Hurricane Irma: Tackle shops, other businesses 'took it on the chin,' but the fishing will bounce back quickly, experts say.
For days, there was great fear and dread across Florida as Hurricane Irma plowed through the Atlantic, bringing almost unimaginable fury and destruction.
As Irma's Category 5 winds raged — 185 miles per hour sustained for a record 37-straight hours — apocalyptic reports of storm surge and wind damage began to trickle in from devastated places like Antigua, Barbuda, Saint Martin, Saint Thomas and other tropical paradises in the Leeward Islands and Virgin Islands.
Thankfully, Irma's final wrath in Florida wasn't as severe compared to what was experienced earlier in the storm's deadly trek. To be sure, the powerful hurricane brought damage to the Sunshine State — particularly in the Keys along U.S. Route 1 — but not as bad as what had been feared, at least on the state's mainland peninsula.
Down in the lower Florida Keys, it's another story.
In the lower Keys, where Irma made her first U.S. landfall on Cudjoe Key at 9:10 a.m. on Sept. 10, major damage has been reported to many homes and businesses as the storm's 130-mph winds and double-digit storm surge rolled across several islands.
Phone calls to several fly shops in the Keys went unanswered as this story was written more than a week after Irma's landfall, something that is completely understandable since authorities have only recently reopened access to the wrecked region.
With that in mind, I turned to a popular fishing guide in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach area, one who has his finger on the pulse of Florida's fishing industry.
"The lower Keys really took it on the chin," said Swamp-to-Sea Guide Service Capt. Patrick Smith, a fly fishing and light tackle guide who takes trips for freshwater canal peacock bass and largemouth bass along with inshore snook, tarpon, jack crevalle and sharks.
"We ended up with some trees down and power out for a few days in my part of the state, but down in the lower Keys around Islamorada, Big Pine, Cudjoe and on towards Key West, they've got more problems than just a few trees down."
After officials repaired damaged sections of U.S. Route 1 (the Overseas Highway) and assured that the region's bridges were safe, the biggest problem in the Keys is the infrastructure damage.
In fact, many buildings — homes, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, marinas, tackle shops, and fly shops — have sustained significant damage, and in some cases, outright destruction.
"Bud N' Mary's (Marina), the Tiki Bar, Robbie's where you feed the tarpon, they were all places that were hit really hard," said Smith. "I haven't heard from the fly shops in the area, but you kind of have to assume that they are heavily damaged or gone since there was a 10-foot (or more) rise in tides flooding these islands from one side to the other."
Despite suffering extensive damage, businesses in the Lower Keys are promising customers that they'll rebuild as quickly as possible.
"We don't have phone or internet service at the marina and it could be for a while," said a social media post on the Bud N' Mary's Marina Facebook page. "We are currently closed as we clean up and rebuild for the next few months but plan to be operational again soon. All of the charter boats, dive boat, and our houseboats did fine during the storm! We will be back! Thank you for your patience and understanding during this time."
Over at Robbie's of Islamorada, where restaurant customers have fed countless big tarpon each day for years, it was much the same after Irma's winds and water flooded the building, wrecked the docks, soaked historic photos of famous visitors, and even blew away a good number of the signed dollar bills that customers left behind.
"Look @ all those dollar bills still hanging," said a Robbie's Facebook post. "Irma can't hold us down -- ROBBIE'S STRONG! Re-building EVEN BETTER!"
What about the Key's fabulous fishing itself?
"Irma made the water a little murky, but I've already seen pictures of guys down there that are having good days catching fish," said Smith. "Even where Irma was at her worst, the fishing will bounce back pretty quickly. It's just that right now, there's no where to stay."
If the Lower Keys are struggling, Smith says that Upper Keys aren't quite as bad. And he notes that in many areas, the rest of the state is steadily returning to a sense of normalcy.
"There was certainly damage in much of the state," he said. "But I think overall, the state did ok, better than we feared at least, even on the West Coast (where Irma came ashore for good near Marcos Island)."
In other words, Irma was plenty bad for many people in Florida, just not as catastrophically bad as the storm could have been.
That certainly appears to be the case for Smith over on the eastern side of the peninsula.
"On the East Coast, we're doing fairly well," he said. "In fact, I've done several trips already from fishing to a few gator hunting trips."
In fact, Smith was picking up a new boat as I chatted with him, a sign that for him at least, Irma or not, it's all systems go for a great fall season of fishing.
"Come to Palm Beach and call me because we're catching just about everything over the last week - peacocks, tarpon, snook, you name it," he said. "And the offshore guys are catching tuna, dolphin, etc.
"These storms push in a lot of snappers and lobsters and the mullet run is in full swing," he added. "It's pure insanity right now out on the salt as the tarpon, jack crevalle, snook and other predators just demolish those things."
And that's a good kind of demolition, the fishing version, not the kind wrought by the wind and water of an unwelcome Category Four hurricane.