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Tony Capecchi

Woodbury, Minn.

Fishing in Paradise: Little Palm Island

Giant tarpon are swarming like sharks in the black water, devouring their prey whole. The predators leap out of the water in pursuit of their quarry––each splash so sudden and severe it startles me into flinching. The sun will not rise over the Atlantic Ocean for another two hours, but spotlights under Little Palm Island’s dock illuminate just enough water for me to spot a tarpon cruising for something to kill. I toss my bait out in front of the notoriously finicky fish, and it slowly swims toward it. 

My eyes grow wide as saucers as the tarpon inhales the pilchard a dozen yards in front of me and I set the hook as hard as I can. Tarpon are famous for their leaping ability, and this one is no exception. Hating the feeling of the hook in her front lip, she promptly goes airborne. The aerial assault she launches seems to wake every creature within earshot. It definitely causes my heart to jump into my throat.

I’ve never before hooked a tarpon, but I’ve seen the photos and videos and have read numerous stories about the coveted trophy. The marlin is the fish that battles Santiago for days in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but tarpon is the species that Hemingway himself chased all over the Florida Keys––perhaps, as is rumored, at this exact island some 12 miles off the coast of Little Torch Key. The tarpon’s combination of size and strength, along with its incredible reluctance to bite and its incredible propensity to get away, if by chance it does get fooled, is legendary. While pockets of anglers across the globe prefer different species for different challenges, it is not an unreasonable assertion to state that tarpon are one of the most coveted sportfish in North America, if not the world. The one on the end of my line is going ballistic. 

I repeatedly “bow to the king” as I’ve read you’re supposed to do, leaning forward and extending my arms each time the tarpon leaps. My goal is to give the fish slack in the line, and to avoid pulling the hook out of its tough mouth as it flies through the air shaking it head violently. I recall a conversation at dinner two nights prior, up in Islamorada, with an angler who confessed to me that he’s hooked 76 tarpon but hasn’t landed a single one. The silver fish jumps again––much farther from me now than when I first hooked it ten minutes ago––and I wonder if I will begin my tarpon career 0-for-1. 

But then the tides turn, and with adrenaline on my side I outlast the prized fighter and drag the fish to shore. Wow! My arms shake; I struggle to lift the monster, and I know the moment will last in my head for years. A grin spreads across my face as I stand on the shore of Little Palm Island Resort & Spa holding the fish of a lifetime.

If there is a better saltwater fishing resort on the planet than Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, I have yet to see it. Little Palm was once the favored fishing camp for old-time movie stars and U.S. presidents, dating back to Harry Truman. In the past couple decades, the 5.5-acre island resort has opened its doors to a select number of discerning guests, offering 30 two-person, thatched-roofed bungalow suites with ocean views and private beaches. 
 


 

The ironic part, however, is that the resort is so plush that travelers who disdain fishing herald it as the ultimate relax-and-do-nothing getaway, while hardcore anglers simultaneously hale it as the premiere fishing resort. Travel + Leisure and Conde Naste consistently include Little Palm Island Resort and Spa in their annual gold list of the world’s top hotels; meanwhile, North American Fisherman last year named the resort one of the five best fishing destinations in the world.

Put another way, Little Palm Island is paradise island … surrounded by fish. Catching the tarpon was just one of numerous memorable moments I encountered fishing during my 4-day stay in May. Fittingly, my fantastic angling experiences stemmed from a combination of the resort’s unparalleled fishing action and its unparalleled service and amenities. They treat you like a celebrity, and they put you on some of the best fishing in the Western hemisphere. 

On my first morning, I took out one of the 20-foot Twin V Catamaran boats Little Palm Island makes available to guests at no extra charge. The boat’s powered by a 90-horsepower Suzuki outboard, complete with top-of-the-line Lowrance electronics. 
 


Action was fast that morning, with big grouper, permit, lots of snapper, and an exciting follow by a 4-foot long barracuda that trailed my chum bag for several minutes and chased two of the fish I caught.
 


 

But the coolest thing that morning didn’t even involve me catching a fish. I zipped out a mile or so from the island––which again, is a dozen miles from the Keys to begin with––and started some open water drifting. I was in the middle of nowhere, with the sun shining down on the turquoise water with nothing around me but the flat horizon. 

All of a sudden, a huge spotted eagle ray jumped completely out of the water no more than 20 feet from my boat. The giant sting ray came crashing back down with a huge splash––just in front of it was a long, skinny baitfish being chased. To witness this ray, with no sign of civilization in sight, was awesome. 

The next morning fishing off the dock produced one of the hottest fishing stretches of my entire life, kick-started by catching a solid black grouper. I released the fish, dropped down my bait again, and immediately caught a large pompano. I released it, tossed my shrimp back out, and promptly caught a mid-sized silver fish I couldn’t identify. I snapped a photo, released the fish, and dropped my line back in the water for a fourth consecutive, immediate bite. This time, I landed a decent mutton snapper, followed by a mangrove snapper on my fifth cast. 
 



So it went, for eight consecutive casts with eight consecutive fish, each one biting within ten seconds of my bait hitting the water. During this stretch, I proceeded to catch ten fish in 12 casts; during the two casts on which I didn’t catch fish I immediately had strikes––I simply missed the bite and lost my shrimp. The west-side dock at Little Palm Island extends into deep water and holds incredible quantities of fish, so by “casting” all I had to do was drop my shrimp straight down from the dock, wait five to ten seconds, and get a bite. 

Adding to the thrill was the variety of different species I hauled in during this flurry––including a number of species I had never before caught. By the time I walked back to my bungalow for breakfast, I had already caught over 40 fish! How cool is that?

Little Palm Island offers a variety of fishing guides you can book, and I saw one guest return after a day with his guide with a +100-pound swordfish in tow. All the fish I caught, however, came on my own, unguided, which is a testament to both the quality of fishing in the area and the quality of helpful staff at the resort. 

Ronaldo was the dock-hand for my first couple days, and this soft-spoken Central America native was a fountain of knowledge. He graciously walked the docks with me and pointed out hiding snook, tarpon, sand sharks and several colorful parrotfish.



He taught me how to fish for sharks, and when and where to search for them. When I managed to catch a shark while fishing on a stand-up paddleboard, Ronaldo hustled over with a pair of pliers and unhooked it for me. 
 

“Little Palm boasts a very tenured staff that is accustomed to serving high profile and celebrity guests with the utmost privacy, as well as quiet and gracious service,” said Bill Foster, Area Director of Sales & Marketing at Noble House Hotels & Resorts. “It’s a well-loved and well cared for family owned business where every detail is approved from owners themselves.

The dock-hand the next couple days, Nathan, was perhaps the kindest, most helpful person I met during my week in Florida. Nathan explained to me that I likely wouldn’t trick a giant tarpon with shrimp, or with the particular line and leader I was using. So, Nathan set me up with low-visibility line and a high-end rod-and-reel combo (Little Palm provides all the fishing gear you need at no additional charge). Then he gave me another light-weight rod with a Sabiki rig he personally tied on for me to catch pilchards to use for bait.

Nathan was so patient in answering my endless questions and explaining all the detailed info I needed to apply these new techniques. I think he was the most excited guy on the island when he learned later that I had caught the big tarpon, which was all thanks to his help. 

Indeed, I still smile about it now when I look back. The tarpon was just the cherry on top––the fish of a lifetime that capped off what would have been the trip of a lifetime, even had I not caught a thing.

The website for Little Palm Island Resort & Spa is www.littlepalmisland.com. For more information, call 800.343.8567 or email getlost@littlepalmisland.com.

 




 

 

Drink in the Island Life at Lorelei

“Another perfect day, on this island town.” It was impossible to argue with the guitar-strumming duo who sang those words as the sun set over Lorelei Cabana Bar and Marina in Islamorada, Florida on this 76-degree May evening. 

My wife and I were stuffed from a fantastic dinner at the world-renowned yet refreshingly casual, ocean-side restaurant as the musicians crooned up on stage, but that didn’t stop us from devouring our frozen key lime pie. As we indulged, it occurred to us that the only way to improve on the accuracy of the song’s refrain would be to add the phrase: “at this perfect bar.”

“Perfect” is a cliché, but spend an evening at Lorelei’s outdoor restaurant and you’ll quickly see why it’s the first word that comes to mind. You’ll also see why Lorelei, recently named one of the top five “after-fish restaurants” in the world, attracts folks from all over the planet.

 


 

The restaurant feeds over 1,500 people throughout a busy day, with live music every night, a massive marina home to hundreds of boats and 33 fishing guides, and an ideal view of the sunset. But most importantly, Lorelei possesses a vibe all its own––a fun-loving fellowship shared by its staff and guests alike that embodies the spirit of the Florida Keys. 

“We have fun here,” said John Maloughey, the restaurant’s general manager. “We get good musicians every night and we offer very affordable prices so people want come back.” 

Maloughey knows a thing or two about coming back. The Islamorada native has failed at retirement twice, returning several times to manage the restaurant he’s helped operate since 1989. Lorelei is the place the locals go––along with the tourists, of course––so when Maloughey walks along the west-facing deck, he’s stopped by handshakes, smiles and fishing tales from friends. 

His down-to-earth nature is commonplace at the restaurant. He sat down at our table to shoot the breeze with my wife and me, sipping on a lemonade while we enjoyed rum runners from the restaurant’s extensive happy hour cocktail list

“I still work about 80 hours a week, but when you love what you’re doing and you don’t necessarily need the money anymore it’s a lot different,” Maloughey said. “We have a lot of staff who’ve been here for years, and that makes it nice.” 

Our waiter that night, Sean, was a classic Keys man. His home floats; a boat he shares with his wife as they “follow the seasons.” He bartends in the Bahamas during peak tourism season there, then motors north to the keys to dock at Islamorada and work at Lorelei the rest of the year. “We have no bills, no kids, and no complaints,” he said casually. What a life.

Maloughey, meanwhile, has two adult daughters––both of whom can run their own boat. “I took both my daughters out boating and fishing since they were little,” he said. “Islamorada is a great place for kids if you like the water, but there’s a not a ton else for kids to do in this town, so we make sure we’re a family-friendly place, and people seem to appreciate that.” 

Indeed, the gang at Lorelei does more than its fair share for area kids. Each year, they run a huge youth fishing derby and give away tons of prizes. For a full month before the event, Maloughey feeds the fish at 10am every day to help the kids’ success rate for the 10am fishing event. 
 


For adults, Lorelei’s marina hosts over 50 major fishing tournaments every year, with prizes worth tens of thousands of dollars. The restaurant and its fresh seafood, cheap drinks and picture-perfect view of the sunset have a way of bringing out the kid in everyone. Several tables away from us, a group of eight broke out into a round of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" when the professional musicians took a break. 
 


When Davidson and Webb got back on stage and resumed singing, an old buddy of theirs walked up to the stage to greet them. The friendly duo didn’t hesitate to take a break from singing to visit with their friend. When they resumed, a 50-something year-old woman went up to the stage and started dancing, trying unsuccessfully to bait every man and woman within sight to join her. 

The evening rolled on with that sort of carefree, fun atmosphere and as my wife and I enjoyed delicious shrimp, fish dip and snapper tacos, we mutually agreed that while Lorelei cost only a fraction of the price of other dinners on our trip, it was hands-down the best dinner we’ve had in the Keys.

Jrose from Natick, Massachusetts summarizes Lorelei well in a TripAdvisor review: “Great service, great views and excellent music. Recommend it for all. Try it early and often in your stay.”

Indeed, it’s a perfect end to any day on this island town. 

The website for Lorelei Cabana Bar and Marina is www.loreleicabanabar.com. For more information, email johnm@loreleicabanabar.com or call 305.664.2692. 

For more information on the Florida Keys and other fun things to do in the area, visit www.fla-keys.com.

We started with Lorelei’s Smoked Fish Dip, made of smoked local fish with island spices topped with capers, diced onions and served with crackers (above), and the Steamboat Channel Shrimp, fresh steamed, peel-and-eat served chilled, with island spices (below).


 

At the waiter's suggestion, we also tried some Bacon Wrapped Shrimp Skewers, drizzled with a sweet Thai chili sauce. They were incredible. Such a unique taste combination, I would have never tried it had it not been for Sean's suggestion, but it was fantastic.


 

For a main course, I had the Snapper Fish Dinner: fresh, blackened snapper with the chef's sauce on a sandwich with french fries and vegetables. Jodie got the Snapper Tacos, three soft tacos prepared with blackened snapper and cabbage, tomatoes, mixed cheese and a cilantro lime mayonnaise. We took our time to enjoy the atmosphere and the food, and it was all so delicious we managed to finish every bite.
 


 



Did we need dessert after all that? No. Did we have a piece of Lorelei's famous Frozen Key Lime Pie anyway? Of course. It was the right thing to do. 


 


We also enjoyed walking around the marina before and after dinner, and spotted a couple manatees swimming in the area.

 


The entrance to Lorelei features a beautiful taxidermy display, as well. It’s not a surprise to see such a variety of trophy fish, given that Islamorada is widely considered one of world’s premiere fishing epicenters.


 

“According to the IGFA (International Game Fish Association), more saltwater records have been set in the Florida Keys than anywhere else in the world,” said Andy Newman, Media Relations Director of Newman PR. “Where else in the world can you go out in the morning and catch a 300-pound swordfish and a 30- or 40-pound dolphin, come back in to catch a few snappers for dinner, then in the evening go out and catch a 100-pound tarpon?”

A recognizable landmark associated with the restaurant is its giant mermaid, Lorelei. Over the decades, there have been several different mermaids, and her look has evolved.


 

When this current mermaid was first painted, he hair was a few inches shorter, revealing her bare chest. A couple hours after the painting was finished, a bus driving the local Christian school happened to drive by. "The teacher called me up, and boy did she ever chew me out," Maloughey recalls with a chuckle. "I hadn't even been down to see the painting yet, so I didn't know what she was talking about. So I went over and saw it, and told the painter he needed to make her hair a little longer."
 

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