Contributing writer, Darin O’Brien, shares with us an epic tale of tackling the titans and kayak fishing at Dry Tortugas National Park. Camping and kayak fishing in one of the most pristine places on earth is a must do for any kayak angler.
So after countless viewings of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series I was shocked upon our arrival at Dry Tortugas National Park. There were no sultry women or dingy taverns full of drunken pirates. But Capt. Jack Sparrow did get it right in the respect that if there were more places like it there would be a lot less trouble in the world. There simply aren’t enough adjectives in the world’s known languages to truly describe the sheer beauty of this tropical jewel. But before we step into paradise we need to review how we got here and why. It all started in 2014 during a conversation with my then girlfriend about fishing around Tortuga. I was describing how incredible it was. Well her curiosities lead her to Google which in turn lead to the discovery that we could camp on the island. Not only that, but the ferry would bring our kayaks as well. DO WHAT?!?! You mean we can bring the plastic fleet with us and fish in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico? And so it began with untold hours of research through social media, YouTube, and Google. We made our reservations in early February for May 19-23, 2015. Not too hot and early enough to avoid hurricane season. During this same time frame, I had the idea to approach Wilderness Systems about demoing their Thresher 155 with Dry Tortuga as the back drop. I am happy to announce that they were glad to send me not one but two. On that note, a big thank you goes out to Pro Staffers Bill Sikora, and Bobby Clark, (my first points of contact) and Tessa Byars who coordinated the delivery of the kayaks and AT paddles. The Wilderness Systems/Confluence staff are some of the best people I have had the privilege to work with.
I give warning now, plan your trip early. They book out up to a year in advance and this can be a big deal. We were scheduled to return on June 5, 2016 just a week into hurricane season. We were packed, truck loaded and headed out in an hour for the drive south. The Yankee Freedom staff called and advised that due to tropical storm Colin the park was closed for the next four days. They were in the process of evacuating the island due to expected 15 foot seas. They had no available dates through the summer and did give a full refund which was great customer service, but still completely heartbreaking for us.
On Monday the 18th 2015 we dropped the dogs at the kennel and got the vehicle packed up. The six hour drive south put us at the dock around midnight. Now with all the gear and kayaks on the trailer a hotel was pretty much out of the question. So an in car movie and a short nap finished off the night. The loading process was extremely easy. All you have to do is get your gear on the dock by the boat between 0600 and 0630. The stellar crew (who are not damned by Aztec gold) take care of everything else. They do have a weight limit of 60lbs of gear per person not including water, ice, or the kayaks. We were definitely over that. They don’t weigh your gear and only made a nice comment about being over. Tipping well goes a long way. Parking the vehicle proved to be a challenge. The only parking in the area is a city parking deck. So now I had to use two spaces detaching the trailer paying for both. I then used bicycle locks to lock it to the vehicle. After getting parked we saw the signage that says no trailers allowed. It was too late to worry about it now. Given how I had it locked up its not likely to get towed. We did have a written warning upon our return but no citation. The remaining 40 minutes until the launch was spent in the check-in area that is set up like an airport terminal.
The Yankee Freedom ferry is definitely not the Black Pearl but with a cruise speed of 30 mph is still not uncatchable. The boat was immaculate with plenty of seating on both levels. We spent most of the trip at the bow daring each other to do the Titanic arm spread. Two and half hours later the silhouette of Ft. Jefferson breaks the horizon on azure water. Before debarking from our aluminum chariot we had a mandatory meeting on the second level for all campers, enter Ranger Dave. Very polite and likable gentleman, most of what he went over we were already familiar with. You also have to attend a separate safety meeting at the Ranger office before taking the kayaks out on the water. Meeting complete and our gear awaited us on the dock.
The eight camp sites that can be reserved are a little over a hundred yards from the dock. Large wheeled carts are provided for relocating your housing. Site selected and home away from home construction is completed by about 1 pm. I do recommend that you have very sturdy tent stakes as the ground is a sand shale mix and can be tough. Our homestead was a little over 100 feet from the most perfect beach I have ever laid eyes on. By now it is in the low 90’s and we are feeling it after 30 hours of run time on a two hour nap. We spend the next couple hours soaking in the surprisingly cool water. Water temp was about 78 degrees.
At this point I am pretty worn out and I am thinking early dinner and off to bed. My better half has bigger aspirations of let’s get rigged up and go fish. Talk about role reversal, someone trying to convince me to go fishing? What the heck is wrong with me? Oh yeah, exhaustion. With very little arm twisting I start rigging. As I start digging out gear UH-OH, my hard bait bag is not with us but instead sitting on my work bench. S.O.B. now I’m aggravated and tired! What’s left to work with? DOA jig heads with assorted DOA soft baits and about 8 bags of Zoom super flukes. I can make this work!!! I set Jodi up with the 3” DOA paddle tail and I went with the Flukes on a jig head.
We get the tackle loaded up on the dueling Threshers and head southwest from the launch looking for sand holes on the grass flats. It doesn’t take long before we are catching small Cuda’s and mangrove snapper. We also picked up a couple tarpon trailers that wanted to follow us. They were just curious and wouldn’t bite. Eventually we ended up at a 15 foot deep hole with some patch reef on the edges and a big sandbar on the south side. The sandbar was occupied with two fellow yak fishermen throwing buggy whips while standing in the ankle deep water. We stayed on the north side giving them plenty of room. The patch reef was producing keeper mangrove and yellowtail snapper. About this time I hear Jodi’s drag screeching like a banshee and her yelling for my help. She is hooked into the biggest fish of her life a 40” barracuda. The hemi powered Cuda is taking her on a serious sleigh ride. Now mind you we are only using 12# tackle with no wire and 40# fluorocarbon leader. After a ten minute battle the silver bullet full of razor blade teeth is boat side. The ¼oz jig is right at the very tip of its nose, wow. A couple quick pics and off he goes. Jodi is all smiles. Now the guys on the sandbar are yelling. I look up just in time to watch a five foot blacktip shark come in and snatch whatever fish they had on at their feet as they are back peddling. No blood drawn but they did get back in their kayaks after that.
We decide to start working our way back shortly after that. But the fun was not over yet. About half way back I spot a 30’ wide sand hole with a ten foot rock pile right in the middle. The surrounding water is a two foot deep grass flat with the sand hole at 6 feet. It doesn’t get much better than this. I drop the jig/fluke combo half way between the rocks and grass edge. I see a large brown flash as my GLX G-Loomis almost gets ripped out of my hands. He beelines into the rocks and its grouper digging time. I can’t get pressure on him at first as I am just pulling myself to the rocks. I ended up wedging my paddle into the grass under my right arm in order to hold position. Then I managed to force him out of the rocks and back in he would go. This seesaw battle with the rock crawling bruiser went on for about 15 minutes with him dashing back to his den three times. I finally got him out onto the open grass and quickly subdued afterwards. 25 inches of red grouper slides into the fish bag. OH YEAH!!!
Next stop is Mutton Town. As we paddle back both of us are trolling the lures about fifteen feet apart. Jodi’s reel lights up like the time square tree lighting. Her rod is warped into the next time zone and completely turning the Thresher around. The battle rages on for five mikes. Near the end her rod is doing the classic jack bounce but we haven’t seen any color yet. Then I see a hint of green and think yeah it’s a Jack. He breaks the surface showing 8lbs of orange and green mutton snapper. A mere nano second passes as I snatch the net and scoop up her second prize of the day. OMG are we going to eat good tonight. As it is now 1830hrs, we agree not to put our lures back in the water until tomorrow.
Back at camp we take a quick dip to cool down and then break out the cutlery to carve up dinner. On the north corner of the dock was a 24”X 24” piece of plywood nailed to some kind wood shed cover with no wash down at all. This serves as the only fish cleaning location. I was a bit surprised at the lack of a true cleaning station. The carcasses were engulfed by three different Goliath grouper ranging from 100-400lbs right at the dock, very cool to watch. Dinner was served in what turned into more of a block party. We had two sets of neighbors that we shared food and stories with throughout the trip. The first set was Derek Demeter and his girlfriend Lisa Perez. Derek is the Planetarium Director at Seminole State College. Lisa is a librarian in Ocala. Derek also does astrological photography and was kind enough to help me get some shots of the Milky Way. Thanks again Derek for the lessons. The second group was three gentlemen that came down in their 25’ Contender for a week of fishing. Eric Bachnik, Ray Cioffe, and Clark Lea Jr. Eric is the owner/president of Mirrolure. Ray is the plant manager for Eric. I grew up on Florida’s west coast throwing Mirrolures for trout, snook, and reds. So it was a real treat to get to meet them. Clark is the president of Metal Marine Products who make some of the best aerations systems out there. We are rubbing elbows with west coast royalty!! We liked these guys so much that we even shared some Key Lime pie with them. They have been making this pilgrimage at least annually for 20 years. A lot of local knowledge was passed along by them to include some weather horror stories. It got so bad a few times they had to seek shelter inside the fort and spent the night fighting off rats. Both groups truly made the evenings something to look forward to each night.
On the subject of critters, there are no mosquitos or No-see-ums. None at all, after spending almost my whole life in Florida, I couldn’t believe not having to fight off the aerial blood banks. The only bugs at all were a couple house flies and at night a couple roaches inside the compost restrooms. Hermit crabs are a different story. They are everywhere by the hundreds if not thousands. As the sun sets they come to life coming out from under the bushes. There are so many that as they walk over the dead leaves it sounds like shallow water running over rocks. They are harmless but you do need a flashlight to avoid stepping on them at night. You will be warned about rats but we never saw any signs of them. The sounds of the birds are never ending 24-7. We found it to be very relaxing. I didn’t recognize most of them but there are a lot to choose from. The first day had been amazing beyond belief. Jodi and I can’t stop telling each other it’s the best day ever. So after dinner and KP duties are handled we stroll down to the dock. Shortly after arriving at the dock the infamous Tortuga crocodile put in an appearance. Some people go their whole trip without seeing him and we see him on the first day. Now I brought my own bit of treasure with us to land the best catch of my life. I made the proper presentation and she said yes. NOW it’s the best day ever.
Day two begins early with a quick breakfast and hot coffee. Yes real hot coffee, my lovely fiancé had picked up an old style percolator coffee pot and a large thermos. The coffee was made the night before and kept in the thermos, PERFECTION! For cooking you have to bring charcoal on the ferry as they won’t allow any type of fuel on the boat. So that was the reason for making it the night before. We head due east towards the deep water side (75’) for some deep jigging. On the way we discover a beautiful patch reef that looks like we are floating in an aquarium. It is loaded with bait. Jodi hooks up on a 4-5lb Black grouper that we just can’t get back out of the rocks, 0/1 grouper. My turn next as we continue on to the deep blue. A large pod of 100+ lb. Tarpon start rolling around us. I find one that liked my fluke so much he kept it after wrapping me around a coral head 10 seconds in, 0/1 Tarpon. Destination reached, jigging commenced. I get one crushing hit near the bottom in 55 feet. It bent the jig in half with teeth marks of a large snapper. After another 30 minutes of no hits we opt to head back onto the flat. We spend the next few hours catching more snapper, small grouper, and Cudas. I did get a nice 18 inch Mutton off of the same spot I got the big Red from. We head back in early around noon for another cool down session to be followed with Ft. Jefferson exploration. Incredible history and scenery that I will let you dig up as it is too much to detail here.
Day three and the last day of fishing. Morning launch was perfect and we head to the patch reef we found yesterday to catch some fresh bait. I used a Sabiki rig with small pieces of squid attached and no weight. Let it drift across the reef and bang stringer full of small 3-4” grunts. Nose candy to deep water reef dwellers. Now I didn’t have my livewell, but fresh dead is almost as good. Back to a wreck we found yesterday in 60 ft. It is lit up with fish on my Humminbird 797. I have it set up on a YakAttack Cellblock. The setup worked great, but did create a slight list to the side it was mounted to. I countered it with some weight to the opposite side. On my first drop I nailed a twenty inch flag Yellowtail, dinner is taken care of. I only had 30# tackle setup for our heavy gear which proved to be very under powered for this operation. Jodi got rocked up on her second drop and my next three had the same result. Massive hits from unstoppable freight trains. Not wanting to spend the day re-rigging and loosing fish we head back to our familiar stomping grounds. We will be back with some 50# tackle next time. The wind was also starting to pick up for the first time on the trip. Passing through tarpon land they started rolling and following us. I dropped one of the grunts back and watched a silver king step up to the plate. Swing and a miss from the king on my last tarpon encounter for the trip, 0/2 tarpon. With the wind changing the conditions on the flat the bite slowed way down for most of the day. Near the end of the days paddling I locate a 100’ “L” shaped patch reef that is sitting in 4-6ft of water next to a 25ft deep bay. In 20 cast I pulled eight Red Grouper and six mangrove snapper off of it. The biggest grouper was 19” and the snapper were all 12-14”. By now the wind is pushing 15 mph and we are tired after three days of fun in the sun. So we call it and head in. The Wilderness System Thresher 155’s made short easy work of the 18” chop and head wind. We maintained a steady 2.5 mph with a very relaxed stroke. SAAAWEEET.
The remainder of the day is spent alternating between packing up gear and soaking in crystal clear water. For the final meal we cooked most of the remaining food and shared with everyone in our last block party. 8AM wake up and break down the homestead. Dock delivery completed by 0930hrs with thirty minutes to spare. Jodi went back to the top of the Fort to get some last minute pictures. At this point I am just waiting to get on the Yankee Freedom and suck up the AC. Don’t get me wrong this has become my favorite place on the planet. But we are into day four of heat, no shower, and I didn’t sleep well due to getting up at 3 AM to shoot the Milky Way. Now on the subject of AC and the Yankee Freedom. You can board the ferry everyday while it is there (10:00AM-2:45PM). They have a full bar and great food. Lunch is only $7.00 per person. So on our next trip we plan to not bring lunch items and eat lunch on the ferry soaking in some AC down time in the same process. The daily break would have made for more energy overall. Other items to bring on the next trip will be a sun shower even this simple addition would have been fantastic to get the salt off before bed. The MirrOlure crew had a neat setup for their coolers where they setup a small tarp staked out about a foot above the coolers. The man made shade kept all their stuff cool as possible. Block ice is a must if to survive the heat.
The trip back was relatively uneventful (probably because we were exhausted) with the exception of the 50 junior high kids onboard that got a bit out of control. Our gear was off loaded with the same efficiency as before. We get loaded up and drag our very worn out but extremely happy selves home. So if you are up for the adventure and memories of a life time with the best salt water fishing you have ever imagined. Then Ahhvast ye plastic pirates!! Keep a weather eye on the horizon because Tortuga is our destination.
About the Author
The author Darin OBrien is a retired Deputy Sheriff from Palm Beach Co Fl who currently resides in Belleview FL. A lifetime angler having fished in three different countries and fishing out of kayaks for the past 12 years. He loves to share his experiences and wisdom through the written word and his photography.