Have you ever dreamed of camping on an exotic tropical island, where soft sea waves gently wash up on a white sand beach? From underneath tall tropical palm trees, you can watch a glorious sunrise from the front of your campsite and a spectacular sunset from the back. When a full moon rises, it lights a path to an inky sky crammed full of bright stars. Just such an island, where millionaires and celebrities once spent their time fishing, is available today to campers, at a bargain!
Many an angler has gone in quest of the elusive bonefish. Now you can do the same.
Simply walk a few hundred feet from your camp into the shallow waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Carry nothing more than a spinning rod and reel. Bait your hook with a live crab or shrimp, cast it out and hang on tight.
KEY TO FUN
The Spanish once referred to Long Key as “Cayo Vivora,” which means Rattlesnake Key. The name was used to describe the shape of the island, which resembles a snake with its jaws open. Today, Long Key State Park is known for its history, recreational opportunities, and astonishing natural beauty.
Long before the park existed, the subtropical climate, clear waters and abundance of marine life attracted visitors. The Calusa Indians arrived first to live off the plant and marine life before the arrival of the Spanish settlers in the early 1500s.
By 1912, the Florida Keys were no longer considered a remote area. At that time, the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad was complete, allowing Long Key to become an important depot. Henry Flagler, the founder of the railroad, also established the Long Key Fishing Club, which was a mecca for the world’s greatest saltwater fishermen, including the author Zane Grey. This productive era came to a temporary end when a hurricane destroyed the railroad and fishing club in 1935.
Long Key sits atop the remains of ancient coral reefs formed 100,000 years ago when the sea level was 20 to 30 feet higher. The vegetation is primarily of West Indian or Caribbean origin. A large variety of trees and shrubs are found, including species such as the gumbo limbo, poisonwood, mahogany, Jamaica dogwood and crabwood. The shallow waters off Long Key support an abundance of marine life. Various wading birds may be seen in the mangrove-lined lagoons, particularly during the winter months.
Fun and informative activities offered at the park include snorkeling, fishing, birding, canoeing, and the chance to explore subjects such as plants, history and the marine ecology of the area. Three nature trails are located within the park for visitors who enjoy both walking and canoeing. The “Golden Orb” Trail, named after a native spider, is a leisurely 40-minute walk through several plant communities. The Layton Trail is on the bay side of the park and takes 15 minutes to walk. The third trail is Long Key Lakes Canoe Trail, which covers a shallow-water lagoon. Canoe rentals and a self-guided brochure are available for this hour-long journey. Picnic areas offer a scenic view of the Atlantic Ocean.
Capt. Troy Perez has been a professional fishing guide for the past 15 years. Perez began camping and fishing at Long Key 31 years ago with his dad. He has been a regular visitor ever since.
“When Hurricane Andrew came by in 1993, it messed up the campground a bit,” says Perez. “Then the park service also thinned out the Australian Pines, as did other tropical storms. It’s changed over the years as increased tourism has impacted it.
“But there still is excellent beach fishing for bonefish. They ‘tail’ early and late in the day and swim among the bathers even during the middle of it. They are some of the biggest bonefish in the world and are used to humans and not afraid of them. Having said that, however, this does not include fishermen. One wrong cast and the bonefish are off to visit their cousins in the Bahamas!”
According to Perez, at low tide you must wade out a bit to get to the bonefish. But, he adds, “At high tide, they will practically swim into your tent. You can stand on the sand, keep your feet dry and still catch bonefish. These big fish are ‘loners.’ They don’t swim in big schools like the small ones do.”
A word of caution: Shuffle your feet when wading in the shallow water to net small crabs or cast to bonefish. Stingrays find that the warm sand provides just the hiding place they need to ambush a passing meal. The problem is that they don’t particularly like to be stepped on. Their defensive reaction is to flee while whipping their barbed tails upward. Shuffling your feet helps you avoid a painful jab in the shins.
Perez also has some advice about tent camping at Long Key. “Get a site with electricity and bring a fan. If the onshore breeze dies down in the spring and summer, in the evening, the ‘no see-ums’ come out and they will eat you alive. Mosquito netting and bug spray does absolutely no good. To get rid of them simply turn on the fan, and you will sleep much easier.”
American author Zane Grey discovered the Florida Keys in the early 1900s and began fishing the local waters of Long Key, Duck Key, and Grassy Key. He first visited Flagler’s posh Long Key Fishing Club in 1910.
This “club,” a luxurious fishing resort that attracted famous and wealthy sportsmen, was located on the ocean side of Long Key and included 30-some small cottages, a post office, railroad station, store and a large, multistory wooden hotel, or lodge. The accommodations and service were of the highest quality. A tunnel constructed under the roadbed connected the camp with the docks on the bay side.
Even though Grey traveled widely throughout the world, he always returned to Long Key. He was drawn not only to the Key’s marvelous fishing, but also found it a quiet place to write. It was there that he wrote Wild Horse Mesa and Code of the West.
You might not have time to write a novel while camping on Long Key, but you can fish the same waters as Grey did. If you really want to get a little closer to the celebrated author, stop off in Islamorada on your way to the state recreation area. In the World Wide Tackle shop is a lounge dedicated to his memory. It contains some of his original handwritten manuscripts, as well as some of Grey’s fishing tackle. It’s the perfect way to begin your Long Key camping experience.