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May 09, 2013

North of Cape Sable

As Florida Keys Guides Extend Their Range, Anglers Are Exploring Pristine Backcountry Fishing

Fast Action


shrimp rig
While one might fish fancier, in these waters the basic jig-head-and-shrimp catches just about everything.

From the open Gulf, the creek snaked its way inland, winding incessantly through the dense tangle of mangroves. Dark, tannin-stained water flowed around bends with deep, seductive-looking dark holes. Schools of bait dimpled the surface, and an occasional boil and splash on the surface offered evidence enough of predatory game fish at work.

At a bend where a narrow secondary creek entered the main channel, Wilcox tied the bow painter line to an ­overhanging mangrove and handed me a rod.


We caught trout, ladyfish and an occasional mangrove snapper on our first few casts, and we soon hooked up to the first reds of the day, beautiful fish that had acquired a rich patina of burnished copper courtesy of their lives spent in tannin-rich waters.


“Flick a shrimp as far as you can up into that narrow channel, right up under that fallen tree on the right,” Wilcox said. I somehow managed to land the shrimp in the right spot. I twitched the rod tip, and the water boiled as a good fish inhaled the jig. The profusion of snags ensured that it wouldn’t be a pretty fight, but I managed to keep fish and line out of harm’s way, and soon, a seven-pound redfish shimmered in the rich, early-morning sunlight by the boat.

Remote Lagoons

Shortly after that, we entered a blind channel that ended in a tangle of sun-bleached dead trees. “Hurricane damage,” Wilcox said, “and a great place to put those ‘trophy shrimp’ to use!”


We stopped about 50 yards away from the structure, and Wilcox rerigged one of the rods with a float. “Always a few big reds hanging around here, but you’ll never manage to get a jig in there, and if you do you’ll get snagged for sure,” he said, handing me the rod. “Just cast it as close to the tree as you can. Hopefully, a big shrimp kicking about beneath the float will tempt one of those reds out into open water.”

This Navionics chart screen shot shows the area to be a true, unspoiled wilderness.

The cast wasn’t great, the bobber landing about six feet short, and I was about to reel in for another try when suddenly the line moved away to the right. When it tightened, I struck and came tight onto a red — a solid, multispotted 8-pounder.


We moved on to push even deeper into the tangle of mangroves, determined to access one particular lagoon Wilcox had spotted on the Google Earth website. Finally we found it, one of the sweetest-looking mangrove lagoons I have ever fished. The making tide was just starting to cover the mud flats and oyster bars as Wilcox poled us in.


While fishing the park’s waters on the first day, we had stuck to jig/shrimp combos with spinning gear; during subsequent days, I put my fly rod to good use. I soon discovered that a well-placed Clouser was the perfect choice for reds, snook and several other species.


Fish were moving everywhere, and soon we were again racking up the sort of release numbers that produces looks of doubt when retold later during happy hour. It had been a long run to get up here, and worth every minute of it.


About the Author Dave Lewis (david​.lewis21@​btconnect​.com) is a U.K.-based angling photojournalist and Shimano pro staffer. He also is a destination consultant for Anglers World Holidays (anglersworld​.tv), and a regular contributor to Sport Fishing. Lewis guides groups of anglers to numerous destinations around the world, including Bud N’ Mary’s.

Fact File: planning a fishing trip North of Cape Sable

Capt. Jim Wilcox’s favorite months to fish the Everglades north of Cape Sable are October through May.
“As the water cools in fall, the big reds, snook and trout move into those creeks to over-winter, seeking thick shoals of bait and deeper pockets of water that have a more consistent temperature,” he said. “During the hotter months, many fish leave, but tarpon fishing is good.

bud n marys
“Fishing in such tight cover such as these ­overgrown creeks demands a fairly short rod. I use a 6½-foot Ugly Stick matched with a light Penn spinning reel and 15-pound Power Pro braid. These versatile outfits can handle any snook, red, bone or permit but are strong enough to catch a 50-pound tarpon in a reasonable amount of time.”

Wilcox likes lead-head jigs but says they needn’t be fancy: “You’ll lose plenty,” he said. He does recommend jigs with a wide-gape hook weighing ³⁄8 to 5⁄8 ounces for varying depths and current flow.

In addition to redfish and snook, we caught speckled trout, ladyfish, snapper, sheepshead, black drum, ­lookdown, juvenile goliath grouper and small permit.

Most guides carry a lot of shrimp, but Wilcox and Bassett also use Berkley Gulp! Alive.

Bugs can be a problem, particularly during warmer months. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants and copious applications of bug spray help.

Bud N’ Mary’s Marina is the home for many of the best backcountry guides working the middle Keys.

“Islamorada is the perfect place to catch a multitude of fish because of easy access to the Gulf of Mexico, Florida Bay, Everglades National Park, the coral reef and, of course, the deep Atlantic,” Capt. Rick Stanczyk said. “Many of these fisheries are a farther run than what many are used to, but it often pays off, as there is far less pressure on many of these fisheries.”

The marina has a great tackle shop, a deli/cafe and a range of accommodations. For more information, visit budnmarys​.com.

Current regulations for South Florida allow a daily bag limit of one redfish between 18 and 27 inches per angler. For a full listing of all regulations, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website at: myfwc​.com.

Contact Capt. Jim Wilcox via e-mail (captjim@​­ultimate​keysfishing​.com) or cell phone (305-393-1128). Wilcox also is involved in a sawfish-conservation project; for more information, visit You can reach Capt. Bill Bassett at 305-522-4762.