reef outdoors art

Yellowtail Snapper are a prized quarry in the Keys and make exceptional table fare. Avery Tate caught this one, displayed by Foster Coffman, first mate on the sportfishing vessel Reel McCoy, out of Islamorada, Florida. Earning a livelihood on the water is a cherished way of life there.

ISLAMORADA, Fla. Expressions that reference all the fish in the sea may have been coined here, because the stunning number and variety take any enthusiast’s breath away.

Anglers who spend a half day or more on the reefs that lie well within sight of Florida’s keys can expect an introduction to the wondrous variety of fish these warm waters hold. From those targeted only for sport, to the cornucopia of flavors that make great table fare, a baited line dropped here can collect almost anything.

For Capt. Timmy Arce, of Native Conch Charters, options for a day on the water are almost endless, and time targeting a reef doesn’t necessarily narrow things down.

“It’s not uncommon to catch 20 different species in a four-hour trip,” Arce says. “From varieties of mackerel, jacks, grouper and snapper, there’s almost always something handy to hook up.”

The Florida Keys’ fishery is one of the healthiest and most diverse in the world. Worked by commercial and sport fishermen alike, the reefs here support an ecosystem of extraordinary power, one that is well and actively managed by all who make their livelihood amid this incomparable way of life. Commercial fishermen target the sea’s grouper and snapper, but do so by hook and line, just as sport anglers must. It makes for a reliably-reproducible adventure that is both fulfilling and rewarding.

Life on the water

For Arce, a fifth-generation islander, the waters here are a liquid landscape that’s been home to dreams made true.

“From towing to salvage to fishing, I’ve made my living one way or another on the water since I turned 18,” he said. “When I was 12, I got started by riding my bike down to the marina to wash boats. I worked my way up from there, tying riggings, tying hooks, helping and learning all along the way. Now, 28 years later, that’s how I’m providing for my family.”

A licensed guide since 1999, he operates Native Conch Charters, where he specializes in light tackle fishing along with snorkeling, ecotours and fully-customizable excursions. On the handy reefs, the opportunities are all but endless.

Freedom from stress

“My favorite thing about guiding is getting younger kids out on the water,” he said. “You can go do anything and the kids are going to have an absolute blast. I’m fishing where I grew up, and I’m showing a new generation this way of life every year. I’m fishing where I grew up, often like I grew up. We can grab a frozen block of chum and a few dozen shrimp and go catch dinner for the family. That’s how we did it then, and that’s how we can still do it today.

“I made a conscious decision about 10 years ago, when my girls got old enough to be on the boat frequently with me, to have no stress. I love taking customers who are there to have a blast catching whatever bites. Customers, who may or may not be seasoned anglers, who aren’t specifically focused on catching a bonefish or a permit or a tarpon in particular, can always have a tremendous time here catching as many as they can of whatever’s biting. The excitement of hooking up and bending a rod and passing along that joy to the next generation is what it’s all about.”

All about excitement

From tactical casting to connect with a sailfish chasing ballyhoo, to a needle-in-a-haystack hunt for the birds that lead anglers to the schools of dorado that drive their dreams, aquatic life on and around the reefs here is enough to leave anyone hooked for life.

To learn more about Arce’s operation or to book a trip, visit nativeconch.com or email nativeconch1@gmail.com.

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