Female anglers dominated the 54th annual Marathon International Bonefish Tournament (MIBT) held in late September. Lynn Goodwin of Key Colony Beach, guided by Capt. Chris Morrison, scored a Grand Slam (catching a bonefish, permit and tarpon in one day), Emma Morton (a first timer from Philadelphia) captured the largest bonefish, and Jeannette Chiari (my spouse) snared the fly division trophy. Congratulations, ladies!

The guys did their thing too. John Morton, Emma’s dad, took first place catching the most bonefish while guided by Capt. Albert Ponzoa; this was the seventh time he has taken the guide trophy by guiding the tournament-winning angler. Defending champions Pat Bennett and Capt. Tim Carlisle (another multiple winner of the MIBT guide award) got bumped to second place this time; last year they edged out Albert’s boat. The Jacquie Hewlett Trophy, awarded to the participant who epitomizes the spirit of angling, was presented to Charlie Smith of West Palm Beach; he is battling inoperable cancer but continues to fish. Smith was guided by Marathon’s Capt. Rich Keating.

The Tournament kicked off fall flats fishing. Cooling waters, big tides, and fresher breezes invigorate the flats putting bonefish and permit on the feed. Many consider October to be the top month for these two species. Permit have been more cooperative of late with reports of good numbers of “shots” (chances to cast at the fish) and more willingness to eat a fly. I couldn’t buy a permit bite this summer but got a nice one on the fly during the MIBT and hooked and lost another just last week. As always, if you really want to catch one of the black-tailed devils use a live crab; flies are for masochists!

Guides and flats anglers are anxiously watching bonefish numbers. The population plummeted after the 2010 record cold snap but seems to be inching back up. Optimists hope that opportunities will really improve this month and signal that the fish are genuinely on their way back.

Snook, which were really decimated in 2010, have rebounded strongly. Fall is an excellent time to head north into Florida Bay and the Everglades (when reopened by the National Park Service!) to probe the mangrove shorelines for the linesiders. As the weather and waters cool, snook will work into the shorelines and back up into places like Whitewater Bay. Before they head in, though, the fish can be found by working small white sand holes in Gulf or Florida Bay grass flats with good tidal flow. Ambush feeders, snook love spots with good currents that bring them prey.

The same flats are still hosting redfish which also get friskier as things cool off. For at least another month the reds will stay shallow often found in spots where their fins and tails stick above the water. Sometimes it feels like fishing on a lawn. But after our first couple of blustery cold fronts and northwest winds with some bite, the redfish will slide off into deeper holes and channels.

There are still some tarpon around and baitfish concentrations that occur this month attract both the big residents and their little brothers. We found a pod of 10 pounders tearing up glass minnows this week. There was so much bait in the water, leaping frantically to avoid being munched, we could not interest the tarpon in our flies. Nonetheless, since tarpon fishing usually slides off starting in November, now is the time to catch your last poon of the year

Anglers’ access to Keys waters remains a big issue. Florida Bay (closed for the time being by the feds during the government “shutdown”) still faces major motorboat restrictions. And the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are proceeding with development of their joint management plan for the Sanctuary and backcountry islands. Early proposals to create dozens of new protection zones – where boating and fishing restrictions are likely – drew a firestorm of criticism. Maintenance of existing access, and fishing opportunities, requires participation by concerned citizens. Don’t count on someone else to look out for your fishing interests!

Marathon resident Bill Horn is a veteran Keys’ flats angler, a former Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks under President Reagan, and author of “Seasons on the Flats: An Angler’s Year in the Florida Keys.”  For more information see his website www.seasonsontheflats.com or contact him at [email protected].

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