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Fishing - Northern snowbirds settle into Key West

For decades, the small town of Key West has been drawing snowbirds that catch fish in T-shirts while the Northeast suffers through gray and gloom.

Last month we took a look at some of the varied fishing experiences available at the end of Route One in the Florida Keys. For decades, the small town of Key West has been drawing snowbirds that catch fish in T-shirts while the Northeast suffers through gray and gloom. This month, I’d like to take up where we left off, looking further at New Englanders and how they fared so far this winter.

Al Golinski of South Hadley, Mass., left eight inches of snow in his driveway when he left town with his friend, Capt. Ben DeMario of Misquamicut, R.I., bound for the 1,600-mile trip trailering his 25-footer down I-95 to the SouthernmostCity. En route they had adventures galore, including blowing a tire and breaking a trailer axle, all fixable thanks to an insurance policy that included a phone number for Al to call to find out where to go in South Carolina to repair the damage at a reasonable price.

He and Ben arrived in 70-degree weather four days before New Year’s Eve. After cleaning the boat at a dock a short cast from his room at the Harborside Motel on Garrison Bight, one of the fishing centers in town, the three of us set out to catch some fish.

Our first stop was on a patch reef only a few miles off Oceanside Marina. In about 25 feet of water we caught roughly 15 great-tasting yellowtails, six cero mackerel, plus a couple of small mutton snappers, all in about 90 minutes, all cleaned and packed away in plastic bags for one of the many local restaurants on the island that cook fresh local fish. The fish, along with two entrees, makes a tremendous dinner washed down with a beverage followed by coffee and a piece of Key Lime pie. It’s not the Ritz, but a down-home dining experience loved by both locals and visitors, who talked about fishing and how cold it was from where they came.

Over the next two days Al, Ben and I fished both in the Atlantic and on some wrecks in the Gulf of Mexico for gag grouper, lane snapper, barracuda, black grouper, yellowtail snapper and a bonito (known as false albacore up north) that took a striper plug dancing on top then put up a determined fight on a light spinning rod. The whole time the daytime temps were in the 70s and low 80s; the sun- block and an iced cooler with water were a must.

Keep on casting

Ben had to return home for work, leaving Al and me to fish on New Year’s Day, a bluebird with absolutely postcard weather. Thanks to a tip from one of the locals, we headed west from Key West to an area the locals nicknamed “the end of the bar,” a place where the bottom drops away about 15 miles from the harbor.

After setting anchor and putting over a mesh bag with ground chum, we soon caught “speedos,” a baitfish that looks very much like a northern mackerel minus the stripes. Speedos make great bait for about anything that swims in the warm water including sailfish and wahoo on the surface and bottom fish down deep. Prior to pulling anchor, I dropped bait to the bottom into roughly 85 feet and hauled back on a keeper gag grouper, prime eating for another seafood dinner.

While many folks were huddling around a TV on New Year’s Day, Al manned the rod while I ran his boat, slow-trolling a live speedo around the bar’s drop. We didn’t have the first bait in the water 15 minutes before a big boil appeared behind it. On the second pass a wahoo, one of the fastest creatures in the ocean, grabbed hold and took off on a run that had the line flying off the reel, the mono cutting the surface of the water following the speedy fish.

In the end, Al caught three more wahoo, all before noon, the fish between 30 and 50 pounds. Tuckered out, he called it quits, heading back to the dock to steak the fish for more great seafood dinners. A blown-up photograph of Al’s catch is destined for the main office wall at Harborside, for it’s not every day one sees wahoo fishing like that. Not a bad way to spend New Year’s morning.

Road hazards

Another New Englander who recently arrived with his boat is Capt. Pete Shea of Rockport, Mass. Pete and his wife, Donna, left their home after the new year began, taking the inside route to avoid I-95 traffic, especially between New York and Washington.

Everything went fine until they came up on the intersection of Routes 81 and 71 in Virginia in the SmokeyMountains. Their travel went from routine to heart-rendering in the blink of an eye, when, in broad daylight, an estimated 170-pound deer jumped out right in front of their Super Duty F-250, pulling a 5,000-pound, 24-foot Rampage. Thanks to the deer hitting the plow frame in front of the truck, Pete and his wife were spared injury, but the truck was dented, though still road- worthy.

After catching their breath, the pair resumed the trip, arriving at Geiger Key just before 7 p.m. on a Sunday night. The next day they were settling in, making plans to drop the boat in the water and get ready to fish from January through at least mid-April, thanks to Pete’s retiring from his profession as an attorney and CPA.

The day I was to submit this column to my editors, the three of us had lunch at Geiger Key Marina, another local eatery where you can have a sandwich and ice tea at noon or great fish dinner at night, watching the sun go down over the Florida Straits.

Two days after arriving for the winter, I was sitting in the same spot and saw a tarpon roll, grabbed a 7-foot spinning rod and, on the fourth cast off the park’s dock, had the 20-pounder jumping five times before grabbing hold of its lower jaw and sliding it ashore.

“Welcome back,” I thought, to a great place where New Englanders keep returning every winter despite the perils of travel. All of us must be down here for a good reason, don’t you think?

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England and South Florida waters for more than 30 years. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine’s New England edition until 2001, and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.