Fishing Adventures in Islamorada’s Cheeca Lodge
Jan Stephen Maizler
It was a long time since I’d traveled to the Purple Isles and there was much to look forward to. I was planning a first-time weekend stay at the Cheeca Lodge that was paired to a trip with Captain Greg Poland to fish offshore on his twenty seven-foot Conch center console. The trip was scheduled for the most vibrant time of year for me-, which is the winter season off Islamorada. For all traveling anglers that journey to Florida in Kris Kringle time, the luck as well as the art form is in timing the adventure to occur between cold fronts.
It did transpire that a whopper of a front that originated in Canada coincided its arrival with mine at the “Sportsfishing Capital of the World.” Since my planning gave me a four-day stay, I was secure in the knowledge that I’d probably get one good-weather day to fish with Greg- he made it clear he’d make himself available to make the trip happen. That left me free to enjoy the cold china blue skies above rolling mocha-colored Florida Bay as I drove down the Overseas Highway.
As I headed down Windley Key towards upper Matecumbe Key, a cascade of angling memories washed over me-each of them a triumphant testament to the incredibly diverse environment of Islamorada: a world which stretched from the shallow backcountry of Florida Bay out to the deep blue of the Florida Straits and Gulf Stream. As I crossed Whale Harbor bridge into “downtown” Islamorada, I had a conclusive feeling that I was really entering the Mecca of light tackle and fly fishing for the entire Florida Keys. No other city- even Key West- could lay claim to such a concentration of expert guides and anglers equally at home hunting and catching Florida’s most popular marine game fish.
It was late afternoon-becoming-dusk when I turned into the Cheeca. In the short days of winter, the light was fading by now as the sun said goodbye to Islamorada for another day. But before vanishing, it took another encore bow over the Florida Bay as it cast a silver lemon radiance over sky and water that you’d swear was the path to a Christmas pot of gold.
After getting myself situated in a beautiful room in the Main Lodge, I stepped out onto the balcony to enjoy a view that swept from the Atlantic shoreline out to Florida Bay. As I enjoyed the expanse of the keys in wintertime, I noticed that the large American flag that graces the entrance to the Cheeca was undulating more slowly: it seemed the wind was dying down. A few minutes later, the phone rang in my suite- it was Captain Greg, who announced that the forecast for the next day would feature much calmer winds. Since our trip was into the Atlantic Ocean, we’d be spared the concerns of residual muddiness that tomorrow’s backcountry anglers would face. So, after all, the trip was on for next morning.
Our plans were to converge near Greg’s beautiful home alongside his offshore vessel around 6:00 a.m. I looked forward to the group we’d have aboard. I was delighted that noted angling expert and photographer Pat Ford would be on hand to record the trip with his striking images. Since we needed another angler- and, yes, someone had to do it- I persuaded my friend Jim Porter to take the day off from his busy environmental law practice. Rounding out our group was marine safety expert Brigitte Goll of Datrex Corporation. Everyone arrived right on time and saw to their different tasks.
Fishing off the Purple Isles-
Like all effective angling pursuits, the key to a successful trip was solid and thorough preparation. In that spirit, as Greg loaded his vessel with tackle, he pointed out that he’d be taking lots of chum- these were products that he felt were the foundation of reef and drop-off fishing. In short order, he loaded four boxes of block chum in one of the huge ice chests: its’ initial application would be to attract baitfish like pilchards and balao to the boat for netting. In addition, the block chum would later be used for pulling in game fish themselves once we reached the offshore fishing grounds. Greg also hauled aboard two big buckets of “sandball” chum that would be employed for yellowtails on the patch reefs and slightly beyond.
After checklisting his vessel and equipment, Greg launched his rig at a nearby ramp. His Mercury Verado engine fired up quickly but quietly. The bayside waters had settled down considerably with the wind prevailing out of the northwest at fifteen m.p.h.
Greg pointed his vessel towards a nearby key and advanced the throttle. His rig surged forward and sliced over and through the emerald-colored wavelets crisply and quickly. In what seemed about a minute, Greg was slowing down as he approached a narrow channel that cut through the island. He pointed straight off the tip of his bow and said, “ about sixty feet…check it out.” It was easy for everyone onboard to see the surface dimpling of baitfish at the juncture of the channel and some overhanging mangroves.
He slowly eased his boat close to the bait and slipped the engine into neutral. The astonishingly quiet operation of the engine left the baitfish in a “happy” undisturbed state. Greg readied his cast net and made a perfectly unfurling strike over the silvery whitebait. As he pulled in his net, the flashes in the net’s “bag” made it clear he’d shortly be shaking plenty of live bait into his aft livewell. After a few more tosses of his net, Greg had enough whitebait for the trip. It was time to get underway.
We made our approach from Florida Bay into Snake Creek, which served as a bay to ocean access. As we neared Snake Creek Bridge, Greg eased his vessel towards a nearby dock and tied his rig off in front of a waterside tackle shop. He said that he’d pick up a few dozen large live shrimp to supplement the whitebait we’d already caught. It certainly became clear to me that Greg’s approach of using multiple chums and baits was diversifying the investments of our offerings- this would certainly maximize our chances for success.
After clearing the ocean side of Snake Creek channel, Greg pushed down the throttles and we jumped on plane over a silvery green ocean topped by tiny wavelets that were the departing front’s final signature on the sea. He pointed his bow towards Alligator Light and made his course.
As we streamed towards this well-known area, Greg got on his cell phone. As a result of his thorough planning-which always starts the night before- he knew which captains and anglers would already be in the vicinity. Greg insured more privacy of communication over his phone compared to his radio. His concerns were two-fold. Firstly, he wanted to know about any unfolding action over the reefs and the drop-off. Secondly, he wanted to ascertain where the balao were concentrated so he’d be able to possibly net and use yet another kind of live bait.
After perhaps four or five conversations, he determined that our initial efforts should begin a few miles southwest of the light along the reef line. He slowed his boat about three hundred yards abeam of an anchored charter boat. Greg slowly eased his vessel over and around the multi-colored patch reefs while simultaneously checking his instruments for refining his exact location. After he was satisfied about our fishing spot-to-be, he idled about fifty yards into the northwest wind and slipped his chained anchor overboard. This would ensure plenty of anchor line rode to hold us snugly as he paid out line by reversing his vessel back over our hoped-for honeyhole.
Once we were situated to Greg’s satisfaction, he turned off the engine. He immediately deployed some block chum in a net into the water- it was tied off in classic fashion on one of his stern cleats. The chum immediately gave off a multi-colored slick that the wind pushed offshore to the southeast. Concurrently, small pieces of solid chum cascaded towards the bottom. Oftentimes, an angler’s expectant fever for action can make mere minutes into eternities and this case was no exception- at least for Jim and me. But ever so slowly, a big school of balao started grouping itself off our stern while, below us, fishy forms materialized. Greg pointed to a bunch of highly colored fish below us and said, “ there’s our yellowtail!”
Greg handed Jim and I ultralight spinning rods and baited them up with live pilchards that he hooked in the aft portion of the belly. He advised us to fish them right off our stern in a free spool stance that would give no distortion to the way our live baits would swim. Greg shook the chum bag vigorously and tossed over a couple of dead pilchards which he said would serve as hors d’ oeuvres. At first, nothing happened. Greg kept shaking the chum bag. As it released more particles, we could actually see the fish below us rising up. In moments, line flew off my reel. I flipped the bail closed and reeled a million times the speed of light (as Tim Borski says) to come tight to my fish. There was no need to strike the fish as my rod deeply bowed over and the fish pulled line off the drag. After a two-minute battle, I had my fish close to the surface and its bright yellow-orange tints augured well for dinner that night. In short order, Greg tossed the two-pound yellowtail onto the ice.
Jim had hooked up during my battle. As he pumped his fish to the surface, it was clear that he was fast to a big “flag”-sized yellowtail. As Greg netted the fish, it appeared almost twice as big as the one I’d just landed. After these two landings, Greg opened his sandball chum bucket and started easing over hand-sculpted baseballs of a muddy mysterious composition that cascaded scent and fishy bits throughout the water column. The fish loved it!
The process of action began to unfold and accelerate. Brigitte joined us at the stern and quickly hooked up as well. After a vigorous battle with her gamester, Greg netted a small amberjack. Shaking the chum bag and tossing a few dead pilchards and sandballs astern stoked the recipe for action. This salty Wheel of Fortune started serving up a smorgasbord of gamesters consisting of yellowtails, blue runners, amberjacks, and snappers spiced up with an occasional mackerel and grouper. The action would last for the better part of the morning.
After Greg was satisfied that we’d all had our fill, he fired up his engine and weighed anchor. The sea was calming down fast and the ride back to the waters offshore of Alligator Light seemed so very short. As we slowed down, we spotted a free-jumping sailfish barely a hundred feet away. Greg cut off his engine immediately. He grabbed three twelve-pound spinners that Brigitte, Jim, and I would be using. As the water was clear, Greg stuck with the sixty-pound fluorocarbon leaders that were already on the outfits. He did change to long shank hooks to minimize any cutoffs from the kingfish that he had determined were in the area. Although we did not hook up with the sailfish, we caught enough small kings that left us thoroughly sated. Captain Greg had seen to it that we had a great day of action!
The Cheeca Lodge has undergone some fascinating growth and changes in recent years. Its origins laid in a venerable history of top-flight lodgings and services for America’s saltwater angling elite. The Cheeca – as it’s often called- has flowered into the largest and most comprehensive family-friendly resort in the Florida Keys. As I toured the facilities, it was clear that this impressive expansion maintained the five star excellence that the original operation was so well known for.
The Cheeca sits on 27 landscaped acres. There are 190 guest accommodations, including 49 ocean and resort-view rooms in the Main Lodge. All guest accommodations have air conditioning, ceiling fans, mini-bars, remote control color TV, AM/FM/CD players, wireless internet, and many other first class amenities. The rooms are decorated in a resplendent and luxurious Floribbean motif.
This marvelous destination is open year round. Attractions at The Cheeca include tennis, golf, water sports, boat rentals, beaches, ocean access for vessels, 525-foot fishing pier, seaside fish lagoon, health and beauty spa, fitness center, and the acclaimed Camp Cheeca for children ages 4-14. The Cheeca proudly offers 4200 square feet of function space for weddings, meetings, and similar functions. In addition, the Concierge in the lobby will help you to book fishing and diving charters, as well as dining reservations at other fine local Islamorada area restaurants.
Guests and visitors will find Curt Gowdy Lounge an ideal setting for recounting the day’s fishing. Dining at the Cheeca includes gourmet fare at the Atlantic’s Edge oceanfront restaurant, as well as the casual Ocean Terrace Grill.
All personnel at the Cheeca are given training that is infused with elements of a mission statement that include such ideals as “providing memorable experiences for our Guests through discovery of Cheeca Lodge’s Environment and Adventures”…as well as the belief “that gracious service can only be achieved through Individual Commitment, Passion and Pride…” These kinds of training programs are the soil from which the finest resort staffers in the world grow from.
General Manager Jerry Broz sees the Cheeca aiming for being a sanctuary and source of rejuvenation for busy couples and families. He said, “ whether it’s a romantic weekend or an outdoors-style family fun vacation, the Cheeca will easily provide it.” He was also pleased about the development of a private membership Club that featured heightened levels of services and amenities.
More so, the Cheeca’s placement in the epicenter of an island that is itself the epicenter of the most diverse game fishing in all of the Florida Keys makes this resort only more outstanding. And diversity is also the operative word for all the different groups of both angling and non angling travelers that are sure to enjoy the almost limitless features, services, and amenities of this resort that will surely become cherished memories.
WHEN YOU GO-
Mile Marker 82 (Atlantic Ocean side of the Overseas Highway- [U.S.1])
Toll-free Phone- 1-800-327-2888
Web site- www.cheeca.com
Captain Greg Poland
141 Plantation Boulevard
Web site- www.gregpoland.com