Spring break has arrived — for Keys flats anglers. While our northern brethren continue to shiver, dig snow, and scrape ice, warm days and light winds starting in mid-February brought out the tarpon, permit, and bonefish. And barring any major cold fronts, the fish appear here to stay. Once Florida Bay and Gulf water temperatures pushed above 70 for a while, the big tarpon began filtering in to their favorite haunts from Cape Sable to the Marquesas. Capt Rich Keating reported hundreds of busting, rolling, and free jumping poons at the Cape early this week so the big fish are headed our way. Most of these early season fish prefer to “lay up” in sheltered basins (rather than cruise about) creating chances to stalk cautiously individual fish. Tarpon suspended near the surface are the most inclined to bite but can be difficult to approach. Stealth is needed to maneuver close enough for a cast and the fly must be presented with soft precision – close enough that the fish sees it but not so close that it spooks. If the light isn’t perfect, and the tarpon are down just a bit, it can be hard to discern which way the fish is facing. More than one cast will earn Capt. Bus Bergmann’s admonition, “they don’t eat with that end.” When it comes together, the reward is a big ol poon sliding forward to sip in a fly and then throwing water like a broken fire hose when it feels the hook. From now until mid-April is prime time for laid up tarpon.

Permit are the other big attraction for the next few weeks. If it’s too windy to sneak around for tarpon, go look for perms. Wind is necessary to let you get close enough for a cast and the blacktailed devils bite best when it’s honking 15 knots or more. Gulfside banks and bars with hard currents are preferred locations to look for permit as they search for their favorite meal: crabs. Capt. Diego Cordova reports plenty of opportunities for permit of late but fooling the sharp-eyed fish – even with live crabs – is always tough. By the end of the month, permit will start to filter off the flats and head for wrecks and the reef for their annual spawning run so if a permit is on your angling bucket list, get after them now.

There’s also lots of news on the conservation front. Nationally the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 3590 – the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act. Supported by almost all major fishing and hunting groups, the bill seeks to protect fishing and hunting on 700 million acres of federal public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. A bipartisan majority voted “yes” for the House bill – 227 Republicans and 41 Democrats; all 154 “no” votes were cast by Democrats. In the Florida Congressional Delegation, 15 Republicans and three Democrats voted yes while seven Democrats voted no including local Rep. Joe Garcia. A counterpart bill – S. 1996 – is pending in the U.S. Senate. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Kay Hagan (D-NC) are the lead sponsors joined by four other Democrats and six Republicans.

Everglades restoration is starting to pay off. The C-111 Spreader Canal – Western Phase has been operating for over a year to restore more natural water flows into Taylor Slough (in Everglades National Park) and northeastern Florida Bay. Hypersaline conditions in that part of the Bay – adverse to fish and wading birds like roseate spoonbills – have dropped 78 percent in one year. Scientists also found that plant and seagrass growth in the area has expanded over 400 percent. When the Eastern Phase of the project kicks in next year, more restoration benefits are expected that will help our fisheries and bird populations.

And even closer to home, the Bonefish Tarpon Trust (BTT) is pressing forward with its Florida Keys Initiative – a multi-pronged effort to figure out why our bonefish population has declined. For example, we still don’t know where our young (less than 3 years old) bonefish come from so it’s difficult to craft effective restoration strategies. Tied to the Initiative is fundraising to support conservation of Keys’ flats habitat. To that end, BTT has created the George Hommel Florida Keys Habitat Fund and a special event featuring Bass Pro Shop founder Johnny Morris will be held in Islamorada on April 9 to benefit the Fund. Details are available from BTT at www.bonefishtarpontrust.org or 321 674 7758.

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