KEY LARGO, Fla. - I knew there was some risk involved when I scheduled a fishing trip to the Florida Keys in August. By risk, I am referring to the hurricane season.
Oh well, I thought, it was a great opportunity to go and, if all went well, it would be a terrific fishing experience. Twenty-four hours before I was scheduled to depart for Key Largo, Fla., the forecast was perfect - 89 to 90 degrees and 4 to 5 mph winds for an entire week. That would make for perfect fishing on the famed "flats."
Less than 12 hours before I'd board a plane at the Minot airport, a "hurricane hunter" aircraft over the Atlantic confirmed that "Isaac" was a tropical storm and would likely achieve hurricane status within 24 hours. The early word from the National Hurricane Center was that the edge of the storm would reach the Florida Keys a few days later with 100-plus mph winds, smack dab in the middle of my fishing vacation. Now what?
Two Bismarck men, Mort Bank and Mark Braun, were also making the trip. After a series of phone calls it was decided to try and make the best of a possibly bad situation. Besides, no one knew with any certainty how big Isaac would become or where it would decide to go. In other words, we talked ourselves into making the trip.
The forecast from the National Hurricane Center issued late Tuesday, Aug. 21, warned residents of the Florida Keys to "review individual tropical cyclone preparedness plans."
Our plans included fishing. I'm fairly certain that's not what the National Hurricane Center was referring to.
A short while later an Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter aircraft discovered the tropical depression had become a tropical storm. Well, we'd all seen storms before! Anyway, Isaac was hundreds of miles out into the Pacific. We left for Florida the following morning.
Our flight was uneventful. The weather at our arrival point, Miami, was quite humid but otherwise perfect. We grabbed a shuttle and headed south for Key Largo, one of the uppermost sections of the Florida Keys. After unpacking our gear we headed for the grocery store for the supplies we'd need over the next several days. Our intention was to stay one week.
The following morning we loaded the boat and got a reasonably early start. The sky was clear and the weather was perfect. The forecast was for hot and humid, pretty much the norm for that time of year along the Keys. The wind was nearly calm with no waves to worry about. We were free to fish wherever we wished.
At one of our first locations, near an old concrete pier, I snapped on a yellow and black surface plug. Braun also had on a topwater of some sort. Bank, out of whose boat we were fishing, had a large topwater lure on one rod and a large crankbait on another. All three of us had huge splashes at the surface that gave promise of good things to come. We were right.
A few casts later Bank hooked into what we all knew was a very good fish. Bank is a very accomplished fisherman with numerous record catches to his credit. He has caught thousands of fish of many different species and certainly recognizes when he's hooked into a good one. This fish was one of them.
Bank moved from the back of the boat to the front casting deck, the direction the fish was running. I turned on the trolling motor to top speed and gave chase. Braun took the driver's seat in case we needed the big motor at the back, all the while saying he thought the fish was headed to Cuba. For a while it seemed like the fish might make it.
We were all glad when Bank finally was able to land a huge barracuda. I had a chance to lift it and was surprised by how heavy it was. I had held barracuda before, but none this big. It was much heavier than a northern pike or muskie of similar length. Barracuda are solid!
That fish was the highlight of the day. Sure, we caught others and saw others, including a large tarpon that swam under the boat, but nothing we hooked came close to comparing to Bank's big cuda.
When we returned to the dock after a day on the water we had a chance to check the weather, which was a growing item of talk on the news channels and a centerpiece of coverage for the Weather Channel. It was also my introduction to tropical storms. It was interesting and promised to get a little too interesting. From what I could see from the homes around us, the famously laid back people of the Keys were not overly impressed with Isaac's early progress.
We, of course, kept looking for the bright spot in the weather forecast. It was at least a wee bit comforting to discover that the forecast warning of winds reaching 100 to 105 miles per hour had backed off to 92 mph. That's not exactly fishing weather, but at least it was an improvement. After supper we went out and fished some more, catching speckled trout on Gulp shrimp.
Before dark we headed back to the dock once again and immediately checked on the status of Isaac. An hour or so later the wind speed prediction had dipped into the 70s, the Hurricane Watch had been dropped and Tropical Storm Isaac had slowed down. More good news!
The forecast for the following morning was certainly tolerable. The winds were expected to be no more than 20 miles per hour during the day and the sky overcast. We went fishing. I welcomed the cloud cover, which kept Florida's hot August sun at bay. It was still hot, but didn't feel nearly as hot as the previous day. We even had a small rainshower to help cool things down a bit.
We fished. Braun caught a couple of very nice redfish. We all had a few barracuda too. Rain clouds and rainfall could be seen in nearly every direction at sometime during the day, but mostly too distant to require any thoughts of getting off the water. It seemed pleasant. A nice rainbow added to the scenery. Then, sometime after lunch, the wind began to pick up.
We'd experienced an increase in wind before, but it always seemed to quit nearly as soon as it started. This time it felt different, and we all knew it. The decision was made to make a run for the dock. We had several miles to go. The wind was getting stronger and the waves higher. It made for an interesting trip. Saltwater tastes terrible!
Safely back at the dock and in the house, we checked on Isaac again. The good news was the wind at Key Largo was now expected to "only" reach 55 miles per hour and that Isaac was still moving somewhat slower than earlier anticipated. The bad news was that it was expected to strengthen, even to hurricane status, within a day or so. Not good. Time to go home.
Bank, who maintains a home in the Keys and therefore had the most connections and experience in such matters, spent considerable time on the telephone with Delta Airlines. He was able to secure a flight for the three of us out of Miami the following morning. Other than sitting in the house and hoping the storm didn't flood us or blow us away, we had no other choice. A strong gale outside served notice of what was to come. We certainly couldn't get on the water for several days.
The next morning a shuttle service came to the house to give us a ride to the Miami airport. It was almost calm but we could hear thunder in the distance. As soon as we shut the door on the shuttle the rain opened up. You could hear it sharply pounding the metal roof of the van. The other passengers remarked that we made it with only a second to spare.
Isaac announced it was on its way. We were on our way home. Any disappointment at ending the trip early was easily overcome by the knowledge that we were leaving Isaac behind and that we'd be able to fish another day.