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Friday, December 25, 2009
Islamorada - The easy way

By George Poveromo
ESPNOutdoors.com

George Poveromo, who resides in Parkland, Fla., is a nationally-recognized sportfishing authority who serves as Editor-At Large for Salt Water Sportsman magazine, and the producer and host of his own television series on ESPN2: George Poveromo's World of Saltwater Fishing.

Islamorada, in the Florida Keys, has a lot going for it. The fabulous fishing opportunities in the backcountry, on the flats and in the channels, near the bridges, along the patch- and offshore- reefs, and, of course, within the Gulf Stream, make it a hot destination among saltwater anglers. However, I've often found Islamorada to be troublesome; Given all these opportunities, how do you decide what to go after? But it's a good dilemma. Trust me!

Islamorada - The easy way
Cobia are just one of the surprises one may encounter on the Islamorada reefs.

I've spent many moons fishing throughout the Florida Keys. My father, a retired dentist and avid angler, loved bottom fishing off the Marquesas Islands — some 28-miles west of Key West, and I've done countless trips with him here over the decades. He also had a weekend home in Key Largo, where — again — we spent many years fishing the local waters. Given how often we visited the Keys, there aren't many places here I have not fished.

Cruise control
On my latest trip to Islamorada, I decided to take things easy. Instead of my usual hard-core fishing, I opted to spend quality time with my 12 year old daughter, Megan. I thoroughly enjoy taking Megan on my boat, and showing her my world. What's more, I field quite a few E-mails and questions on where to take family fishing vacations, where kids can easily catch fish and avoid boredom. Islamorada is an ideal venue for this. So we packed up the family, hitched up my Mako 284, MARC VI, and trailered to Islamorada.

I kept my boat at Bud 'n Mary's Marina, which was a short drive from the Pines and Palms Resort, where we stayed. Since Megan and I did a show together from Hawk's Cay Resort a year back, where I put her on her first dolphin, we decided that this time we would fish the reefs.

The local reefs here thrive with fish, and are arguably the most dependable spots for fast action - which is important if you want to keep the rods bending, and a child's full interest. We located a "lively" section of reef, lowered the anchor, and dispatched a 25-pound block of Captain Mark's Pure Sardine Chum. Our goal was to freeline silversides, thin ballyhoo strips, and even pieces of chum back into the slick, to tempt the yellowtails. We'd also freeline a live pilchard in the slick, for King and Spanish mackerel, and drop one to the bottom, for a big snapper or grouper. With our bases covered, Megan and I awaited the arrival of our first player. That didn't take long.

The first rod to go off was the bottom bait, a live pilchard tethered onto a 2/0, in-line circle hook, which, in turn, was tied to several feet of 30-pound test Sufix Fluorocarbon leader. A small egg sinker rested on top of the hook, a terminal set up known as a "knocker rig". Megan took the rod and immediately began to struggle with the fish at the other end. The fish kept trying to stay near bottom, leading me to believe it was something other than a yellowtail; Perhaps a grouper, or mutton snapper? After a spirited fight, Megan played up a beautiful mangrove snapper. I immediately slipped the net under the fat fish, and the celebration began. What a quality catch!

And the hits keep right on coming
The Islamorada reefs are like that. Set-up on a good spot, get the chum going — and the fish will come. And come they did for Megan and me. Her next fish was a yellowtail snapper, followed by a big blue runner and another yellowtail. The mackerel showed, and we caught them too. Ditto with a couple big barracuda! Then, her bottom rod goes off — again. This time, instead of fighting near the bottom, like another big mangrove snapper, this fish took off down the reef line, and eventually up toward the surface. I initially thought a grouper had eaten the snapper she hooked, but changed my mind when I saw the fishing line coming up through the water column. At last, the fish broke the surface, and it was a cobia!

Cobia are prized catches. In addition to providing a strong and stubborn fight, they are delicious to eat. I thought about bringing this fish home for dinner, as Megan struggled to play it alongside the boat. She did a fabulous job leading her cobia right into my landing net. She caught her first cobia! And it was of legal size. However, keeping to her commitment to release all the fish we caught that day, and then going out for dinner that evening, this cobia was set free.

Tackle talk
Given that Megan is 12-years old, I had to make sure she was comfortable with her tackle. We fished Penn AF 4000 Series spinning reels. Each reel was filled with 20-pound test Sufix Performance Braid, and paired with Penn's new Torque Jigging Rods — model TJ2050S70. These are 7' foot composite rods rated for 20 to 50-pound test lines. Given how little these outfits weigh, and their size, Megan was able to easily cast, hold, and fight fish with them throughout the day.

Terminal gear consisted primarily of VMC in-line circle hooks ranging in sizes from 1/0 to 5/0, and Sufix Fluorocarbon leaders from 15-pound to 30-pound test. Other than that, I used 12-inches of 32-pound test single strand wire for a leader on one outfit. This was the outfit from which I freelined a live pilchard into the chum slick, for mackerel; It paid off too, as I caught a 20-pound class kingfish on it! As mentioned earlier, our baits included live pilchards, ballyhoo strips, and silversides, and we "woke up" the fish by chumming with Captain Mark's Pure Sardine Chum. That is basically all it takes to catch fish on the Islamorada reefs.

Land locked
On the flip side of the coin, Islamorada has many shore-side activities to keep family members happy. Places of interest include the Dive Museum, Theater of the Sea, Robbie's (where you can feed hundreds of tarpon), and the Keys To Life Art Studio - where noted marine artist Pasta Pantaleo displays his works. And when it comes to restaurants, Islamorada has some of the best in the state; We dined at Ziggie and Mad Dog's.

There's no question that Islamorada is a premier destination for both serious anglers and those looking to enjoy the waters with family and friends at a more relaxed pace. Megan and I thoroughly enjoyed our stay, and I got a big charge from sitting back and watching her catch fish. I guess you can say that I had the best seat in the house!

For more on "George Poveromo's World of Saltwater Fishing," visit www.georgepoveromo.com.