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Joy and I loaded the car with camping, fishing, and SCUBA diving gear on Saturday morning - December 10th, 2011. After handing in my last final exam of the semester we were on our way! Florida is a place I have always dreamed of fishing, and now we were one long drive from realizing that dream. We left Columbia, SC at about 3:00 p.m. The sun was still up when we reached the Georgia border, but the drive in the dark through GA seemed long. We stopped at the Florida border for a quick stretch in the refreshing mist. The air was already noticeably warmer than it had been in SC.
We pulled into Ocean Court Motel in Daytona Beach Shores at around 10 p.m. We recommend it...a nice place for a good price.
We had a cup of coffee as we strolled the beach early the next morning and saw a beautiful sunset.
After another long drive along the flat and straight I-95 corridor of eastern Florida and lunch in South Miami we reached the Keys! We grabbed a map at the Key Largo visitor center and, itching to get fishing, hopped back in the car and followed Highway 1 through the keys. After 12 hours of driving and years of daydreaming of fishing this place I couldn't believe we had finally made it! The water looked so beautiful and fishy all through the keys and somewhere between Long Key and Marathon I just had to get a line in the water. The first fish of the trip was this pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides).
Not a lifelister, but it didn't take long to catch. I quickly put on some fresh shrimp and cast out again. My next fish was a lifelister (#129), this sand perch (Diplectrum formosum):
Joy then pulled in a cool little fish and a lifelister, this southern puffer (Sphoeroides nephelus):
Joy also got a sand perch at that spot, and we both caught a few more pinfish. We tried one more spot, on Scout Key, before dark. Although the place looked great, we failed to catch anything that night. But we would return...
We drove the final length of our journey to Key West and checked in at the Days Inn.
The next morning we got up early and ate at the Waffle House conveniently attached to our Days Inn. We then pulled over just as the sun was coming up to fish a cool looking spot on Scout Key.
Lots of small fish were hiding in the rocky rubble along the seawall and it did not take long at all to catch my first fish of the day, and a strikingly handsome one at that! Lifelister #130: the bluestriped grunt (Haemulon sciurus):
Other grunts were soon to follow, including my first white grunt (Haemulon plumieri)(lifelister #131) and french grunt (Haemulon flavolineatum) (lifelister #132):
Joy also caught white and french grunts, and she was surprised when an awesome rock hind (Epinephelus adscensionis) grabbed her bait!:
One of Joy's white grunts:
We tried using some of the grunts as bait, but nothing big came to eat them.
We saw some needlefish swimming around but couldn't hook one before they disappeared. We also saw juvenile sergeant majors swimming close to the sea wall but they seemed uninterested in our offerings. We did catch a few wrasse though! We both lifelisted the slippery dick (yes, that's what it's called (Halichoeres bivittatus); lifelister #133) and I caught a fashionable initial-stage puddingwife (Halichoeres radiatus; lifelister #134).
We grabbed a pizza at No Name Pub on Big Pine Key for lunch.
We even saw some key deer along the road! Our next fishing stop was Bahia Honda State Park. I caught lifelister #135: the crevalle jack (Caranx hippos) and we went for a snorkel. and walked up to the scenic bridge overlook.
The Crevalle Jack, lifelister #135!:
The snorkeling beach:
Next we moved on to No Name bridge, where we each caught houndfish (Tylosaurus crocodilus; one of which bloodied my hand pretty darn good with those teeth). The houndfish was a lifelister for Joy (I had caught houndfish previously in Mexico, although of the subspecies fodiator) The biting gnats drove us to the middle of the bridge, away from the mangroves and in a windier spot. We caught lots of pinfish and a white grunt from there but no lifelisters. However, we did get to see some sort of shark cruise by, and a big stingray!
Hoping for something BIG at No Name bridge:
We fished until after dark a bit, but nothing much was happening. We went back to Key West and grabbed a royal meal, Dairy Queen and Burger King, before kicking back at our hotel room to identify the days catches with our field guides. By the way, "A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes" by Kels and Carpenter is a great resource for anyone fishing the Keys, or anywhere on the U.S. East or Gulf coasts.
Tuesday was our last full day of fishing in the Keys. Thankfully the weather remained pleasant despite the wind. After another Waffle House breakfast we checked out White Street pier in Key West.
The water was shallow and we were advised that there were so many other better places to fish that it would be a waste of time, so we hopped back in the car and left Key West. We ventured down Blimp Road on Cudjoe Key and fished at some unwilling mullet. We also did some microfishing, which paid off as we each caught lifelister (#136 for me!) longnose killifish (Fundulus similis):
Next we went back to the spot on Scout Key that we had tried on our the first night in the keys, but this time we tried deeper water. The porgies were willing to bite, and I landed three new species: the grass porgy (Calamus arctifrons), the jolthead porgy (Calamus bajonado), and the Littlehead Porgy (Calamus proridens), lifelisters #137, 138, and 139, respectively. Joy also caught grass and jolthead porgies.
My first grass porgy:
My first jolthead porgy:
My first littlehead porgy:
I was pleased to see a blob of gold in the clear water as I reeled this one in: lifelister #140, the southern puffer (Sphoeroides nephelus):
Joy hooked into something small, but something grabbed it while she was reeling in and took off the lower jaw. It was still a lifelister though!
Although we didn't find sharks we were both pleased to each catch our first gag groupers on cut porgy.
My gag (Mycteroperca microlepis), lifelister #141 and my biggest fish of the trip so far:
As the day wore on we decided to try at least one more spot in hopes of catching something different. We pulled off somewhere between Little Torch Key and Key West to do some bridge fishing, and I landed a few lane snapper (Lutjanus synagris), a white grunt, and a houndfish that I cut up and set out as bait on the big rods (but no takes).
I had hoped to catch a shark in the keys, but December was probably not the best time to get one. Joy and I were both really happy about our groupers though, and about our good number of lifelisters collected in just two full days of fishing. That bridge was be the last fishing we did in the Keys, but we both hope to return in the future (and hopefully in the summertime for bigger mix of species and for sharks!).
With just a little daylight remaining we headed into Key West to have some non-fishing tourist fun. We checked out some shops and art galleries along Duval Street:
We stopped at Jack Flats for beers and dinner. We ate grouper sandwiches to celebrate our lifelisting of the gags.
Then we walked to the southernmost point in the continental United States!
Finally, we again grabbed DQ ice cream, but this time ate it with/on a giant tiger!
Wednesday morning we woke up early, expecting to SCUBA dive that morning. We skipped Waffle House and ate light, hit the road to Key Largo, realized we were running behind, sped, got pulled over (but not given a ticket, thankfully!), stopped at the wrong Marriott Hotel, called our dive company hoping we weren't too late, and were told due to strong east winds all SCUBA trips were cancelled for that day.
So, we stopped at John Pennekamp State Park on Key Largo and, since we had our wet suits, boots, snorkels, fins, and masks we were able to enjoy the December water and snorkel around in the sound, where a 19 cannons from an authentic Spanish shipwreck have been transported and arranged for the enjoyment of divers/snorkelers. The mangrove snappers liked the cannons too - groups of them were hiding under each one. We saw some small barracuda too, but I think that was it for species.
After snorkeling we left the Keys and stopped at a Publix in South Miami to fill up our cooler with food for our next adventure - three days/nights of camping, paddling, and fishing Everglades National Park!