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I had never won anything until now. All of a sudden Seth Fields at The Angling Report sent me an email saying I won the trip to fish the Florida Keys with Eleven Angling (https://elevenexperience.com/eleven-angling).
I had heard of The Eleven Experience from my visits to Crested Butte, Gunnison and the Taylor River in Colorado. Then I read a great report about them in The Angling Report. Eleven has a reputation in the two sports of fly-fishing and snow skiing as a top-drawer outfitter for people who love the outdoors—The name comes from the famous line, “Crank it up to eleven,” from the 1984 mockumentary movie This Is Spinal Tap.
This fishing adventure began with an email exchange I had with the Eleven Angling saltwater fishing guide and U.S. Coast Guard certified captain, Jerry Perez. He was born and raised in the Miami area and has a passion for fishing and showing others how to enjoy this beautiful spot on the globe. He spends most of his time guiding in The Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and the Florida Keys back country. He said the tidal charts made early September the best time for me to visit. I scheduled three full days with him.
In my first telephone conversation with Jerry he asked several questions about my expectations for our trip. He discussed my equipment and the fishing stuff he had ready for my use. He also made some hotel and restaurant recommendations. Then he asked about any special dietary preferences to made sure he had the food and drink on the boat I would enjoy.
A couple of days before my flight to Florida he called me and asked a question I have never been asked by a guide. “What side of the reel do you use on your fly rods?” I am right handed but I have always used my right hand to reel in my line. I know, that is the opposite of every other right handed fly fisherman, but it is how I have done it for fifty years so I am not about to switch. He then took the time to take all the line and backing off his reels in order to switch them to a right had retrieval. It immediately told me this guide service was much better than average. He really went the extra mile to make sure I had the perfect experience.
I flew into Miami International Airport worried about the weather since I was only one day after hurricane Dorian moved up the East Coast. I rented a car and drove a little over 90 minutes south to the upper Florida Keys and on to Islamorada (pronounced I–La–Mah–Ra–Da) on U.S. 1—also known as the Overseas Highway. When I hear the name Islamorada, I think of it as one of the richest fisheries in the world. The locals call it a, “Village of Islands.”
Jerry had made a couple of hotel recommendations so I checked them out on Trip Advisor and booked my stay at the Islander Resort. The room was large, very comfortable and the service was fantastic. There is a more expensive and better know resort down the road called Cheeca Lodge and Spa but their rates at the time of my booking were over fifty percent higher.
I had first heard the fly fishing history of Islamorada on an episode of Spanish Fly TV hosted by the late Jose Wejebe. He told his viewers that the whole saltwater fly-fishing experience for tarpon, permit and bonefish (the grand slam) began here. The culture here is steeped in fly-fishing history and is well documented by the likes of Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway, Joe Brooks, and residents Ted Williams and Stu Apte. Some of the more famous guides known for showing others how to fly fish in this saltwater arena include Flip Pallot and Lefty Kreh.
Even though much of the notoriety in this fly fishing community dates back to the 40s and 50s, it is still a very good place to fish. It remains the sports fishing capital of the world with the deep blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the shallow emerald green waters of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico on the other side.
Florida Bay is 800 square miles of epic fly fishing water. A narration of an online video I watched called it a saltwater theme park. When looking at my photos my wife asked, “Why aren’t you wearing a life vest in the boat? What would happen if you fell in?” I replied, “We would stand up.” These are true flats. Meaning most of the time the depth was two to five feet deep.
Islamorada is only 7.2 square miles of land made up of a half dozen islands—two of which are part of a state park—consisting of a little over 6,600 residents. Islamorada is a Spanish word for purple isle. At sunrise and sunset it was easy to see why. I found Islamorada to have excellent fishing, affordable hotels, very fresh seafood, plenty of brewpubs, and really great people.
Jerry was not just a good guide he was an excellent saltwater fly fishing instructor. Considering that I spend almost all my time in freshwater seeking trout, he had to teach me some new tricks and break me of some bad habits. This of course meant abandoning my typical freshwater trout set with a lifted rod for a hard strip set. He even taught me how to master the double haul directly into the wind to maximize my distance.
We would leave the ramp a little before 6:30 am to get to the right spot for tarpon. Clearly our best shot at the king of the sea was first thing in the morning. On the second morning the tarpon were “rolling” all around us.
At this point I am reminded of a quote from the famous author and spokesperson for Orvis, Mr. Tom Rosenbauer. “I have a love/hate relationship with tarpon, they get me all excited, but it’s a little too intense.”
On the first day I caught a fifteen pound tarpon. On the second day I caught a thirty five pounder and hooked up with a fifty pound tarpon. When I caught that big one on the 11-weight fly rod, he immediately gave me a couple of pieces of advice then stopped and asked, “Do you want me to give you instruction like this?” I replied, “Dude, are you kidding, I am hanging on every word that comes out of your mouth.” I needed help with simple things like how to bow to the king when it jumped, and so on.
Sight casting to a giant tarpon gets your adrenaline flowing. When they jump after being hooked it is really exciting. Jerry even had the wherewithal to get a video of the fifty-pound tarpon when it jumped near the bow of the boat. He then edited it so that it was in slow motion once airborne. Just one more reason that, as guides go, Jerry is a cut above. (See the video HERE)
This area of the Gulf of Mexico includes open turtle grass meadows, huge flats that go on for miles, muddy banks and some unique mangrove islands.
In addition to the tarpon, I caught red fish, sea trout, black drum, snook, snapper, lady fish, jack crevalle, a black tip shark and a fish I had never seen before called a triple tail. The tripletails would float right near the surface so my cast had to be quiet and less than five feet from their mouth in order to get a strike. All the time I had to be careful not to line the fish and spook it. It was challenging but the end result was fun, fun, fun. We also saw bonefish and a couple of permit but never got close enough to cast to them. Jerry called it a visual grand slam.
Never missing the opportunity to look around and appreciate nature up close and personal, I got a photo of an outstanding sun rise on our second day. One time we saw a large sawfish circle our boat. We also saw a good number of black tip and lemon sharks, stingrays, small jellyfish, a huge loggerhead sea turtle, and a pod of bottlenose dolphins surrounding and devouring a school of mullet. More than once I saw an osprey with a mullet in it talons. The life of a mullet…
The water was very clear in most of the ocean. There were times when the sun would hit the bay just right and it looked like a thousand diamonds glistening.
One of my favorite features of fly fishing is how I am always learning something new. Jerry made it easy for this freshwater fly fisherman to master the art of fly fishing in the sea.
So I ask you, why settle for a ten star outfitter when you can crank it up to an Eleven Experience?
The daily rate is $650 per day, plus tips. My hotel was about $200 per day. I strongly recommend the Eleven Experience and Jerry Perez in particular. Jerry is open to direct contact via phone 786-517-7261 or email [email protected] or via their web site www.elevenangling.com