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Go seek a respite in the Florida Keys

Whether it’s snow, freezing rain or just another dry, gray and gloomy day, the forecast for the next couple months is the same: no boating or fishing unless one packs up and heads south.

Some may choose exotic spots around the globe but, for many, the Florida Keys are the destination.

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Many will fly into Key West International Airport, often changing planes in Tampa, Fla., for the last hop after starting out in Boston, Providence, R.I., or Newark, N.J. Others fly into South Florida, renting a car, driving down I-95 or the Florida Turnpike to Florida City, the gateway to The Keys. The prudent traveler should be aware that road travel through The Keys is on one- and two-lane roads with speed limits from 35 to 50 mph. There are no expressways and speeding often brings a ticket.

Many, however, drive the whole distance, roughly 1,600 miles from points across New England. Some people combine their drive in unique ways, sightseeing as they go. There are many other things to see on either side of Interstate 95 that people have uncovered over the years. One of them is chasing striped bass at various spots from South Carolina to northern Florida. Santee Cooper Reservoir in the lower part of the former state holds stripers. Stripers are also found in the St. Johns River around Jacksonville, Fla., or farther west in the Florida Panhandle in the tailraces below the Jim Woodruff Dam below Lake Seminole, and the tailrace below the C. H. Corn Hydroelectric Power Plant on Lake Talquin.

With all the rivers heading into the ocean between the Carolinas and north Florida, I’m willing to bet that a northeast striper angler could dig up more striper stops on his way south.

Many anglers like to catch the high-jumping exotics on their vacation, but those who want sometheing for the table charter boats to catch tasty snapper that can be cooked to your order at many restaurants on either side of Route 1.

Once in The Keys, some trailer their own boats, but many rent a guide for the day, some for multiple days. The Keys are home to some of the sharpest fishermen in the state, guides with years of experience that can catch anything that swims, from leaping sailfish to tasty snapper. On that note, don’t be afraid to ask for a guide to go bottom fishing if you like fish on the table. Use the Internet or your cell phone, or check out captains with brochures in motels or tackle stores. And, we might also add, ask if the captain has liability insurance. Stuff happens on the water, so a word to the wise is in order.

Afterward you can take your catch of snappers over to any number of restaurants that will cook it to your order. There is nothing quite like a great fish dinner in The Keys, knowing the town back home has 6 inches of snow with more to come after midnight.

On that note, be prepared for days off or have some backup in mind as cold fronts move down from the north. For instance, around Key West one might charter Capt. Steve Impallomeni, (305) 942-0187. He has a good number of spots in the backcountry along the north side of the lower Keys, spots that allow people to get in a day on the water in a lee when winds roil other locations. Impallomeni has also built up a thriving guide business (the good ones are always busy, a sign of their success) taking people with fly rods out for speedy kingfish on the ocean side or tangling with a tarpon on the fly in other locations. To accomplish this, he has two boats, a 25-foot Sea Vee and a flats boat for the shallow spots.

Be ready for days when it’s just too windy to go any place wet. Of course, as I’ve heard many times, 50-plus and windy in The Keys beats 15 and windy on Congress Street in downtown Boston. On those days hop into the car and drive along Route 1, stopping at all the local tackle shops looking for a piece of tackle that can be imported back home.

The quality of vacations in the Keys often improves as the years go by. In time, you make contacts, network with some of the locals and become more aware of things not apparent on one’s first trip when everything is new. You will probably have some misfires, or trips when the weather won’t cut you a break, but overall the place rewards those who return. Ask yourself, as you stand on Route 1 on a busy afternoon, watching a steady stream of cars and RVs: What keeps all these folks coming back? The answer is they enjoy seeing something different, sights they can’t see outside the mall in Connecticut.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.