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Jimmy, Cecil, and Jack
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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.

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.

The reason the guides were so protective was because the way that things were
done, the code of etiquette, the knowledge that the health of the fishery
depended on the flats being treated as refuges for the fish, and the awareness
that the only way the flats could act as refuges was if disturbances from boat
motors was kept at a minimum, and all this needed to be maintained for things to
keep working. The only way to maintain any of that was to try to make sure
everybody who used the resource understood these things. This was their
strategy and it was a strategy which had been working just fine for decades.

So, it was after I'd been working for a couple of years in this environment when I
had a break- through. One day I was with clients who were not fly fishermen and
wanted to catch a tarpon. Generally in that case we would use live bait. I got my
folks in the boat and trundled on down to one of the bridges to float some mullet
in the current near the bridge. When I got down to the bridge there was another
guide already there. This wasn't a problem; there was plenty of room for both of
us. I shut the motor off and drifted in to the spot where I planned to drop the
anchor. I got anchored and got the baits in the water. The other guide was Earl
Gentry from Bud 'n' Mary's. Earl was one of the old timers. At that point he was
in his seventies and had been guiding since before time. Everything was good; we
were waiting for a tarpon swim by and attack one of the mullet. Well, one of the
mullet got attacked, but it wasn't a tarpon that did the attacking - it was an
osprey. And of course, the osprey ended up getting hooked in one of its talons. I
remember it was a hard falling tide and we had to bring the hooked, screeching
osprey in against the current. I through a towel over the bird and removed the
hook. I got the bird settled down and released it. I was expecting it to fly but it
couldn't because its feathers were too wet from being drug in against the current.
Instead it was swept through the bridge and out to sea by the tide, flapping all
the way. Well, normally I would never have started my motor near Earl unless
one of my clients had hooked a fish, but we didn't have anything hooked and the
osprey was going to sea. I needed to do something. The bird was going to die, I
needed to get moving and get it out of the water, and that is what I did. I
dropped my anchor buoy, started the motor, raced after the osprey, used my
landing net to get the bird in the boat, and brought the bird back through the
bridge and set it in the sun on the wing-wall at the end of the bridge so it could
dry out. Then I went back and retrieved my anchor and resumed fishing. I
figured I'd catch some kind of flak for making so much engine noise but when
Earl came up to me later at the dock he commended me for saving the bird. He
said it was the noblest thing he'd ever seen. And that was the turning point.
Before that Earl had never really spoken to me. But after that the guides all
accepted me as someone who would uphold the etiquette and be a steward of the
resource on which we all depended for our way of life, which was the life of a
Florida Keys Flats Guide.

Photo courtesy Lori Oberhofer