"Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware."
Fishing In The Keys
Crashing a Mancation at Cheeca Lodge
By Suzanne Wright
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“Mancations” is the marketing term for testosterone-fueled escapes, the male equivalent of “Girlfriend Getaways.” (Wait, haven’t men been slipping off for hunting, fishing and golf weekend for centuries?) Four guys recently let me crash their mancation in Islamorada in the Middle Keys. Once populated by Calusa Indians, Spanish explorers and Bahamian wreckers and homesteaders, today Islamorada is known as the “Sportfishing Capitol of World.” There are more than 600 species of fish in these waters, including snook, bonefish, sailfish, wahoo, marlin, kingfish, tuna and shark.
Base is Cheeca Lodge built in 1946, a resort that attracts lots of honeymooners and families, along with fishermen and women. A couple of weeks prior to my visit, President George Bush (Senior) and Jennifer Lopez were in residence at the same time. JLo had an entourage of 25, Bush just three. There are 199 rooms, villas and suites; my room in the main lodge was recently renovated in a handsome Tommy Bahama style: dark woods, oversized leather chair and ottoman, marble bathroom with sunken tub, Casablanca-style ceiling fan and flat screen TV. Ask for an oceanview room. Although my focus is on fishing, there are also nine holes of golf on a Jack Nickalus course, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking and a spa offering gentlemen’s facials and massages.
Four white-haired old salts encircle a table at the Curt Gowdy Lounge, named for the famous sportscaster. I order peel-and-eat Key West shrimp and a steak salad for lunch and head out to the 535-foot pier where a father and daughter are fishing. The water is shallow, glassy and pale aqua; Captain Mark Johnson of Florida Keys Fun Fishing is waiting in his 20-foot skiff. Bill and I hop aboard. It’s an easy shot to the Everglades National Park and we have company almost immediately: a pod of bottlenose dolphins cavorting by the boat. In minutes we are casting for spotted sea trout and ladyfish using artificial lures. Call it beginner’s luck, but my 10-pound trout is the first and largest catch. Captain Mark has a two-year old who is already a proficient angler; a big portion of his customer base is families and novices, though he also has lots of experts.
Next we try sight-fishing at a remote mangrove island that dates back hundreds of years. We chase elusive barracuda, bonnet head and lemon sharks in the shallows. A giant snowy heron watches from the shore. I enjoy the quiet rhythm of backcountry fishing: the intimacy with the environment, the finesse, the slowed pace. Who knew this city gal was a fisherwoman! On the way back in, we stop at Robbie’s to feed the giant tarpon and have a beer.
After a cocktail at the Cheeca’s Tiki Bar, the bellman gives me a lift to LazyDays, a casual eatery. I sit on the balcony watching kids skipping stones at the water’s edge and eat yellowtail snapper almondine and sautéed dolphin (that’s mahi-mahi, not Flipper) Lazy topped with bread crumbs, diced tomatoes, scallions, shredded parmesan cheese and key lime butter. There’s zingy key lime pie with a graham cracker crust for dessert.
I am up at 5:30 the next morning to join Captain Ron Moore and owner Ed Kimmen of Old Hatt Sportfishing. The 35-year old, 41-foot foot Hatteras is a clean, comfy, air-conditioned beauty. We head out into the deep blue waters of the Atlantic to greet the sunrise; by 9 a.m., me and five guys are eating and drinking. We are trolling for dolphin; the biggest haul is a 30-pounder. Sadly, it’s not mine, though I do nab the first fish of the day. After we clean up, we repair to Cheeca’s upscale dining room, where the chef presents the day’s catch. Anglers love to brag and I get the right to crow over my dinner plate. Like Capt. Mark says, “Girls can catch ‘em too.”
If You Go
To visit Cheeca Lodge, fly into Ft. Lauderdale or Miami (drive time is the same), rent a car and head 90 miles south to Islamorada on the Overseas Highway. Log onto
www.cheeca.com for reservations. The Keys are most pleasant in spring, fall and summer, but he fish are biting year-round. To book backcountry fishing, log onto www.floridakeysfunfishing.com; to book offshore fishing, log onto www.oldhatt.com.
Boxed item: A Great Book for Your Duffel
The Cure for Anything is Saltwater: How I Threw My Life Overboard and Found Happiness at Sea by Mary South is the story of a successful but bored book publisher who quits her job, sells her house, buys a 40-foot steel trawler she christens the Bossanova, attends seamanship school and sails from Florida to Maine with two Jack Russell terriers. With a leap of faith, she casts off her old life, makes a new one and convinces, you, too, in this 200-page quick read that indeed, the ocean can solve a myriad of life problems.