June 13, 2019
By Chris Schneider
"It's not just a lighthouse. It's a landmark."
That's the motto of the Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club and a reminder that I had come to the right spot for my first saltwater sportfishing experience.
Our host for the event was Paul Michele of Navionics. Paul planned a week of new product showcasing's from a handful of companies, amazing meals, Florida Keys history, and world-class sportfishing. It was called the Keys Fish Off 2019.
Our stay for the week was at the Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club. The place is known for its diverse ecosystems and abundant marine life. I learned that the people, who call the Florida Keys home, have a deep passion for helping protect the marine life and waters here.
It's remarkable how much is being done there to preserve the wildlife and oceans.
A prime example is the Turtle Hospital. It’s a non-profit organization that employs dedicated individuals who rescue, rehab and release, endangered sea turtles back into the oceans once they are ready. During my stay, I was lucky enough to take a tour of the Turtle Hospital and witness the release of an almost 200-pound loggerhead sea turtle named Mr. T. This event drew hundreds of individuals to the beach.
I had two primary species picked out for this trip: tarpon and peacock bass. I fished for tarpon in the Keys and peacock bass in Miami on the second-to-last day of the trip.
The first morning of tarpon fishing was with Captain Dave Perry of Eagle Eye Charters. His boat was tied up at Hawks Cay Resort marina that morning. As I recall, we weren't but maybe two minutes behind schedule, and without hesitation, Capt. Dave yells, "You're late!" Upon being greeted with that kind of humor, I knew we were going to have a great day of fishing.
Our first stop was the famous Seven Mile Bridge. There's something eerie, yet, satisfying about pulling up to a massive bridge structure while it is still dark and slowly riding through pilings of the bridge and looking down into the ocean, imagining what lurks below as Capt. Dave turned the boat around to anchor-in-place. My body was overwhelmed with waves of emotions, eagerness, determination, and adrenaline -- to name a few. But here we were lob-casting 14-inch mullets out into the current seams with our rod tips held high. There was no turning back.
I anxiously waited for my turn. Capt. Dave turns to me and says, "Now, you don't need to set the hook like your bass fishing…just bow to him and start reeling." Easy to remember, right? Wrong. It wasn't but 30 minutes into fishing when I got a take. I felt the hard blast of the tarpon engulfing my mullet, and I laid into him like it was a monster. A couple of massive jumps and she was off. My first one ever; gone before my eyes. I was heart-broken. My first chance at tarpon and I blew it. Capt. Dave estimated that it weighed about between 90 and100pounds. Rookie mistake.
I did manage to hook into something big, though, during my time with Capt. Dave. A hefty nurse shark decided it wanted a mullet for lunch. It was a fun battle, and it was the first that I ever landed.
When we were done fishing, I took a boat ride to Pigeon Key for a luncheon with the other writers, who'd been out with their guides. Pigeon Key is a small (five-acre) island that is home to just eight weathered-buildings, which are on the National Register of Historic Places. Pigeon Key was a camp for workers of the Florida East Coast Railway during the early 1900s. After lunch, we were allowed to walk through several of the houses on the island. Pictures of old fish catches, tools that workers used on the railroad, bottles, rings, and necklaces were on display. Scattered on the walls of the buildings are historical dates and information regarding known ancestors that worked and settled on the island.
After lunch, it was time for my second chance at redemption. The next outing of tarpon fishing was with renowned Marathon guide Captain Butch Hewlett. His guiding operation is out of a custom 23-foot Albury Brothers’ boat. It’s a spotless and simple boat. A sea-foam colored deck greeted you as you stepped aboard. It gave us a smooth ride as it danced on the sea while we gracefully tracked to our first spot on the Gulf. I had a good feeling about the evening bite.
We pulled into a bridge piling, made a dozen or so casts, and waited. And waited. Nothing. We saved the remaining bait and headed to a new spot. It was a shallow flat with waves crashing onto it, which created a perfect scenario for feeding predators, and we hoped it would be a massive, hungry tarpon.
Lob cast after lob cast, our mullets crashed into the waves, frantically swimming in hopes of finding peace with the ocean. Not knowing danger was lurking near. And then, right before sunset. My chance burst forth. On my last cast of tarpon fishing of the trip, I was hooked up, and it was big.
The tarpon stayed down, and I couldn’t anticipate its next move. I tried to keep up with all of its moves. As I took it all in, I tried to keep my composure and land it. All the while trying not to do anything wrong. These fish are so powerful. It took everything in me to catch up with her at times. "She's probably going to take us through that bridge," said Capt. Butch. "If she decides to and gets down underneath a piling, it's over." That didn't sit well with me.
Sure enough, the giant took us through the Seven Mile Bridge. I held on with everything I had. Capt. Butch throttled the boat through an opening and to the other side on the bridge. As soon as I guided the big tarpon closer to the boat, it decided it wasn't quite ready to give up. Making a last-ditch effort towards the ocean’s floor, I held on to what felt like a motorcycle ripping and screaming under the boat.
Capt. Butch turned the boat around while I gained my composure and continued to battle the beast. After a couple more minutes of struggling to hold on, the massive fish surfaced alongside the boat long enough to get a few minutes of video (which resulted in the screenshot below).
On the last day of my trip, I took a two hour van ride to Miami to fish with Scott Martin, who is a professional bass angler.
Scott was gracious enough to escort me and a couple other writers to his "secret" canal that he has been fishing for years. After a short drive, we pulled off the main road, down a dirt road that seemed to go nowhere, and eventually we arrived at a canal behind several mall-looking buildings. We launched his Ranger boat in, and off we went hunting peacocks. We meandered through narrow tunnels and soared past running iguanas that were startled by the Evinrude outboard engine. The anticipation of catching my first peacock grew stronger and stronger with each turn we made.
After a quick 10-minute run, we made to one of Martin's usual spots. Sight-fishing for peacocks was going to be the name-of-the-game today. A blazing sun beat down on us most of the day; so, buffs, hats, and sunglasses were in order.
Shortly after scouting the banks, we saw a nice, two- to three-pound peacock. Scott gave me the first try. I was using Scott's Jack Hammer Spinning Combo from Favorite. "Cast past him and bring the shiner right on his head...then leave it,” Martin explained. "Pop it once, then let it sit," he whispered.
Using a perfect underhand pitch, I was able to feather the shiner inches from the shore onto the water's edge. A few seconds later, poof and my shiner was gone, and I set the hook. I was hooked up to my first ever peacock bass. How cool. Man, do these fish put up a fight. Similar to largemouth bass; they jump a lot and pull hard on light tackle. We probably caught a dozen or so peacocks sight-fishing that day. I also landed a big, orange midas. Craziest looking fish I've ever caught.
What an overall amazing experience. The Florida Keys are a special place, and we need to continue spreading awareness about keeping it protected for years to come.
It was an absolute once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I hope to do it again.
Thanks to everyone who made it possible.
*Chris Schneider is the Digital Editor for In-Fisherman.com
Contact: Captain Dave Perry - Eagle Eye Charters – (877) 423-6403; Captain Butch Hewlett – (305) 743-4594,