Last month I drove down to my old stomping grounds of Key West for a long weekend fishing trip. I hadn’t been back there in almost a year and it was great to catch up with some of my guide buddies and see a few of the changes on the island that I called home for over a decade.
Change was always the one thing that seemed constant in Keys when I lived there. This string of islands at the end of US-1 are still some of the most valuable pieces of real estate in all of America, despite the fact that the bubble popped almost as loudly down there as it did up here in Lee County. The small motels and quiet little marinas up and down the Keys were scooped up overnight and turned into high dollar condo developments, then flipped again and again until the asking prices were approaching pure stupidity. By 2005 the median home price on Key West hit $860,000 and all that would get you was a small cottage several blocks off Duval Street.
Another thing that changed was the tourists. When I rolled into town in the early 90’s Key West still attracted a lot of serious anglers as well as an interesting mix of bikers, spring breakers, and all sorts of literary types hoping to commune with Hemmingway’s ghost down at Sloppy Joe’s. I loved that part of Key West but it was already on life support back then and wouldn’t last much longer.
The problem started down at Mallory Square where the crumbling docks, longtime home to shrimpers and old Navy subs, had been reinforced at tremendous taxpayer expense to welcome the first mega-cruise ships to the island. Bigger than Nimitz Class aircraft carriers, these gaudy monsters disgorged an endless flow of thrill seekers to Duval Street in search of $10 T-shirts, lukewarm Bud drafts, and tone-deaf covers of “Margaritaville.” It was a really depressing sight.
Then one day the biggest cruise ship of all showed up with America’s favorite cartoon mouse painted on its bow. That’s when I knew Key West had completed its transformation from an interesting island to call home and into a theme park. I packed my bags a short time later and I still hate that cartoon mouse to this day.
Despite all my irritations with Key West, I still have a strong affection for the island because it’s the birthplace of saltwater fly fishing. Legendary anglers such as Zane Grey, Stu Apte, Lefty Kreh and Ted Williams spent countless hours poling the flats from Florida Bay to the Marquesas where they conquered the species that many thought were too difficult for the fly rod. At the same time they invented the knots, created the flies, and perfected the tackle that we all take for granted today.
Those men actually invented a new sport and no, I don’t include Ernest Hemmingway in that group. He was a pure deep sea fisherman who trolled bonefish as marlin baits and used dead tarpon to chum up sharks so he could blast them with his Thompson submachine gun while gulping Chivas Regal. Hemmingway was no doubt a great angler but one that the FWC would probably frown upon these days.
Once you’re away from Duval Street and back out on the flats that the fishing history of Key West doesn’t seem so distant. You can ignore the cruise ships, parasail boats, and jet skis tearing up the harbor and focus on the abundant sea life that’s right in front of you in the shallows. Great fishing still happens down there just like it did for the pioneers from half a century ago. That’s what keeps me returning year after year.
I had my back to the island while my buddy Capt. Mike Bartlett poled his Beavertail skiff across a two foot deep flat in search of cruising bonefish. It was a rare flat calm day for Key West, only about 82 degrees and much cooler than Pine Island that same morning last month. We were done with the tough species, the tarpon and permit, which we’d landed earlier that morning. Now we needed a simple bonefish to complete the Slam. I didn’t even think of the Duval Street circus just a few miles away from me.
The water is crystal clear down there and hides nothing, the exact opposite of the coffee colored tide that flows through Matlacha Pass. There is no blind casting when you’re bonefishing on the Key West flats, another nice change from the way we do things up here. While Mike pushed us across a half mile of white sand near a place called the Bay Keys I watched a constant parade of stingrays and small bonnet sharks cruise under the bow. Thick clouds of glass minnows were everywhere. There was just enough of a breeze that I wasn’t even sweating. Of course my bonefish never showed, and after five hours on the water it was obvious that my Slam would have to wait. Fish or no fish, any day on the water down there is pretty close to perfect and as we raced back to the marina I wondered why I ever left this place.
But it’s when I step off the boat that I get homesick for Pine Island. For all its beauty, Key West is still too much of a zoo and it honestly seems the folks in charge want it that way. In fact, many of the artists and writers that used to call the island home have migrated up here to Southwest Florida. There’s currently more charm and culture right past the Matlacha drawbridge than on all of Duval Street. And the only time you have to step over an unconscious drunk is maybe once a month at Bert’s.
It’s a huge relief to see that Matlacha and Pine Island are firmly embracing and preserving their past while Key West stumbles around trying to find its future. I’ll always have a soft spot for the Keys but our home islands here in Lee County have got it right and really do hold the title of “The Last Piece of Old Florida.”
And we should all be thankful that the waters around here are way too shallow for cruise ships.