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Florida Keys: Camping at Bahia Honda 2007
 

Ever since last I went to the Keys over Thanksgiving weekend 2006, I have yearned to return.  A fisherman there told me about catching bonefish and tarpon on the flats.  I was so excited about the prospect of catching a tarpon that I decided to return in April when the fishing is best.  April came and went without even planning a trip down to the Keys.  Finally a colleague and I decided to quit delaying and plan the trip.  Luckily we found a camping spot at Bahia Honda for the next week.  We were lucky because camping spots are hard to find.

 

Two colleagues and I set out Thursday morning for the Keys with all our food, camping, fishing, and camera gear.  I had my Honda’s trunk and half the back seat filled with gear.  We barely had room to sit 3 people.  By the looks of our luggage, one would think that we were staying for a few weeks.  When I backpack, I pack lightly. When I can pull into the campground with my car, I take anything and everything that I might need.  

 

 

Top: Least sandpipers

Second picture: dwarf mangroves (Rhizofora mangle).  There exists a standard and dwarf form of this species.  The reason why some are dwarf is still a mystery.  

Bottom three pictures: A look at the east end of Bahia Honda.  The key is situated from east to west, so to the right in the photo is south.  Somewhere about 90 miles to the south is Cuba.

The water was so beautiful.  The water color indicates the substrate.  Light green water is over sandy bottoms.  The water becomes darker green at the edges of sea grass bed, the becomes dark green over the sea grass bed.  Sometimes the water is deep blue over grass beds.  

 

The weather was hot but lovely the entire time.  It was so relaxing just to be on the beach.  First order of business was to find bait fish.  I purposely decided to try to catch bait, instead of buying it because I wanted to try out my new cast net.  The cast net was 12 feet in diameter.  The net is cast in such a way that the net opens up it entire 12 feet to cover the greatest amount of surface area.  The weights around the perimeter of the net pull the sides of the next down into the water to the bottom of the ocean.  When the draw rope is pulled, the net closes by drawing the edges toward each other to make a sphere.  

Cast net woes

None of us knew how to use the net, so we practiced and practiced without luck.  I did not expect that throwing a net would be hard.  Finally we got out the directions to see if they were useful.  I must say that it was rather embarrassing standing on the beach reading the instructions on how to use a cast net.  There wasn't anything manly about that, but the need for bait fish took precedence over appearance.  Several people came by and stopped expecting to see us catch some fish, but they did not take long to realize that we had no idea what we were doing.  Oh well, in the end we were mediocre net casters, but good enough to catch several fish. 

The cast net was so much fun because we were not only able to catch something with it, but we were able to see what was living along the shore.  We caught pompano (both 3-5 cm and one 15 cm), ballyhoo, mullet, flounder, redfish (red drum), needlefish, crab, a few other unidentified fish species.  The cast net was probably the best part of fishing on the entire trip. 


Tarpon Fishing 

We fished with live mullet, ballyhoo, and crab.  I was hoping to catch a big tarpon and was using large bait to attract them.  Supposedly mullet and large ballyhoo are the best bait for large tarpon.  They may be the best bait, but they did not help us catch tarpon.  However, it was fun to simply cast out into the grass beds with foot-long mullet; the size that would usually be the fish being caught, not the bait.  

We went out on the flats for about 100 m to the edge of large channel full of sea grass.  The channel goes under the bridge and around the edge of the key into Florida Bay and is much deeper than the surrounding sand and grass beds.  The water where we were standing was a little over 1 m deep.  After several minutes I see movement about 25 m away.  I thought, "What if that is a shark?" Of course, what are the chances?  As I watch the movement, I see 2 triangular dorsal fins, the telltale sign of a shark.  The dorsal fin on the sharks was about 25-30 cm tall, so I estimate the length of the sharks at 2-2.25m.  At first I was intent on fishing and reluctant to leave such a good spot.  Nonetheless after pointing out the sharks to my two friends, they decided that 4 limbs were more important than a good fishing spot.  I must admit that they convinced me of this important point.  Also the realization that 1 m of water was plenty of room for them to swim up to me and take a chunk out of my leg.  In the end we all headed closer to shore and decided to fish from the shore's edge in the deep channel.  

With feet planted squarely on dry ground, my friends had much more courage and lamented not being closer to the sharks to try to catch one.  Nothing like solid dry earth to put courage in the heart of a land lubber. 

Finally in the evening we saw our first tarpon.  A school of about 40.  They were massive.  The top of their back would become exposed from the water when they were rolling.  Rolling is the rising to the surface to gulp air.  Their head was at least a foot long and their body was at least 30 cm tall.  I guess that were in the 70 kg range.  I was pretty excited to see them and immediately threw my line to where they were.  However, we used up all our bait without catching a single thing. 

 


Walking along the shore with the cast net in search of baitfish.
 
These tarpon were rolling in the channel heading south from the north side of the key.  “Rolling” is the act of coming to the surface to gulp air.  In the process of gulping air they roll on their sides.  The fin sticking out of the water is the pectoral fin, nit the dorsal fin.  Though the fin looks like the dorsal fin of a shark, it is the pectoral fin of a tarpon.  I did not get any good photos of the tarpon head.  Their head would momentarily exit the water partially.  The fish were strung out for about 150m, and I did not know when one would surface, so I did not get the timing right for a head shot.  These fish appear brassy like a carp in the low light conditions of this photo.  Under bright light they are shiny silver. 
 

Camping

We went to our camping spot to prepare dinner and get ready for bed.  A friend brought pink salmon, so that at least we would have some type of fish to eat if we did not catch anything.  It turned out to be a wise decision.  After eating dinner, I pulled out my sleeping bag and decided to enjoy the beautiful night by sleeping under the stars.  That is when the mosquitoes and the pesky no-see-ums.  These little annoyances left so many bites on me that a week later I still had distinct marks from them on my legs and arms.  Then came the raccoons.  I do not mind coons, but they would come up and sniff me.  I was not thrilled about having disease-ridden garbage-eaters sniffing me all night.  In addition, they were rummaging through camp making noise all night.  Fortunately we stowed all the edibles in the car, so they had very slim pickings.  Finally I decided to just sleep in my car.  I have slept many comfortable nights in my car, but I slept very little that night because the stupid bugs kept biting me.  I kept a blanket over me and a mosquito net on my head, which worked well to keep the bugs away.  However, I could not leave the blanket on all night because I would get hot.  When I took the blanket off, the infernal bugs would eat me alive.  I must have put my blanket on and taken it off at least 20 times during the night.  I was so happy for morning.

Second day of fishing

The next day we went to the other side of the key to try our luck there.  The other side of the island was rocky and the water was deeper.  An old bridge spans part of the way between the Bahia Honda and the next key.  The channel under the bridge was deep like the channel on the other side.  After several unsuccessful attempts at catching bait and not catching fish using crabs as bait, we decided to go back to the other side of the key where we were the day before. 


 
This is the west side of the island near the old bridge.  The water was so beautiful with its blues and greens.  The water was very clear and rather fishless, except for a few brightly colored reef fishes.  We fished under the bridge and off the rocks.
 

 
The old bridge we were fishing under was built several decades ago.  The monument effort to built this large bridge from Key West to the mainland took several years.  After finishing the bridge, a hurricane came and twisted the metal frame, making the bridge unsafe for transportation.  After all that work the bridge was useless.   Large sections of the bridge were removed, so that no one would attempt to use the bridge for transportation. 
 
Top: The old bridge now has pieces missing from it, so it cannot be used. Though no longer functional, the bridge lends to a historical beauty of the area.
 

Top: These brown pelicans are flying in front of a small sandbar with mangrove trees.  This is next to the old bridge.

 

Bottom: The channel is deeper by the bridge than in the flats and very large sharks can be seen prowling around shore.  



Once we were back on the other side of the key, we quickly caught bait fish, and I was back in business.  Unfortunately I did not even get a bite nor did we see the massive tarpon again.  At that point I was not going to go home empty-handed.  I decided to ditch the tarpon, and try for smaller fish.  Several barracuda were in the shallows near shore.  Once I had little fish on my line, I caught a small barracuda immediately.  It was only 60 cm long and about 1.5 kg.  I only had 3 little baitfish to use, so I put my second baitfish on.  It did not last long before a barracuda bit it off.  One annoyance when fishing for barracuda (especially when baitfish supply is low) is that a baitfish only lasts one bite.  Once you get a bite the baitfish is dead and torn up.  The third baitfish was securely on my line for only a few minutes before I caught a nearly 1 m long barracuda that weighed about 2 kg.  Barracuda are very slender and light when small.  As they get larger they grow fatter, but they always remain relatively slim.  

They also fight pretty hard for a short time.  The initial strike is quite soft, and not easily detectable until he runs away with the bait..  The baitfish is normally facing the pole and swimming in that direction or fighting against the line.  At first the barracuda strikes the baitfish by trailing behind the bait, which means that the barracuda is swimming toward the pole and of course not putting any pressure on the line.  Once the cuda starts to move in another direction, pressure on the line is felt.  Once they are hooked, they put on a spirited but short fight.  My cuda jumped probably 60 cm high and launched itself out of the water a distance of 1.75 m.  It would go on runs for several meters then jump out of the water.  It gave me a few minutes worth of action.  Unfortunately I did not get a picture of either of my cudas.



 
This barracuda was caught using live shrimp by another fisherman who was fishing next to me.  I did not have my camera with me when I caught my barracudas, so I could not take a picture of my barracudas.  Oh well, I guess that I will just have to describe them.  They were both 2 m long and weighed 40 kg.
 
As we were preparing to leave, another fisherman sets his hook in something out on the flats where we were fishing the day before when we saw the sharks.  I thought that it was likely another barracuda.  However, he was still fighting the fish by the time I was packed and ready to leave.  Finally I set down my stuff and went to see what he had hooked.  The fight lasted a good 15 minutes before the fish was reeled in close enough to catch.  It was a huge bonefish probably 4.5-5.5 kg.  I wish it was my fish!  Oh well, bonefish is something to look forward to next time.

Birds

Another aspect of the trip (though subordinate to fishing) was birding.  I did see a few species of birds.  Several bird species especially neotropical migrants were along the shore feeding on the hordes of bugs living on the dead sea grass pushed up on the shore by the waves.  Shorebirds and songbirds alike were feasting at a sea grass banquet.  The birds were rather tame, and I was able to get within 10 feet of many of them.  Common yellowthroats, blackpoll warblers, northern waterthrushes, American redstarts, least sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, and western sandpipers were the most common attendees.

 
 
They have no food value, they do not jump, they do not get large like tarpon, but they are one of the most sought after sports fish in the Keys.  They have a deserved reputation of speedy runs for as long as 100m and their tenacious fighting endurance.  Along with their cautiousness and difficulty to hook, these little fish are well worth the time it takes to catch one.
 
Top two photos: sandpipers and songbirds gorged themselves all day on insects in the sea grass.
 
Bottom: Here is the difference between the needlefish (top) and the ballyhoo (bottom).  The needlefish has rows of small teeth that is uses to catch prey.  This needlefish tried to bite me as I took it from the net.  The ballyhoo only has a long lower jaw.

Time to go home 

 

Finally after two days of fishing and 20+ hours in the sun, I was drained.  I was ready to go home, recuperate, and plan my next fishing trip.  It was the closest I have felt in Florida like I was in Arizona.  Arizona heat is so intense that you are left drained physically after being in it all day.  Florida heat is not as intense and does not take the physical toll that Arizona heat does, but two days of sitting out on the flats in the Florida Keys left me pretty tired.  I must admit that there’s nothing so wonderful as feeling tired after fishing in the Keys.


Key West in the early morning light
 

The mystique of the Keys

 

 

Although I have left the Keys and am back among hurrying people, honking horns, and asphalt, each time I close my eyes, I hear a gull crying in the air above me and the waves softly rolling across the sandy shore, I see the shimmer of sun light reflecting off the water, and I am wading in the tide, fishing pole in hand without a care in the world.

  

PZE



Above: seas urchin skeleton

Below: Hammock vegetation on Bahia Honda.  The vegetation around the shore is mangrove, but the vegetation in the middle of the key away from the salinity of the beaches is tropical hardwood hammock.  However, the hardwood hammock is scrubber with more palms and ground forbs and grasses.

 

This is the channel that goes from the north side of the key to the south side.  We were fishing into this channel for most of the time.  It was in this channel that we saw the tarpon.

Herp list

 

Brown anole

Mediterranean house gecko

 

 

Mammal list

Raccoon

Manatee

 

 

Fish list

Ballyhoo

Shark sp. (probably gray reef)

Tarpon

Bonefish

Black and yellow reef fish sp.

Needlefish

Redfish

Flounder sp.

Cow-nosed ray

Barracuda

Pompano

Mullet

Sting ray sp.

Several other unidentified species

 

Bird list

 

(I did not see as much as I could have because I was most intent on fishing not birding.)

 

Great blue heron

Great egret

Laughing gull

Ring-billed gull

Royal tern

Least tern

Magnificent frigatebird

Brown pelican

Ruddy turnstone

Short-billed dowitcher

sanderling

Black-bellied plover

Least sandpiper

Willet

Double-crested cormorant

White-crowned pigeon

Rock dove

Eurasian collard-dove

Yellow-billed cuckoo

Gray kingbird

Boat-tailed grackle

Common grackle

Red-winged blackbird

Northern waterthrush

Blackpoll warbler

Common yellowthroat

Ovenbird

Bobolink

White-crowned sparrow

House sparrow

 


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