In Zane Grey’s Foot Steps

Fly Casting at Long Key, Florida

On The Fly Saltwater

December 2021

Featured photo: Long Key and the Channel No. 5 Bridge.

Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs

It’s rather unusual for a fish tale to begin in the public library, but, in fact, that is where this one started. Being interested in the literary world as well as fishing, I find that, regardless of where I travel, I feel compelled to explore the local waters and follow up on any connection the place has to the world of writing.

For those reasons, a rainy afternoon in May that spoiled a fishing trip found me poring over a dusty file of yellowing magazine clippings in the Monroe County public library branch in Islamorada, Florida. The folder containing them was labeled “Zane Grey,” and had been retrieved from a file cabinet in a remote corner of the building. Here was a treasure trove of information that combined both my passions.

As any angling history buff can attest, Grey was the most renowned fisherman of the early 20th century. He was a founder of the International Gamefish Association and responsible for discovering a host of angling destinations that he reported to the American populace. He also found time to write some of the most popular and enduring western fiction ever penned. One of the new fishing destinations that Grey pioneered was the Florida Keys. It was by accident that he and his brother ended up on Long Key (two islands south of Upper Matecumbe Key on which Islamorada is located), when they aborted a tarpon fishing trip to Tampico, Mexico, because of a yellow fever outbreak there. That first trip in 1910 used the railroad construction camp of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway on Long Key as the headquarters for their fishing adventures. The angling was so good that Grey convinced Flagler to build a fishing camp on the sight, and the Long Key Fishing Club was born. Up until the clubhouse blew away in the great killer hurricane of 1935, the camp provided some of the most spectacular fishing in the world to some of the most prominent people of the times.

Most of the musty clippings I found dealt with Grey’s quest for big-game species offshore from Long Key, detailing some spectacular battles with sailfish, amber jack and kingfish. The story that caught my eye, however, were a bit less glamorous. One article told of Grey’s involvement with The Bonefish Brigade. These anglers regularly challenged bonefish in those early years by fishing from the shore on Long Key. The shore near the bonefish flats on Long Key at the sight of the fishing club now is in the Long Key State Recreation Area. Thus, I had documented a Zane Grey fishing adventures that could be attempted by an angler traveling on foot.

As the fishing gods so often ordain, weather and work schedules postponed my adventure by almost a full year to the very day. But when I did get back to the Keys, I was no less determined to find out if I could get at the descendants of the bonefish that Grey had tackled.

Traveling south on U.S. 1 from Islamorada, I drove down to the small town of Layton on Long Key itself. Just before reaching the, entrance to the recreation area, a historic marker at the roadside (but not longer there) described the history and location of the Long Key clubhouse.

After reading the sign, I headed to the picnic area at the parking lot on the north end of the island. A short hike on the raised boardwalk brought me to the shore, where a shallow sand, grass and mud flat runs out for several hundred yards into the Atlantic. To the east of the picnic area, the flat borders on thick growths of mangroves standing in only a foot of water. Wading out about 50 yards, I began moving parallel to the shore along the mangroves, peering through polarized sunglasses for the telltale movement of bonefish on the flat. Shortly I spotted five or six small bones working halfway between my location and the shore and perhaps 50 feet ahead. Stalking closer, I stripped out line from the 9-foot, 9-weight set up, preparing to drop the Crazy Charlie fly beyond and ahead of the fish. Being a competent fly caster for freshwater trout, I saw no great difficulty in this maneuver, at least, until the fly line hit the water and the bonefish showed me why they are known as grey ghosts of the flats. I had never seen fish disappear so quickly!

That pod proved to be the only bonefish I encountered and after a while I seriously considered giving up Zane Grey’s fishing location without having hooked anything. However, once I quit looking for bonefish, I realized how many barracuda there were hanging around the edge of the mangroves. Not being an overly picky angler, I decided to try for the fish that were present.

The barracuda where hanging around the mangrove edges.

Adding a 6-inch wire leader to the end of the fly line, I tipped it with a blue-and-white Lefty’s Deceiver. Sight-casting to the ‘cuda, I could attract their attention on most casts. They would follow the streamer for long distances, but regardless of how fast I retrieved, it apparently was not fast enough to interest them. As the fly got near enough for the fish to sense my movements, they would break off and head back toward the mangroves.

The only bump I got on the fly was from a small shark of about 30 inches in length. I had noticed a couple of these blacktips cruising on the flat, but since they showed no interest in me, I had ignored them. On one cast near one of the sharks, the fish came to the splash of the fly landing and nosed the Deceiver, but did not take it.

After trying every streamer in my fly box, I finally took out a 2-inch Orvis Skipping Bug in blue and white. After several unsuccessful casts and twitch-and-rest retrieves, a poorly-placed cast dropped the popper back into the mangroves. In my haste to get it out to where I perceived the fish to be, I stripped in line so fast that the popper jerked across the top at a break neck pace. Almost instantly the water erupted, and as soon as the fish felt the hook, an I8-inch barracuda took to the air with the bug buried in its lip. After a couple of slashing runs and several more leaps, I released the fish.

A frantic retrieve across the surface with the big fly apparently could not be resisted by the ‘cudas. Needless to say, the hard foam body of the fly did not last through many of these attacks. Soon after switching to a replacement popper, I noticed that I now had three of the small sharks circling near me, but at a more frenzied pace. At first, I figured that the runs of the hooked fish were attracting them, but I could see that they would act agitated and come closer even when I did not have a fish on. Finally, I made the connection that the whine of the fly reel when I peel off line was attracting them. Just stripping line off the spool, apparently sent messages to their sensors that make the sharks speed up.

Since my wading near the mangroves was stirring up some mud, I decided to head for shore, rather than share the flat with agitated sharks that would not be able to see very well in the muddy water. At that moment, a terrific splash sounded a few dozen yards down the shore back toward my entry point. I just caught sight of a triangular fin and the back of a fish chasing bait. That predator was at least as large as myself. I suddenly lost the desire to wade back to the picnic area. Cutting a judicious beeline to the mangroves, I chose to brave a few yards of mud and mangrove roots to reach the shoreline hiking trail for my return.

Though I may have failed to locate the bonefish that Zane Grey’s writing had prompted me to seek, the barracuda of Long Key provided a most enjoyable and eye-opening angling adventure.

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