The Midnight Rambler
These days, it seems, everyone has his “bucket list.”
I never liked to think about fishing that way. What is the point of that dream trip if you might never return?
Give me realistic goals …places you can re-visit…assuming the place lives up to the billing.
Sure …there’s giant sea run Brown Trout in Tierra Del Fuego, Giant Trevally in Christmas Island, or maybe Salmon fishing in Russia. Then there’s the Keys.
It’s kind of embarrassing, actually. I think of myself as a salt water fly fishing aficionado. I’ve been to a few exotic places, but for some strange reason, I never made it down to the Keys. With a young family it’s easy to sneak in a long weekend in Montauk…But airfare and a week down to the Keys?
And so the years went by
But then as 2013 came to a close, I was hit with that corporate policy regarding vacation days – use em or lose em! And for the first time in nearly two decades, I got the green light from my wife to pick a vacation get-away that fishing featured prominently on the menu.
The catch? It had to be a warm place, and since we only had 4 days, it had to be reasonably close…, not to be consumed with time in the air, or at some airport.
In the end, we agreed on the Keys, Islamorada to be exact.
And since this was (a) near our 20th year anniversary, (b) I wasn’t sure when I was going to get more time off, while (c) there was an excellent chance I would be leaving her for a day of fishing, I had to at least make sure the digs were quite nice.
We confirmed local coverage for our teen-aged kids that we would be leaving behind. And at the very last possible minute, we found a reasonable flight, and booked the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada.
The truth was, I had no clue where to go…Cheeca was the only place I knew of, and the only “fishing lodge” I was 100% sure would be female friendly.
No sooner had I keyed in my credit card, and hit submit when I got that sinking feeling weather would be a major factor, both in NY and FL.
We arrived at JFK at 6am on Jan 2nd with snow swirling, and newscasters on various television monitors hyping the cancelled flights from the Midwest. A major winter storm was now bearing down on New York.
Weather in The Keys would be iffy as well, at least according to various sources. Clouds and a good chance of precipitation were expected every day. And if that wasn’t enough, each day included small craft advisories. As much as it hurt, I didn’t even bother trying to book a charter or a guide.
We did take off from JFK on schedule, and after a good nap, I woke to hear the captain announce we were getting ready to touch down in Miami…with partly cloudy skies, and temps now in the mid 70s.
“Any good weather is a bonus,” I said to my wife. She agreed, this was the best way to approach the weekend.
In less than two hours we were at a road-side restaurant in Key Largo (Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen), in shorts and T shirts, enjoying local beer and conch fitters… the winter storm in the NE was the big news on TV screens, but NY felt 1000 miles away – and I guess technically speaking it was.
Temps were now almost 80…the sun was out…so why did it take so long for me to finally get down here?
The Cheeca Lodge lived up to the billing as well. Rooms looked more like suites. There was a long pier with kids fishing alongside a line-up… of pelicans… parents close by at a strategically located Tiki Bar.
We grabbed a couple of chairs under a palmetto tree. Fishing would have to wait.
I did want to make the most of the nice weather with my wife… while it lasted.
But in Islamorada it is virtually impossible to go more than 1/10th of a mile in any direction without being reminded that it’s all about fishing. 1/4th of a mile south of Cheeca we found Worldwide Sportsman, a place I’ve done plenty of business with by mail over the years. This is a tackle shop that feels more like the fishing shows I go to each winter, complete with a large wooden yacht right smack in the middle, and a fish tank holding live tarpon, snook, redfish and jacks.
By the end of day 2, thick clouds were moving in, along with the wind. I realized that coming home without at least TRYING to do some real fishing in Islamorada was totally unacceptable.
With drink in hand, I sat down at the Cheeca concierge desk and pleaded my case. This was a full-service resort, I reasoned, and if anyone could pull off a fishing trip on zero notice, they could.
“You are actually in luck,” she said. “We have customers from various places in the Midwest and Northeast, but with that crazy storm, now they can’t get down here. I just got off the phone cancelling some charters…Sailfishing has been pretty good, or you can try something in the back country.”
“I really prefer fly fishing,” I said. “I know the weather is getting bad, but do you think you have anyone who would still want to give fly fishing a go?” I asked.
And within 5 minutes I was booked with Drew Moret, who agreed to meet me at the Lor E Lei marina across the highway at 7:30 the following morning.
But when I met up with Drew the following morning, he was not looking like the pumped up optimistic Keys guide I was hoping for.
“John, before we begin, let me just ask…are you here for a few more days?”
He showed me his cell phone, the screen displaying a radar imagine depicting large bands of rain moving in from the southwest.
“It’s not looking good at all,” he said. “I don’t want your trip to be a complete washout.
“Well, you are already here…and I am here,” I said.
“I am not here tomorrow, I fly out later tomorrow…I am ok if we call it a boat ride… I would even settle just to get out on the water, and have a look,” I suggested.
He agreed. “Well, this may in fact amount to nothing more than a boat ride.. but hey …the rain is still a bit off, so maybe we can sneak in a few casts.”
And so we were off
And as we moved into the open bay, I could see his mood change as he refreshed the radar images on his phone.
“The water has really cooled down,” he continued. “Two days ago we had good shots at some resident tarpon, but at 68 degrees… it will be real tough to get them to bite.”
“68 degrees?” I laughed. “We just wrapped up the fall striper fishing in New York. This is wonderful weather, even with a little rain…We were striper fishing some November mornings with air in the 30s, and water in the low 50s…even a few days with some snow.”
I then asked about the Moret connection. I noted his last name on the reservation slip provided at the Cheeca concierge desk.
Drew confirmed his dad was in fact Sandy Moret… I remembered Flip Pallot sometimes fishing with a Sandy Moret on some of those memorable episodes of Walkers Cay Chronicles.
“Yep, dad still fishes a ton,” Drew proudly reported. “And he still runs the fly shop over by the Green Turtle.”
We talked about some of the personalities on Walkers Cay, all of whom Drew knew, and the impact that this show had on a generation of budding salt water fly fishermen like myself
And as we moved further out into the bay, with each refresh of Drew’s phone, the mood grew more and more optimistic.
“I think we can get in a few casts” …
“I’ll definitely be able to get you to some spots for at least a shot at some fish”
“I think we’ll get you some shots at fish on the fly rod, for sure.”…
As the drizzle ended, I unzipped my raincoat.
We would fish!
Drew handed me a spinning rod with a jig head, sweetened with a piece of fresh dead shrimp. The hit came so fast I was stripped of bait before I had a chance to set the hook. After a few jacks on each successive cast, Drew suggested I switch to Gulp. The bite cooled, but not by much. It wasn’t until a school of dolphins came through the channel a while later that things really slowed down
We then moved about 3 miles to another channel, just as the mist turned back to a steady rain.
I zipped up my rain jacket. It became clear to me that things might start to deteriorate rather quickly from this point, and I think Drew had come to the same conclusion.
After a succession of jacks and small groupers on the shrimp “jig thing,” he began chumming with bits of shrimp. He handed me a 9-weight fly rod with a shrimp pattern. I was told to cast out and let the fly sink a little. But a jack picked up the fly before it sank. After a swing and a miss, I was solid to a jack on the second cast.
Then another. Then another. Yes, I know what you might be thinking…Jacks? I did not see my backing, but they pulled and gave a great account of themselves…the fight was as strong as the 12 pound bass that made up the majority of my late fall fly fishing.
The trip could now officially be called a success, but Drew was not done. He offered to inspect the fly. When I lowered it toward him, he tied on a popper just as the rain and wind continued to build.
“Lot more fun to get them on the top, as long as we can keep ‘em here,” he said.
I was solid to a jack on cast #2 or #3, depending if you counted the botched back cast into the building winds. I did catch a few more on top, but then had a hard time hooking up for the next 15-20 minutes, despite plenty of vicious strikes. Drew offered to take a look at the fly.
He let out a hearty chuckle.
“John, you know it helps when the point of the hook is not broken off.”
Next he offered to tie on something entirely new, a larger streamer… but by now the wind driven tide was rushing under the boat … and it was now much harder to get a pattern down into the water column.
In between casts, and gusts of wind, we talked about the state of salt water fly fishing industry…what it was like be a real full-time guide (doing over 220 trips a year)…the status of the declining bonefish fishery – all that ‘pick yer brain’ the stuff that makes a guided fly fishing trip so valuable and so much more fun in the first place.
But as the wind and rain increased still more (almost now officially a downpour), we agreed to call it a day.
I pulled the hood over my head and Drew kicked the flats skiff into gear.
We were back at the dock by noon – not too bad for a half day, especially when most of the other guides had come back a long time ago – others never evedn bothered to head out.
As I bid Drew a hearty farewell, I got a text from my wife. She had taken our rental car down to Marathon. It would be quite a while before she would be back up to get me.
Someone would have to twist my arm I’d have kill some time at the marina bar over a few drafts…maybe some shrimp wrapped in bacon… shooting the bull with all the other fishermen and guides.
I texted my wife back and told her to take her sweet time as I imagined what Islamorada fly fishing would be like on a “good” day.
Capt Drew Moret can be reached at email@example.com