bites. Some days, it’s six to 10 bites. Some days, you’re lucky to get a bite,” Guastavino said. “It’s just the lure of the big fish in shallow water.”
Tarpon also are hard to land. On average, Guastavino says, maybe one out of 10 are actually reeled to the boat. A few days earlier, he said, a client had two tarpon on the line that would have weighed 100 to 150 pounds; both threw the hook.
“They’re just absolute slobs, and they don’t give up,” Guastavino said. “There’s no give-up in a tarpon.”
Time’s not on our side, and the day ends without a tarpon. Martin, though, gets a workout battling a stingray that absolutely buckles the rod in its holder. The fish makes several strong runs, stirring up clouds of silt in the shallow water as it hugs the bottom like a giant suction cup.
Eventually, Martin gets the strange fish to the boat. Steering clear of its whip-like tail, Guastavino unhooks the ray, which he estimates weighs 70 to 80 pounds, and we head back to the dock.
True to form, it had been a perfect day for exploring the Keys.
Dokken is the outdoors reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.