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.

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