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Heading south is well worth the travel

It’s about time to flee the cold weather by hitching up your boat and heading to the Florida Keys

We were on the last cod trip of the year, 15 miles off Gloucester, Mass., in an open 26-footer. The sea was calm, the air very cool, the anglers all bundled up in hooded-this and heavy-that.

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Interestingly the conversation didn’t turn on the first fish or two of the day, but rather when or where people were heading to Florida.

It’s that time in the Northeast, when the snowbirds armed with fishing rods —some with boat trailers — head south. We may have one more trip for blackfish to go, perhaps some time trying for stripers before Christmas, usually in a friend’s boat with a cabin. But many of us are looking to leave.

Not long after getting back from the Gloucester trip, the phone rang and on the other end was Andy, a fishing nut who lives at Watch Hill, R.I., the famed lighthouse being just down the road from his house. Andy has decided to leave the cold and gloom of a boatless winter in his wake, renting a house in Islamorada, Fla., in the Florida Keys, to wet a line, enjoy the 70-degree temperatures and look around for property to continue fishing in the winter.

At this point Andy is undecided about a boat. He may buy a truck and trailer to haul his Regulator 26 down with him or he may buy a bay boat in Florida to use around the bridges, the patch reefs on the ocean side on the nicer days or hunt tarpon on the channel edges on the north side of the Keys. Such decisions are a pleasant part of heading south.

In Connecticut, there’s Roger, a retired gent who works part-time in a tackle store in Niantic. Each winter Roger trailers his vintage, Potter-built Seacraft to the middle Keys. Roger’s boat is on the market, but he’ll likely continue to trek south in whatever new rig comes along.

The transition from hooded sweatshirt to snowbird is complete when the boat is gassed and it's time to go fishing some January day in 70-degree Florida Keys weather.

If one stands on the side of Interstate 95 south of Richmond, Va., it won’t take long for the snowbirds to head past in the southbound lane. Many have high-end RVs, some pulling the family car, a few the family boat. Others, like myself, head down in a humble pickup truck — some without boats, fishing with friends down south, others with the faithful fishing buddy in tow.

One dark, cold night with a stiff northwest wind, I stopped at the last service area heading south on the New Jersey Turnpike. The fishing boat on the trailer in the short gas line attracted the attention of a gent who loved to fish for fluke and bass in the Cape May rips. A conversation ensued, me in the warmth of my truck, him out in the cold. His eyes opened a bit wider when he found out me, my truck and boat were heading all the way to Key West. “Be there in three days,” were the parting words.

Just south of the redone Woodrow Wilson Bridge outside Washington, a driver in a tractor-trailer gave me three long blasts on his air horn. After putting my heart back in its right spot and seeing nothing was wrong, I returned his wave. He was obviously a boater himself. At a Pilot truck stop deep in Dixie (lots of room to turn around a boat in tow), the lady inside the store got on the PA to ask how fast the boat was before I could pump a drop of gas.

If you pull a boat south, you will have some of the above adventures, not to mention a warm feeling as you leave winter in your wake.

I’ve often pondered standing somewhere alongside the southbound approaches to the George Washington Bridge outside the Big Apple some January morning when my friend Al Golinski comes by with his sea-foam green Sea-Vee in tow. The contrast of the green fishing boat and high, red concrete walls would make a great photo … maybe something for a greeting card? Al just had his hip replaced and repowered his 25-footer with a new Evinrude. Both will be running fine when it comes time to head to The Keys.

The first year you head south, you take lots of stuff, much of which you don’t need. In time, you prune down the list to essentials like six of your own rods from an 8-pound spin for catching bait to heavy 30-pound spin for bottom fishing with heavier sinker (tendonitis in the left arm limits the use of conventional tackle). The extra space in the back of the truck is easily filled running stuff down for friends: more fishing rods or coolers of various sizes with more fishing tackle.

From Westerly, R.I., to Key West, Fla., is about 1,600 miles, no matter how good the feeling of avoiding winter. Florence, S.C., is about the halfway mark, the trip often broken by stopping along the way to look at fishing tackle, gear or boats at various locations along the way. Some folks stop and fish here and there, but many just keep the pedal down, always heading south. The Georgia turnpike is sometimes full of high-powered tow vehicles pulling long, sleek center consoles, many with exotic paint jobs, many with triples, headed to the next big-money Kingfish Tournament.

At that point you know you are heading in the right direction.

The transition is complete when you clean the road grime off the truck, put gas in the boat and head out for the first trip of a brand-new winter. It’s a long haul, but as you take pictures some 70-degree January afternoon, hefting a 50-pound wahoo or mutton snapper for supper, it will seem the reward was well worth the price in time and travel.

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the January 2010 issue.