Hurricane Irma passed over the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm on September 10, 2018. Irma was the biggest storm to make landfall on the Florida Keys since Hurricane Wilma moved across the southeastern Gulf of Mexico and southern Florida peninsula during the morning of Monday, October 24, 2005. Wilma was responsible for hurricane force winds and the highest storm surge observed in the Keys since Hurricane Betsy, on September 8, 1965.
Wilma put 4 feet of seawater in my house in Key West and disrupted the lives of fishing guides, residents and vacationers for several years. However, the Florida Keys has incredibly resilient residents who banded together to rebuild each others houses and clean up the island for the loyal visitors to return. Within a few weeks, the island was cleaned up more quickly than could have been imagined and over the next year or so, the work continued until it was hard to tell that a big storm once been here.
On October 18, 2017, barely a month after Irma hit, we were filming Saltwater Experience out of Islamorada with guide and friend Richard Black. We had all been cleaning up the Keys, our houses and friends houses since the storm and we had not spent much time on the water. It was time to put down the broom and shovel and pick up our favorite tools, the cast net and the fishing rods.
As we exchanged stories about the storm and the cleanup, we stopped at a bait spot and threw the net for pilchards. Richard was the first person that I knew to have gotten back on the water. He had been out a few days earlier and had found a lot of tarpon and snook in the Everglades. We knew that filling the wells with bait would be a very good idea and hopefully we could find the fish again.
Richard took us far back into the Everglades and we talked about the storm the entire way. We saw mangroves that had been damaged, but for the most part, the natural beauty of the Florida Keys was only slightly changed by the leaves being blown off a lot of the trees making the whole landscape appear far more brown than normal.
The bird life was thriving and we watched many different bird species as we traveled across Florida Bay until we slowed down and entered a spot where Richard wanted to look. We left the clear water of the Gulf and entered the normal Everglades dark water. Richard moved around until we found an area where the "Blackwater" of the deep backcountry made contact with the murky water of the Everglades. It was on this line that we began to get some bites.
It was wonderful to feel the rod bend again with healthy Snook and a few other unknown creatures who broke our line or bit through it. Richard moved around a bit and found 2 or 3 additional spots that were absolutely loaded with snook.
In the 2000's more than a dozen Hurricanes, including Wilma, passed over or near the Keys. None were as powerful as Irma, but there was a constant to each one of them. The ocean would be thrown into chaos by the high winds and upon subsiding and clearing, the fish would be incredibly hungry and easy to find. Irma proved to be the same. The fishing was as good as it could ever be and Richard showed us a few new spots and we caught fish after fish from the time we got there to the time we left.
You can watch this episode on Waypoint TV by clicking here.
Jason Stemple came with us as usual and captured some incredible images. Here are some of my favorite:
Captains Tom Rowland & Rich Tudor