Tony Capecchi

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Since age 18, Tony Capecchi has been chronicling his worldwide travel and outdoor adventures for national magazines, including In-Fisherman and North American Hunter. He has co-hosted “Live Outdoors” on CBS Radio, produced television for NBC and worked on The History Channel’s hit series “MonsterQuest.”

Posts about Fishing

An Extreme, Luxurious Wilderness Adventure

Posted by: Tony Capecchi Updated: June 22, 2014 - 11:41 AM

Editor’s Note: The author visited Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, a second-generation family-run lodge in northern British Columbia. This article is the first of a four-part series on Nimmo Bay.  

Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort: Day 1

Tuesday May 20, 11:12pm: I am physically exhausted from an 11-hour day of hiking, kayaking and exploring the Great Bear Rainforest and yet I cannot fall asleep, for images of the wilderness beauty I’ve seen today are running through my mind like a National Geographic special.

The playground for my adventure is Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, an eco-friendly, family-run lodge in northern British Columbia that is only accessible by helicopter or floatplane. The award-winning resort––routinely named one of the top ten wilderness getaways in the world––sits at the base of Mount Stephens and consists of nine two-person chalets built on stilts on a tidal, fjord-like bay. The luxury lodge beyond the middle of nowhere offers exclusive access to over 50,000 square miles of breathtaking beauty, including 10,000-year old glaciers, mountain tops, old-growth rainforests, remote islands, white sand beaches, hot springs, a 5,000-foot waterfall and over 50 pristine rivers and stream.

I arrived at this natural paradise the night before, just in time for a delicious dinner of fresh mussels and halibut, followed by an evening soak in an outdoor cedar hot tub at the bottom of a waterfall some 30 feet from my cabin. The 20-minute float plane flight into Nimmo Bay was breathtaking, as was the hour-flight preceding that from Vancouver International Airport to Port McNeil on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. 

My arrival at the lodge included an unforgettable welcome, as well as both a clinic in hospitality and a hint of what was to come during my stay at Nimmo Bay. I walked off the float plane around 8pm onto a floating dock with a crackling bonfire. 

“Hi! You’re Tony, right? I’m Francisco,” said a short, grinning Chilean who was to be our main guide during the next 3 days. I would come to learn that Francisco is a skilled outdoorsman who prior to coming to Nimmo Bay lead emergency evacuations for the government in his native Chile and also ran an adventure guiding service. He got the job to be a guide at Nimmo Bay two years ago when, during a coffee-shop interview with lodge owner Fraser Murray, Francisco paused while answering a question to help an elderly woman maneuver the crowded restaurant. That Fraser offered him the job on the spot after observing the quiet act of service says as much about Fraser as it does Francisco.

A moment after I shook Francisco’s hand, a young woman named Hailey approached me with a smile and said, “Hello, I’m Hailey. Can I pour you a glass of wine?” Francisco took the opportunity to grab my luggage from the pilot and whisk it away on the path of floating docks to my cabin while I, feeling suddenly quite important, opted for white. 

“Have a seat,” Hailey offered, and no more than 60 seconds into my stay at Nimmo Bay I was completely relaxed and transfixed. Had I truly woken up that very morning at a bustling international airport surrounded by traffic, buildings and throngs of people? Here I was sitting on a floating dock sipping wine by the fire under the stars, at the base a snow-capped mountain in the middle of nowhere, looking out at this remarkable view. Wow. Welcome to Nimmo Bay. I was seemingly a million miles from civilization, without a care in the world.

Frankly, I’m surprised I slept as well as I did the night of my arrival, my excitement level for the day’s upcoming adventures was so high. Maybe the wine helped, or the massive portions at dinner did the trick––or, more likely, it was the soothing sound of the waterfall cascading 10-yards from my cabin. Not only does the waterfall provide the camp with “the purest, sweetest drinking water,” as the Murrays say, it also provides the camp with power for nine months of the year thanks to a water-powered hydro system Fraser’s father, Craig, built shortly after towing a float house from Vancouver Island back in 1982 to open the resort. 

“We did all the stuff you can possibly do to be green right from Day 1 because we know how fortunate we are to live in this pristine environment,” said Craig, a pioneer and entrepreneur who dragged his wife and young children to live out in the rainforest and attempt to open a lodge with scarcely a thousand dollars to his name. Of course, Craig’s wife––a hearty Newfoundlander who was one of the first females to work at a logging camp––and kids loved every minute of it, even when a giant grizzly bear turned the family’s float house into its personal den.

In addition to the hydro power, the Murray family also installed a hydroxyl waste management system that converts the camp’s waste-water into to bacteria-free, clear water that can be released back into nature. They’ve been all catch-and-release with their incredible salmon and trout fishery since their very first guest––decades before the trend became popular––and they implemented a recycling and refuse elimination program. The Murrays even purchase BC-beneficial carbon offsets, and founded a Future Forever Fund in 2007 to raise money for Raincoast Research, save BC wild salmon and offset greenhouse gas emissions. 

Hiking, Food, Exploring & More Food

If the welcome I received upon my arrival at Nimmo Bay doesn’t paint the full picture of the hospitality the Murrays and their loyal staff extend, perhaps the story of my early morning hike on Day 1 will paint a few more strokes. The plan was for breakfast at 8:30 followed by Fraser setting us up with our day’s adventure, but as an early riser I was up shortly after 6 taking pictures and walking around the camp. I wondered into the dining area and got a glass of orange juice when Hailey appeared and greeted me with her trademark smile. 

I asked Hailey if there were any good trails I could hike before breakfast, and she graciously explained that due to the dense bear population in the area they encouraged guests not venture from camp alone, but that she or anyone on the staff would be happy walk with me anytime I’d like. She couldn’t that very moment as she was preparing for breakfast, so we agreed to go on a hike later, which was fine with me. Without my knowing, however, she ran back into the staff building and told a co-worker. 

Two minutes after my chat with Hailey, Francisco ran out to the dock and said, “Hi Tony! Want to go on a hike with me?” He then proceeded to guide me on a fantastic hike through the old growth forest, pointing out plants and animal tracks as we made our way through The Great Bear Rainforest.

We returned exactly at 8:30 for breakfast with my fellow camp guests. Initially I thought breakfast was fruit smoothies, chocolate-filled croissants, fresh fruit, granola and yogurt, but then I learned that was just the first course of breakfast!

Round two consisted of eggs benedict with bacon and avocado.

Fully nourished, we set out boating and kayaking on an expedition led by Fraser himself. Less than an hour into our adventure on the water, we spotted a black bear and its cub. Halfway between our kayaks and the bears, a seal popped up. Again, I thought, welcome to Nimmo Bay. I'm forty-five minutes into my first morning on the water and am already treated to this fantastic wildlife encounter.

I guess this really is bear country. 

Every staff member has their own bear story, even Fraser's 5-month-old daughter, Fauna. Fauna's mother (Fraser's delightful partner, Becky) was midway through her pregnancy and out on a walk in the woods when a pair of black bears appeared ahead of her on the path. Becky and her walking partner, Fraser's mother, began walking backwards but the bears followed. And followed, and followed. For 20 minutes, all the way back to camp, the bears followed them. Finally, once the pregnant Becky retreated into the lodge, the bears turned and disappeared into the woods. The Murrays are such great storytellers it's easy to imagine them telling the tale of Fauna's first dramatic bear enounter, before she was even more born, to future guests for years to come. 

As thrilling as it was watching the bears, the kayaking and paddleboarding in and of itself was simply sublime. Nimmo Bay offers complimentary kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to its guests, and its protected waterways with countless islands and inlets is ideal for paddling of any type.

After a few hours, Fraser led us to a beautiful island with a seashell-laden beach for a shore lunch. As if on cue, the sun came out and a pod of dolphins surfaced out in front of the island as we ate. 

You would've never guessed we were in the remote wilderness based on the quality and style of the food. We feasted on house made crackers with little quilicum brie cheese, orange and fennel salad and trail mix, paired with either red or white wine. The best part of the meal was a monstrous sandwich with heaps of genoa, soprassafta and capicolli salami stacked on artichoke hearts, little quilicum cheese and iceberg lettuce between homemade bread. Dessert offered options: cashew coconut custard bars and banana walnut ganache squared. 

Talk about a picnic lunch in style! And we had this view, to boot: 

I could have sat on that island with a smile on my face all day, but Fraser had more excitement in store for us. After lunch, we continued our exploring and visited several picturesque waterfalls.

Just before returning to camp for the day, we spotted another bear. This one was a large bear we got to watch for a quite a while before it finally detected us and retreated into the woods. What a way to bookend our day on the water, with a bear sighting to start and finish our excursion. 

"There's more value in viewing a bear than in shooting a bear," said Fraser, who has worked to expand Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort from purely a fishing resort into a broader-based, eco-resort that offers bear-watching, kayaking, hiking, beachcombing and whale watching (Fracisco confided to me they called Fraser "the whale whisperer" last summer because he always seemed to bring guests to humpback whales). "We want to give people a chance to observe these animals in their natural settings." 

We returned to camp around 5:30, so in the two hours we had before dinner, a few of us went back out for more paddleboarding. It's hard for me to sit still in a surrounding such as this.

 

As you can imagine given the day's previous feasts, I wasn't exactly starving when they brought out dinner despite my 11 hours of boating, kayaking and hiking. Nonetheless, I managed to put away the crab cakes and ultra-tender beef tenderloin just the same. 

Dinner was followed by a soak in the outdoor hot tub next to the waterfall, and an evening campfire with my fellow guests and new friends, the owners and staff of Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort.

The website for Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort is www.nimmobay.com. For more information on Nimmo Bay, call 1.800.837.4354 or email heli@nimmobay.com.  

Come back next week for Part Two of the Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort series, featuring photos and stories of a day-long helicopter ride into a whole other world of heli-fishing and heli-hiking in the remote mountains of The Great Bear Rainforest.

The Rule of Three

Posted by: Tony Capecchi Updated: April 13, 2014 - 10:52 AM

There’s something about the Rule of Three. Good things, bad things, strange things––for whatever reason, they often occur in sequences of three. A historically cold Minnesota winter of polar vortexes has nixed most outdoor activities these past months and forced me to look back at my most memorable fishing adventures from 2013, when temps were above zero.

And there it is. The Rule of Three. As I reflect on highlights and lowlights from my time on the water last year, three incredible experiences stand out. Each venture, in and of itself, was a spectacular moment that could stand alone as a capstone adventure in any outdoorsman’s life. The fact that I was lucky enough to enjoy these gems in the same year––or the same lifetime, for that matter––is not lost on me. As payback, I guess deserved the worst winter weather since before I was born.

Here are my top three extreme fishing adventures from 2013, each one incredibly unique and diverse in its own right.
 
1.) Ashford Castle
Cong, Ireland

Having traversed the Atlantic Ocean and Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region to reach fabled Ashford Castle, I now can say that I have lived like royalty. It was only for a day, but a day in an ancient world lasts a lifetime in memory.

The castle, once the proud estate of the Guinness family, was built on the shores of Lough Corrib in 1228. The view across the lake has not changed in over 6,000 years and all of the castle’s 83 rooms retain their original features. The room my wife and I stayed in offered a stunning view of the 44,000-acre lake, home to some 365 islands. It was a view made better (if not blurrier) by the complimentary bottle of champagne and decanter of cherry that welcomed us upon our arrival. And so we learned, quite quickly on this special visit, that life as royalty is good.

As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens that Rick Steves raves about––it was difficult to pull ourselves out from within the castle walls that first afternoon. Ashford Castle is just too magical. Original architecture is still in-tact, ranging from massive fireplaces to Waterford chandeliers to Roccoco gilt mirrors.

Eventually, I made my way outside the castle to face the famed Cong River with rod in hand. The Cong River, an excellent trout and salmon stream, spills into the lake outside the castle’s front door, creating a picture-perfect scene of a fairy-tale like bridge leading to the castle’s grand entrance. “We call that the ‘Oh-My-God!’ corner,” says Ashford’s Director of Sales and Marketing Paula Carroll. “That last bend always surprises guests, when you come around the corner and suddenly this majestic castle comes into view as though sitting on the side of the lake.”

Click here to read the full story of my adventures at Ashford Castle, including falconry, castle dining and mountain hiking.

2.) Little Palm Island
Atlantic Ocean, Miles Offshore Florida's Southern Tip



I am balancing on a 12-foot, wooden paddle board armed with an oversized kayak paddle I used to propel myself away from the jungle island and into the Atlantic Ocean when I notice a shark swimming 30 yards behind me. Ahead of me I see nothing but azure water so I do the only thing that comes to mind: I wobble down to my knees to untie the fishing pole I have strapped to my board and cast out in the direction of the unmistakable fin.

The shark is oblivious to my first two casts, but on the third cast she catches the scent of the shrimp I’m using for bait and charges after it. I wind faster. This angers her; she accelerates with remarkable speed to close the gap between her teeth, my bait and me.

I’m quickly running out of space––I have wound in nearly all my line and the chase is still on. I lower my rod tip into the water and whip it to the back of the board to keep my bait in motion when––BANG––the shark annihilates my bait 18 inches in front me! The shark strike creates a surface explosion like a cannonball hitting the water.

My pole is instantly doubled over from the weight of the sea creature, which spins 180 degrees with a splash of its tail and races off into the depths of the Atlantic with me now in tow behind her.

...

As thrilling as it was, the shark escapade was just one episode of a surreal sequence of adventures my wife and I experienced at Little Palm Island Resort & Spa near the Florida Keys, a private, 5-acre island resort miles offshore from the southernmost tip of the United States.  

Click here to read the full story of my adventures at Little Palm Island Resort and Spa, including sailing, beach dining and ocean sunsets.

3. Fishing the Everglades
Miami, Florida



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.”

Click here to read the full story of my adventures with Capt. Jim Willcox, including encountering sharks, manatees and dolphins.

The Ultimate Canadian Love Affair: Nimmo Bay

Posted by: Tony Capecchi Updated: June 6, 2014 - 9:55 AM

My love affair with Canada began with a high school graduation gift from my old man: a week-long, father-son fishing trip. We bunked in a rundown resort in the woods of Ontario. Wind and rain besieged the camp, and daily thunderstorms forced us off the lake back into our knotty pine cabin, which housed a pair of field mice. In the black of night, a wind gust blew open the cabin door and in our semi-awake state we shoved a dresser in front of the door to prevent it from blowing open again and letting even more rainwater pour in. I loved every minute of it.

Since that stormy initiation, the Canadian wilderness has beckoned me back annually, if not two or three times a year. My dad and I found a new resort we escape to every Father’s Day and now consider our home-away-from-home.

A family road-trip to Niagara Falls a decade ago gave me the chance to see the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world; it also provided a few afternoons of fantastic stream fishing near Toronto.

A group of high school buddies and I brave the conditions every couple winters and snowshoe through the lakes and highlands of southern Ontario––punching through thin ice on a spring fed lake chilled my bones but did nothing to cool my passion toward Canada.

A few years ago, Vancouver welcomed me to the beauty of British Columbia, and served as a lovely launching pad for an Alaskan cruise.

A fly-in fishing adventure near Ear Falls two Septembers ago, during the full moon phase, taught me that walleyes can indeed feed so ferociously that your jig doesn’t hit the bottom of the lake. More importantly, it allowed me to treat my dad to his first fly-in fishing excursion––a trip he had dreamed his whole life of going on “someday.” The big moon lit up Bear Paw Lake as we caught walleye after walleye into the late night hours, all alone in the silence of the wilderness.

The year after, I breached Manitoba for my first time at a resort that presented a miraculous collection of contradictions: extreme luxury in the remote Atikaki Wilderness Provincial Park; 5-star service and gourmet food at a fly-in camp; world-class fishing with lavish accommodations in the midst of a beautiful and unspoiled boreal forest.

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of lodging and luxury, annual Boundary Waters camping trips with cousins taught me how to paddle a canoe and tie up a bear bag to keep our food safe in the air––while we slept in tents on the ground.

This May, a decade and a half after that first Canada fishing trip, my love affair with the Canadian wilderness will culminate with the adventure of a lifetime: a week of ocean kayaking, mountain hiking, heli-fishing and glacier trekking at the incomparable Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort



The resort, recently featured in the New York Times best-seller, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” consists of nine chalets built on stilts on a tidal, fjord-like bay just south of Alaska’s Inside Passage, and is accessible only by helicopter and sea plane. From this pocket of luxury, guests have access to over 50,000 square miles of breathtaking beauty, including 10,000-year old glaciers, mountain tops, old-growth rainforests, remote islands, white sand beaches, hot springs, a 5,000-foot waterfall and over 50 pristine rivers and streams––the majority of which can only be reached by Nimmo Bay helicopters.

Daily adventures include whitewater rafting, kayaking, paddle boarding, deep-sea fishing, glacier trekking, bear- and whale-watching excursions, hiking and stream fishing. With all that activity, guests work up a hearty appetite to fully appreciate the mountain-top picnic lunches and gourmet dinners back at the lodge––a dining experience that has been called “one of the best in Vancouver” by New York Times best-selling travel author Patricia Shultz.

As grand as the operation is today, it all began with one man’s dream over 20 years ago to run a fishing lodge with his wife and kids. “I wanted to make a living doing something where I could be with my family,” explained Vancouver Island local Craig Murray, who started the lodge in 1980 after purchasing an old float house near Port Hardy and towing it by barge to Nimmo’s current location. “Not a lot of jobs out here at the time other than logging and commercial fishing and those would require me to leave my wife and kids behind and travel to wherever there’s work.”

And so, at 34, Murray decided to follow his dream and start Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort with his wife and sons, age 3 and 1.

“There are 150 million things that can go wrong, and most of them did at some time or another, but we managed,” said Craig. “We had no options––we had to make it work, even when the bank would say, ‘Sorry, no more money.’”

The resort initially focused just on fishing, and gradually grew from accommodating eight guests to its current capacity of 18. For nine months of the year, the eco-friendly operation is powered by electricity generated from the waterfall. A hydroxyl waste management system converts all the camp’s waste-water into to bacteria-free, clear water that can be released back into nature. Nimmo Bay has always led the way with sustainability and consciously minimizes its carbon footprint.

“There are too many things in this world that are not sustainable, too many people that aren’t thinking about that,” Murray said. “Right from the get-go we had a catch-and-release only fishery, so we never killed any fish at all. We have the purest, sweetest drinking water coming down from Mount Stevens. We did all the stuff you can possibly do to be green right from Day 1 because we know how fortunate we are to live in this pristine environment.”

Over the years, visitors from all over the world have taken note of the pristine environment as well. Nimmo Bay boasts a 76 percent return rate. It is consistently rated as one of the elite wilderness resorts in the world. The secret behind it all is simple, according to Murray, who in his early years visited his guests at their homes to study their behavior and preferences in order to optimize their future Nimmo Bay experiences.
 
“There are three reasons for our success at Nimmo Bay: humor, music and detail,” Murray said.
“Music is the universal language, and it’s all around us in nature,” Murray said. “If more people got involved with making music it’d be a happier place.”

His own children have taken the advice to heart. Murray’s middle child, Clifton, serves as an international ambassador for the resort while traveling with his popular band, The Tenors. Murray’s youngest child, Georgia, works full-time at the resort by day and is a professional singer by night. Guitars, sing-a-longs and karaoke are common at Nimmo Bay.

Murray’s oldest, Fraser, now runs the resort along with his wife, his cousin and his sister Georgia. “My dad has taught me so much,” says Fraser, who became a father himself earlier this winter. “He was there when I caught my first fish, and he also had me washing dishes and cleaning toilets at a very young age.”

Fraser and his generation of Murrays were the driving force in expanding Nimmo Bay’s offerings to include a wider breadth of activities beyond fishing, such as heli-hiking, whale watching, whitewater rafting and glacier trekking.   

“We have all dedicated so much of our lives to Nimmo Bay that it is hard to separate life from work,” Fraser admitted. “Dad taught me the value of a long, hard day’s work and to never give up on something you believe in. I would say the only thing that was ever bigger then Nimmo Bay in our lives was our family, and this is true to this day.”

Younger sister, Georgia, agrees. “It is very special to be a part of a family business,” she said. “We are so lucky to be carrying on our mom and dad's legacy and putting our own stamp on it.”

As for me, I am lucky to have the chance to visit this remarkable place and this remarkable family in less than three months. Given the Murray’s legacy, it is fitting that this trip will be my last great adventure before I myself become a father later this summer.

I hope one day I will be able to share my love of the Canadian wilderness with my son or daughter as Murray has done with his.

The website for Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort is www.nimmobay.com. To contact the resort, email heli@nimmobay.com or call 1-800-837-4354.

Photos courtey of Jeremy Koreski.

Ashford Castle: Crown Jewel of the Emerald Island

Posted by: Tony Capecchi Updated: December 29, 2013 - 4:13 PM

People often ask, “What was your favorite part of your trip?” It’s a difficult question. Pinpointing one specific highlight and ranking it against the others can be nearly impossible, especially on longer trips that consist of a variety of activities and settings that can’t be fairly compared.

That said, when people ask me, “What was your favorite place that you stayed in Ireland?” I have no hesitation in my response––even though I was lucky enough to stay at a wide variety of world-class resorts, including a 5-star hotel in beautiful County Wicklow, a 500-year-old baronial castle, and a resort on the Ring of Kerry with a view of the ocean.

The favorite place I stayed in Ireland was the Ashford Castle near the quiet village of Cong. As much as my wife and I loved every place we stayed on the Emerald Island, Ashford Castle was, without question, the crown jewel.

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

The 800-year-old castle, built on the shores of Lough Corrib in Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region, was once the proud estate of the Guinness family. Yes, that Guinness family––who, as you would expect–– had perhaps the finest estate in all of Ireland. The view across the famous lake has not changed since Sir Benjamin lee Guinness himself lived at Ashford, and all of the castle’s 83 rooms retain their original features.

The room my wife and I stayed in offered a stunning view of the 44,000-acre lake, home to some 365 islands.

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens, and hundreds of Oak, Beech and Chestnut trees have been re-planted––it was difficult to pull ourselves out from within the castle walls that first afternoon. Ashford Castle is just too magical. Original architecture is still in-tact, ranging from massive fireplaces to Waterford chandeliers to Roccoco gilt mirrors.

The Drawing Room was spectacular, with live music entertaining at night and views of the perfectly manicured back-lawn, magnificent fountain and opening bay of Lough Corrib delighting by day. As we lounged in the Drawing Room and listened to the lovely piano music we wondered: Who else may have sat in these antique chairs?    

Choices include the Emperor of India, Britain’s King George V, President Ronald Reagan, Senator Ted Kennedy, Oscar Wild, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brad Pitt, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, all of whom have stayed at Ashford. In fact, the Duke (by whom I mean John Wayne, not some British royalty) stayed at Ashford when he filmed the movie “The Quiet Man.”

Many of the movie’s action sequences were filmed on Ashford’s estate, and you can walk from the castle to the very waters where the priest in “The Quiet Man” hooked the monstrous salmon he’d been trying to catch for 10 years. That’s not the only reason I was excited to bring my rod and ply the waters at Ashford––many of the largest pike in Fred Buller's famous book, "The Doomsday Book of Mammoth Pike," were caught on Lough Corrib.  

There is also the Cong River, an excellent trout and salmon stream, which dumps into the lake outside the castle’s front door, creating a picture-perfect moment of a fairy-tale like bridge leading to the castle’s grand entrance. “We call that the ‘Oh-My-God!’ corner,” says Ashford’s Molly Leibowitz. “That last bend always surprises guests, when you come around the corner and suddenly this majestic castle comes into view as though sitting on the side of the lake.”

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

That final stretch of river is not just scenic, though; it’s a terrific spot to cast for salmon when they’re running in May. I have to admit, I did catch myself distracted on several casts––not paying my silver spoon its due attention as my eyes studies the castle in front me. The castle’s ghillie, Frank Costello, is an Orvis-endorsed guide who grew up on Lough Corrib and doesn’t let his international reputation go to his head. Ashford’s concierge called him for me at 6:30pm and he kindly offered me tips over the phone. I took notes dutifully, knowing that last year Costello caught a brown trout from the lake that topped the scales at over 13 pounds.

Costello and the concierge’s help that evening was typical of the service at Ashford.  “What makes Ashford special are the wonderful people who work here,” said Paula Carroll, Ashford Castle’s Senior Manager. “Over 40 percent of the staff have in excess of 20 years of service here, and 55 percent have more than 15 years. That’s why clients feel like they are coming and being welcomed home.”

A perfect example is the family who has visited Ashford every Christmas for the past 18 years. They leave all their decorations at Ashford, and the staff decorates their room for them every year before they arrive, so when they walk into their room it’s completely decorated with all their family decorations.

With such service to complement such a breathtaking setting, it’s clear why Ashford was voted #1 Best Resort Hotel in Europe by readers of Conde Nast Traveler in 2010.  

Or, for that matter, why my answer is so easy when people ask me, “What was your favorite part of Ireland?”

Ashford Castle's website is www.ashfordcastle.ie. For more information, email ashford@ashford.ie or call 1.800.346.7007.

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle also offers golf, falconry, boating, biking, indepedent and guided fishing, horseback riding, archery and clay shooting.

Welcome to the Jungle

Posted by: Tony Capecchi Updated: November 9, 2013 - 1:43 PM

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 captjimw@ultimatekeysfishing.com 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.

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