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On The Flats


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"Why he'd rather lie than eat fried chicken!"

Poling the flats at Islamorada.


Waiting for a bite as the clouds fluff up above the Miami skyline.


First Double figure Bone from Biscayne.


Personal best 11lb 8oz Bonefish. Enough, I thought, to take the money on the "Biggest Boner" sweepstake. But not likely, cos Andy R went and caught an 11lb 12oz on the final day! 



The smallest one in the shoal! There were some monsters in there (maybe 14lbs!!) about 5 metres from my rod tip as I crouched lower and lower off the skyline until I was laid on my chest.... But this little fella got there first!


Nice little Bone caught wading off Caloosa Beach early one morning...

I remember having a copy of an ABU Tight Lines Catalogue (if anyone can remember those) back in 1976, and inside the front on this little booklet was a report on how the winners of their Gold Award Competition for the previous year had won the prize of a trip down to the Florida Keys. The stories in there covered the capture of huge, hard fighting Tarpon, psychopathic Barracuda & Kingfish, immovable Amberjack from the wrecks and reefs, and leaping bluewater species like the Dolphin, and, if I remember rightly, Sailfish too. All this and in tropical sunshine! Even though I was only 8 years old at the time, this made a huge impression on my imagination (having become accustomed to catching 12 Roach on an average Sunday morning down the local drain- I remember a 3lb Tench had me in a daze for a week), and for years somewhere inside I always had the desire to go and have a bit of the action myself. It took another 15 years and the regular reading of John Watson's (AKA Watto) tales from the Florida and the Bahamas in David Hall's Coarse Fishing Magazine to make the realisation dawn that maybe I ought to scrimp some money together and finally go and do it... and so, after writing to Watto via the magazine for some information (I was planning to travel and do it on my own), then several phone calls, he asked one day "Would you mind if I tagged along?"....

Florida was my first trip to foreign climes in search of sunshine and weird and wonderful fish. Little did I know how much it would both enhance my fishing, and at the risk of sounding melodramatic, how much it would change my outlook on everything. In fact, the three weeks spent driving up and down the Keys and the Atlantic coast of Florida with Watto, staying in the cheapest motels available, were really a pivotal time in life. The first week it was bloody hot, but the fishing was great, the second week acclimatisation had been achieved to some extent, but the fishing was even hotter. By the third week, the tan was looking great, the fishing was as hot as the weather (as was the food, the weather, the sea, the beaches....), and even after brushes with 'Roaches and Scorpions in the room, brushes with the District Attorney ("Sir" to you and me) after a night out on the town, I was still left working out in my head how I could wrangle a way to stay on even longer. A really great trip... if only all the ones that followed in the future were just as perfect!

Needless to say, I had to go back. So two years later I had saved up enough money to make the return journey again, but this time we were with friends- Stewart, Bod, Stan, Andy (AKA Steve Martin) and finally Keith- although most of them were staying three weeks, and unfortunately I could only afford two... So, painfully, I had to head off home early, wishing there was a way I could hang around that bit longer. Still, everything went to plan, and a great trip and great fishing was had by all- yet again.

The Keys really are a fishing paradise. The fishing on the beaches, in the docks and marinas, and even by the bridges can be terrific- even if you can't afford to- or don't want to- fork out for the expensive guides (and from experience there are some really good ones who are worth every penny... and some not so good ones who will, shall we say, take every penny) you could still catch a lot of lovely and weird fish just by putting a bit of time in doing your own thing.

Because of the massive variety of different places, styles of fishing and species to be found over in that neck of the woods I thought it was best to split them up a bit, so there are four sections below

Of all the types of fishing I have tried, perhaps, just maybe, my favourite ever is down on the flats. If you can imagine fishing in tropical sunshine, while looking down into a constantly changing, crystal clear aquarium, then you are only half way there. In a day's fishing you might see Bonefish (hopefully), Lemon, Blacktip, Bull, Bonnet and Nurse sharks, Eagle Rays and Stingrays, Boxfish, Barracuda, Jacks and Permit. In fact it makes you wonder how some days it's possible you can even blank!

There's very rarely a dull moment out on the water, even if it might take hours to get into a position for a shot at a Bonefish, since there always seems to be something new going on- either above or below the surface, and each new flat investigated brings a renewed surge of optimism and enthusiasm. 
And then, if you're luck's in, suddenly, the signal comes:
"80 feet. 2 o'clock. Shoal of about a dozen..." 

Anxiously you scan the water, trying to spot the tinfoil ghosts, before working out their direction and speed of travel...

They're moving left to right, the water's 2 feet deep and crystal clear. The skiff is poled closer into casting position. A flick of the shrimp sends it 6 or 8 feet in front of them. "You're in the zone buddy..." And a wave of relief passes through you because the Bones haven't spooked, and you haven't cocked up the chance and made an ass of yourself in front of the guide again! The shapes continue moving, your heart pounding in your rib cage, hand trembling on the reel seat. Suddenly you can just make out one ghostly grey shape darting forward more quickly than the others: 
"Get ready buddy- he's gonna have it..."

For a second, almost imperceptibly, the tension increases through the line and up the rod. But then there's no mistaking it, as the rod tip pulls irresistibly round. A firm strike... and all pandemonium lets loose. Bonefish scatter in every direction... but which one have you hooked? 

The line is screaming from the clutch at a rate barely conceivable. The rod is wrenched round to the butt, the water stirred into a maelstrom of white marl and sand by the spooked school of fish, and suddenly you are vaguely aware of what direction the hooked fish is heading in, as the line gurgles with an audible 'whooooossshhh', slicing through the surface film.

 Still the clutch hasn't slowed a click, and the fish is trying to put as much distance between you and itself, a huge white arc of stirred mud marks it's path across the flat like a vapour trail as the angry Bonefish bangs it's head along the clay to try and dislodge the hook. 

The bolt of lightning cluster bombs across the flat: 50 yards, 70 yards, 80 yards, 100 yards. Still it doesn't stop, until finally, some 120 yards from the hook-up spot, the screaming reel can finally have a few seconds rest as the fish hangs in the tide and works out it's next move. A few yards of line are gained back onto the spool, then a few more... it turns and takes it all back- plus interest. And this it does some 3 or 4 times, before eventually the runs weaken a little, and finally, after yet more spirited tug of war, Bonefish and boat are introduced via the landing net; the rod thrown hastily onto the deck as your cramping, aching forearm gets a much needed stretch and some respite! Hook removed from the tough, rubbery lips, the beautiful markings, solid foil flanks and sleek lines admired, and quickly onto the scales... "Nice fish! She's an eight pounder".... "Eight pounds?! Eight pounds?!! Where the hell did all that come from!!??"

Yup. Fishing the flats is ace.

A Trunkfish or Boxfish... the resident bait thief. They just will not leave it alone!


First Bonefish from Biscayne Bay.


Followed a hour later by another. Our bigger fish were weighed- a rarity with most of the guides there. We did see a few seven pound doubles, if you know what I mean... And by the way, the weight of the net was deducted!


And at the end of the day, Andy then cleaned up with this unbelievable 36lb Permit on crab. 50 minutes to land on 10lb BS line! Hell of a scrap!



The tropical storm closes in over the Keys as the rods started to crackle in the air. Time to stop fishing.


Followed shortly after by this one. A result I was delighted with.

Another silver slice of perfection.

And off she goes.

Lovely fish though- and returned to fight another day as ever.

As Capt Bob says; "Nice Job, boys".

Jacked-off to the max.

"Bond, James Bond..." Hmmm, not quite. Returning from a wading session.

Watto concentrates for a bite.

A tanned Watto returns a big Bonefish.

Nice bone, Watto.

But still the Stingrays wouldn't leave us alone.

A choppy day and waiting for a Bonefish to put in a fleeting appearance on a clear spot in the Turtle Grass.

Baby Boner.

Capt. Bob Branham races us out across Biscayne Bay off Miami.

The ultimate fish? Perhaps.

Guess where the chummed spot is!?

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