Captain Mark Cockerham is a hell of an interesting guy. He would never tell you this himself, but there are few better ambassadors for the fishing in the Florida Keys.
Mark, in fact, is so unassuming that you’d likely need someone else to tell you that he holds multiple line class records for bonefish and permit that he set in the Florida Keys. Some of the records that he holds himself or that he has guided others to are likely never to be broken.
He may well be the most accomplished light tackle flats angler in the world.
When you talk to him, you never know what you’ll hear. But for the fact that Mark’s home is air conditioned and his flats boat is composed of Kevlar fiber, his fishing exploits would seem more at home in the pages of a Hemingway story than to be provided in response to the casual question, “Have you been fishing lately?”
Mark talks about seeing herds of 100 permit swimming across the flats, the time that a buddy of his dispatched a marauding, free swimming bull shark by spearing it with the pole of his flats boat (the shark was menacingly circling a jet skier) or having his finger clamped down on by a giant green moray eel with all with the same characteristic, “nothing crazy, the same thing happened three times last week” intonation.
Were any of these occurrences to take place before a person of normal fishing experience, they would each be the story of a lifetime.
The Story Before the Story: the Fishing in The Florida Keys
Truth be told, I started out trying to write the story of the day this spring when Mark led anglers to catch more than 450 redfish in a day… in a tournament. When I called to get the details on that day, we somehow started talking about light tackle fishing for bonefish and permit.
Now, I have two stories to write.
Capt. Mark Cockerham’s Record Collection
Mark’s son Alan—now an adult—still holds the male junior bonefish record. It weighed upwards of 14 pounds. Cockerham, himself the angler, holds the two pound, four pound and six pound line class records for bonefish.
He also holds the two pound record for permit. These are still on the books.
He guided a client to a then 12-pound tippet world record bonefish on fly tackle. Your chances of you ever meeting another person who has guided someone to catch a 15 pound bonefish on the fly are not particularly good.
These fish are not just any fish. And these records are not just any records. They are not jack crevalle or houndfish or other type of fish that for whatever reason never acquired prestige among the angling community.
Far to the contrary, these are the Cadillacs of the inshore world. The kings of the flats. The records are not those of some hill billy fishing club somewhere, but those listed by the International Gamefish Association— the standard bearer of records and fishing sportsmanship generally.
There are people who would sell their children for half the chance to sniff these records. The lineage of these creatures—and their relative nobility in the haunts of angling history—trace back to the days of Zane Grey himself.
For a certain classification of angler, light tackle records for bonefish and permit hold the same esteem as all tackle records for largemouth bass and blue marlin. To give you some perspective, I had known Mark for a number of years and had spent six or seven full days fishing with him before I accidentally became aware of the extent of his record collection.
The Importance of People and Place
I once watched a 60 Minutes showcase on author Steven King. The introduction to his segment claimed that in order for a writer to tell a story, he or she must understand a place and its people.
There seems to be a corollary as it relates to a reader’s ability to relate to something. To grasp a story—whether it be about a man or something that relates to fishing, you must first understand a thing or two about where the action takes place. In this case, that location is the Florida Keys and the waters that surround them.
The Keys are a wonderful place. They produce an intensely fascinating breed of people. Mark Cockerham knows the waters as well as anyone could and personifies the “nothing to see here” aspect of their regional persona directly.
There is context to provide before getting into the stories. It would represent a travesty to not fully contextualize a story about a world record 27 pound permit that Mark caught on two pound line.
Were the catch itself and the story of its three hour battle not enough, Cockerham even released the fish alive after weighing for the record. Mark placed the brute in a purpose-built tank he made specifically to keep a 30 pound permit alive long enough for him to weigh it before releasing it alive.
Like I said, I’ve got three stories to write.
Captain Mark Cockerham grew up in a place that in many ways no longer exists. His parents and grandparents relocated to the Florida Keys in the late 1950s.
In some ways Cockerham is like Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull. What does a charter captain in the Florida Keys have in common with a couple Native American War Chiefs?
While the physical lands upon which each grew up (that being the Florida Keys of the 1960s or the Great Plains of the 1800s) still exist—you can still visit the same GPS coordinates, the characteristics that defined the space and time have since experienced fundamental change.
Mark’s mother and father were partners in the original Bud N’ Mary’s Marina development. Working with a man by the name of Jack Kurtz, Cockerham’s parents, Max and Donna, owned the Mercury dealership and service department and Sea Craft and Anna Capris boat dealerships that were housed in the barn at Bud N’ Mary’s.
In the early 1970s, the Cockerhams built Max’s Marine in Islamorada (where the Square Grouper now sits). They sold it in 2006.
A Fishing Wonderland
Mark grew up fishing in Islamorada and its back country. He knows Flamingo—the area where the Everglades spill out in the Gulf of Mexico in Florida’s southwest corner—as well as you might know the bars, restaurants and alley ways in the town where you grew up.
Pulling onto the beaches near Cape Sable—a place where you might jump onto a sawfish as you step off the boat and have to watch out for crocodiles if you turn the dogs loose on the beach, Cockerham can tell you about every landmark (be them stumps, points or oyster bars).
There sits a set of pilings that used to be a dock that juts out into the brownish, murky waters. With nothing around on the landward side, and even less out into the water, I thought to myself, “That’s a strange place for a dock.”
Mark pointed to it, “As kids we used to camp here. We’d set up shark rods on the pier. We put our reels on clickers and would have to hide in the tents because the mosquitos were so bad. Sometimes we’d hook fish that we couldn’t stop.”
The Back Country
Flamingo is a fishing wonderland. It is as remote and rugged a place as you can find in the United States. In fact, if you dropped someone there blindfolded and made them guess where in the world they might be, Brazil would be a perfectly reasonable response.
There are places here called “Hell’s Bay,” Whitewater Bay,” and “Little Shark River.”
Yes, Hell’s Bay was central to the inspiration to naming the iconic brand of flats boat. Yes, Whitewater Bay stacks up something awful on a north wind.
And yes, there are so many little sharks around Little Shark River that the damned things eat just about any fish that fights hard enough to pull drag.
The snook fishing is incredible here. The spring tarpon season draws people from around the world. There are piles of redfish here too.
A Fishing Story Factory
The last time I fished with Mark we hooked a redfish on a Gulp bait attached to a jig head. Once the fish started pulling drag we saw all of his buddies.
There was a school of 75 or 100 redfish, all just cruising across the flats.
When the fish I hooked came up top and shook his head, a group of seven or eight others tried to snatch the jig out of his mouth. This type of thing doesn’t happen in other places… and if it does, the fish that horde themselves up are hardhead catfish or other manner of undesirable.
You can “plan” to see sawfish here. They look like a cross between sharks, stingrays and swordfish. Brown and flat bodied, sawfish have two prominent dorsal fins and a long bill exuding from their business end.
The bills have ivory teeth jutting out to either side. They use this toothed weapon to whack things. In most other places in the world they are endangered. There are as many sawfish here as there are feral cats behind the dumpster at Applebee’s.
You can reliably find tripletail on the flats here. There are speckled trout, Spanish mackerel, more bull sharks and lemons sharks than you can imagine.
Lots of jack crevalle, mangrove snapper, goliath grouper, bonnet head sharks, and roving mobs of tarpon.
There are also manatees, osprey, roseate spoonbills, pelicans, cormorants, bald eagles, American crocodiles, sea turtles… even pythons. The place is home to all kinds of incredible wildlife.
If drive into the park and launch your boat, there are tarps provided to cover your truck (buzzard shit is caustic enough to eat through paint). It is a wild place.
Flamingo sits about an hour’s boat ride from Islamorada. On the way, as you cross Florida Bay, there are all manner of mangrove island. It all sits within about an hour and a half of metropolitan Miami.
If you like fishing stories, here are some others...
Context for A Fishing Story
Fishing stories, like the coastlines and river banks they sometimes describe, are known to meander. What started out to be the story about a day when a man caught 450 redfish turned into a story about the man and the place where it happened.
Next up is the day and the redfish. I promise… unless it turns into the story of the giant world record permit on two pound.
To fish with Captain Mark Cockerham, give him a call: 305.393.0920 or visit, www.KeyHopperCharters.com