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Guiding in the Keys . . .

On the Water
Guiding in the Keys . . .

Guiding isn’t fishing, but it’s tough to beat

Larry Sydnor wakes up every morning to a sunrise other people plan their vacations around – the kind of sunrise photographers wait a lifetime to capture, a sunrise that’ll make you swear you’re going to rise before dawn every day the rest of your life.

And here’s the kicker: Each of Sydnor’s days ends with a sunset more spectacular than any sunrise, and 200 days a year he gets paid to see both ends of those days.

Sydnor is one of the top-rated fly-fishing guides in the Florida Keys. He works hard, because guiding isn’t fishing, it’s guiding, and guiding is more work than you think – physically, emotionally and mentally. Sydnor is paid to deliver the fishing excursion of a lifetime to virtually every angler who steps on his boat. That’s a challenge he faces daily. 

Still . . . it’s in the Florida Keys.

His only regret: “I only wish I had started guiding earlier,” said Sydnor, who lives on Key Largo, the largest of the Florida Keys.

Some Florida Keys history

In case you’ve never been, the Florida Keys are a spectacular coral cay archipelago off the southern coast of Florida, forming the southernmost portion of the continental United States. The distance from Key Largo (the most northern Key) to Key West (the most southwestern and “last” of all the Keys) is 97 miles by car.

For most of their existence, the Keys were accessible only by water. That changed with the construction of the Overseas Railway in the early 1910s that ran from mainland Florida to Key West over a remarkable series of trestles. But a massive hurricane on Labor Day in 1935 destroyed the Keys railway, and the route was converted to automobile roads. That collection of roadways now comprises the southernmost stretch of U.S. Highway 1, which begins at the U.S. and Canada border in Fort Kane, Maine, and ends 2,369 miles south in Key West.

Getting on the fish

Sydnor, a walking illustration of what an island guide looks like – tall, sinewy, a little rugged, kind of handsome and super easygoing – fly fishes from an 18-foot Islamorada boat from Chittum Skiffs that’s powered by a quick but quiet Mercury 115 Pro XS outboard. Despite all that technology, Sydnor remains proud of his “poling” skills – using a long pole to move the boat silently closer to the fish.

“It’s gratifying when I’m able to give someone an opportunity to accomplish something they’ve dreamed about,” he said. “But you’ve got to be in shape; some days I can spend seven hours on the platform poling.”

Sydnor earned his captain’s license in 2000 and has been guiding ever since. But it’s hard to picture him anywhere but the Keys. He’s a native of Ohio, but the only lingering evidence is his preference for bison over fish (“I’m a catch-and-release kind of guide and don’t like to see them on my dinner plate”) and a partiality for rock & roll. Sorry Jim Buffett.

His career change to guiding was triggered by a chance encounter.

“My wife (Sharon) introduced me to a friend of hers, Captain Gary Ellis, a backcountry fishing guide in Islamorada she had worked with in Chicago,” said Sydnor. “Our virgin trip with Capt. Gary had me hooked my first time on the water – I caught a snook, redfish and tarpon – a backcountry SLAM!

“Gary and his wife Susan run the Redbone Tournament Series to raise funds for cystic fibrosis research, which their 3-year-old daughter had. Sharon and I had a commercial sign company, so Gary invited me to fish in all of his tournaments in return for designing, producing and installing all of their signs for cost of materials – and it worked out well for both of us. We were thrilled to make them look good and generate tons of interest, and in return I got to fish with some of the best guides.”

Delivering the goods

Despite the striking beauty of the sky, water and endless sea life in the Keys, Sydnor says the job can be demanding.

His toughest challenge?

“Trying to make my anglers happy when they think it will be easy based on TV fishing shows that have been edited and condensed into constant action,” he said. “Many (clients) aren’t realistic about their personal skill level and aren’t always receptive to what I might have to offer in trying to better the situation.

“But I’ve learned not to overthink it, and when I get home I leave it behind. The divorce rate of local guides is astounding. It’s not all fun and games. I leave for work in the dark and get home in the dark. It’s a very demanding mental and physical career, and we don’t even want to begin to talk about skin cancer.”

Still . . . it’s the Keys, and Sydnor finds it easy to love every day on the water.

“The greatest aspect of guiding is being able to fish ‘through’ my anglers,” he said, “joining in their experience of catching their first bonefish or tarpon or whatever on fly. It really is all about the angler for me – locating fish for them and assisting them in the presentation and hookup. Especially when it comes to the young anglers, seeing them perfect their skills, entering tournaments and becoming guides themselves. I’m passing it on.”

For many guides, fishing the Keys means fishing the “flats,” the clear, shallow waters teeming with coveted gamefish, such as tarpon, permit, bonefish, snook and redfish.

“I love fishing for any ‘tailing’ species,” said Sydnor. “Sight-fishing the flats is so exhilarating with bonefish and permit, even redfish. The ‘take’ can take my breath away, especially when the fish has ‘eaten’ one of my hand-tied flies.”

Sydnor says his success is dependent on word of mouth. He knows he’s done his job well when a client comes back the next year or, maybe even better, when someone calls to book a trip because a friend recommended him.

When it’s all said and done, Sydnor is exactly where he wants to be, and where he always will be.

“I’m very happy to be where I am today,” he said. “When I came here from Ft. Lauderdale, it took at least a year to slow down. Things move slower down here, and that’s never going to change.”

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