Retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Justin Lansford was struggling to stay 20 feet deep as he tried to help his teenaged dive buddy Diana plant staghorn coral fragments on the ocean floor. It was only Lansford’s …
The Bite’s On In the Keys
Poling a Hell’s Bay skiff along the edge of the mangroves in Florida Bay’s Garfield Bight, Captain Benny Blanco was delighted with the large numbers of baby tarpon roiling the shallow waters. Everywhere Blanco and fishing buddy Rainer Schael looked, there appeared the arc of a dorsal fin, the slap of a tail, or a bubbly boil as the fish scarfed down tiny shrimp and minnows.
Blanco cast a furry, harvest-hued, baitfish-patterned fly toward one of the boils at a creek mouth and was rewarded with a CRASSSH! as a ten-pound tarpon engulfed it and sprang five feet into the air. The feisty silver king leapt and darted– a good match for the 8-weight rod–but finally Blanco brought it up to the side of the boat to be photographed and released.
“The fishing has been great,” Blanco said happily as he put the fish back into the water. “We are catching the crap out of the tarpon every day. And we’ve had three days in a row where we got double-digit redfish and a few snook.”
One month after Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Lower Keys and Gulf Coast as a destructive Category 4 windbag/flood drencher, the Everglades and its rich inshore fishery seem to have emerged just fine. The land- and waterscape – got rearranged; Irma’s winds and waves broke off hunks of mangrove islands which drifted to create new islets. There are shoals in places where there weren’t any, and mats of dead sea grass popped up all over the bay.
But now, says Blanco, the Everglades’ back bays– a series of troughs six inches to a foot deep– which were filled with silt and debris by Hurricane Wilma 12 years ago have been flushed with fresh water. And that’s what’s sending all those baby tarpon into Garfield, Snake Bight, and other areas.
“We are seeing water flow in areas we haven’t seen it for 12 years,” Blanco said. “I’m seeing a fishery I haven’t seen since before Wilma. It’ll only mean cleaner water, more bait and that translates into better fishing.”
Tennis court-sized mats of dead sea grass that appeared along shorelines and in open water right after Irma’s passage, Blanco said, have mostly been sucked out of the bay into the Gulf by the tide. He said he doesn’t detect a net loss of grass on flats where it normally grows.
“It was a cleanse, in my opinion,” the veteran South Florida back country guide said. “One we’ve needed for a while. Once this fresh water moves out of here, it’s gonna be on. It’ll get back to its salty, clear state and we’ll be able to [sight-fish] the snook and redfish.”
Florida Bay has been plagued off and on by hyper-salinity, droughts, sea grass die-offs and algae blooms since the late 1980s– the result of decades of flood control that diverted natural fresh water flows east and west to tide instead of south into the ‘Glades.
A 2015 sea grass die-off took out 60 square miles of habitat for fish and their prey, followed by algae blooms. Fortunately, those blooms weren’t as widespread as in the 1990s.
Scientists from local universities, as well as Everglades National Park, and the Everglades Foundation are monitoring the bay carefully post-Irma, hoping mounds of dead sea grass don’t emerge to overwhelm its brackish waters. A cool winter would be a big help. Researchers and fishing guides seem to be cautiously optimistic.
Meanwhile, the national park is open for fishing and Keys guides who ply those waters are eager to escort clients there. Captain Paul Tejera has organized the Florida Keys Hurricane Cup Fishing Tournament for Oct. 28– a Keys-wide catch-and-release team contest with all proceeds benefitting the Guides Trust, an organization that donates money to fishing guides in need.
Entry fee is $500; eligible species are bonefish, tarpon, permit, snook, and redfish using spin or fly tackle. For more information, call Tejera at 305-393-2156.
To book a trip with Captain Benny Blanco, call 305-431-9915.