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Key West

by Randall Beaird

After spending three days in Key Largo I took the bus to the southernmost point in the United States, Key West. It’s two miles wide, four miles long, 150 miles south of Miami, 90 miles north of Cuba, and two miles from a parking place.

Most everyone rents a bicycle or moped. As I scouted out the island for places to snorkel, lobster hunt and spear fish, my forty dollar bike was leaving my stomach empty and something else sore. I say forty but that was “as is.” During the test ride I noticed the front wheel had a worrisome wobble. The mechanic swapped tires and I was up to $50, but I couldn’t use the lowest 3 gears. It’s a good thing I gave it a paint job to make it look worth $60. It was cheaper than renting one for two weeks.

Pedaling to the beach was easy enough. The problem was I ran out of beaches to explore. The snorkeling was good, especially at Higgs Beach on the Atlantic Ocean side. Half of the wooden pier was washed away, but the rusty iron supports provided shelter for thousands of fish.

Spear fishing was not available from shore on Key West. I kept staring at the map. The islands farther north were almost blinking–remote enough to avoid stray swimmers, and my JBL 20 spear gun with an extra band was ready to put the mangrove snapper on the table!

After a week of pedaling, I took the bus to the airport, rented a car, and headed north. Of particular interest to me were the old train trestle supports. The train’s first historic trip from Miami to Key West was in 1912. A devastating hurricane in 1935 killed hundreds, washed away small islands and part of the track; the railroad to Key West was dead. It was replaced in 1938 with a two lane highway on top of the old track.

This two lane highway has since been replaced with a new four-lane sister next door; now it provides shelter for the lobsters and sharks–at least that’s what one fellow said at the dive shop. “There’s a lot of big sharks under that old bridge.” Breathing hard and not sure which was flared wider, my eyes or nostrils, I drifted in and out of the relic’s shadow. All I saw was a lot of big lobsters.

I play the percentages when it comes to sharks and gators. They’ve had about 200 shark attacks the last 40 years in Florida, about 6 fatalities. I thought they might get a bite or two, but that’s about it. Sometimes I didn’t have much of a choice about being under the old bridge. Depending on the tide, I would start on the gulf side and get a free ride to the Atlantic side. When the tide was slack I found plenty of fish and lobster under tangled concrete and iron shrubbery.

My first trip with the spear gun was like the first time I played golf. It’s a lot harder than it looks. Those snappers like to swim just out of range and the pig fish (one of the grunt species, but not the pretty ones) were quick. First, they had to be big enough, then close enough; I went home empty handed.

The next day I decided I wouldn’t eat anything that wasn’t on the tip of my spear. Nothing makes a better hunter than a hungry hunter.

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