A road trip to the Florida Keys leaves dry land for an Everglades back bay fishing trip

Cathy Salustri stretches her some long-forgotten primal survival muscle.

click to enlarge A road trip to the Florida Keys leaves dry land for an Everglades back bay fishing trip
Photo by Sea Monkey Charters, via Cathy Salustri

It’s always fun to tell people you caught a goliath grouper.

Of course, everyone was a kid once.

Captain Casey Scott insists we pose for a photo together — even in Florida’s outback, social media reigns supreme. It seems silly, calling this minikin a “goliath” anything, but it’s his providence, and after a quick photo, we release him to fulfill it.

Catching something is fun but not required for me to enjoy fishing, because it’s a sort of meditation (for me, not the fish.) But when I do catch something, I thrill at stretching some long-forgotten primal survival muscle. 

It’s a gorgeous, blistering late summer day in the Everglades and we’ve left our Key Largo resort, Baker’s Cay, to fish our captain’s “secret spot” west on Florida Bay.

IF YOU GO

We stayed at dog-friendly Baker’s Cay Resort
97000 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo. Bakerscay.com.

Capt. Casey runs Sea Monkey charters from the resort and in Islamorada. INFO

The Florida Keys boast the first underwater park in the United States; in addition to diving John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, you can dive San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve near Indian Key. The National Park Service has dive-able parks near the Keys, too. The reefs and wrecks of the Florida Keys attract more than 2.25 million tourists each year. But the reefs and wrecks, while a good reason to visit, aren’t the best reason.

Florida Bay is the best reason.

Water in Florida Bay starts its voyage south near Sea World’s entrance, at Shingle Creek. From there it painstakingly navigates a labyrinthine network of streams, rivers and sloughs. It can take almost a year for that water to reach the shores of the Upper Keys. 

Few who seek the achingly luminescent water in the Florida Keys realize what has to happen to that water for it to support those coral reefs and estuaries that make that pearlized island chains so appealing. 

Even on a coral reef — especially on a coral reef — it’s all about the Everglades. They may feel a million metaphorical miles away from the teal and turquoise waters of the Florida Keys, but without them the Florida Keys would be little more than tired lumps of fossilized coral rising from the ocean, making Ponce de Leon’s first name for the keys more appropriate: Los Martires, which translates to “the martyrs.”

But the keys aren’t martyrs; the water that drains off the edge of the Everglades meets the tenuous criteria — salinity, flow and temperature among them — that mix the perfect cocktail for those picture-perfect postcards our state tourism board loves so much. 

For all its importance, most visitors to the keys never venture onto the grass flats where the freshwater sheet flow of the Everglades meets the salt of Florida Bay. And for the first time since the first time I visited the Keys, I’m taking a boat ride in the water immediately south of the land-based part of the Everglades. 

Captain Casey meets us at our resort dock and together we skeeter across the shallows towards the Everglades. Along the way, we learn he’s a fourth-generation conch driving a boat his grandfather gave him. The whole experience feels very “Bloodline,” especially when my husband leans over to me and whispers, “You could dump a body here, easy.” He’s right: There’s so much water, and so much of it shallow, that the crabs and fish would make short work of a corpse in no time at all. 

click to enlarge A road trip to the Florida Keys leaves dry land for an Everglades back bay fishing trip
GOOGLE MAPS

We stop almost a full hour later, floating inside Everglades National Park. We start casting by Frank Key, roughly halfway between Flamingo, the last scrap of land we can see to our north, and Dildo Key, a large key to our south.

Captain Casey does his job well, and for the first time, I land a goliath grouper. Twice. Of course, they’re juvenile, and we don’t keep them, but I do keep a redfish, which the resort restaurant, Captain Casey assures us, will prepare however we like. 

We catch ladyfish, snook, mangrove snapper, reds. It’s quite a variety, and I find myself gazing back towards Flamingo, thinking about the water upon which we’re floating, the water our dinner — the red’s feeling no pain in the cooler — used to grow and survive. It’s not the tantalizing white blue one associates with the Florida Keys, more an opalescent, seductive range of grassy greens. This water started by a theme park, and now it’s here, in Florida’s cradle of life.

I think about Big Sugar and South Florida Water Management District and mercury levels and fertilizer and the Kissimmee River and I think, if only every politician who had a chance to protect the Everglades and the reefs could have this same experience, the policy would be a lot different. Perhaps the glades wouldn’t be dying.

Nothing lasts forever, and soon we head home, our skin sun-seared and salty, the water turning a marled grey as storm clouds close in. We have no escape. A moment ago I mused on how man’s decimating triumph over, threatening this rare collection of ecosystems, and now I’m reminded that sometimes nature can bite back.

It’s a short-lived danger: We can see the wall of rain moving away from us, so we wait out the clouds and talk about the charter business with Capt. Casey. This is his grandfather’s boat, and the younger Bush president fished off its deck. His family’s also took the older Bush fishing. I ask what W. was like. 

“He’s nice. Can’t fish, but nice,” he laughs. 

Perhaps that’s the key to protecting the Everglades: Make every elected official go back bay fishing here. Don’t tell them what saving the Everglades means, show them. 

Preservation’s a high-altitude word. The real work, I suspect, happens much closer to sea level.

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About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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