reef formation that has grown on a step in saltwater in the Florida Keys. Florida Keys Thanksgiving photo

Florida Keys Thanksgiving, American Crocodiles, and Sharks

Feet and legs in a white hammock with the sea in the background for Florida Keys Thanksgiving
No turkey in sight from my hammock. This year we celebrated a Florida Keys Thanksgiving.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

It’s been a hard year. Barry and I started 2023 with four parents, three close uncles, and one longtime-friend; by November 1, we had one parent and one uncle left. Needless to say, neither of us felt like giving thanks at a table with so many empty chairs.

Fortunately for us, Past Cathy — not expecting any of the death that chased summer into fall — had booked us a cottage at our favorite place in the Florida Keys: White Gate Court. We were going to have a Florida Keys Thanksgiving this year.

We did this once before, in 2020. COVID-19 meant we had to cancel our annual May trip to White Gate because everything was (mostly metaphorically) on fire. By November, when they called us to reschedule, we were desperate to get back to the Keys. Since no one was having a big family Thanksgiving that year, we had our first Florida Keys Thanksgiving.

Red dachshund wearing a holiday tie for Florida Keys Thanksgiving
Seeing Fred, White Gate Court’s canine ambassador,  always makes me smile. Here he’s decked out for his Florida Keys Thanksgiving.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I called our Florida Keys Thanksgiving “FloridaKeysGiving.”

That moniker still applies, and, while I’m not sure we’ll do this every year, I wouldn’t complain if we did. We arrived at twilight the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and the sky was streaked with pinks, oranges, and purples. We’d missed sunset — getting out of town took forever — but watching the afterglow as we pulled onto Matecumbe  offered us a magnificent welcome. The first thing we did after we unloaded the car was take a glass of wine down to the water and take a few slow breaths. That’s pretty much all I accomplished Monday, too, which was exactly what I needed.

reef formation that has grown on a step in saltwater in the Florida Keys. Florida Keys Thanksgiving photo
The steps to the water from the beach at White Gate have an entire ecosystem happening.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Tuesday we’d scheduled a half-day fishing charter. The forecasted 11 MPH winds kicked up to about 22, and when we arrived at the dock, the captain offered us a refund. We instead rescheduled for Thanksgiving morning. I spent Tuesday reading in a hammock and trying to convince myself to get in the water.

Wednesday I braved the cold water — it was below 80º and I’m not built that way, usually, but once I submerged myself, the water became more than tolerable. I snorkeled a bit, and finally — after roughly seven years of coming here — caught sight of the resident nurse shark.

My love affair with sharks is well-documented, and those of you who know me will believe me when I tell you I swam up to him. Or, rather, when I tried to swim up to him. He swam away as soon as I started his way, proof that they’re more scared of us than we are of them.

Thanksgiving morning, we went fishing.

That’s probably one of the best sentences ever written about Thanksgiving. On my bucket list: tarpon and bonefish. I’ve never caught either. Of course, this may be because I don’t fish nearly enough and barely know what the hell I’m doing when I do go, which is why it’s always a pleasure to have a great guide.

The last fishing charter I did in the Keys was with Capt. Casey (Sea Monkey Charters), and we fished off — I swear this is true — Dildo Key near Flamingo (do browser history a favor and don’t Google that; here’s a link).  This time, though, we stayed farther down the chain of islands and wanted a charter closer to White Gate.

Until I wrote about Robbie’s for a series of articles about the Florida Keys six months after Irma,  I dismissed the entire enterprise as a tourist clip joint. I was wrong, and that’s another post for another time, but when we wanted a good captain, I asked my friend and fellow Florida-phile Brad Bertelli for help. Every week he hosts a “learn Florida Keys history” at Robbie’s and has never failed to disappoint with his Florida Keys travel suggestions. He suggested Capt. Rich Hastings, and once again, he failed to disappoint.

a live bonefish in a net, caught on Florida Keys Thanksgiving
The bonefish, right before her return to the water. We killed no fish on this trip.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I’ll spare you the cast-by-cast of the fishing charter, but I will say that  as we made our way south from Robbie’s, we passed an American Crocodile in the mangrove cut, I caught a bonnethead shark, and I also caught my first bonefish. If there’s anything that compares to the thrill of catching a bonefish, seeing a croc in the wild is right up there. As for catching the shark? I felt bad. Sharks, as I’ve mentioned, are among my favorite things. The shark — and the bonefish — are, to my knowledge, still swimming happily around the flats where we fished, talking about that time they got away.

Man fishing off skiff for Florida Keys Thanksgiving
Bonefish? Nope. A bewildered and not-at-all-happy stingray.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Fishing isn’t about the fish.

That all said, if I’d caught nothing, it wouldn’t have mattered. The morning started with rain and clouds, but by about 8:30, the sun peeked through and the water reflected the colors of the sky. Fishing is — or should be, at least — a mostly-quiet sport, so in between catching fish, I had plenty of time to watch the water. As I did, I breathed in and out, and remembered that, after a year I could have done without, I still have so many reasons to be thankful.

A small red mangrove surrounded by saltwater; taken during Florida Keys Thanksgiving

Photo by Cathy Salustri