I am a Florida Keys Flats Fishing Guide. I have lived in Islamorada working full time in the charter fishing business since 1975. I became a full time flats guide in 1977. Prior to that I worked on offshore charter boats fishing for sailfish, dolphin, tuna and any of the myriad species inhabiting the reef zone.
My first visit to the Keys was when I was age eighteen and in college. Prior to that I had grown up in Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. We lived on the Severn River where everyday of my childhood I watched the tide ebb and flood. I spent those first eighteen years in boats fishing, crabbing, and exploring the Bay and its tributaries.
After graduating high school I began spending the summers in Ocean City working as a mate on charter boats fishing for white marlin and all the other pelagics. It was with this background that I first walked down the dock at Bud 'N' Mary's Marina in Islamorada and watched a young Jimmie Lopez step off one of those wooden skiffs with a fistful of flyrods with shiny gold Seamaster Reels and all rigged up with enormous flys tied with big fluffy feathers of every color in the spectrum. It was May and the tarpon migration was in full swing. That was probably the most singular moment in my life. That was the moment I realized my destiny and that its course was as fixed as that of a raft in rapids. It was at that defining moment when I realized all my life-force would be dedicated to learning how to fish the flats of the Keys and Florida Bay.
And so I began the process. At the time my eighteen year old mind had no concept of what it would take to develop even a peripheral understanding of how the Bay worked. Up until then the Chesapeake was the only thing I knew, the only thing I could use as a reference. Compared to the Chesapeake, not only was Florida Bay an enigma; it was like the Chesapeake on steroids. The Chesapeake had striped bass in murky water. Florida Bay had gin-clear water containing 100 pound-plus tarpon that would gulp flies. And then there was all the rest of it - bonefish, permit, redfish, snook, and on and on...
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Well, by dint of bull-headed perseverance and an obsessive personality the pieces of the puzzle started coming together. And now, over three decades later, I'm still here after learning the most important lesson of all, which is that the lessons never end. If we keep our minds open we will never stop learning, and that is what makes it all worth doing.
In the seventies the backcountry guides were an exclusive clique who was universally suspicious of any outsiders. Even though I had worked several seasons on the offshore boats I was not immediately welcomed into the guiding community. The following is a description of the environment in which I, as a twenty-one year old outsider, was attempting to establish myself as a beginner guide. Click here to view some old photos.
In 1977, Jack Kertz was the owner of Bud 'n' Mary's Marina in Islamorada. One day he took me aside on the dock to tell me that Jimmy Albright, Cecil Keith, and Clarence Lowe had met with him to state that I, along with Alex Adler and Sonny Eslinger, had to go. Jack said that Jimmy, who was speaking for himself and the other guides, was demanding that he throw us out of the marina. I was appalled - how could that be? I'd been around for over two years at that point. What had I done to deserve being ejected from Bud 'n' Mary's? And what was the need to toss Alex and Sonny as well? Alex had close associations with Jack through his father and Sonny had been around the marina for many years. I asked Jack, "What did you tell them?" He told me his reply to their demand was, "Hell no I'm not throwing those guys out - they're the only ones around here that pay their bills on time." What a relief, Jack not only stood by us, but he also went so far as to offer me a slip on the guide dock. Bouncer Smith had recently moved back to Miami and his slip had just become available. He suggested I should start guiding and that I should take advantage of the open slip - after all, there was no telling when another slip would become available. So, I took his advice, snapped up the slip, and entered the business of being a backcountry guide out of Bud 'n' Mary's Marina in Islamorada, in the Florida Keys.
None of that that went over very well with the guides but they kept quiet and left me alone. Turns out the only reason they wanted Jack to throw us three out was simply because we were going live-bait tarpon fishing in the evenings down at the bridges. Prior to that the guides were the only people going evening tarpon fishing and there were never any cases when non-guides would venture down that far to try to get in on the evening action. That was because the return trip back to the dock after dark was tricky, and was not the province of amateurs. But since I was now a guide there was nothing they could say about me being down at the tarpon spots in the evenings. Actually, Sonny left the charter boat scene and started guiding at about the same time. And Alex, who had been working as a mate on the charter boats, got his own boat, the Kalex, and began his career as a charter boat captain at Bud 'n' Mary's.
The guides made it a point to ignore me and that was fine with me. I was cognizant of the existence of the pecking order and my position on it. Therefore, I minded my business and stayed out of their way. That way they left me alone.
One day I took one of my associates from the charter boat crews out in my skiff to fly fish for tarpon. He was one of the local characters; he was the son of one of the charter boat captains and had been around Bud 'n' Mary's all his life. He worked as a mate on the offshore boats and was well known. Even though he was born in Islamorada and raised around boats and fishing it was always the offshore environment he was in. He'd never been exposed to flats fishing, much less Florida Bay which was Terra Incognito as far as he was concerned. His given name was Wayne - but his moniker was "Skunk Ape" on account of the fact he was, you might say, a little rough around the edges. It always seemed to me that fly fishing on the flats was more of a "genteel" form of sport when compared to the offshore methods of trolling or chumming. Therefore, in order to explore the intriguing possibility of a link between fly fishing and anthropology, I ran a social experiment - I put Wayne in my skiff, took him into the backcountry, and then shoved a fly rod into his hand. As I recall we had a great day. Wayne caught a tarpon on the fly rod and was thrilled. But after I got back to the dock I detected murmuring amongst the old guides. Later one of them pulled me aside and gave me a stern but respectful lecture about taking charter boat mates out into what they considered to be their domain, of which they were protective to the extreme. Out of respect for their concerns and deference to their stature I followed their advice. Henceforth, I never took anyone into Florida Bay, the Islamorada backcountry, whom I thought the old time guides might perceive to be a threat.
At that time I'd never heard of the author, Thomas McGuane. Later I learned that the manner in which the older guides maintained this collective protectiveness over the fishery that they had spent decades developing was actually the theme of the book, Ninety-Two in the Shade which was published in 1973, the year I graduated from high school. The guides at Bud 'n' Mary's were literally urbane compared to Nichol Dance, the antagonist in McGuane's book.
A tribute to the pioneers.