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Big Pine Key- 6/23- 6/28

I just returned from spending a week at Big Pine Key. This was my 20th trip to the keys and I've learned a lot about trailering and fishing on these trips! I take the trailer to Texas trailers every year before the trip, and rarely get out with less than a $900 bill. On this visit, the brake master cylinder, all 4 bearings and a couple five-year-old tires were replaced. The repair shops found some E rated 15 inch tires which have about 300 pounds more capacity than the D rated tires the trailer came with – for about the same price – $150 per tire. The good news is we made it down and back, a round-trip of 950 miles with no blown tires or trailer problems. I checked the tire and hub temperatures at every stop with an infrared thermometer and none of the temperatures were more than 120° at any time.

We fished offshore all six days and didn't catch that many fish, but we did have some quality catches. The first day was windy, 15 to 20 kn with 3 to 5 foot seas offshore, so we opted to run to the bridge at Bahia Honda to see if any tarpon were available. We went about a week later than usual this year, and over two hours at Bahia Honda, we did not see a single tarpon. The wind reports from the Sombrero reef light dropped to 10 to 15 kn, so we opted to brave offshore in the 3 to 5 foot confused waves. After about an hour, we found a frigate bird doing tight circles and dipping. A 15 pound dolphin struck and we managed to get it on board! We were tired of getting tossed around and with a decent fish in the box, decided to call it a day.

15# dolphin


The next day was the same weather forecast east to Southeast winds 10 to 15 kn with 3 to 5 foot seas. We made it to blue water and started searching for any weeds, boards, rips or birds and the ocean was dead. No weeds, no flotsam and no birds. We trolled at about 4 kn out to 800 feet and trolled back. Around noon a long bait was struck and the fish put on an impressive run against 12 pounds of drag on a 50 pound rig. After a 15 minute fight with the angler trying to stay in the boat and keeping the fish tight, we had a white marlin alongside for the first billfish release in my boat.

White marlin release


Shortly after releasing the marlin, one of the crew asked if that red fluid was supposed to be leaking into the splash well? The end cap of the hydraulic steering tube had come loose about 1.5 revolutions and a steady drip of hydraulic fluid was leaking. We couldn’t tighten the cap by hand and didn’t have wrench big enough to work. The steering had become less responsive and we decided to head in ASAP. It was a race to get to shore before I lost all steering. Once we passed Little Palm Island and got into calm water, we called the Sea Center and asked if we could get on the schedule to have the boat looked at on Tuesday morning. They replied that we could come to their back entrance on the canal they could take a look at it right away! They quickly tightened the cap, purged the air from the system and refilled the hydraulic fluid. We were back in business after 30 minutes and $118.50. Since the wind was still blowing, and we've had a pretty good day we headed to the house.

The wind continued to blow 10-15 on Wednesday, and we braved it once again and caught only a few 22 inch dolphin off spares, scattered weed lines.

The wind died a little bit on Thursday, but the swells were still limiting our ability to hunt for fishy water. In the afternoon the wind died enough and we managed to make it to Wood’s Wall where the depth drops from about 950 feet to 1500 feet in 3/4 of a mile. This was my first of dozens of trips to the wall when we did not find any signs of fish – no boards, no weeds, no debris, no rip, no birds – nothing! We trolled for 45 minutes without any strikes and ran back into shallower water. At about 400 feet we saw a small group of birds frantically diving and put out bait. Two minutes later we had a 33 pound dolphin on and after a brief fight on 50 pound tackle, I managed to get a gaff in the dolphin. We continue to troll the general area in hopes of picking up the cow, but had no luck. We continued to troll and managed to pick up a few schoolies.

33# dolphin


The wind had died to 10 kn on Friday and we were hoping to have our best day. One of the crew had never snorkeled Looe Key reef, so we started the day out doing zigzags from the blue water line out to 600 ft and headed over to the reef around 11:30 AM for snorkeling and lunch. We caught an outgoing tide, so the visibility wasn't too great, but the reef is still an amazing place. A Doritos chips thrown out will immediately raise 30 – 40, 8-12 inch yellowtail snapper. After lunch, we did a little bit more trolling and picked up a couple small schoolies and called it an early day to pull the boat and begin packing for the trip home.

We ended up with about 35 vacuum packed bags of dolphin fillet plus the fish that we ate for dinner on a couple of nights. The trip back was uneventful with my new toll transponder, except for a 30 minute delay for a wreck near Fort Pierce.

Overall, the trip was fun. The marlin was exciting and the angler that landed the 33 pound dolphin was ecstatic over his biggest fish ever. I've never had one of these keys trips that didn't have at least one fiasco. Our first problem arose when my Sun Pass transponder didn't work when we went through the tollbooth at Wildwood. I changed the battery and it still didn't work at the next tollbooth. After that, we went through the cash lanes and got receipts. I await the toll violation notices. I bought a new Sun Pass transponder, but it takes at least a day to activate. If you are towing to the keys, I highly recommend getting a transponder, you will save about 25% on the toll and will be able to go through the tollgates without stopping. In Dade County, all the tolls have gone to transponder or license plate recognition, but you will pay more if they have to send you a bill after identifying your license plate. The hydraulic steering fluid leak was the second fiasco and we were really fortunate the Sea Center on Big Pine took care of it so quickly for us. I had one of the tools used to tighten the end cap a hydraulic steering system from a rebuild about five years ago, and it was sitting in my storeroom at Cedar Key. I now have one in the boat and will add a check on the hydraulic steering end cap to my monthly maintenance list.

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