Memories are Made in the Mangroves

By: Capt. Tim Ramsey

I remember my first foray into the backcountry. I was 17 or 18, and my parents found a place they liked in Naples. I was a New Jersey fisherman, versed in the art of drifting, bottom fishing, surf fishing, and soaking worms in the lakes for bass and pickerel. Hey, it was the early eighties, what was I going to do? There I was, in southwest Florida, hearing tale of people catching fish I had never seen, so we had to check it out. A friend of my father’s knew a local guide, so dad hooked it up.

One morning way before sunrise, we went down the beat-up two-lane road designated State Road 951, and met Kevin, our guide at the boat ramp on the road to Marco Island. In the dark, I could see the boat, an 18-foot Hewes with wide, low gunwales and a Yamaha two stroke I thought was too big for it. Kevin refused any offer of help launching the boat and soon we were on our way.

Twilight peeked over the horizon as we made out way down the canal beside the road, and Kevin told us about the plan for the morning. His lingo was new to me. He spoke of Marco River. I thought rivers were fresh water, but this was a saltwater river that led to more saltwater. Then he mentioned “passes,” that led to the Gulf. Back home, we had an inlet that led from the bay to the ocean. I found you could talk for hours on the inlets verses passes issue. Kevin spoke of getting bait, catching jacks, looking for snook, of mangrove canals and casting to roots. I was in.

The first thing we did was go out in front of a small mangrove island that stretched from Big Marco to Hurricane Pass, the southern tip of Keewaydin Island. It was beautiful and all new to me. Kevin said the tide was still a bit low (or high, I can’t remember) so he handed my father, brother, and I a rod with a red and white bucktail tied to it. He showed us how to tip the jig with a small piece of shrimp and got us casting near the river markers. Soon, we were catching jacks and ladyfish. Kevin took the time to show us the fish and explain why the jacks grunted before throwing all of them back. He even taught me how to tie an Albright and a Loop knot.

After that, the guide raised the engine and used a transom-mounted trolling motor to push the boat down the beach in front of the mangrove island where he threw a cast net from the bow for bait. He pulled in what he called “whitebait,” the Florida name for the Scaled Sardine, walked along the wide gunwale of the flats skiff and put them in a well at the back of the boat. I was digging this so hard I could have caught jacks and cast net bait all day, but we had other things to do.

We ran back inside Marco River, turned left, and found our way to the front of the mangrove forest behind Isles of Capri. After changing the lines to bare hooks and showing us how to attach the small baitfish, Kevin had us cast as close to the trees as possible as he stood casually at the back of the boat, He leaned against the poling platform, using one bare foot to adjust the trolling motor. He monitored his three charter guests as we maneuvered down the bank, seeming like a guide, host, teacher, and guru all in one. Unseen fish swiped our baits, and there he was handing us new ones or taking fish off the hook before asking. I got my first look at snappers and catfish, and more jacks. I was in heaven. Or so I thought.

A short while later we entered the backwater canals behind Isles of Capri. It was mesmerizing. A dolphin swam by. A raccoon crossed the canal. A tarpon blew up on bait near a turn in the creek. Then after some time feeding my bait to mystery fish and Kevin deftly maneuvering a few times to remove our hooks from tree branches, I caught my first snook. It was small, but so what? Now I was in heaven. I was sure of it. Kevin took the time to show me the snook’s sharp gill plates, the lateral line and how he could make the fish stop moving by laying it over his hand, and how to hold it by the lip. Then he explained reviving it and releasing it. Awesome.

As we moved through the canal, my brother hooked into something that took his bait and headed for the mangroves. He was on the back of the boat, rearing back, rod bent nearly double, but the fish didn’t care. Kevin tightened his drag, but it was no use. Straight into the roots. Seconds later, the line broke, and that was it. My brother looked at me and suffice it to say, excuse the pun, but we were both hooked.

We ended out day back at the boat ramp where my father gave Kevin a hundred-dollar tip, we thanked him and bid him farewell. Years later, I learned Kevin died from leukemia. He showed me the ropes. He planted in me the love for the backcountry I still have, and I never got to thank him for it. Four boats and thousands of hours later, after teaching my son and my wife to fish in the same areas and catching everything the place has to offer, the urge to get lost in the mangroves is still strong. Thanks Kevin. By the way, I still use the Albright knot and the loop knot. Just like you taught me.