To The Keys! - Part III (The Saltwater Stuff)

To the Keys!

Date:  Monday, March 26, 2012

Location:  The Florida Keys


Here's the report for the 2012 trip JKnuth, Frogchaser, and I went on more than a year ago. I put off adding this report for a long time. Anyway, certain people keep bugging me to finish my Florida report, since I already published Parts 1 and 2 but just sortof left everybody hanging. So here goes. I'll try to keep it short. You can read the freshwater portions of our trip by clicking these links: Part 1 and Part 2. If you have any questions, just email the webmaster.


To recap, we made a marathon 30+ hour drive to Florida, met Moose, and fished the Myaka River and a series of drainage ditches. Next, we crossed the Everglades, fishing all the way.  The highlight (for me) was getting my first Florida Gar. We then took highway 1 out to Big Pine Key where we set up our tent camp. We fished under the Highway 1 bridge that first night (described in part 2), and then woke up to a bright, sunny day.


Here's the view from our campsite on Big Pine Key:


Big Pine bridge


We grilled grunts almost every day on the picnic table. Grunts are smallish panfish that are found everywhere in the keys; we caught French Grunts, Bluestripe Grunts, White Grunts, Tomtates, and Sailor's Choice. We just filleted them out, dabbed a little orange marmalade on each fillet to "Glax" it, and grilled them until they were done. A true delicacy!


We bought some chum and shrimp, and headed out to sea in our kayaks to try to catch some snappers for dinner. It was cool having my kayak out on the ocean. Miles of flats and coral heads stretched everywhere. Finally, several miles out, I anchored near a patch reef and put out a chum bag. Before long, fish started showing up in the area. We started catching Yellowtail Snapper.



These fish were hard fighters on light tackle. I lost some big ones, using my ultralight "Mooneye" rod. Using light tackle means a lot of hookups, but a big ocean fish like a sizeable snapper, grouper, or mackeral will break you off in a heartbeat. Before long, three sharks showed up and started circling my kayak at a range of 30 feet or so - I hooked one of them three times and managed to lose it each time. It's difficult to get a solid hookset on a big fish from an anchored kayak - the force of your hookset just drags the boat around and doesn't push the hook home. I think fine-wire, lazer-sharp hooks would've made the difference here. It was still fun watching the sharks chase down and maul my live baitfish on the surface. Finally, the sharks moved off. The current was so strong that Becky was getting blown out to sea, so we tied our kayaks together. Before long, I landed another new species - a Jolthead Porgy.



We had been fishing for a couple of hours, catching lots of snappers, grunts, and porgies, when suddenly a school of Ballyhoo showed up! This was something I had hoped for, since these fish are great bait. I quickly caught a couple, but they didn't stick around long.



Our chum was pretty much all gone, whisked away by the fierce current. Besides, we were exhausted and not looking forward to several miles of hard paddling against that current to get back to the shore, three miles away. Large bat rays swam by us as we labored our way back to our campsite. Once back, I found a smug-looking Key Deer with its head in my gear bag. I had brought two pounds of delicious homemade venison jerky with me to Florida, for quick energy on the trail. That cannibal deer ate my whole stash of venison jerky while I was out fishing! Word to the wise - secure your food, even when there aren't any scavengers around.


Our next stop was a cool bridge, with a deep reef environment next to it. It's a great place to find a wide variety of reef fishes. You could see the variety of fish swimming around below, and fish them vertically:



I had tied up some homemade multihook sabiki rigs, and this was the perfect place to try them out. I got three lifelisters on one of my first casts (white grunt, porkfish, and bermuda chub).



These homemade rigs were built by tying two blood knots in very stiff 14-pound monofilament, leaving the tag ends long. Basically, you have a loop for a bell sinker at the bottom, four hooks sticking out to the sides on the tag ends of the blood knots, and a swivel at the top to tie your mainline on. The hooks were #14 demon circles, usually baited with squid tentacles. I occasionally used shrimp on some of the hooks, which was a more attractive bait but was easily picked clean.


It worked really well for porkfish - here I caught a triple.



Josh got a Lane Snapper:



We also caught a lot of these Seargent Major damselfish. I used to gawk at these at my favorite aquarium store, A World of Fish back in Minneapolis. But it was really cool to catch them in their native habitat.



The fair damsel, appropriately, caught lots and lots of damselfish.



I caught a bunch of weird, colorful reef fishes, including this striped parrotfish ...



... and this Puddingwife Wrasse:



I like to take photos of smaller fishes this way. It looks a little goofy, but at least the fisherman is in the photo, and the fish is close to the camera so the detail is visible. Plus, it allows the viewer of the photograph to see what kind of rig the fish was caught on, and in this case, even the habitat the fish lived in.


After this, some other people showed up under the bridge and started fishing. A Frenchman, a Jamaican, and an Indonesian - all now living in the keys. As soon as they got a couple of fish (Yellow Jacks), they started cooking on a little white-gas stove, right under the bridge.



We made friends with the three generous gentlemen and swapped fishing stories. They shared their guormet Jamaican soup with us. It was their tradition to fish under that bridge every Thursday and make fish-head soup. They even gave me the honor of eating the fish head! It was delicious. We headed back to camp tired and happy.


The endangered Key Deer were everywhere. These tiny whitetails are about two feet tall at the shoulder and weigh about 40-50 pounds. They are not very afraid of humans.



It's illegal to feed the deer, but they would still sniff and lick your hand to make sure you weren't holding out on them.



They were about as tall as a car tire.



And day one was over. The next morning, we picked up some supplies and drove to another island, where we fished a culvert that funneled water from an extensive system of flats into a deep pocket next to the road. After a good battle, I landed this Horseye Jack:



This is a cool, hard-fighting species. We then drove a rough and rutted road to a remote mangrove swamp.



Becky tried unsuccessfully to catch sailfin mollies here, while I caught pinfish. Josh was trying to get a big barracuda to hit. Finally, I caught a less-than-great Great Barracuda. It was a lifelist entry but not the impressive specimen I was shooting for.



Then it was time to visit Josh's favorite bridge. We deployed sabiki rigs and caught some bait in the form of threadfin herring and bar jacks. Josh caught some needlefish, including Atlantic Needlefish, Redfin Needlefish, and this nice Houndfish.



We were hoping for sharks, but all we got were small White Grunts, and this Southern Puffer:



Back at camp, we caught more grunts, schoolmasters, and this mangrove snapper.



Finally, Josh and I connected with Gulf Toadfish! This was a species I wanted to catch, mainly because they look like a giant sculpin and are deadly poisonous.



Up to this point, I still hadn't caught a fish of decent size, and was getting frustrated. Some people can find joy in finagling thousands of tiny fish, but not me. I had sighted and fished to a bunch of sharks, rays, tarpon, and giant barracuda, but been unable to get any of them solidly hooked. Disappointed!


The next day, I wanted to put a bend in the rods. We loaded up our kayaks and headed to a place we called "The Horseshoe". Becky navigated her boat among the rock outcroppings and mangrove islands to photograph the seabirds.



Fish-eating birds were abundant - which was a good sign.



Meanwhile, I went out into the deep water, hoping for some Jacks or Permit. All I caught was a handful of sand perch, but Josh caught a couple of inshore lizardfish:



I found a nice reef ledge where I had seen some bigger fish cruising and set up shop. They weren't really interested in feeding at first. I had no chum, but my supply of frozen shrimp was starting to get ripe, so I chopped the shrimp up into chum-sized pieces and deployed a sparse chum field of shrimp. Before long, the feeding began, and I was into some tougher fish - like this redfin parrotfish:



I caught a bunch of these fish, in several different color phases. At first, I thought I had caught four or five different species of parrotfish, but in the end they were all redfin or rainbow parrotfish showing the color patterns of several different life stages and sexes.


Then a fish hit that tore me up! It was the first of several hogfish.



This is a really cool and difficult species of fish, known for being very hard to catch. So hard, in fact, that most people spear-fish for them. I put four of these in the kayak, along with a half-dozen parrotfish, over the course of an hour.


While Josh and I cleaned our catch, Becky went for a walk in the mangrove swamp. She left the message "Went on Trail" written in the dust on my dirty car, and some local jokester added "Eaten by Swamp Ape". That's some good keys humor right there.



We still wanted to catch something decent-sized, so we cut a barracuda butterfly-style, bought several bags of chum, and hung the whole mess off Josh's bridge.  These shorebirds kept pecking at my shark baits in the "No Fishing" zone.



Then, Becky connected with a big fish. After a gruelling battle, we finally sighted it in the clear water far below.



A shark! Finally! With Josh's custom-built homemade bridge net, we hoisted Becky's prize onto the deck.


It was a nurse shark. Becky was ecstatic!



Josh's homemade net worked like a charm, both for hauling the fish up from the water and for carefully lowering them back down to release them. While my four shark baits soaked in the current flow, I managed another new species with this Littlehead Porgy.



The porgy, along with some grunts, made for a nice meal at the end of the day.



But serious bites were few and far between, even with our chum slick stretching halfway to Cuba. Finally, after dark, I had a good run. After a decent battle, I landed this nice-sized Bonnethead Shark.



Not a monster, but a good fight and a decent-sized fish. That was the last fish of the day.


The next day, which was to be our last in the keys,  Josh and Becky were anxious to try for Hogfish and Parrotfish, while I wanted to catch a shark out of my kayak. We decided kayaking the Horseshoe was our best option. So we unloaded our little boats and got to work!



Josh and Becky went in pursuit of the elusive hogfish at The Ledge of Doom.



And Becky landed one!



Josh got a well-deserved rainbow parrotfish.



And another hogfish for me. This one was small, with the juvenile color pattern. Coloration is never a very good identifying characteristic - some of these fish had different patterns based on their sex, their age, and even the time of day! We also caught Dusky Damselfish and Silver Jenny here.



Then, Josh and Becky went off to chase barracuda. After acquiring some live pinfish, I finally figured out where some bigger fish were - pattrolling the six-foot-deep broken flats off the horseshoe. In the stiff wind, I could drift baits across the flat by holding my kayak sideways against the prevailing wind. Several large barracudas cut my line or sliced my baitfish in half. Then, a long gray shape grabbed my bait, and the battle was on!



After being towed around a little bit, I had the fish at boatside.



It was another bonnethead shark. One of my goals for this trip was to catch a shark out of my kayak.



This wasn't the five-footer I wanted, but better than nothing!



The next morning, it was time to go. We rolled up the tents and began the long drive back to the upper midwest.


Species List:


Gunnar's picture

I've been waiting for this. Thanks for filling in the gap in the story.


Redhorse ID cheatsheets, gars, suckers:

2020: 10 days fishing 11 species 0 lifers. 2019: 34/45/13 2018: 39/40/5

Deftik's picture

I wonder what the swamp ape is, I remember having that beer while I was down there, hilarious joke! And some nice fish to boot!

Mike B's picture

I love anything to do with Florida mangrove fishing so thanks Corey. Funny hogfish have a reputation for being hard to catch. I caught about a dozen one day doing little more than dropping a piece a shrimp on the bottom.

mike b

Eli's picture

Sweet fish! 

How does one get a hold of a hogsucker car decal?




Corey's picture

I got that from JKnuth, who did the hogsucker illustration. I'm not sure if he had a bunch made or just the one for me; it was a gift. You could try his website: It's an awesome illustration and a kickass decal.

Jknuth's picture


Love this trip. 
I got that toadfish on some venison jerky 

As for the Hogsucker... I can make that happen. I should put up a list of what I all have. Its not on my site yet.

Eli's picture

Thats awesome that it took a piece of jerkey. Is it just the flesh of the toadfish thats toxic, or is it bad news if it sticks you?


Josh, how can I get a magnet decal like that? I'd love to have a hogsucker on the ass end of my car.




Moose439's picture

Cool stuff man, glad you put this up. I had already been dreaming of the keys lately, this puts me over the edge. I feel your pain on the big fish situation, It's not as easy to catch big ass fish out of the ocean as you would think. I devoted a lot of time trying for sharks, tarpon, cobia, kingfish ect this spring with very poor results. Seasonal migrations are super important and change a lot throughout the state making gather info on when fish move into certain areas tough.  That coupled with the sheer size of the body of water your fishing and you have some pretty tough fishing on your hands. You guys did outstanding for a short trip like that.