Raising Gus Florida Keys

Mike, Aimee and Gus (age 11-months) Eaton are spending 2015 traveling the United States fly fishing for every major game species that can be caught on a fly rod. Here, they check-in from the Florida Keys.

Words: Aimee Eaton
Photos: Mike and Aimee Eaton


From Aransas Pass, Texas to Marathon, FL it’s a 24-hour drive. We kick it off at 4 p.m. on Friday evening. At 7 p.m. it’s bumper-to-bumper with brake lights blinking slowly off then quickly back on like someone’s sick version of the Red Light Green Light game we played in elementary school. An accident has completely closed down the Interstate forcing three lanes of traffic to turn off at the Thompson Road exit, travel through a lighted intersection then merge back onto the highway. From the first brake lights to resuming our driving speed of 65 mph takes an hour and 47 minutes. In that time we travel just over two miles. I know because despite Cheerios, sing-alongs, toys and everything else we tried, Gus screamed the whole time. This is the ugly, unromantic and untalked about side of taking a year-long fly fishing trip across the nation. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does it’s brutal.

Rest Areas
Pre-Gus we’d do a drive like this straight though, but now we all need a break. We pull in among the big rigs at a rest area on the Florida border that boasts nighttime security. The rumble of the eighteen-wheelers that haul everything from milk to wind turbine blades puts Gus to sleep in seconds. All night they act as a sound machine and in the morning we’re tempted to make a recording for emergency use during traffic jams. Before we leave a deeply tanned trucker with a hula girl tattooed on his right calf notices our Colorado plates and mentions that he used to know a girl from Salida. “She could really dance.” I wonder if he ever fished the Arkansas and what happened to the dancer.


Highway One
Instead of cement gray or school bus yellow the jersey barriers along Highway One into the Florida Keys are painted aqua blue as if to announce to all travelers that they’ve entered the tropics and both island time and happy hour should be observed. Beyond the barriers the deep water sparkles emerald while shallow potentially wadeable water takes on the color of the cloudless sky. Gus points out the window and says, “burr, burr” over and over again, as the pelicans and cormorants dive for fish. The tide is ripping out from Gulf to Ocean and underneath the bridges we see boats lining up, anchor lines drawn tight in the push of the water as the hopeful work to spot daisy-chaining tarpon. Five hundred yards out we watch the water explode as a silver king launches skyward. It’s faster than I’ve ever imagined and the rumble strip sounds as Mike watches the fish closer than the road.


Coco Plum
The barracuda outnumber all other fish eight to one, and after catching a handful we recognize their take and attempt to shake them off before their knife like teeth make off with our flies. We mostly fail but Mike keeps one on that jumps and zigzags taking him near to his backing before he brings it to hand and removes his shrimp with a pair of long nosed pliers. We decide the barracuda is an underrated fish and that night put wire in our packs to use as bite tippet.


Seaducers and Kwans
Gus has discovered music. He points at the stereo in the trailer and gives little insistent monkey hoots that occasionally evolve into cries of “burr, burr” his word both for birds and for all other things he seems to enjoy and get excited about. We pop in the Learning Songs CD and he bops along on the floor as we sing the ABC’s and Head Shoulders Knees and Toes while tying flies. Cheerios mix in among the shrimp and crab patterns and I wonder idly if that would be considered chumming. We’re careful not to drop hooks, but small bits of material drift to the floor and before bed I pick strands of flashabou from Gus’s hair.


I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. There when someone says they see a shark, it means a Great White and you get out of the water as fast as possible. Jaws is no joke. So when Mike spots one lying on the bottom and it spooks swimming straight at me I yell out and the yell is more like a shriek even though the shark is likely a nurse shark and is about 30 inches long. The next day Mike, with Gus riding on his back, hooks a Bonnethead on a crab pattern and brings it all the way in. After failing to tail it, he grabs it just behind the head and carefully removes his fly. Gus’s bare feet wave happily in the air.


After five days of wading the flats and we decide we need a watercraft of some sort. We find a used canoe being sold with a trolling motor on Craigslist and drive down to Key West to pick it up. Gus promptly christens the boat Gaggee and as we push off from land for the first time he hangs over the side trailing his hand in the water like we all have done when first floating across the waves or down the rivers. I think that our next big adventure may involve sailing despite not knowing how to sail. We’re out for a few hours on that first cruise, and as we head back to the beach a huge pulse of water pushes through the channel as tarpon chase bait. Mike is paddling and I’m casting but they move too fast and we miss the action. On the drive home as Gus snoozes I ask Mike if he thinks we could actually land a tarpon from Gaggee. He says he’d sure like to try.


Mojarra, Pin Fish, Needle Fish, Jacks, Oh My
We came to the Keys to chase tarpon, bonefish and permit, but while we’re working to find those species, we’re catching a clearinghouse of other warm water fish. We’ve come home a few times with pictures to use in identifying our catch, but other times we’ve just laughed and noted that, “Yes, needle fish/puffer fish/mullet eat flies.”

From the Keys the Eaton family will be heading to Maine’s Rapid River, then to Massachusetts for a shot at stripers. Follow along on the Eaton family’s adventures at raisinggus.com and check the Instagram feed @raising_gus for updates from the road.


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