Islamorada is a captivating place– and not just for the fishing. On a highway map (if people still use such things) it sits rather unassumingly in about the middle of the Keys.
Tourists that haven’t come for the purpose of fishing are likely to drive past it without remarking about much other than the beauty of its bridges, turquoise waters and sunsets. Most of these folks transit their way to Key West, intent to drink too much and watch people herd themselves onto or off of cruise ships.
For the fisherman, Islamorada’s location is much more strategic. It is in the middle of not just the Florida Keys but also squarely between two of America’s most intriguing fishing opportunities. To the west lies Florida Bay and Flamingo—the place where the Everglades spill into the Gulf of Mexico. To the east, patch reefs give way to the cobalt waters of the Gulf Stream.
When it comes to fishing opportunities, Islamorada is blessed with abundance. The place is marked by an embarrassment of riches. The signs that read “The Sportfishing Capitol of America” are not half wrong.
There are a number of places that can be said to have a little of everything. Islamorada is not one of them. There are enough high line, world class fishing targets here to support an entire industry of inshore and offshore charter captains.
From skinny, clear and tinted waters of the flats to the deep blue of the Gulf Stream, the fishing is all here—within a half hours boat ride in one direction or another from Islamorada.
Captain Mark Cockerham
I had looked forward to fishing with Captain Mark Cockerham of Key Hopper Charters for months. Joining us was my good friend—and bonefish world record holder—Alan Cockerham, Mark’s son. The plan involved running around, catching fish and taking video and pictures for his website and this one.
Mark holds lots of light tackle records for bonefish and permit. He is also a highly accomplished fly fisherman who guided a client to a fly record bonefish that has since been beaten. Mark has the resume to be one of those LL Bean types—the snooty, linen pants-wearing types who scoffs at bait slingers and looks down at those who cannot place a fly within a hair of a snook’s ass at 30 yards.
He could be one of those… he would have every right. Cockerham has won enough light tackle and fly tournaments on the flats… But Mark is about the farthest thing from it.
Though Mark’s fishing resume is impressive, nothing quite matches his line of bullshit. You probably shouldn’t fish with him if you’re not ready to have a good time.
With this backdrop in place, our plan involved catching fish and getting our hands on a Go Pro to film some redneck shit, too. I had thought about the roving bands of lemon sharks that are sometimes thick enough to chomp anything that fights hard enough to pull drag. With those nasty bastards in mind, I packed a spool of 300-pound marlin leader and 18/0 circle hook from my garage.
We were going to have ourselves a time fishing in Islamorada.
The Keys: Day 1
Departing Mark’s basin, we loaded the Hell’s Bay with a pile of pilchards and crabs that he keeps penned up for charters. First on the agenda was tarpon. If all went according to plan, we’d get one of those awesome in-water tarpon holding pictures on the flats.
As Captain Mark eased back on the throttle, we were greeted by herds of rolling tarpon. There was a pile of them.
Alan and I threaded crabs onto our tarpon spinning outfits. Spooled with 30-pound braid, the outfits terminated in fluorocarbon leaders threaded through natural corks, terminating in circle hooks.
It didn’t take long for Alan to connect to a 125-pound tarpon. She put on a dogged fight marked by the type of fight for which her kind are known.
While the hook pulled before we could subdue the creature for our picture, it didn’t really matter. We jumped off another fish of about 100 pounds before we took off.
The Grouper Tree
Our next stop was to populate the cooler with mangrove snapper for dinner. We ran westwardly into a slick ass calm morning. The water shimmered without ripple… on the horizon, the sky blended with the water. So long as you are not an aircraft pilot, this sensation is remarkable.
As we pulled up to one of Mark’s spots—a submerged tree in six or eight feet of water—we found our snapper. Lurking beyond the tree was a big, brown shadow… then two and finally three.
They were goliath grouper. The largest of the three was 300 or 400 pounds.
It was handline time! We cut about 30 feet of leader, tying one side to the hook and the other to the poling platform.
We then hooked up a bait and put it in the water… it came to rest 15 in front of the tree. The middle-sized goliath slurped it down.
After a three-minute Monroe County Rodeo, we had the creature boat side smiling for photos. The brute went about 150 pounds.
Running Crab Pots
Next, Mark wanted to check out of a spot near Cape Sable where in January he located a giant mass of spawning permit. He described hooking a 100-pound tarpon in their midst that pulled the boat for three miles—for the first mile and a half the boat encountered schools of permit.
Between the grouper tree and Cape Sable are strings of stone crab pots known to hold triple tail. A prehistoric-looking creature, triple tail are tasty animals that lie on their sides facing into current looking to ambush shrimp.
The game involves watching the foam buoys that mark crab pots for signs of triple tail. When you see one, you position the boat in such a way as to cast a shrimp up current and let the bait drift to the fish.
We caught two fish, neither quite large enough to take a boat ride.
Afternoon Day 1
We rounded out the first day fishing the creeks and drainages of Southwest Florida’s remote coastline. Finally, Mark, Alan and I ran back to fish around Islamorada in search of a sunset tarpon bite.
We watched piles of fish roll, gulp and ram each other (Captain Mark says that’s part of their spawning process). Watching the things swim beneath the boat was a pretty good consolation—even if none were hungry.
Day 2: Snook and Redfish
Day two of fishing in Islamorada started with watching mobs of roll and gulp and not eat our pilchards or crabs.
We then pointed to bow toward Flamingo. On the way we stopped by the island that produced 487 redfish in a single day for Mark’s clients in a redfish tournament last year. Nobody was home this time.
From there we ran to a mangrove snapper spot that was populated by swarms of the things. Slinging pilchards close to a mangrove island, we bailed 10 or 12 keeper mangroves, caught a couple snook and jumped off two baby tarpon. We even had a juvenile goliath grouper gobble down a pilchard out from the roots.
Next we pointed the bow toward Flamingo. A wild, remarkable place, if you were dropped off there blindfolded, you might think you were in mangrove forests of India or Brazil or Colombia or some other wild ass place.
A Hell of a Day For It
There wasn’t a lick of wind. The water was calmer than a sloth on codeine.
As we skimmed across the flats—cruising more than 40 miles an hour across water that was maybe 14 inches deep—we starting to see wakes and tails. As soon as it was deep enough to come off plane, Mark throttled down.
We came to rest on a school of redfish. It was to be that kind of day.
We spent the rest of the day slinging Gulp soft baits to redfish and snook. The slick water and clear skies made for lots of glare and relative difficulty to see fish.
This might normally mean that you see fewer fish. This day, it just meant that it wasn’t until they flushed within 10 feet of the boat that we saw most of them.
We caught 25 or so redfish, between 19 and 26 inches. We also caught about a dozen snook—between 18 and about 29 inches. I had a really nice one shake off…
You don’t need fancy language or lots of adjectives to describe fishing this good.
We saw probably four times the number of fish that we caught. While this figure might sound like an exaggeration, if I were to lie why wouldn’t I just say we caught 100 of them?
On our way home, Captain Mark drove figure eights chasing a bull shark that was crossing the flats. I hadn’t laughed so hard in a long time.
Alan had to return to the real world prior to day three. We had heard fishing reports of big blackfin on the humps offshore of Islamorada.
Having experienced two excellent days on the flats, we jumped on Mark’s 23’ Deep V Pathfinder (an offshore model that the company only made for a couple years) to head offshore. After all, about the only thing worse than chasing something that you’ll never catch is chasing something that you’ve already caught.
We blacked out the bait tank with a few hundred of the large pilchards that we’d netted the day before and headed offshore. The wind that had been missing the previous two days had arrived. The seas were a bumpy 3-5’ chop.
We fished two rods—with a big pilchard bump trolled on each. We’d sling out the occasional net full of free-swimming baits behind the boat.
These pilchards would follow us, using the boat for protection from the marauding hunters lurking beneath. They were in effect a travelling bait ball that was hanging out, attracting fish to the boat.
In two and a half or so hours we caught a giant rainbow runner, two nice blackfin tuna and a big king mackerel. The tuna took a plane ride and, along with a cero mackerel we caught on the first day, were the star of a redneck sushi dinner.
We then ran inside to fish a mutton spot in 60’ of water. We pulled up a 20-pound goliath grouper and a beautiful queen trigger fish, but no muttons.
From there we tried a patch reef in 15 of water before giving the tarpon one last shot.
A Grisly Way to Go
While fanciful language can obscure great fishing, there are times when it’s employ comes in handy. These days, though everyone films or photographs just about everything, there are times when the written helps relate experience.
Just a few minutes before we pulled the plug, one of our dead bait rods went off. Mark and I were sitting in the boat.
We looked out on the water to see a tarpon that was a higher elevation than we were. The thing felt the circle hook and exploded—jumping six feet into the air.
It was a respectable, yet manageable -sized creature of about 80 pounds. We were anchored near where some flats gave way to deep channel. It was a perfect spot for that in-water photo…
As I grabbed the rod with the fish, Mark reeled in the other two and snatched up the anchor by himself. By the time were ready to give chase, the fish had 150 yards of line out.
I headed to the bow to reel as Mark drove on the fish. After some more jumping and running, we had the fish settled and near the boat with the leader to the rod tip.
An Unwelcome Photo Bomber
As we pondered our next move, the fish went nuts. A big, brown shadow of more than 10-feet in length emerged from the cloudy water.
It was a bull shark… a really big and hungry one. It was the color and damned near the size of a hippopotamus.
Mark ran to where the fish was, throwing the motor into reverse and revving the hell out of it. He was trying to scare the shark away. When you are that big and mean, you are not scared of boats.
Next thing you know, my line broke. The shark had swam through it and busted it.
The fish came up jumping 25 feet from the boat… It was bleeding. The shark was on it.
Everything disappeared again until the giant brown shark surfaced, this time with his whole top of his body out of the water. It’s head and tail were in the air—higher than it’s back. It looked for a moment like a pose made by crocodiles.
The tarpon was no more. I was glad not have been trying to a take picture on the edge of the flats. While we were fishing in Islamorada, we might as well have been on safari some place…
Three Days in Islamorada
Lots of people makes lots of claims about places having the best fishing in the US. Islamorada has pretty good footing in this department.
In three days we caught: two tarpon up to 125 pounds (we jumped off three others), 25 redfish (we saw three times as many), two triple tail, one cero mackerel, one speckled trout, a dozen and a half snook, two goliath grouper, more mangrove snapper than I can recall, two blackfin tuna, a kingfish, and a queen trigger fish.
If you want to go fishing in Islamorada call Captain Mark Cockerham… you won’t be disappointed.