A 400-pound crocodile is glaring at me 15 feet away with its razor sharp teeth on display. A cunning predator, the crocodile has the strongest jaws on the planet with a biting force of 5,000 pounds per inch.
“Crocs can jump through the air faster than you can blink,” says my guide, Jim Willcox.
I am miles away from civilization, in the upper reaches of a narrow river channel winding through the jungle, as Willcox whispers these comforting words. Today I have spotted birds I never knew existed, and caught five types of fish I’ve never before seen.
Now I lock eyes with the crocodile and wonder, for the first time during this extreme fishing pursuit, if I am perhaps no longer the predator.
It feels as though I am in the Amazon, or maybe on the Nile River, fishing in a foreign world where crocodiles are kings––they have been known to attack great white sharks––and every cast holds the promise of catching something bizarre. Instead, I am only 80 miles south of Miami, fishing in the Florida Everglades with a man many say is the best guide in the business.
And while reaching Captain Jim Willcox was easy and inexpensive compared to the travel required for equal adventures in far-flung parts of the world, our journey since leaving the dock in Islamorada, Florida, has not been void of danger. “He died this spring,” Willcox says, nodding to a memorial photo pinned to a mangrove tree along the channel. “Lost control of his boat. They found his boat way up in the mangrove trees with the motor still running 90 minutes after the crash.”
We are lucky on this October morning. Calm wind makes it possible to run some 30 miles in Willcox’s 18-foot Action Craft boat to leave behind the Atlantic Ocean, cut through the Gulf of Mexico and sneak up into the bowels of the Everglades. At full throttle, Willcox’s 150-horsepower Yamaha propels his boat on plane so he can fly through water just 12 inches deep. Nonetheless, it is critical that we pay attention to the tide or we will get trapped up in a narrow channel that held water when initially motored through but recedes into a mud bank by the end of low tide.
“There’s no cell phone reception here,” Willcox says. “People get stuck and you’re not going anywhere until the next day.”
In a sense, Willcox has been trapped by the region for more than two decades. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, cheering for the Eagles and driving 90 minutes to the East Coast when he wanted to fish for marlin and tuna. He came to Bud N’ Mary’s marina in Islamorada one December with his dad and fell in love with fishing in the Keys.
For the next 12 years, Willcox came to Islamorada each December with his 13-foot Boston Whaler and fished every day for a month straight. The unique beauty and diverse fishery captivated him so intensely that he couldn’t leave, so Willcox made the leap to move 1,300 miles south to become a full-time fishing guide.
“I could never do a corporate job and work for some stiff in a suit,” said Willcox, now in his 15th year operating his Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. “I report to the Everglades now.”
It appears fishing and guiding is what Willcox was born to do. He has won numerous fishing tournaments, been featured in big-time publications ranging from The Washington Post to Field & Stream, and has starred in television shows on ESPN, Versus and The Weather Channel.
“Jim is a natural for TV,” said Terry Boeder, a producer for North American Fisherman-TV (NAF-TV) who has filmed numerous fishing shows with Willcox. “His excitement and enthusiasm for the keys is 100 percent authentic.”
This past summer, Boeder’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and he wanted to do something special for them. Try not to hate him for it, but Boeder gets to fish all over the country with the top guides while producing shows for NAF-TV. When it came time to decide who he should hire to take his parents out for a memorable anniversary, the decision was easy.
“I picked Islamorada for my parents’ 50th anniversary because of Jim,” Boeder said. “He introduced my parents to all the beautiful things the area has to offer. They had never been to the Keys, and because of Jim, they are making plans to come back.”
I can understand why Boeder picked Willcox. If I exclude a couple local guide-buddies from the equation to remove any biases, I have to say Willcox is hands-down the best guide I’ve ever fished with––and the most fun.
Incidentally, I first heard about Willcox during an episode of NAF-TV that Boeder filmed. In the show, Willcox and his guest boated a monstrous, 14-foot-long sawfish. The footage is incredible––watch the action on Willcox’s website and you’ll understand why ancient people believed in sea monsters.
“I fish 9 days a week,” Willcox quips, conservatively putting the estimate at 250 days a year. He’s mastered a 40-mile radius of ocean and Everglade water, and narrates every twist and turn so I can begin to appreciate this powerful environment.
He knows this water like the back of his hand. As soon as we reach our spot and start pitching jigs to mangrove trees we start catching fish. I’ve never before caught a redfish, but 30 seconds into fishing I’m reeling one in. My excitement grows as I cast back out and just as quickly get another bite, this time only to discover another new species for me: a snook.
From then on, the action was fast and furious with both quantity and quality fish. Big mangrove snappers, sheepshead, catfish, more snook and lots of bruiser redfish up to 14 pounds––fish that give a heck of a fight on 15-pound braided line. We also saw countless birds ranging from hawks to spoonbills, as well as sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, manatees and that up-close-and-personal crocodile.
In fact, it is the wildlife and the wild scenery that most amaze me on this adventure. Where else in the U.S. can you have an experience like this? No wonder Willcox’s clients rave about him.
“Jim can stop his boat in the middle of nowhere, drop in a few lines and pull out dozens of a specific type of fish,” says Matt Waddell, of White Plains, New York, who visits Islamorada annually for guided outings with Willcox. “Then he’ll motor for a while, stop somewhere else, and you start catching dozens of some totally different type of fish.”
Waddell brought his 12-year-old son out fishing with Willcox as a birthday present to the boy. After catching mackerel, blue fish, redfish, snapper, snook and trout, Waddell’s son caught a large shark.
“As a dad, there’s nothing like seeing the pure joy of your 12-year-old reeling in fish after fish and then catching this huge shark,” Waddell recalls. “Those trips are also a chance for me to bond with my sons with no video games, no phones and no TV. We just talk about what’s going on in life, but it’s not heavy or uncomfortable because they’re so excited about the fishing.”
“Jim is great with kids,” Waddell said. “He engages with them really well, and he subtly teaches them without patronizing them.”
Willcox gets to see childlike excitement from many of his clients throughout the day; it’s what he loves most about guiding.
“Guiding gives me a chance to spend every day in this wilderness,” he said. “And it’s awesome to introduce people to the Everglades and see them freak out. They get so excited by the entire experience––seeing that is a rush for me.”
Capt. Jim Willcox operates Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. His website is www.ultimatekeysfishing.com. To contact Jim, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-393-1128.
You can still see the affects of Hurricane Wilma (2005) in much of the region. The two trees on the point in the photo below seem like the inspration for the song "Lean on Me." The Gulf of Mexico is in the background.
These two members of the Audobon Society were catching baitfish to gauge how the bird population would fare in the months ahead. Lots of bait means lots of birds.
Below, Capt. Jim Willcox noticed birds concentrated in this area, so we boated over and threw out a net, figuring the birds were hovering over baitfish.
The net was so heavy Willcox could barely haul it in. (I almost had to put down my camera and help). We used these pilchards for bait the rest of the day.
At the fish cleaning station back at the marina, dozens of tarpon gathered to snatch up our fish guts. Half a dozen sharks joined them. It's difficult to gauge the perspective in this photo because there are so many huge fish here, but the majority of these tarpon ranged from 25 to 75 pounds, with several over 100.
After our day in the Everglades, we stopped in the Atlantic Ocean for an hour and caught a ton of mangrove snappers, pictured above and below. Willcox directed us to a local restaurant that night that cooked our fillets in four different, delicious ways.
What a day! It had the perfect ending, fresh fish at a restaurant on the beach, and the perfect beginning: a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic, pictured below.
The hawk descended from its perch atop a 200-year-old sycamore tree and dive-bombed directly toward my wife. The hawk zeroed in on her with startling speed and deadly accuracy, and the instant it made contact with Jodie, our companion Dave Atkinson exclaimed, “Poetry in motion.”
You see, it was all part of the plan. The harris hawk, named Bruce, landed perfectly on Jodie’s arm with an effortless grace that would make the finest pilot in Ireland gush with admiration. The moment, one of a dozen such occasions with this bird of prey during our 90-minute falconry adventure, was in fact the epitome of our trip to Dromoland Castle in County Clare, Ireland––a surreal experience granting us access into an ancient world of royalty, woodlands and wonder.
As soon as my wife and I entered the famed baronial castle, dating back to the 16th century, we saw why it’s been named one of Europe’s top resorts and has attracted the likes of Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and even the oh-so-groovy Beatles. The food and service blew us away, and the 5-star castle hotel sits on lovely Lake Dromoland, secluded by 450 private acres of majestic woodlands that transport visitors back in time while providing them a natural playground full of fauna and foliage.
Staying at the castle is akin to staying at a museum that’s come to life. There have been additions and renovations, but at the core little has changed since Dromoland was described in 1855 as “a superb edifice surrounded by an extensive and richly wooded demesne… built entirely of dark blue limestone, and in fine chiseled workmanship.”
The interior is filled with high ceilings, stained-glass windows, sparkling chandeliers, tassled drapes, gold cornices, antique furniture and burning fireplaces that––fortunately––do nothing to interfere with the unique odor of “old castle.” The smell is intoxicating. Of course, so is the smell of the walled gardens (Note to all Hollywood producers reading this story: Please film the next re-make of The Secret Garden right here).
At one point, the O’Brien family had some 45 gardeners managing the estate. Today, the garden has diminished in size but not in quality, though I must say the greatest beauty of Dromoland’s estate lies in its less-manicured woods, and we enjoyed both the complimentary bikes and row-boats for trout fishing. Ultimately, though, it is the opportunity to enjoy the woods in tandem with a hawk that should not be missed.
I have sat in a duck blind with birds as the target, but to walk in the woods with a bird as my ally––for it to be released into the tree tops to search for prey, then to return to my arm as my comrade––is something else. Falconry, defined as “taking wild quarry in its natural state or habitat using trained hawks or falcons,” dates back to 2,000 B.C. and is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia or the Far East.
Europe adopted the sport in perhaps the 4th century when the Huns invaded, and it became popular among the nobles in part because falcons and hawks were rare, expensive and required the great estates of castles. It was not exclusive to men, however, as a European nobleman in 1801 commented, “the ladies not only accompanied the gentlemen in pursuit of falconry, but often practiced it by themselves; and even excelled the men in knowledge and exercise of the art.” This note also documents that women, unsurprisingly, have been bettering men since at least 1801 … though I suspect that began centuries earlier!
That said, Atkinson, the leader of the Dromoland School of Falconry and our guide for the afternoon, didn’t give us a history lesson but rather focused on the daily changes and challenges with the predator birds today. Watching him interact with our hawk was every bit as mesmerizing as watching a pheasant hunter work the field with his dog, and I must say Dave’s nuanced interactions with the hawk made me feel I was an outsider watching two old friends who knew each other’s every thought.
Atkinson is so modest and soft-spoken that it took me about midway through the afternoon to realize just how incredibly knowledgeable he is––not only about falcons, but about all birds, wildlife and critters of the woods. He is an avid fisherman and hunter who has a gift with falcons, as well as another gift he does not take for granted: the luxury of playing with his passion every day for a living.
For my wife and me the adventure lasted but a day, but it was an unforgettable day that gave us a chance to witness poetry in motion at Dromoland Castle.
In addition to the harris hawk, we also got to see a number of other hawk species, falcons and a variety of magnificent owls.
Another highlight of our Dromoland Castle experience was our Pony and Jarvey Ride. Our driver, Sean, has been blessed with the famed Irish "gift of gab" and his stories were the best I heard in Ireland. Simply put, I could listen to this guy tell stories all day long. I was also struck by his passion for Irish history and his love of the majestic woods.