Recreation: Harbor Branch will develop bonefish hatchery

FORT PIERCE — For Russ Fisher, few things compare with his love for “hunting” bonefish. When he sets out from his home in Key Largo to catch and release one of the state’s most popular inshore sport fish, Fisher said it’s a lot more like hunting than it is fishing.

He prefers to pursue the torpedo-shaped target in shallow, relatively clear waters. There, he can stealthily approach one, or a small school of, bonefish. He selects a fly he thinks will entice one to bite, then makes a presentation he hopes won’t spook the wary trophy and, instead, start a tug of war.

Fisher is like thousands of other anglers who revere bonefish and their grassflats game fish cousins, tarpon and permit. Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars — tourist dollars in many cases — are spent specifically on the same type of “hunting” Fisher finds rewarding. But in recent years, an alarm has been sounded by fishing guides who work the waters of Florida Bay and the adjacent Florida Keys.

The bonefish numbers simply seem to be in severe decline. According to Aaron Adams, Bonefish Tarpon Trust director of science and conservation, reports from longtime guides in the Upper Keys indicate bonefish populations there could be off as much as 85 to 90 percent.

So the trust is aiming to reverse the decline. Thursday, several members of the organization’s board of directors toured the aquaculture facility at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute campus in Fort Pierce to see firsthand what its team of scientists can do to help bonefish in Florida Bay, the Keys and elsewhere in Florida. This week, the organization, in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, announced it has awarded Harbor Branch a $3 million grant to fund first of its kind research to design and test and experimental project to grow bonefish for stock enhancement.

“Our larger goal is to try to determine what has happened to the bonefish stock in the Florida Keys and Florida in general,” said Harold Brewer of Key Largo, trust president. “Working with Harbor Branch, we have an opportunity to start from scratch. This is the beginning of a much larger endeavor once we get these steps in place.”

Fisher said Harbor Branch was chosen for this challenging research for a variety of reasons.

“They’ve given us more than a year’s head start over other options we had,” Fisher said. “Not only do they have the skill set, but they have the team to work through the challenges that will arise.”

Paul Wills, associate director for research at Harbor Branch, said he and his team are ready to do something that has never been done before — raise bonefish in captivity and get them to reproduce.

“The current research plan is a five-year project and at least the first half of it is devoted to brood stock conditioning, hatchery components and producing that first fish,” said Wills, who has been with Harbor Branch since 2006, where he and his team produce red drum, pompano and cobia. “I hope we can get to that point much earlier than that — perhaps in the first year — where we’ll be able to get the technology to where we can produce the juveniles.”

But, Wills admits, there a lot of “ifs.”

“Since it has never been done with this species, there is a lot to be done,” Wills said. “What are the water quality requirements of the juveniles? What can we feed them? Can we train them to feed themselves once they are back in the wild? There are a lot of real basic questions to be answered first.”

The bonefish quandary is a tough one. According to the Bonefish Tarpon Trust, recreational fishing in Florida is a $9.3 billion a year business with $7.6 billion coming from the saltwater fishing sector. In the Florida Keys, some $465 million is attributed to flats fishing, where bonefish, permit and tarpon are commonly encountered. The Everglades region accounts for an estimated $1 billion in recreational fishing economic contribution.

Since the trust was founded in 1998 by concerned anglers, guides and scientists, it has worked to enhance fisheries for these species. Recently, it launched a clean water education campaign that focuses on how healthy habitats equates to healthy fisheries.

“We’re concerned at how low the bonefish population is in the Keys and that even as we try to fix the problems, we don’t know if those populations will be able to sustain themselves once whatever it is that is impacting them is fixed,” Adams explained. “This will be one tool we can use in the bonefish restoration toolbox.”

Sport fish restoration is not a new concept, although it has not been done frequently in marine environments. Throughout the country, states including Florida have established hatcheries for freshwater sport fish like largemouth bass, walleye, muskie and more. It’s been done to help the quality of the fishing and the quality of people’s lives, Wills said.

“But we may also be working on bolstering a species that may be in decline,” Wills said. “Do we want to lose that species? As a biologist I have to say ‘No!’ We want to maintain that diversity.”

One of the first steps, Wills said, when it is time to introduce fish to the tanks at Harbor Branch, will be for scientists and trust anglers and guides to catch bonefish with hook and line methods to bring them to Fort Pierce.

Bonefish Bio

Scientific name: Albula vulpes

Nicknames: Silver ghost, white fox, macabi

Food value: Seldom eaten in Florida, too bony

Range: A tropical species caught in the Keys, Biscayne Bay, Bahamas and Caribbean, as well as on the Treasure Coast

Habitat: Shallow mud or grassflats

Game quality: Legendary for speedy, long-distance runs in shallow water

Size: Common from 2 to 10 pounds

State record: 16 pounds, 3 ounces, Robert Schroeder, Islamorada, March 19, 2007

State fishing regulations: Catch and release only; Bag limit: 0 per day.

Conservation information: www.bonefishtarpontrust.org

Source: Sport Fish of Florida by Vic Dunaway, Florida Sportsman magazine

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Keys character and salesman who defined Florida living dies at 90

Fred Castillo, who died at 90 on March 9, couldn’t have been more of a Miami and Florida Keys character unless Ernest Hemingway or Carl Hiaasen created him for one of their novels.

In a good sense. Born in Miami on May 3, 1925, the youngest of four to a father from the Yucatan, Mexico, and a mother from the Canary Islands, Spain, Castillo found himself an island across the waterway from Alabama Jack’s, a fixture on Card Sound Road near the Miami-Dade and Monroe border.

Built himself a shanty, called it the House of Representatives, and every weekend friends and family would join him for drinks, fishing and fun in the 1960s. “One day, a seaplane landed there. It was the owner of the island,” Castillo’s daughter Paulette Mick recalled. “He said, ‘I’m glad you are enjoying the island. It is my island. But you are welcome to stay here.’”

The casual setting, in eye’s view of Alabama Jack’s, which he’d run for original owners Jack and Alice Stratham when they vacationed, was idyllic.

That is, until the ’60s came to a close.

Click here to read an obituary on Tavernier’s Bill O’Brien, Miami’s former police chief.

Click here to read an obituary on B.J. Rakow, a Miami Beach-based writer.

“Time went on and unfortunately some drug deals went down there,” his daughter said. A body was found in a boat that had drifted up to the dock. “After that, that sort of went downhill and became a place not that desirable to go to because of the drug deals.”

Castillo was mostly unfazed. As a teen in Miami he worked as a paper boy for the Miami Herald before World War II. He juggled island life on the Keys with hard work. He ran Fred Castillo’s Used Cars on Flagler Street near downtown Miami.

After the war, he also returned to the Miami Herald as a district sales manager and chief express sales manager from Miami to South America and the Caribbean. The company sponsored an Operation Amigo exchange program for students in South America and Miami. Mick remembers her father and mother, Martha Castillo, traveling often to Peru, Panama and Ecuador as part of that program. “A wonderful time, those years,” she said.

Before Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, Castillo and family would sail upon a ferry boat to Havana. Castillo sold some of his cars there. “That last year we were going over there, soldiers were on the streets with guns,” Mick said. “We were traveling down some of the roads in Cuba to different towns and there’d be buses on the side of the road. People had been set out and the buses burned.”

Years before, Castillo went to Jackson and Miami High schools but for his senior year played football for, and graduated from, Gesu High in Miami. He joined the Marines on Feb. 17, 1943, before his graduation day. (His sister Esther picked up his diploma.) He shipped out to Hawaii on the USS Kalanin Bay and spent 58 days sleeping on the ship’s deck on a cot, with a tarp pulled over him to fend off inclement weather. Miserable, but it built character.

“That was the worst part,” his granddaughter Jean Mick-Jollay said. “He didn’t have to go into battle. He ended up on the luckier end.” The Herald ran a photo of the Castillo brothers Joseph and Anthony and Fred who were all on leave at the same time from different branches of the military before their services ended in 1945. Their father, Jose Castillo, was an engineer on the Overseas Highway.

But from the wartime experience he learned fortitude. “He was always working more than one job,” Castillo’s daughter said.

Fred Castillo was a member of the VFW Post 10211 in Key Largo, the American Legion, the Moose and Miami Pioneer Club.

“He was always telling jokes,” his granddaughter said. Her name for him: “Hoo-Hoo,” because of the owl-like sound he made when she was a baby and cried in her crib. The reassuring sound always calmed her down. “Hoo-Hoo” became his handle during the CB craze of the ’70s.

After retiring from his sales management role at the Herald, he ran single copy sales distribution of the paper in Key Largo, rising early after midnight with his wife to deliver the paper. “He was a leftie so he would throw papers over the van,” Mick-Jollay remembered. He also was a member of the VFW Post 10211 in Key Largo, sold cars and RVs. He bought investment properties.

“All the kids knew him as Uncle Fred,” his daughter said. At the end of his life he’d moved to North Carolina to be near her. “Everybody loved him.”

In addition to his daughter and granddaughter, Castillo is survived by his wife Martha Castillo and son David Castillo. The family plans a private celebration of life in Key Largo. Donations in Castillo’s name can be made to The VFW, Humane Society or The Miami VA Fisher House.

Should You Visit the Florida Keys?

My Answer is yes and no – Here is why.

After living in Miami for over 20 years, I would say yes. But when I first arrived in Florida, and drove that long skinny road down to the final and southernmost destination in the USA, I did not even think it was that pretty.

I had seen nicer roads when leaving in California before Florida. And I had definitely experience much better beaches in many parts of the country. The Keys do not stand out for beautiful beaches – a few locations are quite nice and sandy, but this is not why one goes to the Keys.

It’s just about 165 miles from Miami to Key West (180 miles from my house) and any map will tell you it’s a 3 to 4 hour drive, but in fact it never is. Unless you trace that road in the middle of the night on a Tuesday, it will never be a 3-hour drive but more like five hours, should you stop for gas and a cold drink. And it does not matter if you drive a fast Jaguar, it’s not you, it’s all the other incidentals.

First, you must take into account that there is only one road to go south, and even though it will take you there, it will never be free of cars or monumental vehicles such as boats on trailers or humongous RVs. So that’s one thing. I have yet to see one of those large campers go at 55 miles per hour. True, the road is not adapted to speeding for them. So you might get stuck behind a large piece of the moving kind for long stretches.

My first secret is to take the Card Sound, as soon as you leave Florida City, look to your left after the last chain hotel and the road will take you off the traditional causeway going to the Keys onto a left detour – that never says where it goes, but trust me, it goes. It cuts the causeway drive to bring you at the entrance to Key Largo, at the very same point the causeway ends.

So if you want to go all the way down to the finale destination, Key West, it is surely not a day trip, as it may take you five hours to get down. A full weekend is better. The leisurely pace of the islands is going to take over your time, and nothing will be done quickly anymore for the rest of your visit here.

The detour way is exactly the same distance than via the causeway, but very few drivers use it; even some Miami natives do not know this way. And at night, with zero city lights, the most magnificent stargazing experience is there, just look up. Technically, the first so-called Key should be Key Biscayne, but that island is so much part of the city of Miami, it’s more like a chic suburban place than a wild spot.

Having done the road to the Keys so many times, I can tell you that the most beautiful parts are not visible from the main US 1. You need to turn left or right to a side part to see what the islands are all about: water -on the left the Atlantic Ocean, on the right the Gulf of Mexico, as you head south from Miami. You know what they say: it’s the journey that counts, not the destination!

All along the main road (US 1), you will see the mile markers used to indicate the location of a hotel or an attraction – Keys people say “I live at MM 84”, they don’t use addresses for directions, unless they want to send you off the main road. Mile zero is Key West. Several majestic bridges linking the islands will certainly draw justified wows of wonderment.

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My Main Squeezes.

Key Largo: this is really a fishing heaven, but since none of us fish, I’ll skip that part. Instead head to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where you can dive down 25 feet to reach the giant Christ of the Abyss sculpture, one of three such copies.

Islamorada: the town calls itself the Fishing Capital of the World. Go watch the massive beasts – aka the giant tarpons coming to feed every day at Robbie’s marina , an amazing ballet of schools of fish coming for crumbs and getting so fat! There is a charge of $1 to walk on the pier.

Big Pine Key: this is where the tiny Deer Key can be spotted, sometimes too close to the road. I know of a thrift store off the main US 1 that has plenty of such visitors by the side of their building, even though they never leave food out. You can never plan on seeing the adorable agile creatures; they are wild and come as they please.

Bahia Honda: The Sate Park here is such a treat for us! This is our favorite beach. We always walk pass the obvious first stretch of sand with parking spaces where most people stay and head instead to the left for a 15-minute walk on the sand, after the curve of the island to find the most pristine waters and some shade under palm trees. We even had a family tree there for many years, where all my kids used to climb and hang with their feet in the water. After a few hurricanes, the naked tree is finally gone.

Key West: the southernmost point of the continental United States is there, with a perfect anchor-like buoy to show you. That’s right, you cannot go any further down than that, and on clear nights, it’s supposed to be possible to see the halo of lights from Cuba in the sky. Rafters and boat people rarely make it there though, as the currents of the strait usually pushes them further up the Florida coast, around Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach.

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The ceremonial of watching the sunset in Key West is more like a circus event, with food, clowns, street tricks, fire eaters, booths of hippie jewelry, and savant dogs showing their tricks. I prefer to watch the sun hitting the horizon line in a deserted area, where the purples and oranges of the sky cannot be spoiled by fire tricks and smoking demonstrations. But it is a popular sight, and if you will be in KW just once, go ahead and watch the ceremony.

It is Addicting in a Way.

It’s the laid back charm that gets you, and it’s called the Keys disease. I definitely got it after a few trips, but it took me a while to get in the trance and find it nice. I still take my French friends and family down south, and they don’t see why I like it so much. I guess they need to relax.

The sometimes distressed look of the Victorian architecture brought in by the first Bahamian inhabitants, the many dilapidated wooden house – albeit very expensive – is sometimes a sad thing to see, but the true nature of the Keys is really to enjoy the water, the sun, and the relaxed ways of the locals. “Don’t worry be happy” was surely created for the people of the Keys.

I am not a supporter of animals’ water parks or dolphins’ encounters, but the Keys have plenty of that of course, which I have not visited. With the weather constant between 70 and 90 degrees, with a couple of spikes in either direction, the climate here is indeed ideal, that you can count on. Hurricanes do come between June and October, but you will know about it days in advance and will easily escape them.

So should you visit? Yes if you have time and are ready to relax and let go with no schedule and no tight social rules. No if you only have one day to spare, are hurried tourists, or have expectations of any kind. This is a tropical paradise, and as such, the main goal is to have fun, drink rum and enjoy the music.

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This week’s best bet: Dolphin fishing offshore of Haulover Inlet

BEST BET

Captain Ralph Mayans from Sea Cross Charters out of Haulover Marina reported dolphins in the 8- to 12-pound range plus a few more than 30 pounds are being caught almost daily offshore of Haulover Inlet. The dolphins are being caught next to floating debris and along current rips in blue water. Large wahoo are feeding in the same areas and are being caught on chrome and blue spoons.

MIAMI-DADE/BROWARD

Captain Dean Panos of Double D Charters out of Keystone Marina reported his clients have been releasing sailfish on almost every charter. Mixed in with the sailfish have been dolphins, kingfish, blackfin tuna and bonitos. Gene and Frank Clasby of Miami and Bill Berrio of Port St. Lucie fished Biscayne Bay with captain Alan Sherman of Get Em Sportfishing Charters and caught six snook to 32 inches. They also had jack crevalles to 8 pounds and sea trout to 16 inches. The fish ate live pilchards hooked to a Mustad Ultra Point hook. Captain Bouncer Smith of Bouncers Dusky Charters out of Miami Beach Marina reported his recent charters are producing a few sailfish, kingfish, dolphins and big amberjacks offshore of Government Cut. In Government Cut his clients are catching tarpon and snook.

KEYS

Brett Hogan out of the Holiday Inn in Key Largo reported the charter fleet in his area has been making daily catches of sailfish, wahoo and a few dolphins on the surface and then catch-and-release groupers, amberjacks, mutton and yellowtail snappers on the bottom. Captain Jack Carlson from Two Conchs Charters out of Marathon reported the cobia fishing on both sides of the Keys has turned on. Sailfish are showing up in decent numbers in 90 to 120 feet of water on the Atlantic side, and on the bottom, large yellowtail snappers are being chummed to the surface in 80 feet of water and then caught using a Mustad 3407 No. 4 hook tipped with a peeled shrimp.

TREASURE COAST

Captain Charlie Conner of FishTales Charters out of Port St. Lucie reported his clients at the fishing docks and channel edges are doing well on sheepshead, snook, black drum, snappers and croakers. The grass flats are producing steady catches of sea trout, pompano and ladyfish. The DOA Deadly Combo has been working on the grass flats. The ocean inlets are producing steady catches of Spanish mackerel, jacks and ladyfish.

FLORIDA BAY

Captain Bob LeMay reported when the weather heats up, big tarpon have showed up on the shallow flats of Whitewater Bay. The tarpon are responding to live ladyfish, soft plastics, hard plastics and flies. Fishing the rivers and creeks has produced nice catches of sea trout, redfish and snook to 36 inches. Local anglers Gus Torres and Gus Jr. and Mike Prado fished Florida Bay out of Flamingo and caught four tripletail, five redfish and four snook to  27 1/2 inches. The fish were caught on Cajun Thunder floats and live shrimp hooked to a Mustad No. 4 Ultra Point hook.

SOUTHWEST COAST

Captain Gary Mounce of Fishin Finatic Charters out of Everglades City reported redfish and snook are biting cut ladyfish and live shrimp fished under a popping cork along the outer edges and points on the incoming tides. Sea trout are plentiful over the grass flats. The trout are going for jig heads tipped with soft plastic baits. Large snook are being caught on hard plastic lures in the backcountry, and over the hard bottom offshore, sheepshead are biting small pieces of shrimp. Captain Todd Geroy of Captain Todd G. Geroy Charters out of Naples reported large snook are being caught and released with live pilchards. Live chumming with the pilchards around points, creek mouths and oyster bars has helped him locate the fish and then almost every bait fish that is cast in the direction of a feeding fish has resulted in a hook-up. Mixed in with the snook are some very large jack crevalles.

FRESHWATER

Alan Zaremba of World Wide Sport Fishing Inc. reported peacock bass have started to spawn so having a good pair of polarized sunglasses has helped his clients spot the fish on their beds. Casting AZ Jungle jigs in the half-ounce and quarter-ounce size has been getting the peacock bass strikes. Zaremba has found good numbers of peacock bass in the C-1, C-2, C-4, C-0 and C-100 canals.

This week’s best bet: Dolphin fishing offshore of Haulover Inlet …

BEST BET

Captain Ralph Mayans from Sea Cross Charters out of Haulover Marina reported dolphins in the 8- to 12-pound range plus a few more than 30 pounds are being caught almost daily offshore of Haulover Inlet. The dolphins are being caught next to floating debris and along current rips in blue water. Large wahoo are feeding in the same areas and are being caught on chrome and blue spoons.

MIAMI-DADE/BROWARD

Captain Dean Panos of Double D Charters out of Keystone Marina reported his clients have been releasing sailfish on almost every charter. Mixed in with the sailfish have been dolphins, kingfish, blackfin tuna and bonitos. Gene and Frank Clasby of Miami and Bill Berrio of Port St. Lucie fished Biscayne Bay with captain Alan Sherman of Get Em Sportfishing Charters and caught six snook to 32 inches. They also had jack crevalles to 8 pounds and sea trout to 16 inches. The fish ate live pilchards hooked to a Mustad Ultra Point hook. Captain Bouncer Smith of Bouncers Dusky Charters out of Miami Beach Marina reported his recent charters are producing a few sailfish, kingfish, dolphins and big amberjacks offshore of Government Cut. In Government Cut his clients are catching tarpon and snook.

KEYS

Brett Hogan out of the Holiday Inn in Key Largo reported the charter fleet in his area has been making daily catches of sailfish, wahoo and a few dolphins on the surface and then catch-and-release groupers, amberjacks, mutton and yellowtail snappers on the bottom. Captain Jack Carlson from Two Conchs Charters out of Marathon reported the cobia fishing on both sides of the Keys has turned on. Sailfish are showing up in decent numbers in 90 to 120 feet of water on the Atlantic side, and on the bottom, large yellowtail snappers are being chummed to the surface in 80 feet of water and then caught using a Mustad 3407 No. 4 hook tipped with a peeled shrimp.

TREASURE COAST

Captain Charlie Conner of FishTales Charters out of Port St. Lucie reported his clients at the fishing docks and channel edges are doing well on sheepshead, snook, black drum, snappers and croakers. The grass flats are producing steady catches of sea trout, pompano and ladyfish. The DOA Deadly Combo has been working on the grass flats. The ocean inlets are producing steady catches of Spanish mackerel, jacks and ladyfish.

FLORIDA BAY

Captain Bob LeMay reported when the weather heats up, big tarpon have showed up on the shallow flats of Whitewater Bay. The tarpon are responding to live ladyfish, soft plastics, hard plastics and flies. Fishing the rivers and creeks has produced nice catches of sea trout, redfish and snook to 36 inches. Local anglers Gus Torres and Gus Jr. and Mike Prado fished Florida Bay out of Flamingo and caught four tripletail, five redfish and four snook to  27 1/2 inches. The fish were caught on Cajun Thunder floats and live shrimp hooked to a Mustad No. 4 Ultra Point hook.

SOUTHWEST COAST

Captain Gary Mounce of Fishin Finatic Charters out of Everglades City reported redfish and snook are biting cut ladyfish and live shrimp fished under a popping cork along the outer edges and points on the incoming tides. Sea trout are plentiful over the grass flats. The trout are going for jig heads tipped with soft plastic baits. Large snook are being caught on hard plastic lures in the backcountry, and over the hard bottom offshore, sheepshead are biting small pieces of shrimp. Captain Todd Geroy of Captain Todd G. Geroy Charters out of Naples reported large snook are being caught and released with live pilchards. Live chumming with the pilchards around points, creek mouths and oyster bars has helped him locate the fish and then almost every bait fish that is cast in the direction of a feeding fish has resulted in a hook-up. Mixed in with the snook are some very large jack crevalles.

FRESHWATER

Alan Zaremba of World Wide Sport Fishing Inc. reported peacock bass have started to spawn so having a good pair of polarized sunglasses has helped his clients spot the fish on their beds. Casting AZ Jungle jigs in the half-ounce and quarter-ounce size has been getting the peacock bass strikes. Zaremba has found good numbers of peacock bass in the C-1, C-2, C-4, C-0 and C-100 canals.

New owner promises finest Keys resort

KEY LARGO — A new resort will be opening in Key Largo in 2017 on the bayfront spot of the current Point of View RV Resort at 99060 Overseas Highway. Jerry Johnson, the developer who purchased the property in December for $11.2 million, has high ambitions for it.

“We intend to build a resort that will not only be the finest in the Florida Keys, but will rival some of the greatest hotels in the world,” he said in a press release.

Johnson is the founder and owner of Johnson Resort Properties, an affiliate of Cheeca Holdings, which owned and operated Cheeca Lodge Spa in Islamorada from 2003 to 2011. Under Johnson’s stewardship, the upscale resort attained a high-gloss status, making Travel + Leisure’s “500 Greatest Hotels in the World” list. It was sold in 2011 for $100 million.

Since selling Cheeca Lodge, Johnson told the Free Press that he traveled the world and visited fine boutique hotels.

“I enjoyed seeing what’s new and what’s not so new, what people like,” he said during a phone interview last Thursday. “I plan on bringing all that to this property.”

Johnson has 30 years of experience in developing, owning and operating hotels, including properties where he is based in Wyoming: the Rustic Inn at Jackson Hole and the Lodge at Jackson Hole. But he has also developed another lodging in the Florida Keys, the Inn at Key West.

“I enjoy the Keys,” he said. “I’ve done Key West and Islamorada. It’s time to try Key Largo.”

When asked why he enjoys the Keys, he mentioned the watersports and the fishing. But as a developer, coming here is simply good for business.

“It makes for a great hotel business when you don’t have the risk of an area being overbuilt,” he said in reference to the island chain’s strict development laws. “But yet you still have a need for new product, which there is very little of in the Keys.”

To make his “new product” rival the best in the world, he plans on capitalizing on the water views: 60 to 70 percent of the planned 138 rooms will be on the water. “This site is all about sunsets,” he said.

Johnson said he was inspired by sunset photos on the Facebook page of the current Point of View residents, who he said posted “phenomenal” pictures.

Most rooms will be 800 square feet and have private outdoor plunge pools. The resort will also feature a world-class spa, and indoor and outdoor dining venues.

He will also focus on personal service.

“At the end of the day, it’s the service,” he said. “The property will have an owner presence. The fact of the matter is, I was there at Cheeca Lodge and I would talk to the guests.”

He explained that he is a hands-on developer who designs, builds and operates the properties, and he plans on being even more of a presence at the new property, which as of yet does not have a name.

Johnson is represented locally by agent Jim Saunders, who built Point of View through his company, the Upper Keys-based BayView Homes. The 11.7-acre resort was owned by Northstar Resort Enterprises and has been open since March 2013.

Northstar had already nailed down a development agreement with Monroe County in 2011 that gave the company permission to build a 138-room hotel on the property up until the year 2021.

In a move that may make the permitting and construction process move much faster, Cheeca Holdings will do only small adjustments on the site, rather than change its density plan. To that end, Saunders applied for a “minor deviation” with the county on Feb. 2.

Saunders anticipates that the county will approve the minor deviation application at the beginning of April.

“Once approved, Cheeca Holdings will submit a building permit plan for approval. Then construction approvals shouldn’t take long,” Saunders said.

Mayté Santamaria, senior director for the county’s planning and environmental resources department, confirmed to the Free Press that Cheeca Holdings’ minor deviation application is currently being reviewed and gave an even quicker time for approval.

“My guestimate is approximately 45 days for the processing of this application,” she said.

Johnson said that Point of View will operate through the summer, and he plans to start construction in September. The current goal is to open the resort in the third quarter of 2017, he said.

For those who fear that yet another high-end property will change the quirky, casual sensibility of the Florida Keys, Johnson said he wants to avoid that. He explained that many developers try to bring South Beach to the Keys, but he won’t be doing that.

“The Keys are a more casual environment that often gets lost in translation,” he said. “At the Cheeca Lodge, we had a phrase we used way back when: ‘barefoot elegance.’ It’s going to be all those things and be a luxury property.”

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4 Weekend Trips to Take Right Now

Just a short drive from Miami, the Keys—stretching from Key Largo to Key West—offer a different way to experience paradise.

Surfboards and Adirondack chairs beckon outside The Beach Café at Morada Bay.

While Miamians live where everyone else vacations, residents like to sneak away occasionally for a change of scenery. When feeling the itch to get out of Dodge without dealing with TSA lines, head to The Florida Keys—a mere one to four hours away, depending how far down the A1A you’re willing to venture. Visitors in the know are also keen on this diverting locale, often extending work trips a few days to dip their toes in the white sand and unplug. Take a look at a few of the top Florida Keys destinations that are worth the drive.

Time-Tested: The Moorings Village Spa, Islamorada. This cottage at The Moorings says “vacation hideaway.”

Three decades ago, windsurfing champion Hubert Baudoin traveled to The Keys for a competition and stayed. In his 20s at the time, Baudoin purchased The Moorings in 1988 and has since expanded it into the internationally celebrated, 18-acre luxury property it is today. The site of big-name fashion shoots (Chanel, for example) with some of the world’s leading supermodels, The Moorings is just as renowned for its postcard-worthy white-sand beaches (as seen on the hit Netflix show Bloodline) and cottages that transport you to a state of mind worlds away from city life. The impeccably manicured property comprises 18 one- to three-bedroom cottages and villas, including the two-story Blue Charlotte House, a 6,500-square-foot stand-alone home that gives travelers a true taste of private-island living. Don’t forget to pop into world-famous Pierre’s for the freshest catch of the day. 123 Beach Road, Islamorada, 305-664- 4708

Group Outing: Cheeca Lodge Spa, Islamorada. There’s not much guests can’t do at Cheeca Lodge Spa.

Planning a weekend gathering for friends? Just two hours south of South Beach, the famed Cheeca Lodge Spa, one of Islamorada’s most popular destinations, works for laid-back and active vacationers alike. Simply relax, or dive into snorkeling, visit a spa, fish (Islamorada is frequently dubbed the “sport-fishing capital of the world”), satisfy any appetite at dinner, golf on a Jack Nicklaus–designed course, play tennis, hang at a private beach, stretch at yoga classes, or go boating. For the kids, there’s an all-day camp full of activities (which really ends up being a win for parents). 81801 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305-664-4651

Private Escape: Little Palm Island Resort Spa, Little Torch Key. At the aptly named Little Palm Island Resort Spa, guests can land in style aboard a seaplane.

Arrive by yacht (the property’s marina can accommodate up to 120-footers) or seaplane at this resort, which consistently lands on multiple international “Best” lists. With indoor-outdoor tropical suites, thatched-roof bungalows peppering the beach perimeter, and unobstructed views of rolling ocean waves with nary a soul in sight, you won’t believe you’re still in the States. A trip here is purely about the utmost in indulgences, from outdoor mud baths and hydrotherapy to catch-and-cook romantic dinners and secluded swims. Leave the kids—and the wireless connection—at home. 28500 Overseas Hwy., Little Torch Key, 305-872-2524

New Digs: The Marker Waterfront Resort, Key West

Located at the seaport in the heart of Key West’s Old Town, The Marker is the area’s first new luxury build in close to 20 years. Miamians will feel at home in the property’s familiar island-contemporary designs, or enjoy an evening swim under the stars in one of three saltwater pools. If you fancy enjoying the island like a local, wander a few steps from the hotel to Key West’s most famous eateries, bars, and nightlife, which line Duval and William Streets, and cultural attractions like the Key West Garden Club, the Key West Lighthouse, and the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens. Book The Captain’s Quarters for unparalleled views from your wraparound deck overlooking the neighboring harbor. 200 William St., Key West, 305-501-5193