Key West: The Food

Key West is a touristy town, and dining experiences in such places often run the gamut from great to poor in a way that normal towns don’t quite see.  The touristy places attract some top flight restaurateurs and chefs, but also have an unfortunate number of spots living off their location and banking on glitzy advertising, high traffic, and reputations that may no longer be earned.  In my Miami Beach years, I often made the point to visitors that the absolute top tourist area, Ocean Drive on South Beach, definitely fit into this latter category and the restaurants there could not compete with those on, for instance, Lincoln Road (also on South Beach) or Wynwood on the mainland just across the causeway.  I am years out of date for Miami Beach recommendations, and your mileage may vary, so I only use it as an example.

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Sunset at Sunset Lounge

Our experience in Key West, however, has been quite good and often excellent, with very few places that we would recommend against.  Part of this is our online research, part of it is freely offered opinions from our many friends in the area, and another part is that this was our fifth winter on the island (on top of the numerous visits made before our fulltime RV days) and so we know, to a large extant, what we like and what we don’t here.

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Old Town Mexican Taco Tuesday aims for higher end tacos at a higher price than Lucy’s

This year we resolved to “eat out smart,” i.e., select our restaurants carefully, don’t get pressured into going to those places we didn’t fully appreciate in past years, and hit some new, well reviewed spots.  In our last post. about the the many social events we attended while in Key West. we covered Taco Tuesday at Lucy’s, Wing Wednesday at the VFW, the Sunset Lounge on the naval base, and Mangrove Mama’s on Sugarloaf Key.  I won’t belabor the point on those except to reiterate that Lucy’s taco day is better than Old Town Mexican’s (and there upstairs bar is great any day of the week,) the VFW (in partnership with Treble Hooks) is truly a great “bang for your buck” option (especially if you’re drinking,) Sunset Lounge provided a mixed bag, and we are willing to give Mangrove Mama’s another go before passing final judgement. 3-lucys

So where, other than those four, did we dine and to which of them do we give our highly coveted endorsement?  Let’s start with the happy hour specials at The Boat House.  Get there early or expect a wait, but it is well worth it.  Basic drinks and all the “small plates” are half price.  Fried lobster, lamb chops, filet mignon and mushroom skewers, multiple shrimp options, baby back ribs, and much more all at half price.  We find that three items is more than sufficient for each of us, or just two if we split the less than $2 Boat House chefs’ bread.

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Steve and I at The Boat House

El Mocho is the best low cost Latin restaurant in the Lower Keys.  Let me repeat that: El Mocho is the best low cost Latin restaurant in the Lower Keys.  I will stand by that against any competitor.  It is authentic Cuban fare at rock bottom (for The Keys) prices.  We loved swinging in for tostadas (Cuban bread toasted, buttered, and flattened,) empanadas, or pastelitos de carne (pastries with flavored ground beef inside.)  The highlight of our multiple food experiences there, however, was the Friday special: oxtail stew.  Aside from being delicious the serving size, which included toasted bread, maduros (fried sweet plantains,) white rice, and garbanzo beans, was more than sufficient for Rose and I to split.  We waddled out of their full, with leftovers, and only $15 poorer.

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Somehow we never got a picture from El Mocho, so enjoy this excellent shot of Deb and Steve.

We attended a fund raiser at the historic Key West Fire House Museum, and ended up winning a silent auction for t-shirts from The Lobster Shack restaurant.  What can say, Rose liked the design.  When we picked them up a week or so later we went straight to the shack wearing said t-shirts, and I had a fantastic Maine style lobster roll while Rose enjoyed a delicious shrimp roll in the same style.  It’s a tiny little place but we thoroughly enjoyed it.  Next winter I might compare their lobster roll to another place that comes highly recommended, but for now I would not hesitate to recommend The Lobster Shack. 6-lobster-shack

Let me take this opportunity to rant a bit about crappy Tripadvisor reviewers.  I am in the habit of checking out not just the general assessments on that site, but I tend to read the worst reviews even when they are in the distinct minority.  Check those for The Lobster Shack: One guy gave them a one star review because they closed early after the death of an employee’s father and a high wind advisory.  Another gave one star because, essentially, he didn’t understand the difference between Maine and Florida spiny lobster.  A few other two star reviewers likewise did not understand the difference between these two distinct crustacean species, and were thus dismissive of the Maine lobster prices here in a place more than a thousand miles from Bar Harbor and Kennebunkport.

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The Upstairs “Locals” Bar at Lucy’s es quite nice.

Last year we had a fantastic, serendipitous seafood pasta meal at Rustica, with liberal amounts of hogfish, shrimp, and other offerings from the sea.  We did not manage to get back on a day with that special, but the pizza was top notch, though “artisinally” priced.  Next year we plan on checking their schedule so we can once again enjoy the delicious seafood pasta.

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Roger, Stan, Marilyn, and Barny in the backgroud.

Angelino’s Pizza is another iconic downtown Key West establishment that we have patronized and loved during various bar crawls.  The individual slices there are about as great as you could hope for, particularly during an evening of morally questionable activity.  The actual whole pies, however, we found woefully lacking, as did a couple of our friends during separate visits.  Bottom line: slices yes, pies no, and we will remain a bit suspicious next year even for the slices. 9-sunset-lounge-us

We loved the amazing Sunday brunch at Bistro 245 so much last year that we did it twice.  We felt that to be a bit glutinous, and thus resolved to only do it once this season.  It did not disappoint!  Once again we went with our good friends Steve and Deb.  Located in the Margaritaville Resort in front of one of the cruise ship mooring piers, we love the outdoor morning view, excellent service and incredible and varied buffet offerings.  Yes, it is $44 per person, and thus our most expensive meal of the winter, but with the bottomless mimosas and champagne, imaginative food options, fantastic lamb and prime rib, raw oysters, sushi, omelet station, smoked salmon and cream cheese, crab claws, to-die-for desert section, and a dozen other things I won’t list, we found it well worth the price of admission.  Besides, we won a silent option at a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser that covered the tax and tip! 10-bistro-us

Two Friends is one of Rose’s favorite, nostalgic, Key West spots.  It has great environment with a top quality roster of live music acts performing at a volume that is not overly intrusive (unlike the horrific Kelly’s Irish Bar, just to pick one example.)  We paid a pretty penny on our Saint Patrick’s Day visit for Rose’s snow crab legs (obviously a traditional Irish meal,) my spicy chicken wings (common fare in County Kerry going back centuries I understand,) and a stream of drinks ($5 Jameson’s) but it was thoroughly enjoyable. 11-two-friends-snow-crab

Some of our Sigsbee friends raved about the gigantic fish sandwich from Mundy’s Pirate Seafood, a little shack of a place in a strip mall in the center of the island.  We remembered buying shrimp from the colorful owner at a craft market downtown last year, and gave it a shot.  The reputation he enjoys is well deserved; it was a huge and tasty fish sandwich with a mound of fries.  We split it and were completely full.  While trying to find the place I noticed that his google search results provided an old and “permanently closed” location.  I talked to him about this, got his correct address and hours, and fixed most of the google results such that you get the right address and correct hours, however the google pin point drops on the old location.  If anyone knows how to fix this, please let me know.  It’s even worse with his Tripadvisor result, which shows him as closed.  I would like to fix this as well, so any recommendations appreciated.

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Didn’t get a pic of Mundy’s either, so here are the wings from the VFW.

Near the end of our stay we enjoyed a flight of beer and a burger from Waterfront Brewery.  I am surprised it took us so long to get there given that we are quite into trying out local small batch breweries.  It was solid, and since we went for happy hour, quite affordable. 13-two-friends-us-1

This sounds like quite a lot of restaurant activity for people supposedly on a tight budget.  We greatly mitigated the costs, however, by usually only dining during the happy hour or daily specials, and by making extensive use of the many discount cards available at certain kiosks.  Many of them are Buy One, Get One for drinks, but others offer half off appetizers or some other discount.  So yes, we ate and had drinks out quite a lot, but we did so pretty affordably, and look forward to more next year! 14-discount-cards

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Key West: The Social Life

While the Winter weather, beautiful water, and general “living in paradise” conditions are a major reason we and so many of the other Sigsbee campers keep coming back to Key West, another major draw is the social atmosphere here in the RV park.  Of the two hundred or more different parks we have visited, none can come even close to the constant party atmosphere that pervades this place.  And it seems there are more events added every season, though part of that is simply that we know more people each year, and thus get invited to more things.

Arial view of Lucy’s back porch during one of many Tuesday gatherings there.

Things started off the day after our arrival with the annual Sigsbee Polar Bear Plunge.  This, obviously, involves a group dip in the bay, in waters that are merely a bit chilly compared to what our northern countrymen experience.  I think it was all of about 72 degrees this year.  The plunge itself is followed by an outdoor potluck breakfast complete with Mimosa’s and Bloody Mary’s, of course.

Like many of the Sigsbee events, this gets bigger every year

In past years a portion of the social activity was coordinated by the base’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation department.  But last year, in the wake of the Hurricane Irma, MWR pretty much dropped out of the party organization game.  Into that gap stepped a few Sigsbee stalwarts, particularly Eddy and Tina, determined to continue some of our favorite social traditions and perhaps add a few more.  One of our main events is the Sigsbee Shuffle; a moving party with multiple hosts providing a drink and light hors d’oeuvres.  Always a good time.

Shuffle host Mike handing out shots at one of the stops 

Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar & Grill has been hosting a $1 taco night every Tuesday for some time, with an every growing contingent from Sigsbee dominating the larger tables.  A few months before we arrived, they moved locations, and some felt the new spot was not quite as workable for our large group, so for the first Taco Tuesday of our Winter season, we tried another joint, Old Time Mexican Restaurant.

Val, Joan, Rusty, and Charito at Taco Tuesday

It had its perks (great sangria and an interesting taco variety) but a significant portion of our Sigsbee clan felt that Lucy’s couldn’t be beat.  So for most of the following Tuesdays for the rest of our stay we returned to there.  I think Lucy’s taco’s are bigger and better this year, and though the Corona price has increased from $2 to $3, it is still a fantastic value for Key West, and always a lot of fun. 

The only bar/restaurant on the Sigsbee Annex base is the Sunset Lounge.  As the name suggests, it is perfectly positioned for a great sunset view, has decent food, and frequently has live music.  We had a big turnout from the RV park for the No Name Band’s appearance there.  The band was started by two members of our Sigsbee community, Mike and Nelson, and they always provide a great, energetic set of mostly classic rock. 

From Left to Right, Dave, Nelson, and Mike.  Band Member Debbie not in this set for some reason.

The VFW was closed due to hurricane damage last winter, but reopened with a vengeance this year.  They offer half price Wing Wednesday (comes out to about 50 cents per wing) and Prime Rib Night on Thursday.  We took a group of eight for wing night and had a great time made especially fantastic when Steve won $600 from a pull tab machine and picked up everyone’s dinner tab!

Deb and Steve with their winnings.

Another event becoming an annual tradition is Eddy and Tina’s blind wine tasting.  This involves every participating couple bringing a bottle of wine, restricted to whatever criteria our hosts decide.  Last year it was reds, under $15, and not sweet.  This year it was whites, under $10.  Eddy and Tina add a layer of fun by including a bottle of $2 buck chuck (Trader Joe’s cheap special) and a $20+ bottle of something as well.  Last year the cheap stuff actually one the most votes, though fortunately I think it only made the top three this year. 

A group of us prepping the wine bottles for the big tasting.  We had about 25 bottles and couples last year, this year it was up over 70, and we had to split into three groups lest we all pass out or run out of wine.

I get that some people might find the Key West sunset cocktail cruises a bit over hyped, but when you get a large group of friends, fantastic organizers (Tina and Eddy again) and add in a costume theme, it completely lives up to expectations.  We had somewhere around 40 of our group participate, with most dressing up appropriate to the Gilligan’s Island theme.  Rose and I went as Mary Ann and The Professor, while Gilligan and Ginger were the most popular choices. 

The Professor and Mary Ann

The No Name Band booked a Saturday gig at Mangrove Mama’s, a long standing Lower Keys iconic restaurant 22 miles up the road on Sugarloaf Key.  We made carpools and had a big turn out that ended up completely overwhelming the wait staff.  The music was great, the food solid, but the “getting our bill” phase of the evening was utter chaos.  We mentioned to the owner that whenever he has The No Name Band playing, he can expect a big turnout from our campground.  We hope next time he staffs accordingly!

Another years long tradition among our group is the annual “Cinco de Marcho” party.  The name is obviously a play on the Mexican holiday, and our version is intended to celebrate all the holidays we will be apart.  Last year it was a day long party in a fixed location.  This year, Eddy and Tina created a significantly ramped up Sigsbee Shuffle with each host team assigned a different holiday theme.  We started at the ball field to get things going, as well as honor the memory of some of our Sigsbee people that passed away in the past two years.  RIP Brian and Dave. 

Opening ceremonies for Cinco de Marcho

We volunteered for the host team assigned the Cinco de Mayo theme, and I can say with all honesty and humility, we were absolutely the best stop.  We had buckets of margaritas, walking tacos (small Fritos or Doritos bags topped off with taco meat, sour creme, salsa, and shredded cheese,) and Rose made a great frame prop for everyone to take pictures with.  Truly a great time, and we thoroughly enjoyed the Octoberfest, Fourth of July, and Saint Patrick’s Day themed stops as well.  We ended the long day back at the ball field for more drinks and softball of questionable safety. 

Joanne and Charlie with Rose’s picture frame.

People were always throwing parties.  It seemed like not an evening passed that you would not see a moderate to large group gathered outside someone’s rig if you took a stroll or drive around the campground.  Jan and Bob hosted another big one to celebrate everyone who had a Birthday in January, February, or March.  It was, like most of our events, a pot luck style buffet with way more food than necessary. 

The Birthday boys and girls

I’m probably forgetting a few events (I just remembered the Superbowl Party and Leonard’s famous fish fries,) but the last one I will write up is Val and Joan’s sunset farewell party complete with live music from Val, Mike, Nelson, and others.  Mildly subdued since we were all saying goodbye, but a great way to end the Key West party season.  Until next year, Sigsbee crew, when it is possible we will have even more to write about if our livers allow it. 

Key West: Geocaching

I think Geocaching (explanation at that link) is a fantastic hobby, but it is particularly suited for RVers travelling around the country.  It gets you out to places you might not otherwise see, often involves a bit of exercise, and unlike those who live in a fixed area, we won’t run out of caches or find ourselves needing to venture further and further afield in search of them.  For instance, here is my cache map from Sanibel Island in 2016, which left only the east end of the place still holding unfound caches.

Our cache map after our last visit to Sanibel in 2016.  The yellow smiles are the ones we found, every other little box we had not yet found.

We “cleared” the rest of those during our first visit in 2019, and now have to venture into Fort Myers to find new caches.  If we lived there full time, it wouldn’t take long to clear Fort Myers as well,  but as full time RVers travelling out of Key West 9 months of the year, we can only temporarily run out: the next town will certainly have more to find.

The Geocaching website updated their symbology in 2017, but you can see the obvious expansion of our found caches in the area; we cleared the Island and started working on Fort Myers.

But, for those three months in Key West, we have pretty much run out.  There were a few newly placed ones this year, and a few “Earth Caches” (a GPS location that does not have a physical container to find, but rather questions to answer about the spot, which usually educates you about something significant in the area) that I had not yet done.  That meant only getting about half a dozen caches on the Island, though we managed to get a few more by venturing into the other lower keys. 

Nothing left to find in Key West unless they place some new caches.  We need to venture up to Sugarloaf and beyond to cache.

All that is a long way of saying that though we managed to find 500 caches in 2018, pushing us to 1000 as of December 31st, we left Key West with only 1007 caches.  Expect that number to start ramping up considerably now that we are back on the move!

Key West: Our Winter on the Water

Aside from living in an RV park right on the water, we also spent a fair amount of time out on the water on various friends boats.  Aside from the sheer joy of it, getting the chance to try different boats allows us to appreciate the pros and cons of the various types.  This experience is quite handy for anyone bitten by the boat bug and considering a future purchase of their own.  (Ahem, Rose.)

Dennis taking us out on a particularly calm day.

If you read our stone crabbing post, you know that we spent a good amount of time on Dennis’ boat.  He towed it down here last year, allowing our little group to do a bit of fishing on very calm days, but this year we mainly used it for crabbing.  It is a 17′ Carolina Skiff with a very flat bottom, which minimizes the days you can go out as well as distinctly limiting how far from the protected gulf bay near the base you may venture. 

Despite the size Dennis’ boat was in a few ways ideal for our crabbing:  It had plenty of open working space in front of the center console helm, a big casting deck in the bow which worked well as a platform for us to work the traps, and a low enough freeboard (the space between the water line and the deck railing) which meant we didn’t have to haul the trap too far out of the water to get it on deck. 

It wasn’t all crabbing this season, we managed to get in one short fishing trip, and though it was a small haul, it was, as always, fun and instructive for those of us new to salt water fishing.

While we appreciate all boating opportunities, our fishing highlights last year were the times we got to go out on Leonard’s boat.  It is a 26′ Twin Vee catamaran with two big Suzuki four stroke motors.  Within the boating community, there is an ongoing vociferous debate on the best riding hull: a catamaran or the more common deep “V.”   I can’t address this with anything approaching scientific objectivity, but my personal preference leans heavily towards the power cat, which may have more to do with Leonard’s being the biggest personal fishing boat we have been out on than any actual hull shape preference.

You can really appreciate the cat vs deep V hull when you see them out of the water.

Aside from the ride, one of the best things about going out with Leonard is that he loves to teach people about fishing.  We always come back from with significantly more knowledge; setting the hook better, fish identification and rules, rod set up, trolling techniques, you name it, Leonard wants you to know it.  And even if some of that knowledge just whizzes right over our heads, he is an entertaining story teller with a lot of material to work with.

Rose and Maryanne

Another advantage of a trip with Leonard is that he always has a full crew, so we get to know new people, or get to know those we already know better.  This year Leonard took us out along with Steve, Charlie, Gary and Maryanne.  His boat is big enough such that even with six lines in the water drop fishing we usually had plenty of room; we only tangled lines a couple of times. 

The boys.

Let’s talk about a slightly delicate subject: compensating the boat owners.  It is tradition and courtesy to offer some money to the owners when you go out on these boats.  They have, after all, made a huge investment in the boat itself, blow through gas far faster than your car or truck does, have a shocking amount of maintenance to do each and every year, and are often letting you use their spare rods and gear.  Now maybe, like our friends Danny and Patty, they will refuse any but the most insistent offer, but most owners will appreciate it.   If nothing else, at least buy the ice and bait.

This is especially important if you come back with a huge cooler full of fish and expect to take a share.  After discussion with other guests of Leonard, for instance, I give $40 no matter what we come back with, and more if Rose is along for the ride.  That is more than I offer on a smaller boat, but then again you are almost guaranteed to come back with a solid amount of fish when out with Leonard.  One time last year we returned with over 200, mostly 8″-12″ lane snapper, grunts, and porgies.  Not everyone wanted a share, but I did, and I assure you, taking only a portion, I walked away with far more value than my traditional $40 compensation.  Oh, and in case it is not be obvious, if you want some fish meat, be prepare to help with the fish cleaning. 

The cruise ship channel is one of the top fishing areas for very near shore stuff.

Danny and Patty brought their pontoon boat down from Alabama this year, but within a month or so he had sprung for a brand new 23′ Bulls Bay deep “V” with a 200hp Yamaha outboard.  This was one of the things, obvious to experienced fishers or boat owners I suppose, that one notes down here: almost all of the boats are outboards, hardly an inboard or an inboard/outboard hybrid to be seen, until you get into the charter or yacht sized options.

We got to go out one day with Danny, and though conditions were a bit rough it was still a great time, and we caught enough fish to be happy with the haul.  Danny and Patty are both very experienced freshwater bass fishers, but they are still learning this Lower Keys salt water thing, and we experimented with a couple of different trolling set ups in between drop fishing.  The excitement of the day was probably snagging the small shark which put up a robust fight, and managed to cut the line, possibly on the prop, just as we got it beside the boat.

 

In addition to the power cat vs deep V hull debate, preferred engine is another area with a robust discussion and adherents.  Our interaction with an admittedly limited number of owners has led us to believe the top two preferences are the Yamaha and Suzuki four strokes.  They are incredibly reliable, quite, and efficient.  While Leonard preferred the Suzuki, Danny insisted on the more expensive Yamaha.  Apparently all the big time bass people use Yamaha’s, and he would settle for nothing less.   This is not to say that Mercury, Evinrude, Honda, and Johnson brands are rare down here, it just seems they are a touch less desired.

It wasn’t all power boating this year, we also enjoyed a few hours on the water with Diamond Jim and his “Texas Kayak.”  This is a Hobie Mirage Tandem Island; basically a two person kayak with a sail, two outriggers, and twin “Mirage” pedal power.  A real Frankenstein, but incredibly versatile.  The Mirage Drive pedal system allows you to maneuver in light or no winds, and assists in tacking when under sail.  The sail is a robust 90 square foot set up that can be controlled from either the front or rear position.  The outriggers are equipped with “trampolines” that allow a third person, within the overall 600 lb weight restriction.

Mast stepped, outriggers out, trampolines going on.

It takes a good 20 to 30 minutes to get it rigged for sea, but once ready it is a fantastic little sailboat for the near shore bay area, and can operate in anything from dead wind to 20 knots or so, depending on the seas.  The thing is light enough that Jim can put it in the water with just his golf cart, and it folds up so small (the outriggers fold in, the mast is light and easily removed, and the mirage drives pull right out) that he can travel with it on top of his motorhome.

Jim takes so many people out, and is such an advocate for the Hobie sail/mirage system, that other Sigsbee campers have bought one as well.  This is Dave and Clara out on Hobie’s smaller tandem option.

So, there it is, our winter boating fun in Key West.  We are near the end of our stay, but look forward to even more next year.

Prepare for Key West blog post inundation

Just a quick note to say yes, we are still alive and still maintaining this travel blog.  Just as during our last two Winter stays in Key West, we fell way behind on the blog.  Though we are not moving, and have all the time in the world to keep it up, we fall into a routine heavy on socializing and light on productivity (other than our markets.)  So look for a series of posts during the next week or so covering out three month stay in paradise, including the boating, dining, parties,  geocaching, and markets.  In the mean time, enjoy these iguanas.

Key West Stone Crabbing: the rules, labor, process, rewards, and costs.

I’m departing from our normal “blog in chronological order” and instead will cover our Key West winter by individual subjects.  We are here for two and a half months, so it would probably get a bit tedious to simply repeat the things we are doing each week while here.  Frankly, this is sort of how we did it two years ago, so we are not really breaking new ground.

Any excuse to get out on the water!

Despite having grown up in Florida in a pretty outdoorsy family, I had never fished in the ocean until last year during our forth winter stay in Key West.  To our mild surprise, Rose and I both discovered we absolutely love going out on a boat and catching fish (down here, it’s more catching than fishing.)  Last year we had the good fortune to hook up with Dennis and Ginger, who brought their small, flat bottom boat down from North Carolina, and after a season of successful near shore boating we, along with our friends Steve and Deb, talked about expanding our activities to stone crab trapping. 

It’s pretty common to get some things in the trap other than crab.  We have pulled a fair number of small spiny lobsters out, and expect that we might get a blue crab or two some time as well.  If the blues are big enough we can take them, but we can’t keep these lobsters: too small and recreational lobster has to be caught by hand with scuba or snorkel.

A standard Florida salt water fishing license includes the right to stone crabbing, with each license holder permitted five recreational traps.  Honestly, our talk last year about crabbing this year had, in my mind, been less than conclusive and more exploratory in nature, i.e., “perhaps we will try some crabbing.”  But in Dennis’ recollection it was a firm commitment, and days after our arrival he had me in his Jeep headed 22 miles north to Cudjoe Key to get three flat pack kits of five traps each. Despite a rough start, I am ever thankful for his insistence. 

This is a bit more unusual: a 2 foot nurse shark managed to wiggle in and couldn’t get out.  Still very much alive and full of our pigs feet bate.

The kits come with nearly everything you need to get started: molded plastic traps, hinges, screws for assembly, entry hole, chew out block, marine line, and buoys.  The only thing you have to get separately is concrete (the traps are basically five sides of a cube, with 25 pounds of cement serving as both the floor and the anchor) and bait, plus paint if you want to distinctively decorate the buoys.  The trap assembly was a piece of cake, far easier than most Ikea products; Ginger and I “assembly lined it” while Dennis went to get cement.  The cement, however, was just plain hard work since we had limited tools and facilities: essentially we had to mix up 15 separate batches of it, one for each trap.

 

Trap construction: the sides and top snap together, then you use the stainless steel screws to attach the hinges, latches, entry hole, and wood chew out block.  The last is in case you lose a trap completely, the wood block can eventually be eaten through so a lost trap does not end up catching crab after crab and starving them.

Then there is the bait.  Having consulted with a handful of experienced trappers, we went with the initially expensive option of pigs feet.  Yes, pigs feet.  While you can certainly attract crabs with a big helping of fish heads and entrails (frequently available for free at the marina fish cleaning station) they simply won’t last long enough for our needs.  After a few days in the trap, pin fish and other small creatures will likely have picked every last piece of meat from the bones.  We don’t have the option of going out every three days to check every trap and replace the fish, so we needed something that the pin fish and their ilk could not so easily decimate, and the tough pig skin is what the experts use. 

60 pound big box of still mostly frozen pigs feet.

We supplement the pig feet with a can of wet cat food in each trap, drilling a few holes in the can before placement.  Cat food is one of those somewhat controversial choices among the recreational crabbing community; some people swear by it, others think it is a useless ingredient supported no more than an old wive’s tale.  Having done this crabbing thing for more than a month now, our current bait theory is thus: Do not skimp, put in lots of food, and cover all olfactory bases.

Steve: Hooker

The pig feet, while costing us $40 for a big 60 pound box, lasts a full month in our 20 (yes, we bought more) traps.  But the pig feet take a couple of days to really break down, rot, emit aromas, and therefor attract the crabs.  So we include a can of cat food to start things off faster.  And since we are putting the boat in at the marina, we might as well toss in a couple of fish heads in each trap as well.  It may be overkill, but we want our crabs to be happy, well fed, and not eating each other should we have a long delay between trap retrieval days.

Jack: Hauler

A word about the self sustaining nature of stone crabbing: unlike lobstering, blue crabbing, dungeness crabbing, snow crabbing, or king crabbing, with stone crabs you are only taking a claw, and only if it is big enough, and never from egg bearing females.  The crab goes back in the water to live and regrow said claw.  I am informed that there is a greater than 90% survival rate for crabs that have had one claw cleanly removed.  This “clean removal” process is a bit of an art in and of itself, and as our group’s designated claw remover, I am still perfecting the process.  In one unfortunate incident, I broke the entire crab in half.  I suspect he had a less than 90% survival likelihood.

One of our larger crabs.

So how has it gone?  It started really bad, but has picked up enormously.  A few days after our first 14 traps were placed (there was a boat propeller-to-styrofoam buoy incident which precluded full trap placement) we went out and excitedly gathered a grand total of three legal sized crab legs on our first haul.  This was a bit crushing since our already high expectations had been raised even higher by some experienced crabbing acquaintances that, as we left the marina, predicted we would come back with 25 on our first trip.

Measuring is definitely a two person job.

It felt a bit like that scene in Forrest Gump when he came back from shrimping with not even enough for a shrimp cocktail appetizer.  OK, our trap placement was not perfect, and they had only been in the water a few days, but it was pretty disappointing, and we discussed many options for improving our lot.  Regardless, rather than freeze such a minuscule amount, we elected to cook and symbolically eat them, however little meat there was, as our first official self-caught stone crab meal. 

The second time we went to pull traps was better in every way.  Dennis and Ginger had five traps each, and Steve and I realized that two of us splitting the take from just five joint traps would likely never provide us and our wives more than a small appetizer with each catch.  So he went and purchased five more traps, which we rapidly prepped to drop on our second trap retrieval trip, along with the last of Dennis’ traps with a replacement buoy.  Said catch was more to our liking: we had 15 legal claws to take home.  Steve steamed and froze them in anticipation of a future crab fest. 

Our second haul was better: 15 claws.

Each time we go out we get better at it.  We have moved non-producing traps to better producing locations.  Dennis gets better and better at boat handling around the traps.  Steve and I have figured out a division of labor at the front of the boat as we snag and reel in each trap by hand, and then pull the individual crabs out, measure the claws, and take what is legal.  Rose records each trap’s result so we can assess if we need to move it.  I have gotten more comfortable grabbing the crabs (the crabs are deceptively fast and their claws are shockingly strong; a wrong move and despite work gloves there will be blood if not a broken finger.)

There is method to this data collection madness.  Rose kept track of how many crabs of any size were in the trap, how many claws we took, and what other things were in the trap (lobster, shark).  This allows us to make informed decisions about moving unproductive traps to more productive areas.

Our most recent trip out was the most productive by far.  Granted, it was nearly two weeks since our last pull as we waited for a calm day, but when those smooth seas finally came we pulled out 39 legal crab legs from 18 of our traps!  Things got a bit windy and we had to leave one of our three areas with two traps unaccounted for.  This crab haul was cause for celebration, and so we had a dinner-party-cum-crab-fest with the six of us earlier this week.  We had eleven pounds of crab from the 54 claws, and with our side dishes it was simply too much.  We ended up each taking home 7 uneaten claws for various culinary uses in the following days.  Rose and I just gorged on stone crab white cheddar mac and cheese to finish off our share.

About 11 pounds of steamed stone crab claws.

Lets talk money.  Getting into recreational stone crabbing is surprisingly affordable by Key West standards, but it still requires an initial investment.  A flat pack of five trap kits costs $118 and change after taxes.  Once you add in two 60 pound bags of cement, and a share of the pigs feet and cat food, I calculate each holder of five traps is into it for $150.  That is $600 for our 20 traps.  We have pulled in a bit over 11 pounds, which by standard grocery prices goes for around $30 a pound (it varies by claw size.)  So by my reckoning we have paid for about half of our initial investment, and there is still a month to go this season along with future years. 

This is how we want our traps to look: lots of crabs, with several claws big enough to keep, and no other intruders.

All of that fancy math ignores one big thing: you have to have a boat, and only Dennis is providing that.  You could maybe haul in crab traps in a stand up paddle board or kayak if they were close to shore, but really, you need a boat.  Steve and I try to compensate for our lack of boat contribution.  Need ice? we buy it.  Cat food? we got it.  Truck to put the boat in? Steve has it.  But really, we are indebted to and dependent on Dennis for this generous part of the venture.  In a future post I hope to address the informal customs and economics of private recreational boat owners versus their fishing/crabbing/ lobstering passengers. 

Rose was barely able to catch this pic as i snatched and tossed the nurse shark back.

48 Months Fulltiming: December 2018 Report

The Distance:  714 miles as we ran an inverted “U” from SW to SE Florida via Central Florida ending the month in Key West.  We closed out our 2018 distance with 10,436 miles. 

The Places:  We spent the first 22 days of the month in Venice before embarking on our Christmas run around the state.  We spent two days with Cousin Carlyle and her family in Inverness, then Christmas morning in Lake Mary at Aunt Judy’s, five days with Xavier and Joy in Coral Springs, one night with the Nieves in Cutler Bay, and finally made it to Key West on New Years Eve day.  We enjoyed 22 days with full hook ups, 5 days with 20 amp electricity, and dry camped for 2 days.

The Budget:  Like last month, we continued out push to make up for our big Ocotober repair/upgrade bill.  Despite 22 days in our most expensive regular park, we compensated with three markets and very limited expenditures beyond the necessities.  We ended up 8% under budget, which is solid, but not quite enough to get us completely under for the year.   January and February should be really good for us, so we will catch back up by the end of Winter.

The Drama and the Improvements:   Nothing significant to report, other than our brand new TV antenna no longer is getting power.  Might have to swing back by the installation shop in Port Charlotte on the way out of Key West in 2019 if we can’t get it working.  If things go well in January with our markets we will begin making some improvements and upgrades this Spring.

Our monthly reports so far this year:

January Monthly Report

February Monthly Report

March Monthly Report

April Monthly Report

May Monthly Report

June Monthly Report

July Monthly Report

August Monthly Report

September Monthly Report

October Monthly Report

November Monthly Report

A Christmas Dash around Florida

I grew up very close to my first cousins Rob and Carlyle, spending many days at their house and more at our grandparents lake house.  We are close in age, and all remember Christmas as a major family gathering.  Adulthood and our scattered locations meant seeing them rarely, and almost never with the three of us and our families together.  Three years ago I finagled their dad into hosting a Christmas season event that saw us all united, and I managed to host one in Central Florida two years back as well.  Last year it just didn’t come together, but for 2018 cousin Carlyle volunteered to host at her house on the Gulf Coast on the Sunday before Christmas, allowing all those with jobs to attend.

How “cousins” work: First cousins share a grand parent.  Second cousins share a great grand parent.  Third cousins share a great great grandparent.  If the cousins are separated by a generation, i.e., the child of a first cousin, then they are “once removed.”  E.g., this is my son with my first cousin Rob’s twin children.  That makes the girls my first cousins, once removed, and makes them the second cousins to my son.  Got it?

We pulled chocks from Sanibel and drove up to Inverness in time for me to cook a whole turkey (brined overnight, spatchcocked, of course) while Carlyle’s daughter Allie prepped most of the side dishes and other options.  The gathering itself was great, really great.  We had a full house with Carlyle’s husband Alex and their daughters Allie and Haylie, Cousin Rob, his wife Colleen, and their twins Maeve and Nola, my dad and step Mom Marcia, son Jackson and daughter in law Andrea, and Rob and Carlyle’s mom, Chris.  Alex let the top quality tequila and rum flow freely, and we all had a great time, especially with stories of our misspent youth. 

PKM meeting her first horses.  Five feet was OK. Four was not.

We stayed at Carlyle and Alex’ farmhouse for two nights, allowing Alex time to take us on a boat ride along the canal and inland waterways with a stop at one of the small islands where he is building a cabin retreat, and by “he is building” I mean he is physically doing it himself, up on telephone stilts to account for storm surge.

The island getaway cabin Alex is building.

They took us to The Freezer, a dockside shrimp and seafood place that was just fantastic.  We can highly recommend the steamed shrimp and the spicy smoked mullet dip.   We finished the boat trip with a spin around Monkey Island, a sort of monkey refuge for the former escape artists of a 40 year old wildlife exhibit. 

On Christmas morning we headed out quite a bit earlier than our usual start time in order to make Aunt Judy’s annual Christmas morning brunch.  She always puts on a great spread, which means we always eat too much.  She had a moderate sized gathering of eleven this year.  We kept the actual mimosa’s to a minimum since upon departing we had to make the nearly four hour drive down to Coral Springs. 

Xavier and Joy had a full house with two of Rosemarie’s sisters in from out of town, so we ended up sleeping in the RV since the bedrooms were all taken.  The advantage of having our house wherever we go; in the right situation we can be less of a house guest burden, at least if you don’t count the huge rig taking up most or your driveway and connected to your electrical outlet.

That house with the three sisters and niece Tamiry can get loud, but it was great fun to have everyone together for the holiday season.  We had a big afternoon party with Dolores’ god father, Uncle Mario and his wife Ena and mother Mrs P, and friends of the sisters were frequently swinging by.  I got introduced to the Lemongrass Hot Pot, a very interesting dining experience that is sort of a Chinese/foodie take on fondue with a magnetic conveyor track cycling vegetables and noodles around every table.

The Sisters

Rosemarie took a full day trip back to the Gulf Coast (Naples beaches) with the sisters and niece (her shelling fever hasn’t broke yet) while I went all in on geocaching in order to meet my “1000 finds by the end of the year” goal.  We both had excellent luck.

We broke up our ride to Key West with a one day stop at the Nieves house.  They moved into a new home in the same neighborhood, and this one has a much bigger drive way that require just a bit of maneuvering to fit.  It was a long fun evening of stories, pizza, a few cocktails, and me decimating everyone in a game of “Five Second Rule.”  We look forward to hosting them in The Keys if they can make it down this winter.

Rosemarie’s God Daughter, Kai

On New years Eve morning we made the drive south, registered with the camp host on duty, and got settled in to dry camp site one row back from water front.  It is good to be back in paradise to start off 2019!

We will soon put out or December fulltiming report followed by a “2018 in review” post with our statistics, favorites and not so favorites of the year.  Since we are still in Key West this will sort of catch us up on the blog.

(Most of) December in Sanibel

Our first week on Sanibel Island this Winter reminded us why we not only keep coming back, but also why we increase out stay time each year: we just love the place and all it provides.  Beautiful beaches, outstanding shelling, fun shops, excellent restaurants, miles of bike trails, vast nature preserves, easy access to The Big City (Fort Myers) and a great social atmosphere at Periwinkle Park.  With just over three weeks remaining in our month long stay, we tried to hit all the things we remembered loving and add a few new events and places to our experience.

 

We are now in the habit of timing our Winter visit such that it overlaps “Luminary,” an Island-wide annual event on the first Friday in December.  After stumbling across it two years ago, we ensure this fantastic evening is part of our early Winter.  Miles of bike paths are lined with paper, sand, and candle lanterns, many of the businesses along the route put out sample trays of their food, or provide wine, cheese, and other hors d’oeuvres, and a few locations provide live music.

 

We are much more prepared than our first year: our bikes have full lighting, we know the route, add a bit of flair to our clothes, and peddle hard to our furthest point and then making it a leisurely return with multiple stops before finishing the evening at Huxters, just outside Periwinkle Park, for the live band.  If you find yourself in SW Florida in early December, consider giving this event a run. 

We used our library membership to check out passes to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, or CROW.  They give a fun and informative talk about all they do, which by the name you can probably figure out involves taking injured animals, nursing them back to health, and if possible returning them to the wild.  They also do a lot of research and data collection for use by a wide range of organizations tracking wildlife populations and the like. 

Though we had big plans to hit several of the excellent restaurants on Sanibel and Captiva, our budget busting repairs from late October encouraged us to reel in our dining this month, particularly since we are already paying one of our steepest daily camping rates.  Thus we did not get to return to Island Cow or The Pecking Order, or try out Timbers or The Clam Shack.  We did hit our preferred pizza joint from past years, but something has gone amiss in their “by the slice” system, and we were very disappointed.  Ah well, we made up for this culinary austerity program with some wonderful stuff from the three farmers and artisans markets we did in Naples.

Speaking of which: we did three farmers and artisans markets in Naples.  One of the things we have always said about our market participation in various venues across the country is that even when we don’t make a lot of money, we still get to enjoy the locally produced goods, interact with locals and tourists alike, and get the skinny on things we should and should not do in these unfamiliar towns and cities.  I’m gonna come right out and admit that this positive attitude towards low performing markets has gotten harder to retain in light of our increasing expectations following some of our recent extraordinary successes. 

One of the more interesting sights from our Naples market.  Yes, hair dye, not clothing.

So yes, we were pretty disappointed with that first Naples event last month, but the second one was better, and then the third was, again, disappointing, but we closed out with a moderate bang on our fourth.  If, for whatever reason, we find ourselves staying in the Naples area, we will consider doing their Pine Ridge market again, but when in Sanibel next year, we will seek closer venues in Fort Myers.

Kind of rare for us to enjoy a sunrise, so at least we got that out of the market.

That said, we bought some wonderful stuff, and by stuff I mean food.  We would start off our day with a big glass of fresh juiced passion fruit.  My God, this stuff is amazing, like an explosion of flavor in your mouth.  Then it was, perhaps, a chocolate croissant for a late breakfast.   We took home blue cheese stuffed olives, pepper jelly, free range eggs, smoked fish dip (mullet is so much better than almost any other options) and specialty cheeses. 

Red shouldered hawk that let us get pretty close during a trip to Fort Myers.

In previous visits to Sanibel, about the only things that got us off the island were the Naples markets.  It just seemed inefficient to pay a $6 toll to go to wherever, when we were already paying that price on market days.  This year we worried less about that and enjoyed multiple day trips to various mainland spots.  It wasn’t all fun and games, one of the first non-market day Fort Myers trips was for me to get a Basal Cell Carcinoma nodule removed via “electrodessication.”

I’m fine, its one of the least dangerous skin things you can get, I am paying the wages of a misspent Florida youth along with some genetic predisposition (thanks Granddad!) and after consultation I elected the electrical burning of it off my arm rather than surgical excision.  The scar is probably a bit worse than the “cut it out” option, but it impacted my activity far less. 

The Basal Cell nodule I had removed.  Haha, no, its an octopus we rescued from a sea gull and returned to the ocean. 

Anyway, whenever I was off island I incorporated Geocaching into the day.  Before my dermatology procedure, I did 25 or so caches in southern Fort Myers.  On another quite day I did another score or so on Cape Coral.  Rosemarie and I did a few during a windy visit to Fort Myers Beach, where we also visited yet another Moose Lodge, our 24th, for a few drinks.  We hit a handful of local thrift shops during our ventures, scoring low cost items for ourselves and gifts for others. 

One of many osprey’s on Sanibel.

One of the things we will need to seriously consider before our next Sanibel visit is the possible purchase of a LeeWay transponder.  Like most toll transponders, it provides the convenience of not having to actually stop at toll booths along with automatic payment via a registered account.  Apparently LeeWay is connected to SunPass (Florida-wide toll system,) E-Pass (Central Florida Expressway system,) Peach Pass (Georgia) and Quick Pass (North Carolina.) 

Typical Sanibel shell mound.

The advantage LeeWay offers over Sunpass is a major discount for the Sanibel Causeway: for a flat $50 fee the $6 toll is reduced to $2 for a six month period (either Nov 1 to Apr 30, or May 1 to Oct 31.)  You can get a full year of this discount for $67, but we really don’t see ourselves in the region outside that late Fall, Winter, early Spring period, so the math is thus: will we cross the causeway 13 times or more during this window?  During our one month stay this year we crossed 10 times, and will probably visit again in late March.  That is right on the edge, but I think we will do it next season just so we don’t feel constrained.

Finally, let’s talk about the shelling, after all, this is one of the primary things Sanibel is known for.  Every day is different, every beach is variable, and we accept and adjust for these changes.  Some days we would hit Bowman’s beach and walk north, away from the crowds, until we hit the major shell piles a mile from the popular areas.  Others we would start at Blind Pass, the cut between Sanibel and Captiva islands, and head south. Several evenings we rode our bikes to Lighthouse Point on the eastern tip of Sanibel to watch the sunset, observe the near shore dolphin hunting, and enjoy the surprisingly good shelling following some heavy weather. 

Part of Rosemarie’s Sanibel shell haul.

We found a lot of beautiful shells: Florida Fighting Conchs of course, Lightning Whelks, Banded Tulips, True Tulips, Apple Murex, Lace Muriex, Shark Eyes, Alphabet Cones, various Scallops, Angel Wings, Florida Cones, Olives, Kings Crowns, Jingles, Worm Shells, Pearl Whelks, etc, etc.  Truly a wonderful shell haul.  But Rosemarie kept reading about the shelling excursions on the Ten Thousand Islands near Marcos Island.  This would be a boating trip to some of the uninhabited islands off the southwest coast with some experienced shelling guides.

We sprung for a shelling tour for Rosemarie with Treasure Seekers Shell Tours.  For $100 she would get a 45 minute boat ride from a Goodland, FL marina, to one of those islands,  three or so hours of professionally guided shelling, light snacks, and the ride back.  A few days before Rosemarie’s trip the weather turned sour, and with a phone call we rescheduled to the day after the bad weather, which would be our last full day in the area.

Shelling on the Ten Thousand Islands is quite different than walking the pristine beaches of Sanibel.  This amazing mound exists partly due to the storms, and partly due to so few people making it out here to pick through it.

Oh what luck.  The stormy days had kicked up an unusually large bounty of shells, and Rosemarie came back with a stunning array, including a very rare variant of the already rare Junonia, a “Chocolate” Junonia, so named because of the much darker and wider spots on this version.   Another woman in her group found a standard Junonia, the sort we now look down our noses at.  In all seriousness, the storm kicked up so many Junonias that we were getting reports of a handful more found by members of the shell tour over the next couple of days.  Someone joked that the Gulf Coast was going to have to come up with another Holy Grail of Shells since Junonias were getting too common. 

Chocolate Junonia (center)

That was a heck of a way to close out our Sanibel stay.  We will be back for sure, hopefully this Spring before we begin our travels out of Florida. 

This beautiful hermit crab gets to keep his shell.  

Up next: Family, family, family as we do pre-Christmas with the cousins, a Christmas day run back to Central Florida and down to Coral Springs.

A collection of the best finds from the group of six on this tour.

 

47 Months Fulltiming: November 2018 Report

The Distance:  581 miles as we bounced around from Florida’s Gulf Coast to Central Florida and down to Coral Springs.  This brings out 2018 total up to 9,722.  With our December plans we should easily crack 10K.

The Places:  We departed Venice on the first of the month, and then went back and forth between Lake Monroe Park (weekends) and Wekiwa Springs State Park (weekdays) for 22 days before heading south to Coral Springs for five days around Thanksgiving.  Then it was over to Periwinkle Park on Sanibel Island to start a one month stay.  We had full hook ups for 17 days, partial (electric and water) for 7, and stayed with family for 6.

The Budget:  16% underbudget, which is good, but not what we had hoped for this month considering our limited mileage, four markets, six days staying free with family and another week in the low cost county park on Lake Monroe.  This means it will be near impossible for us to get under budget for the year in December since we will be spending three weeks at an expensive place, doing Christmas, and prepping for Key West.  Our overage will be a very small percent of the annual budget, so we will get back on track in January.

PKM helping Rosemarie with a crafting project.

The Drama and the Improvements:   Nothing significant in this arena.  After our roof and other repairs/upgrades at the end of October, we are taking a break from anything costly until we get back on budget.

Our monthly reports so far this year:

January Monthly Report

February Monthly Report

March Monthly Report

April Monthly Report

May Monthly Report

June Monthly Report

July Monthly Report

August Monthly Report

September Monthly Report

October Monthly Report