by Lee Foster
Bonefish Bob’s practiced fingers wrapped another strand of green thread around a hook shank destined to become one of the 4,000 fishing flies he tied each year. That day Bonefish Bob’s mission was to tie a few Clouser Minnow flies, his favorite lure for the bonefish, which abound in the Florida Keys, a string of coral islands extending southwest off the tip of Florida.
“The bonefish is the most difficult fish on the planet to catch,” said Bonefish Bob, as he sat in an easy chair at his shop in the town of Islamorada, his fly-tying apparatus in front of him. “It’s really more like hunting than fishing. You spot the bonefish, then present the lure to it. You don’t eat this fish, of course. It’s all bones. Bonefishing is catch-and-release, pure sport.”
Bonefish Bob’s thick white beard made one suspect he might be Santa Claus residing in Florida during the off-season. His shop personified tranquility, with its heirloom 80-year-old bamboo fly rods and turn-of-the-century Abercrombie & Fitch leather fly rod cases. If any anxiety intruded into the world of Bonefish Bob, it was his caring about the overall health of the ecosystem of the bonefish, the Florida Keys.
“We’ve got to keep these clean waters healthy,” said Bonefish Bob, who also went by the name Bob Berger. “We’ve got a wonderful resource here, but we need to keep it clean. That means managing the nutrient-rich farm runoff in Florida and handling the human sewage in the Keys. These are the greatest fishing waters in the world. You can catch 25 species on the Atlantic side of the Keys and another 25 species on the Gulf of Mexico side.”
Bonefish Bob completed tying his Clouser Minnow fly. The sun was sinking across the road from the shop. It was a good sunset, even by the Florida Keys’ demanding standards. Down the highway that links this island to the final island, Key West, the locals were probably applauding the sun setting, as is their custom. Another peaceful day had ended in Bonefish Bob’s town of Islamorada in the Florida Keys.
Since the year of that encounter, Bonefish Bob has gone to his reward beyond this Earth. Hopefully, the fishing waters are bounteous where he now resides.
Not every days is idyllic in Islamorada, which rests precariously on the edge of the sea, with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Down the road a quarter-mile is a monument to the victims of the great hurricane of 1935. At that time a 17-foot tidal wave swept over the town and killed 578 people, who were assembled with the hopes of escaping the Keys, using the railroad. The railroad preceded the highway as a link between the islands, but the hurricane tossed the rail cars wantonly into the ocean, most likely frightening the bonefish, which are said to be skittish.
Nature in the Florida Keys
One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the natural world of the Keys is to take a kayak trip with an informed naturalist, as I did with Mosquito Coast Outfitters in Key West.
The guide launched us from Geiger Key Marina, took us to the red mangrove forests, and served up the natural lore of the Keys. The guide’s own passion for the Keys included a scientific discipline in evaluating the ecosystem. Like many residents in the Keys, the guide believed more in education than regulation.
Among the wondrous observations he shared with us were some fascinating facts about the plants, such as the red mangrove, the first tree to colonize these islands and the last that will disappear if sea waters rise inexorably in the projected future. Another intriguing plant is the turtle grass that grows in the shallows. Standing in the total saltwater environment on a remote island, my guide pulled up a small root, call the pith, of a turtle grass. He broke open the pith and sucked out the water.
“The pith of the sea grass is 80 percent fresh water,” he said. “If you were dying of thirst out here, you could survive on sea grass.”
Over the years the red mangroves have been harvested to make charcoal and for furniture production. Today they are protected.
In evaluating the overall environmental risk to the Keys, my guide stressed a few salient issues.
“Casarina trees are a terribly invasive plant here,” he said. “They were planted as windbreaks and quickly took off, suppressing the native plants. We’re now involved in widespread eradication of them.”
Another of the delicate environmental problems here is the handling of human sewage. The rich nutrients in human wastes can seep through the porous soil, the “driftbank limestone formation” as the Keys are technically described. Nutrients overburden the natural system. Thrusting the human wastes into the soil with deep injection wells could present problems that, once apparent, would be impossible to eradicate because the nutrients would have permeated the ground.
Nitrogen-rich agricultural runoff from Florida further exacerbates a nutrient-overburdened environment and promotes excessive algal growth. Algal bloom reduces water clarity and instigates a chain of undesirable effects. The reduced freshwater outflows from Florida rivers also inhibit the natural renewal process in the Keys.
My guide took the long view of a geologist in seeing Man’s place in the Keys.
“The sea has risen and dropped about 400 feet in the various cooling and warming periods of the past,” he said. “We’re now clearly in a warming period. Our own contribution to ongoing global warming, the current trend, may be incidental. We know the seas have risen 10-12 inches in the last 200 years. Real estate in the Keys will probably be unusable in a couple of centuries because of the rising waters.”
My guide pointed out that the Poseidon satellite, put up in 1993, has been devoted to making the first accurate measurements of the rise of sea water.
A kayaker can see many of the birds of the Keys, such as pelicans, osprey, herons, egrets, and frigate birds. However, the best place to see birds up close is at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Islamorada. At this privately-funded facility, injured birds are treated and released or else kept on public display if they can’t be returned to the wilds. Here an observer can learn that the large white birds with black legs are egrets and those with yellow legs are great white herons. Other colorful residents include cormorants, with their sleek black bodies and emerald eyes set in orange cheeks, or roseate spoonbills, with their large shovel bills.
Much of the Keys is now protected as part of a Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, one of many such entities in the U.S. One area of the Keys, Key Largo, already had years of experience as a National Marine Sanctuary. That was before the 1990 law that vastly increased the Keys sanctuary area to 2,600 square nautical miles, protecting primarily the 128-mile-long coral reef. The question is how to preserve the biological diversity of the Keys, the only tropical coral islands in the contiguous U.S. The goal is to preserve the resource while maintaining the diverse economy, much of it dependent on the environment, whether the user be a curious tourist, boater, diver, fisherman, or treasure hunter. Each group of users has its impact. For example, accidental boat groundings on the reef and anchor gouging of the coral have been ameliorated by better education of new boaters as to where the reefs are and by permanent placement of mooring buoys on the reef, eliminating the need to anchor.
Regulators managing the Keys have found their task difficult because of the anti-government mood, the skepticism and suspicion about government bureaucracy, the lack of past experience about zoning on water (as opposed to land), and the local distaste with efforts to regulate a major Keys industry, treasure salvaging.
The Keys is also a complex human story with quizzical blends of often strict conservatives in the Upper Keys and proud liberals in the Lower Keys, where a sizable portion of the community is gay.
Man in the Keys
When the first Europeans arrived here, they found the unburied corpses of Arawak and Calusa Indians, the losers in local skirmishes, and named Key West “bone island.”
Over the centuries, the Keys’ most noted industry has been wreck salvaging, as ships ran aground on the reefs. The most celebrated wrecks, of course, were the Spanish treasure ships that regularly left Havana bound for Spain and occasionally were blown off course by hurricanes and destroyed on the coral reefs. For centuries, one of these ships, the Atocha, haunted the imagination of treasure hunters. After two decades of searching, in 1985, Mel Fisher of Key West discovered the Atocha and a sister ship, the Santa Margarita, which went onto the reef in a hurricane in 1622. Fisher wrestled an estimated 400 millions of dollars in gold and silver coins, crosses, jewelry, plates, and precious-metal bars from the wreck. Today a visitor can see much of this treasure at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Museum in Key West. The gift shop sells some of the treasures as jewelry and as collector items.
A visionary railroad builder, Henry Flagler, dreamed of running a railroad south from Miami to Key West, moving from island to island, mainly to take advantage of the Panama Canal trade that could be offloaded at this southernmost point in the U.S. Flagler finished his railroad in 1912. Stop at Pigeon Key, a former railroad worker headquarters island, to learn more of the rail story. When the great hurricane of 1935 wiped out the railroad, the state of Florida stepped in and bought the rail bed, putting in a two-lane highway to Key West by 1938. The road, called the Overseas Highway, was modernized in 1982 and boasts 43 bridges that leap from island to island, including one span seven miles long.
Ernest Hemingway settled in Key West in 1931 to fish and write. Some of his major works were written here, such as For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Hemingway house can be toured. Look for many descendants of the six-toed cats that flourished here in Hemingway’s era. The Hemingway Days Festival in July sponsors a Hemingway look-alike contest and a short story competition.
Harry Truman popularized the Keys by establishing his vacation Little White House here, spending a total of 175 days at Key West in 11 trips. Today a traveler can visit the Truman White House and see the poker table, open bar, pictures of his ship Williamsburg, the piano he played 20 minutes a day for relaxation, and his personal desk. The Truman story is touching, especially the pact between Harry and Bess Truman to write each other every night when they were separated. On one occasion Truman wrote his wife, “Tomorrow I return to the slavery of the White House. My only consolation is my sweetheart of 35 years.”
Other historic threads in the Key West story include the founding of Pan Am in a building now housing Kelly’s restaurant in Key West. Key West architecture is intriguing, especially the 1890s Bahamian houses built in the Bahamas, disassembled, and then rebuilt here. The houses typically have tin roofs to protect against both rot and fire. Several of the early houses are now restored and used as B&Bs. Cigar, sponge, and pineapple industries have flourished at various times in this area. Key West, closer to Havana than Miami, now keenly awaits the normalization of trade with Cuba.
In recent years, the Keys have survived mainly from tourism, with millions of visitors each year. Snorkelers, divers, and fishermen form the largest contingent. More than a million snorkelers and divers come to the Keys each year, making the Keys the most popular site in the world for diving. Relaxing with a drink in one of Key West’s 250 bars, probably within view of one of Duval Street’s 75 T-shirt shops, is another main activity on the island. The party of parties each year is Fantasy Fest, 10 days in October, a Keys mutation of Halloween.
Residents of the Keys like to cultivate the notion that they are living in The Conch Republic, almost a separate country from the U.S. They call themselves Conchs, naming the local high school football team The Conchs. The high school dance team is the Conchettes.
Amenities in the Keys
One of the delights of Key West is the nightly performance, just prior to sunset, on Mallory Square. Jugglers, fireblowers, high wire acts, escape artists, magicians, and a character with house cats trained as lions entertain visitors. This is innovative, wacko street theater at its best. The moment the sun slides beneath the horizon, some stop to applaud, paying homage again to the magnificence of nature as mainfested in another sun setting.
About three out of four visitors arrive by car from Florida. Air travelers fly into Key West from Miami, getting a good orientation to the layout of emerald waters and green islands, a necklace joined together by the Overseas Highway. Visitors who fly into Key West can rent a car one way, if they wish, and leave it at the Miami airport.
Culinary delights in the Keys include stone crab, a large crab claw, which is taken from the crab without killing it, allowing this prolific producer to re-grow the claw. The other special shellfish seafood is Florida lobster, possibly grilled and dipped in drawn butter. Seafood restaurants abound, such as Lorelei in Islamorada. The signature dessert is key lime pie.
Lodgings in all price categories can be found. Upscale lodgings offer all amenities.
It’s not easy for businesses to turn a profit or for individuals to save money in the Keys because expenses are high. Rents are pricey on the precious and limited land. Real estate prices in Key West are high. Steep charges for water, electricity, and imported food add to the daily costs.
Life in the vibrant Conch Republic is destined to be a hugely pleasing travel subject, at least for the next century, until the projected sea rise inundates the islands. An opulent natural environment and a colorful human history make the Florida Keys a destination of major interest.
The Florida Keys: If You Go
For further information, contact the Florida Keys & Key West Visitors Bureau, www.fla-keys.com.