Friday, June 30, 2023

May 2023: Two Weeks in the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys are always a good get-away, regardless of what you want to get away from.  Long before Hurricane Ian assaulted us southwest Florida, we had made plans for two boat trips for 2023, one to the Florida Keys in May, the other to the Bahamas in June.  By early May we had made reasonably good progress on storm recovery – the main exception being kitchen cabinet replacements, for which we were still awaiting permit issuance.  But we were also very much wanting a break from the various recovery projects….so we loaded up the boat and headed to Marathon on Saturday, 13-May for a needed get-away.

Good friends Dan and Juli Eisenberg joined us for our annual fish-slaying sortie, and since we would be without a car for the two-week stay, between us we loaded enough gear and supplies onto Ghost Rider to make us question whether the vessel would still float.  We believe we set a record for the heaviest Express 330 to travel that distance. 

A few other boats from our Grady-White club joined us for the 130 NM sortie south. And while the sky conditions were excellent, the sea conditions were not so friendly:  Florida Bay was a mess of square waves at 2-3 feet and short intervals, requiring significant trim-tab and engine trim settings to smooth out the ride.  Fuel efficiency suffered accordingly with the heavy load, averaging a mile to the gallon for the six hour/130NM sortie to Key Colony Beach (KCB) in Marathon. 

Four Other Boats from Our 'Tarpon Coast Grady-White Club' Flying Formation Behind Ghost Rider

Week 1: 14-May to 20-May

Overall weather for the week was excellent: sunny and hot, light breezes, with only the first day offering somewhat lumpy water; remaining days provided consistently good sea conditions, and what few showers materialized were easy to sight and avoid.

General fishing results were certainly better than last year’s experience, but nonetheless somewhere between uneven and erratic.  On some days we were lucky to boat one or two keeper dolphin fish, while our best days saw six to nine nice Mahi (aka Dorado) in the fish box.  However, we hooked a LOT of fish…it’s just that the majority of them were “shorts” – just an inch or two below the minimum size of 20” to the fork, released to fight another day. 

On Tuesday (16-May) we hosted “Taco Tuesday” at our KCB rental, joined by the other 12 members of our Grady-White Tarpon Coast boat club who had also made the journey to Marathon.  Fred Granger (our Grady expert formerly of Ingman Marine) handled the preparation and grilling of the fresh Mahi-mahi using his secret recipe, and as usual the result was outstanding.  Rick broke out his DJI drone to grab a good aerial photo of the gang posing in front of Ghost Rider.

Since we were staying in the Keys for a full two weeks this time around, we also took a couple of “down days” to relax, catch up on some sleep, and on one of those days performed the 100-hour service on Ghost Rider’s twin Yamaha outboards.  That gave us maintenance runway for another week in the Keys and for the upcoming long trip to the Bahamas in June.

Week 2: 21-May to 26-May

The weather for our second week in the Keys mirrored the meteorology from the first week, providing excellent fishing conditions.  The fish didn’t get the memo, though, as erratic results persisted – some decent days, some disappointing ones.  We finally encountered our first (and only) tuna of the sortie, with Juli reeling in a hefty little Skipjack.  And Chelle boated the biggest dolphin of the two-week stay, measuring at just under 30”.  On the troll, pink Rattlejets and small, flashy Billy Baits produced far better results than any other lures, including rigged ballyhoo.

Dan & Juli Manning the Cockpit While on the Troll

Juli and Her Skipjack Tuna
Chelle With Her Biggest Mahi of the Week

On several occasions we encountered swarms of small dolphin (“schoolies”) that would circle the boat in search of bait – typically on the edge of weed lines or patches – but more often than not, those interludes would result in many more “shorts” being released than any keepers.  Until the Feds come up with reasonable regulation for the commercial fishery (instead of picking on the paltry recreational market), we suspect that will be the case for the foreseeable future.

When We Pitch into a School of Dolphin, We Keep One on the Line to Attract Others.  The Excellent Water Clarity in the Keys Offshore Waters Makes Them Easy to See.

The last day of fishing was the only time we had to play the weather-avoidance game, and even then it wasn’t particularly difficult nor was the nearby weather system severe; it chased us back into port a tad early, but that wasn’t a bad thing given we needed time to fuel-up and pack-up for the next day’s trip home.

The XM Satellite Weather Display Helps with TRW Avoidance

Radar Confirms with Real Time Echo Returns

Our Trolling Tracks for the Two Weeks, with Most of the Fishing Time Spent in 650 to 750 Foot Depths, from 15 to 30 Miles Offshore.  The Sargassum Varied....from 'Weed Bombs' to Large Patches, and Some Reasonably Good Weed Lines for the Best Fishing Results.

Saturday, 27-May

By the time departure day rolled around, we were the only boat remaining – all others had departed some time during the past seven days.  The solo ride home was mostly smooth and uneventful.  We had a nice stash of fresh Mahi and more good memories with good friends.

And the boat performed very well.  Only two issues surfaced during the two-weeks: (1) the secondary flush hose for the port engine developed an inch-long split, which a couple of wraps of Rescue Tape solved for now; and (2) a couple of the AGM batteries finally died, and given that they're now approaching five years old, not real surprising; we had to use the "both" position on the battery switches for several days to leverage the remaining two healthy batteries for engine starts, and Rick will replace all four before the next trip to the Bahamas.

Overall, it was a nice getaway.  Stay tuned for another post on the upcoming return to the Bahamas.  In the interim, more pics from our Keys adventure follow below, with emphasis on the other boats and crews who joined us.

Rick Cundiff's "Reetirement2" Grady-White on the Troll with Tony & John Onboard.

That's a Good Day of Fishing
Same Here...the Snapper on the Left Came from the Reef
When You Can "Limit Out", That's a Fine Day
Scott Englund's Boat & Crew with Four Mahi & Two Blackfin Tuna
Fred & Julie....He Can Fish AND Cook

Rick C with John & Tony on Reeltirement2
Another Limit-Out Day.  Fred is a Good Luck Charm.
Bob Barris on "Made in the Shade" with a Nice Haul

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