Late-winter respite in the Florida Keys


Taking a trip all the way down Route 1 is worth it to escape the cold weather and enjoy fine fishing

Roughly 1,500 to 1,600 miles south of the last traffic tie-up around Hartford or the snow snafu at Boston or the construction congestion around Providence lies the Florida Keys: winter home to many of your neighbors looking for boating, fishing and 70-degree weather, so lacking in the gray, cold Northeast from Christmas through Easter.

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Over-wintering in The Keys is a well-worn “road,” a tried and proven alternative to four months without a boat in the water. Some folks rent a quiet spot off the hustle and bustle of Route 1, the main drag through the tiny islands from Key Largo to Key West, the destination after flying or driving down Interstate 95. Others have their own properties, bought years before the land booms when the islands were quiet backwaters.

A third contingent comes in motor homes, those available at a good price right now in our struggling economy. And, still a fourth category, lives aboard the boats, some brought down over water, other liveaboard boats tied up year-round at a marina where a friendship or business relationship was struck, some of those deals going back 25 seasons.

After securing a spot to your liking, you get a sense of arriving into safe, protected harbors — especially watching the snow blow across a TV or computer screen as the town you just left braces for another storm. In e-mails or phone calls, you tell your neighbors back home the weather is 70 degrees. The unpacking is over; you settle in, ready to enjoy life in The Keys.

The end of another day out on the water means it's time to brag a little before getting the boat cleaned up and making plans for the next trip.

Fishing is foremost in the minds of many, checking for the next good day or making due when the weather is tolerable. As you put in time in these islands, you learn spots where you can get in a day on the water when other areas are bumpy. For instance, last month my friend, Al Golinski, and I left Murray Marina near Key West in his 25-footer, bound not for the Atlantic — very iffy on a day with 15-mph southerly winds — but out into the Gulf of Mexico where seas were more to Al’s liking, given a bad back and a knee that may need replacing. We anchored up in 40 feet of water on the edge of Eban Lowe Shoal, a rockpile about six miles out from the end of the Northwest channel, the main artery between the Gulf and Atlantic off Key West.

From roughly 9 a.m. until early afternoon we stayed in the same spot, catching all manner of pan-sized snapper and grouper, keeping a legal limit of mutton, yellowtail, mangrove and lane snappers, cleaned, bagged and ready for a small fish fry the following night at one of the local restaurants along Route 1 that will cook your catch. These locales dot the main road up and down The Keys, offering down-home atmosphere and a great dinner at a reasonable price.

Then there are the days the fish gods smile, the weather out of a postcard, light and slick. The lucky ones are on the water from just after sunrise to sometime after 8 a.m., checking gear, icing the drinks, more ice in the fishbox, rods ready, heading out the harbor or cuts between islands, a great day to be alive. Most are aboard in T-shirts as the day climbs above 70 degrees, sometimes into the low 80s, a “mere” 50 to 60 degrees warmer than Boston.

As one boats and fishes in these islands, you see all manner of southern fish and all manner of craft. The day Al and I returned from our trip to Lowe Shoal, we were cleaning the boat when a 42-foot center console of unknown origin pulled up to the dock across from us. It was painted a striking pale blue, the bow jutting high above the dock, the four big outboards on the stern, ready for another 70-mph run to some distant fishing grounds. It was way beyond my pay grade, but indicative of some of the extraordinary machines on display at various marinas here.

During a January kingfish tournament, we watched from our anchored boat as 36-foot Yellowfins and 31-foot Contenders raced past us on the way to a weigh-in with big dollars on the line. On another day, we watched as dozens of sailboats tacked out of Key West Harbor, one sail different from the next, the whole thing a prize-winning photo if snapped by the right journalist. These are but some of the scenes from a winter on the water.

Much has been written about the leaping sailfish and gleaming tarpon that dot most of the commercials on TV and in print. But many, many winter visitors like nothing better than to drop a line to the bottom, hauling back tasty snapper and grouper, either for supper for two or maybe a fish-fry for the neighbors. I know one enterprising fellow who got lots of invites to go fishing after inviting some of the talented locals over for a bite and a beer. Networking works, often providing a fish-cooker with great fishing tips, maybe even a GPS number for even better catches.

Then there are the days with low skies, times to head up to the local coffee shop to maybe buy a copy of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, depending on your political bent. You have n-o-t-h-i-n-g to do except enjoy the coffee and read the paper. My neighbor, three trailers down from mine, has a morning ritual of his own: coffee, then the WSJ online, nothing to interrupt his pursuit of a good stock tip thanks to retiring from a lifetime of teaching and property management in Michigan.

Days off are spent putting new line on your reels, visiting with friends or neighbors, maybe taking a trip up or down The Keys for a new spool of wire for a downrigger reel or taking a rod in for repair. Fishing is almost a religion down here, so don’t be surprised when the local priest, rabbi or minister preps a sermon with a bit of fishing lore before he or she gets down to the Sunday business at hand.

Without busting the budget, a winter in The Keys is great for the soul, the problems of the day going by “overhead” as you enjoy the time in a laid-back atmosphere geared up to the water and what swims in it. Good luck in your pursuit of fishing in a spot where 50 degrees is chilly.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.