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posted: 5/3/2012 4:01 PM

Learning to relax in the Keys

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  • A fishing guide identifies a casting target for his customer while fishing on the flats off Islamorada, Fla., in the Florida Keys. The flats are home to bonefish and tarpon.

    A fishing guide identifies a casting target for his customer while fishing on the flats off Islamorada, Fla., in the Florida Keys. The flats are home to bonefish and tarpon.
    Courtesy Florida Keys News Bureau/2004 file

  • Video: Bonefishing video


KEY WEST, Fla. -- I am happy to report that the city where I spent many youthful days is alive and well and continues to thrive with tourist dollars.

It's also a place where sun-baked fishing guides, the ones who pole their customers across the wide expanses of sand flats and backcountry super-spots, appear to the visitor as human prunes.

For these hardworking, experienced folk, the harsh effects of their daily blast of sun has taken the fun and glory from those calling themselves flats guides.

It's not like that for all the pros, but some have moved to less harsh climates for jobs that will not expose them to skin-ripping conditions and customers who expect miracles to come from every inch of shallow sand.

I just returned from seven days in what is often referred to as our southernmost domestic paradise. The bad news was I didn't once step into those crystal clear shallows to eyeball fish. I didn't even assemble my 8-weight fly rod to battle bonefish.

And the reasoning is simple to explain.

My wife and I were there in Happy Town to recuperate, recharge, regain, or whatever you'd want to call it. We were glad to be in the warmth, allowing our systems to get away from the up-and-down mercurial dance our local thermometers were doing.

The strong Keys winds didn't do any favors for me. My first choice is to either wade the long flats areas or silently glide over them in a shallow-draft skiff, looking for feeding bonefish or permit. Instead of a glassy-like surface allowing me to sight fish for the bones, every day presented itself with surface chop that took away visibility. That left me with the chore of "blind casting," not one of my favorite things to do.

I have become enamored with bonefishing. I believe it's more challenging than hunting for muskies. And if you've never done the bonefish experience, allow me to briefly explain what happens when casting to a target fish.

I've done this on the "cheap," as well as with hired guides to chauffeur me around flats areas I wouldn't normally access.

A good, experienced guide has eyes like an eagle, and can spot tailing fish -- that is, a bonefish with its snout on the bottom and its tail breaking the water's surface -- 100 feet away. This same guide will tell you where to cast and what speed you're supposed to use in your stripping retrieve. If you've located and caught fish, your guide is a hero.

Some anglers use spinning gear with a live shrimp or crab on a hook. My preference is a fly rod and a shrimp or crab imitation fly.

Bonefish generally stick their noses into the sand looking for food. The trick is to cast in front of the fish and wait for it to turn toward the offering. In clear water you can actually see the "take," and that's when the excitement happens.

It's common to hook even a small bone and have it take off for the Bahamas. It's rare if an angler can apply enough pressure to stop a fast-moving bone. A small fish is able to strip fly line off the real while you stand in the water with your mouth hanging open. And if you manage to hook a bigger fish, the battle could last a long time.

I had none of that this trip, except for the dreams of past bonefish encounters gone by. And it really didn't matter. This trip was supposed to be a stress-reliever for both my wife and myself, and it was.

I booked a room at the beautiful Parrot Key Hotel on a canal connecting to the Gulf side. The Keys are a series of islands connected by bridges and bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west.

As for travel suggestions, make sure you connect with the actual hotel, car rental agency, or airline. Use their direct phone numbers avoid any booking service, which I will never use again. When I needed to talk with a person and not a machine, I was unable to do so through two booking services.

•Contact Mike Jackson at, and catch his radio show 6-7 a.m. Sundays on WSBC 1240-AM and live-streamed at

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