Keys guides protect their own

ISLAMORADA, Fla. — Casting a fly rod at rolling tarpon, Capt. Tad Burke lamented on how much the Florida Keys have changed since he was a little kid growing up in the area.

Like many fishing guides in the Upper Keys, Burke has seen the growth of the islands and the local tourism business and how they've impacted the fishing.

About 15 years ago, Burke, who has been guiding for 24 years, decided it was time to take a leadership role in protecting the islands he loves and calls home, so he got involved with the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association.

Burke has been president of the association for the last eight years.

Founded in 1952, the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association now has roughly 75 fulltime members, 40 of whom are active and most of which are considered the upper echelon of guides in the area.

"It started when a group of guides, mainly old timers like Jimmy Albright, Jack Brothers, Billy Knowles Sr., and a handful of others got together to create a consistent voice they could send to the state regarding fishing regulations in the Florida Keys," Burke said. "Dues are $100 a year, but last year given the tough economic times we waved the dues."

The organization's board meets monthly while the guides meet quarterly to discuss fisheries issues affecting the Keys and to make recommendations to the state on any rule changes.

Essentially, the guides are a conglomeration of voices who are on the water every day who see and know the status of the fish populations in the area. Since their business is dependant on good fisheries, they guides are stewards of the resource and are out to protect the fish.

"We also raise money for the Hawley Foundation, which helps fishing guides in their time of need with financial assistance," Burke said. "Fishing guides don't have insurance, so if I fell down today and broke my leg and was out of work for a month or two, I could ask the Hawley Foundation to help me with my finances so I don't lose my house and my family has something to eat."

About five years ago the Upper Keys had a hatch where the number of guides almost doubled to over 300 that work between Key Largo and Islamorada during the prime tarpon fishing months of May and June. While the numbers of fishing guides in the area have soared, the quality of the guides have dropped, Burke said.

"There's still only a limited number of guides who do this business well," he said. "That's why it's good to hire a guide that is a member of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association when you come down to Islamorada. The fishing is great every month of the year, but only about 25 percent of the guides are seasoned, knowledgeable and going to provide the quality fishing experience that will create lasting memories."

For more information on the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association or to see a list of their members and their contact information, you can check out their website at www.floridakeysfishingguidesassociation.org.