Kneel on the dock. Hold the minnow just over the surface of the water. Keep your eyes open.
Something silver and gray emerges from the depths under you. Gad, it’s six feet long. Gad, its silver-dollar sized eyes are focused on that minnow grasped by your puny hand.
If you want to chicken out, now is the time. Just drop the minnow into the water. The intimidating creature will slurp it down. But if you’re brave – if you’re looking for a real adventure -- keep your hand still. And wait.
Wait for the explosion of water just under your hand. Wait for the bump. Wait for the adrenaline rush as the gape-mouthed tarpon inhales the minnow from between your thumb and pointer finger.
Stand. Take a breath. Now pat yourself on the back. You’ve just experienced one of the great bargains in the Keys, not to mention something totally unscripted, something I like to call Real Florida.
You’re at Robbie’s Boat Rentals, near Marker 78, in the middle of the Keys. Robbie’s in Islamorada is a plywood shack and dock supported by telephone poles. Looks like a big wind could knock the joint down.
Follow the “Feed the Tarpon $1” into a dilapidated building that lacks air conditioning. Give the man at the counter your dollar bill, stroll out onto the dock to the free-swimming tarpon at the end. Watch a visitor screw up her courage and feed one. For another three bucks buy a bucket of bait an feed them yourself. Tarpon lack teeth, but if your hand somehow ends up in its maw you’ll receive a sandpaper kiss. Anyway, that’s what it feels like to me.
Robbie Reckwerdt has passed away, but his legacy lives on. In 1976, he found a tarpon splashing in the shallows hurting from a broken jaw. Robbie put the tarpon in the large bait tank in which he kept live shrimp. A friendly veterinarian sewed up the tarpon’s torn jaw. After a month, Robbie returned the healed tarpon – he called him “Scarface” -- to Florida Bay. Scarface was free to swim away, but he stayed near the end of the dock. Other tarpon, lots of them, joined him. Scarface has since joined the late Robbie in that special Keys heaven. But for whatever reason tarpon – some heavier than 100 pounds – continue to call the end of the dock home.
And on a good day, they are watched and fed by hundreds of giggling tourists.
The tarpon, watching them back, don’t seem nervous at all. They seem hungry. Keep your wits about you.
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