Warren Bridges visits the Florida Keys and keeps his eyes on the prize – bonefish
By Warren Bridges
“So while it was freezing here in Frisco, you were goofing off in the Florida Keys with Jimmy Buffet and Ernest Hemingway?” the old man asked in that accusatory way – like I had committed some grave crime.
“Well,” I started, “you know Ernest is no longer with us.”
The old man didn’t break stride. “No matter. He was a horrible painter anyway.”
Good readers, the old man is a very old man. And while he is known for great pronouncements, as you will learn, I have acquired the important knowledge that any efforts to correct — or even clarify these great droplets of wisdom — are not just unheeded. They are, in fact, never heard.
“Yes,” I said. “A horrible painter indeed.”
As a newcomer to both paid vacations and the Florida Keys, I was eager to escape the February chill in Colorado for the warm waters of Islamorada, Marathon, and yes, Key West. What would a trip to the Keys be without a jaunt into the land of Parrotheads, conchs and the former endpoint of Henry Flagler’s great rail line from Miami to Key West?
I mean, in 1982, the mayor of Key West — feeling like the U.S. government was treating the Keys like a foreign country — first seceded from, then declared war on the United States, immediately surrendered, and demanded foreign aid. That was less than 30 years ago.
No wonder it is considered a unique and rambunctious place. You gotta love the rebels.
As for me, the shopping, eating, museums, train tours and scenery were all nice enough. The tour of Hemingway’s home was a treat, despite the lack of any of his original paintings on the wall. Still, visualizing Papa roaming the hallways, drink in hand, was a unique and special moment.
But I have to admit, peeking into his private study, knowing that this was the location where he created, felt like an intrusion of sorts. It didn’t stop me from leering and trying to absorb the karma. But if felt like a bit of intrusion all the same.
Any writer worth his salt, upon gazing at Hemingway’s writing den, would have to ask himself, “And what if future writers were to look upon my writing space someday? What would they try to absorb?” It was heady stuff. But in the Conch Republic, heady stuff evaporates quickly.
What wouldn’t evaporate in my head, though – and what was robbing my sleep and daydreams – were not seven-toed cats or margaritas.
I was dreaming of bonefish in the flats. I had a date with flats fishing in the backcountry. It was a first date, and I was eager to find out how she kissed.
As a novice to the weather in the area, I was rattled the evening before my trip by the heavy winds and rain. Like a teenager with a zit on his nose, I paced the floor – certain that all was lost, that my lust would have to wait.
Even in the morning, I fussed and stressed. The local radio stationed warned of “small craft advisory,” and I knew the end was near.
“I heard there was a small craft advisory,” I told the guide on the phone that morning. “Guess we’ll have to reschedule, right?”
“Dude,” he said. “You’re going to be in 8 inches of water. We can handle it.”
His words sang in my head. He might as well have said, “Dude, she loves to kiss.”
I think we drove to the marina, although we could have skipped there. I don’t remember.
I do remember that the sun had boldly begun its daily, rollover act, and as it peered through light cloud cover, I sensed a good day was at hand. Hell, I was going bonefishing. It was a great day.
A firm breeze pushed in from the Atlantic, and my guide and I jetted on his skiff into the backcountry of the Keys. I’m sure I was feeling giddy, but I’m equally sure I tried to hide it.
Jeff was well-trained in the marketing and public relations of bonefishing.
“You know,” he said, first thing, “bonefish are damned hard to catch. I’ve known guys who’ve tried their whole life to catch one. Most are still trying.”
“That’s OK,” I told him, trying on my, It’s the fishing, not the catching spiel. “I just love being out on the water. It doesn’t matter whether I catch fish or not.”
“Good,” he said, without missing a beat. “You’ll love bonefishing then.”
Anchored off the coast about 200 yards, we began the search, casting inshore, with the breeze.
And while the surroundings, tackle and weather were new to me, I was very familiar with the feel of the bump … that tat-tat-bump that travels from the rod tip to the reel. Anyone who has felt it knows the feeling: Instantly, your eyes focus just past the tip of the rod, your fingers lighten up on the line near the reel. The senses are all jumpy.
And then, it’s time. If there is a feeling that equals the holding of a rod while a powerful fish unwinds line and bends it in your hands, it has eluded me so far. I’d like to think that first kiss would be the same feeling, but, at least for me, not even close.
As for our trip, it was a good day on the water — three sharks, 8 jacks, a catfish, a ray … and yes, bonefish.
Heading back to the marina, Jeff kept shaking his head.
“Man,” he said, “six bonefish in four hours. Guys will never believe you if you tell them.”
“What if I tell them it was the truth, that I have pictures?” I asked.
“Won’t matter,” he replied. “Proof won’t convince those who are still trying.”
We were quiet on the rest of the trip back, both of us thinking about proof, the single catfish, the bonefish, how much to tip.
And at the dock, as we departed, Jeff said one more thing.
“You said you were a writer?” he asked.
“I did,” I said.
“So what are you going to call the article about this trip?”
“I was thinking about that,” I said. “I think I’ll call it, Bonefish: Like Fish in a Barrel.”
“Oh God,” he said, shaking his head and walking away. “Oh God.”
Warren Bridges has been writing his outdoor journal, Back Roads, for more than 20 years. It has appeared in numerous publications throughout the West, including Colorado, Oregon, Montana and Idaho. It seems clear that Warren’s uncanny knack for getting lost (he calls it exploring) holds no small degree of delight among his readers — especially the fellow across the way. You will meet him soon enough.
Back Roads is, as advertised, a journal of outdoor adventures. Many are off the beaten path, off the pavement, off the grid. And, as the old man would gleefully chime in … off his rocker. His story about sharks in the Payette River in Idaho is one shining example. And when he shot holes in the bottom of his best friend’s rowboat … and when he wondered, regrettably aloud, if Clif Bars would stave off a pack of wolves.
So whether he’s lost in the Silverthorne Outlet Stores with his fiance, chasing trout along Hole #4 at the Lakeside Golf Club in Boise or harassing old men for bait advice on a forgotten pier in Port San Luis, it’s always an adventure, on the Back Roads. Thanks for coming along.