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Camping for Bonefish


Camping in the Keys a step away from bonefish.

Long Key Park only step away from bonefish
By Bill Sargent – Florida Today

ISLAMORADA — Where in the world can a camper slip out of his or her RV at daybreak, walk 50 feet and catch a prized bonefish? For starters, try Long Key State Park southwest of Islamorada in the Florida Keys.

Sure, there are spots in the Bahamas, or even more remote locations like Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean where bonefish all but knock at your door. But we’re talking about a place less than 100 yards off U.S. 1 and a 4-hour drive from Brevard County where your campsite sits literally on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

Troy Perez, the well-known redfish guide from Port St. John, has fished in a lot of different places, but he says nothing equals the angling possibilities at Long Key, a state facility with 66 campsites, all at the water’s edge. “That’s why I camp there every year,” said Perez, 40, who was first introduced to Long Key and its fishing 32 years ago during family camping trips with his father, Al Perez. “It’s the only place I’ve ever found where you can catch a 10-pound bonefish right on the beach at your campsite.”

Of the dozens of campgrounds and resort parks along the more than 100 miles of the Florida Keys from Key Largo to Key West, none offer a closer association with the exceptional fishing and boating available in the Keys than Long Key State Park. It is on the ocean side of U.S. 1, at mile marker 67.5. Mile markers are set up every mile noting the distance to Key West.

Like many Long Key campers, Perez and his wife Christine beach their flats skiff at their campsite, and when they’re not wading the shallows for bonefish, they run their boat about 300 yards offshore where they fish for big tarpon. “We’ve hooked tons of tarpon right off Long Key,” said Troy. “There are 160-pounders there. I caught my biggest tarpon on a fly rod, a 130-pounder, at Long Key.”

Troy and Christine schedule their annual week long treks to the Keys in May, when the fishing is good and before the summer heat. Sometimes they go back for several days in August to dive for lobster. The height of the camping season in the Florida Keys coincides with the mild temperatures from November through Easter. From early February through the first of May advance reservations are a must to ensure a campsite because of the influx of northern snowbirds. “No shoveling snow down here for this woman,” laughed a tanned Helen McBride from Charlottesville, Va., resting in a sun-drenched lounge beside her travel trailer while her husband rigged fishing tackle at a picnic table. “This is home for us for a couple months.”

Campsites again are packed in late July and early August when the Keys are invaded by lobster divers taking advantage of the two-day sport lobster season, and the start of the regular lobster season.

The McBrides were camped at Bahia Honda State Park southwest of Long Key at mile marker 37. Because of its extensive day-use programs and facilities, including a marina, snorkeling tours, kayak rentals, dive equipment rentals, gift shop, and two beaches, Bahia Honda draws the second highest visitation rate in the Keys, about 400,000 annually, second only to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at Key Largo. The 524-acre Bahia Honda is one of the few keys with extensive sandy beaches and deep water close enough for swimming and snorkeling.

For campers, Bahia Honda offers 80 sites in three separate areas, two on the Gulf of Mexico bayside, and one on the Atlantic oceanside. Daryl Obenour, the concession manager at the Bahia Honda, has been watching the camping patterns at the park for eight years. “We’ll stay busy from now until May,” Obenour said last week. “The heaviest influx is from Feb. 15 to May 15, then it slows down until about mid June. Another good time to find availability is from the end of August to mid November.”

Key Largo in the Upper Keys is the diving center of the Keys, and the 47 sites for tent and RV campers at John Pennekamp, at mile marker 102.5, stay booked during the summer months. Pennekamp offers scuba diving, snorkeling, canoeing and kayaking, boat rentals, glass-bottom boat tours of the coral reefs, plus guided nature walks and campfire lectures. Another half dozen campgrounds and resort camps make Key Largo the camping hub of the Upper Keys.

The string of keys is broken into three zones, Upper, Middle and Lower keys. Camping is scarce through the Tavernier and Islamorada areas until you get to Fiesta Key KOA, a super resort on the north end of Long Key at mile marker 70, on the bayside.

At Marathon in the Middle Keys another half dozen campgrounds and travel parks can be found in a 10-mile stretch between mile markers 59 and 49. Campsites abound in the Lower Keys to a point outside the city limits of Key West. Sunshine Key RV Resort and Marina on Ohio Key at mile marker 39 bayside is a complete camping center. At Big Pine Key, home of the 8,500-acre National Key Deer Refuge, there’s Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge at mile marker 33 oceanside, and Breezy Pines RV Estates on the bayside at mile marker 30.

Three of the largest camping centers are northeast of Key West, starting with Venture Out at Cudjoe Cay, where only vehicles with full hookups are allowed. Two large facilities can be found on Sugarloaf Key, the Sugarloaf Key KOA Kampground, and just down the road at Sunburst Florida Keys where almost 100 sites are available.

Brevard County has its loggerhead nesting season along its beaches during the summer months, but the nesting season along small beachfronts in the Florida Keys starts in May. At Long Key, there are times when campers can stand back and witness the giant loggerheads and smaller green turtles laying their eggs. “We’ve seen turtles nesting right in the camping areas when we’re there in May,” Troy said. “We’ve had them come up to our tent and start digging right next to us.

“When I walk the beach early mornings looking for bonefish, I see their crawls,” Troy added. “Seems like when you’re camping in the Keys, there’s always something neat going on.”

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Happy Fishing!

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