By Pat Ford

This Spring has been an epic disaster for everyone, but for South Florida’s light tackle and skiff guides, it’s been beyond catastrophic. This is ‘tarpon season’. From mid-February though June nearly every guide from Miami south throughout the Keys is booked solid. Yes, it’s getting tougher to catch these silver kings but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still the high point of fly fishing. Skiff guides average over $700 a day, with some charging up to $1000, and anglers from all over the world are lined up with cash in hand for their services. It’s fair to say that Keys guides make over 60% of their annual income during ‘tarpon season’, but not in 2020.

The first blow was when traveling, especially by air, became hazardous…anyone who had to fly into Florida to go fishing had to wonder if it was worth the risk. First there was the danger of contracting the virus on the plane or in the airport lines, and then there was the possibility that escalating restrictions and canceled flights would leave them stranded. Most felt the risks were too great and as early as March 1 the cancelations began. It soon became apparent that if an angler had to get on a plane, he wasn’t coming to Florida, which left only the locals as clients; fortunately that number was substantial and gave the guides some hope…but it didn’t last long.

Miami-Dade county closed down all the public boat ramps, even for commercial skiff guides. The fishing outside Biscayne Bay is supposedly red hot, but nobody can launch their skiff. The few people who did manage to get out reported that the tarpon are loving the new conditions – nobody’s harassing them and they are hitting flies like they did 20 years ago.

I was scheduled to fish with my long timefriend, Capt. RT Trosset, in Key West the weekend of March 21/22. Several days before we planned to leave home, the problems started. First the restaurants closed. This issue was resolved when RT volunteered to have dinner at his house every night and the news that restaurants would be open for take out. We all planned to drive down on Friday and then Rufus got a call from Ocean’s Edge Hotel that his reservation was canceled…all hotels in the Keys were shut down. All tourists had to leave the Keys by “sundown” Sunday March 22. That ended our trip before it began. Suddenly there were no open restaurants and no hotel rooms, so if an angler got to the Keys, there was no place for him to stay other than at a private home. Then Monroe County put up a road block and only allowed Keys residents in.. Non-residents who actually did own property, like a condo, in Monroe County had to show ID and a recent tax bill, utility bill or deed and they were not allowed to bring in guests that did not themselves own property. The end result was that the great majority of guides were for all intents and purposes out of business….

Our next scheduled trip with RT came up in mid-April. We own a condo in Islamorada so Rhona and I can get into the Keys, but there is no where to stay in Key West and we do not want to impose on any of our local friends, even if they would let us stay with them like we usually do. We were pretty desperate to get back out on the water and April is prime time to fish the shrimp boats North West of Key West, so we decide to simply drive the 90 minutes from the condo to Key West to meet RT at his dock at Ocean’s Edge. Since RT was pretty much open, we picked a day when the weather was perfect for the 60 mile run to the shrimpers. RT and his mate, Patrick Cline, are as concerned about the virus as we are and like Rhona and I, have been staying at home. We all knew each other well and didn’t feel that there was a danger in sharing space on his 36’ open fisherman.
The weather turned out to be perfect just as we had hoped. We wore Buffs most of the time like we usually do and still subtly kept as far apart as possible. We were careful and the fishing was spectacular. When the shrimpers clean their catch in the mornings, hordes of big bonita and blackfin tuna congregate behind the boats to feed on the discarded trash. Our next destination was a wreck in 75’ of water where we chummed cobia, amberjack, snapper and a few permit right up to the surface. At the end of the day we’d caught blackfin tuna up to 28 lbs on fly rods, mangrove snapper up to 10 lbs, bonita, amberjack, yellowtail, cobia and even a tripletail. We probably ran over 130 miles during the trip and arrived back at the deserted Marina in the late afternoon. Perhaps the lack of boat activity and fishing pressure will pay dividends down the line for the fish, but at a great cost for those that make their living as guides. Some of them surely won’t survive a Spring without clients and the rest will barely be able to hold on financially. The rule seems to be «hope for the best, but plan for the worst»…and things are probably going to get worse before they get better.