BAY TRIPPER - Freshman snowbird hits the Keys

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A long-planned winter escape from Chesapeake Bay to the Florida Keys finally became a reality in mid-January, when I rode the rails south as a coach-class snowbird on Amtrak’s Auto Train.

Soon after I settled in, as my luck would have it, a full-scale blizzard hit the Northeast with whiteouts, monster snow drifts, and hurricane-force blasts. Under those circumstances it was easy adjusting to sunny blueouts aboard a rented houseboat at Bud n’ Mary’s Sportfishing Marina on Upper Matecumbe Key in Islamorada.

While watching South Florida’s “Winter Wallop” television reports about conditions in the great, white North, it didn’t seem possible I was on the same East Coast. I’d soon had enough of that and fled the warm indoors for the warmer outdoors.

Behaving like a true newcomer snowbird, I retreated to a canvas chair on the aft deck, lit a cigar, sipped from a tumbler of black rum, and hit the cell phone to annoy friends and relatives. Oh what cruel fun that was, commenting on my rewarding sunsets in the company of resident pelicans perched on my roof and boats, docks and pilings.

That Arctic Express finally made it to the Keys, when at night the temperature dropped to 50 degrees before rising quickly to the low 70s, thanks to the dependable sunshine that came blasting through my bedroom window every morning. The January weather actually reminded me a bit of cruising the Chesapeake in early spring, when you begin shedding layers of clothing with the warming sun until you’re down to shorts. By 9 a.m. I was sitting on the side deck in a sunny lee and drinking coffee, close enough to the ocean to almost dangle my toes in the water.

It may seem odd for a sailor like me to wind up in a fishing-focused place like Bud n’ Mary’s, but it would only be for the last two weeks of January before moving into a one-bedroom apartment on Lower Matecumbe Key for the month of February. I figured I could put up with anything for two weeks.

How this arrangement came about is a long story involving my ancient romance as a young man with a 19-year-old Baltimore beauty (named Bette), which ended when I married another Betty in the late 1950s. About a year ago, Bette initiated a correspondence from her home in Nome, Alaska, after she heard I was a widower.

After exchanging a series of friendly letters in which she said she had found happiness in the tundra after four unsuccessful marriages, I told her I was a warm-weather person interested in wintering in the Keys. She mentioned that her younger sister, Karen, had married a famous Keys charter fishing captain and guide who owned and operated a marina and “bait shop” in Islamorada.

That’s how I heard about Bud n’ Mary’s, one of the oldest “purist” fishing marinas in the Keys, established in 1944. Old-fashioned and relatively unchanged, it appealed to me because it is one of the rare Keys marinas without a tiki bar and restaurant, although Karen tends to a T-shirt enterprise in the tackle shop. Her husband, Richard Stanczyk, 59, has owned the place for 27 years.

In “Cruising the Florida Keys,” authors Claiborne S. Young and Morgan Stinemetz describe this marina as being “all about fishing, fishing, and more fishing. If you don’t enjoy fishing and all that goes with it, including a charter fleet, this is not the place for you. There are, however, off-the-boat accommodations, including a ‘penthouse’ suite and motel rooms. The view of the channel and the Atlantic is gorgeous.”

Regardless of not being a fisherman, this sounded interesting. No motel unit was available for a two-week rental, and that’s what I was looking for. Karen, however, mentioned that there was an engineless rental houseboat, tied to an outer dock facing the Atlantic, that was available for that period. I imagined a fishing shack — something far less than glorious — but was pleasantly surprised by a cream-shingled 40-foot houseboat named Lucky Lady, with a flat roof used as a landing field by pelicans, gulls and other seabirds. There are two narrow side decks and a roofed after deck reserved for a loafing human like me.

The interior was a complete surprise, having been totally refurbished after a fire by a resident marina carpenter — another houseboat dweller named Sparrow, who is also known as The Head Barndog (more on this Barndog Crew in a later tale from the Keys). On the main level is a tiled and carpeted floor with a pull-out couch, easy chairs, satellite TV, and a modern kitchen-galley with a small refrigerator, sink, microwave, breakfast counter and cabinets. A modern bathroom with a hot-water shower is amidships, and a double bed is on a raised level in a room at the other end. There is even maid service.

My routine has been to rise early and watch the dozen charter boats head out Tea Table Channel for offshore fishing grounds in this “sportfishing capital of the world.” Soon following is the marina’s air-conditioned headboat, the 65-foot Miss Islamorada, leaving for a full day of deep-sea fishing.

Lest anyone forget, Islamorada was the retirement home of the late Ted Williams, one of its greatest anglers — better known elsewhere as one of baseball’s great sluggers and last of the .400 hitters. There is a small road sign on the bay side of U.S. 1 commemorating “Ted Williams Way.”

During the day, Bud n’ Mary’s takes on a somnolent state of inactivity when the boats are out fishing. But activity resumes after 4 p.m. when the fleet returns, flying sailfish and swordfish flags and unloading the catch, which is cleaned dockside as pelicans and egrets gather for the tossed scraps. Nearby restaurants will cook an angler’s fresh catch for a minimal charge.

I probably missed something by not going out and wetting a line with the purists, but I opted for exploring the middle Keys for story ideas, since I had a long stay ahead and wanted to get familiar with the place. Just a few miles north of the Old Keys atmosphere of Bud n’ Mary’s is an example of what can happen in the New Keys when this tiki bit is taken to extremes.

The oceanside Holiday Isle Marina and Resort also has a fishing fleet and guide services, but it is overwhelmed by a Disney World collection of Tiki-style bars, restaurants and shops — where every open door sells something, and some form of live musical entertainment throbs in the air. There is also a swimming pool and volleyball court amid a sprawling area filled with hundreds of sunbathers body-to-body on rental mats laid out upon wooden lounging platforms.

Weekends can get wild here, especially during a weeklong event in May called the Bartenders in Paradise Party, which has numerous bikini contests. Hard drinking and revelry are the key attractions for this, and police sometimes are summoned from Miami to maintain control over disorderly crowds.

But on the late January morning when I visited, the place seemed empty, as if the hard-core partiers were still sleeping in, or sleeping it off. Apparently that wasn’t the case. One bored bartender explained that the fabled “spring-breaker” collegians who once patronized South Florida hot spots have been attracted by travel packages to more exotic locales in Mexico and Costa Rica.

As my two houseboat weeks approached an end, I know I have made some friends, and Bud n’ Mary’s will be a place to revisit before I head home to the Chesapeake in early March.

One thing is for sure: There will be a whole new set of circumstances and people at my rental apartment in Port Antigua, a new canal community — with no marina — on the Florida Bay side of Lower Matecumbe Key, just five miles south of Bud n’ Mary’s but a world apart.

For more information on Bud n’ Mary’s Sportfishing Marina, go to http://www.budnmarys.com or call (800) 742-7945.

Jack Sherwood is a senior writer for Soundings.