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Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Island Nation

By Mike Holliday
Special to ESPNOutdoors.com

ISLAMORADA, Fla. — Who doesn't love the Florida Keys? With their crystalline green inshore waters and world class gamefish, they're the place where legends are made — and often made up. It's my children's favorite place to go that doesn't have a man dressed up as a mouse.

The Florida Keys are Bahamas Lite — a series of outer islands, only with easy accessibility due to connectivity with the U.S. continent and a consistent supply of water and electricity. They also have the world's highest per capita rate for men over 50 sporting pony tails.

If life imitates art, the Keys certainly have more than their share of artists, most of which are adapt at random acts of kindness and a total lack of effort to conform to the rules of mainstream society.

At one time the residents made a strong push to secede from the United States and form their own Island Nation. Those who have spent a lot of time there will tell you they already are their own Alien Nation.

Along with the circus atmosphere that promotes such socially conscious activities as Bar Wars, Bar Fest, Bartoberfest and the Bartender's Olympics, the Florida Keys also offers an annual line-up of fishing tournaments that surpasses any five northeastern states in number of events and angler success rates.

The Florida Keys can be broken down into three areas: the Upper Keys; the Middle Keys; and the Lower Keys and Key West. The Upper Keys include the Village of Islamorada, which is ambiguously defined as the stretch of several islands from Plantation Key to Long Key, and everywhere east and west within range of a jet ski.

Like the rest of the Keys, Islamorada lives within its own rules. It's a place where there's no inappropriate time of day to partake in adult beverages, and you're not only expected to buy your fishing guide lunch, but he picks the location and calls ahead with the order.

Islamorada is also home of some of the world's largest and most educated bonefish. There's supposedly more than 400 fishing guides in Islamorada, and after being caught and released several times over their life span the fish learn to equate the sound of a push pole crunching coral with a case of soremouth. This is the ultimate location to test your fly fishing knowledge and skills and to come to the realization that you're pathetic. No other location in the world has produced the fly fishing epiphanies that come with being 20 feet short or five feet behind a moving school of fish.

But bonefish aren't the only game in town. The waters off Islamorada will see more tarpon in May than the average inlet on either coast of Florida (including legendary Boca Grande) will see during the course of the entire year, and Florida Bay is home to the state's largest collection of blind redfish and tiny trout.

Like snowbirds, the southeast Florida baitfish population moves south in winter, so that huge concentrations of bait hug the Islamorada reefs where the wintering sailfish population spend their spring training. The consensus among the local charter captains is that the average sailfish will swing at and miss a pilchard on a kite only about 50 percent of the time, which is a pretty good batting average in any league.

Marathon is a conglomeration of islands from Duck Key to Vaca Key in the Middle Keys, and it's known for producing Florida's greatest single take of juvenile dolphin. It's a known fact that if a dolphin can run the gauntlet of boats fishing out of Marathon, then it has an 85 percent chance of surviving to be five pounds.

Marathon is also home to one of the largest bridges and smallest deer in the nation, both of which are perils to motorcyclists. Once known as the Ancient Mobile Home Burial Ground, Marathon is now vying for honors as the state's most expensive real estate for homeowners who insist their dogs wear a bandana.

Like the Upper Keys, Marathon also has spectacular bonefish and tarpon fishing, and there are plenty of guides willing to show an uneducated angler how to catch both species around the areas bridges. For the angling perfectionists, there are also guides who will find those same species on the flats.

Big Pine Key represents the northern range of the Lower Keys, and the first consistent year-round permit fishing from a fixed structure. Darwin would be proud of the fact that a small snapper hooked on a piece of shrimp can be eaten by a giant tarpon or great barracuda which can then be eaten by a hammerhead, all of which can take place while sitting in a lawn chair.

Although Key West gets listed as sort of an afterthought of the Lower Keys, I believe it's by request. When the residents found out they couldn't secede from the Union, they decided to shun notoriety and be listed as part of the most obscure island group in the area.

Islamorada and Marathon were already celebrated tourist destinations, so they figured anywhere that holds the Underwater Music Festival was in line with their general train of thought.

To say Key West is an anomaly is an understatement. It's a town where you can chase the worst fast food meal of your life with the best coffee on the planet. On the same day I saw a man in Spandex shorts and matching red Flamenco dancer hat with fuzzy dingle-balls jogging down the road, I watched a blue marlin steal a giant teaser off the transom on Wood's Wall. And the reef fishing isn't bad either. The life expectancy of a live pilchard on a Key West reef is under two minutes, and anything under 100 pounds can at one time or another be considered & bait. I once hooked an eight-pound bonito that an amberjack pinned to the side of the boat like a teenage car thief on the Fox Network reality show Cops.

From the Upper Keys to the Lower Keys and their antithesis Key West, the fishing opportunities are among the finest on the planet. The only downside to the Florida Keys is that so many tourists and fishermen travel to the area that it's a sure bet you're going to get sick. At least it always seem that way to me because I can't remember a visit where I didn't catch the rum flu.