The Fishipedia Q&A: Jeffrey Cardenas

July 28th, 2011| 1 Comment

The Fishipedia Q&A: Florida fishing guide & author Jeffrey Cardenas

For anyone acquainted with sportfishing, Jeffrey Cardenas should need no introduction. For everyone else, it goes a little something like this — Jeffrey is the man you go to when you need something a little special. Maybe you want to fly into an isolated Caribbean airstrip, sleep under the stars and fish virgin waters for tarpon, snook, permit and bonefish. Perhaps you’d rather stay in a five-star hotel and chase bluefin tuna on the fly. Or maybe you’re just too busy to organize your next trip and need someone with the expertise to take care of logistics. Whatever it is, Mr Cardenas knows how to make it happen — he may even fly you there on his private plane.

It’s not like he just woke up one morning and decided this was the job for him though. He spent years perfecting his trade as a guide in Key West (he even got punched off the dock by a rival on one memorable occasion), his passion and work ethic earning not only a standout reputation (he was Fly Rod & Reel Magazine‘s 1989 Guide of the Year) but a list of clients that includes the likes of Jack Nicklaus. He’s worked as a writer and photographer, has become a regular on fishing TV shows and authored two much-loved books on fish and fishing. Of course, he also happens to have fished just about everywhere that’s worth fishing along the way — which is exactly why we thought it was high time we sat down for a chat…

Jeffrey Cardenas

Golden dorado: "the best attributes of both salt and freshwater fish"

Hi Jeffrey. We hear you just returned from a golden dorado fishing trip in Bolivia. How was that?
Dios mio, what a fish! I fished for golden dorado along the front range of the Bolivian Andes. The fish hold in pocket water in clear freestone streams that flow through a dense tropical rainforest. You wade wet because the water is warm. There are jaguar tracks along the banks and scarlet macaws screeching in the tree canopy. The indigenous people still hunt with handmade bows and arrows. But the fish are the most incredible part of this experience. They embody all the best attributes of both freshwater and saltwater fish. You sight cast to them like trout in New Zealand, but when they take it is with the aggression of a barracuda and aerobatics of a tarpon. The color of this fish is like something surreal from a Garcia Marquez novel. They are big and they have teeth. We landed dorado up to 35lbs with the average fish being 15 and 20lbs. Ten fish a day this size is not uncommon. When you look at this jungle from the air you can only wonder how many hundreds of miles of these rivers have never been fished.

You’ve got a fishing scrapbook to make most people jealous. What’s your all-time favorite destination?
My favorite destination is always my next one. Anticipation is what makes fishing work for me. It’s that moment before a tarpon inhales a fly, the anticipation before a tuna rips 500 yards of backing off your reel. The same thing applies to the anticipation of a fishing trip. I get so revved up before a trip that I can’t think straight. It doesn’t matter if the trip is a daybreak run in the skiff to the Marquesas or a month in South America. I just live to go fishing—wherever it is.

Is there anywhere you still can’t wait to go but haven’t managed yet?
I haven’t fished in Africa. I’d love to come face-to-face with a tigerfish. The payara in South America have fangs and jump like they are on fire. I’d like to spend a few weeks with a machete and a fly rod looking for them in new fishable water in the Amazon Basin.

These days you run a fishing concierge service. How do your trips differ to normal guided excursions?
Some anglers are simply too busy to properly prep for a trip. They have an idea of where they want to go and what they want to fish for but it becomes too time consuming to sort out all the details that will make this trip extraordinary. I plan it from A to Z — the right place, gear and flies that work, the travel logistics. I’m usually on the trip. I don’t replace the local guides but I interact with them and use my knowledge from 30 years of guiding to help create realistic expectations for both the clients and the guides who are going to put them on their fish of a lifetime.

Fishipedia users are a well-traveled bunch — if one of them called tomorrow and said they had unlimited funds for a two-week dream fishing trip, where would you take them?
Well, I’m on a Bolivian buzz right now, and it’s not just from chewing on the coca leaves. It is an expensive place to find fish but there are outfitters who provide luxurious accommodations in one of the most remote areas of the world with fish that will just make your jaw drop. It is possible to incorporate trekking and camping on some of these trips that can take you to water that few people have ever seen, much less fished. Having the balance of both is worth the price of admission.

You’ve spent a lot of time on the water — what’s the strangest thing you’ve seen out there?
I never get tired of watch natural predation on the water. I’m not just talking about seeing a barracuda whack a bonefish that you are trying to land. When fish eat without any interaction from the angler, this is the predatory act in its truest form. I remember once watching a school of 40 or 50 large tarpon rolling along the edge of a bank west off Key West on a calm morning. Just offshore a pelagic hammerhead shark, one of the really big ones 15 or 16 feet long, marked the tarpon and kept pace with them from a distance. Tarpon are faster than sharks but sharks are smarter. Slowly and quietly, the hammerhead pushed the tarpon into a dead-end basin on the bank. I am sure the shark knew the geography of that bank. Once there was no possible escape route the hammerhead accelerated toward the fish with a couple beats of his tail and when it reached critical mass the carnage was like a commuter train wreck. I had a talented angler on board that day and I said to him, “You’re good but what we just witnessed was fishing perfection.”

Jeffrey Cardenas

Tuna: "a humbling fish"

OK, so this is a slightly cliched question but it’s one we all consider from time to time.
Do you have a favorite species?
Tuna. It has become my four-letter word. Specifically, bluefin tuna. I have an empathy for these fish and although I realize that fishing for them is hypocritical and may even be somewhat immoral, still, I cannot help myself. They are so beautiful. I understand that they may not be around much longer but when I make a fly rod connection with one of these great fish it is simply a connection that cannot be made by just watching them. The power of these fish is unbelievable. Their speed generates so much heat that they are considered warm-blooded creatures. To be able to feel that in your hand, connected by a light tippet, gives a sense that there are things in this world greater than we are. It is good to be humbled by a fish.

In 1994, you spent six weeks in the wilderness for your book Marquesa: A Time & Place With Fish. How much have you seen it change since?
I wrote Marquesa because as a guide I had spent so many days there with the single-minded purpose of catching fish that I had almost forgotten about the essence of the place. It is an atoll 20 miles west of Key West that straddles the line between two great bodies of water, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The tide flows through the mangroves there every six hours and creates a bouillabaisse teeming with life. The fishing pressure in the Marquesas ebbs and floods just like the tide. It is remote enough that it is a commitment to get there. The Boca Grande channel is a great equalizer for that pressure because when the tide is against the wind it can be rough enough to rip a platform off a skiff. I’ve been fishing it for 30 years. It’s my go-to place. Sometimes the fishing works and sometimes it doesn’t but there is something about driving my skiff into the center of that atoll, throttling back until I come off a plane, that makes me feel like I am home.

Of course, you’re also famous for Sea Level. Do you plan to write any more books?
I would hope there are more books in me but writing is the most difficult thing I do. It is also the most gratifying. There is so much writing about the natural history of fish and fishing that has already been done and over-done. It is a waste of time to be repetitive. Anything worth doing from my point of view would have to be fresh and original. When that time comes I hope I still have the voice to tell the story.

Jeffrey CardenasAs an experienced guide (with some pretty famous clients) what single piece of advice would you give to young guides starting out today?
When I started guiding, Keys guides were notorious for being curmudgeonly prima donnas. They would berate their clients for making inaccurate casts. Some guides were stoned and drunk when they met their clients at the dock. One guide wouldn’t even let his anglers eat potato chips onboard because he didn’t want to have to pick crumbs out of his carpet. I got punched off the dock and into the water by another Key West fishing guide on my very first day with clients because the clients inadvertently parked in the other guide’s parking spot. Lefty Kreh told me once that he boycotted the Florida Keys for a couple of decades because the guides there were such jerks. Then a new generation of guides arrived. A lot of these guys were from Western trout water where there was a kinder, more gentler sentiment about how to treat their clients, whether they could fish well or not. So my advice to a new guide is simple: Learn to fish the water that you will be guiding before you take your first trip. And most importantly, treat those clients like gold. You’d be shoveling dirt somewhere if it were not for those people who are paying you to take them fishing.

And finally… You’ve got one day left to go fishing — where would you go and what would you fish for?
Here’s the dream scenario… Wade fishing for big tailing bonefish in a few inches of water on a glassy calm flat of pure white sugar sand, at sunset, barefoot. That’s what I am going to do this evening.

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    bullo river station says

    Good to know about Jeffrey,that he is the man you go to when you need something a little special..Nice blog..Liked it.

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