Cheese bottom, or hard bottom, is an area of flat limestone rock riddled with potholes and surrounded by a sea of sand. It's an area covered with rocks, cracks, sea fans, and other types of live bottom. An area of hard bottom can be as small as 30 to 40 feet in diameter or as large as a pro football stadium. These areas of hard live bottom are an oasis in a sea of sand in which smaller bait fish take refuge from larger predator fish. While areas of hard bottom can be found along both coasts and the Keys, it's more abundant in the Gulf of Mexico, from the bend in the Panhandle southward.
So just which fish call these areas home? Well, fish like scamp and gag grouper, yellowtail, mangrove, red and vermilion snapper among others. The big dawg on the block, and most abundant of the predators, is the red grouper. Cheese bottom is the red grouper's number one hangout. They take up residence in the many potholes and wait for an unsuspecting bait fish to come scurrying off the sand and then they pounce. Poor little guy didn't see that coming. The bigger and wiser red grouper like to hang around the perimeters, knowing that's where dinner is going to come from. The gag, black and scamp grouper tend to gather around cracks and breaks in the bottom, where they feel a bit more secure. Snapper also tend to hold near the larger pieces of structure as they don't want to become the groupers next meal.
Finding areas of hard bottom is fairly simple as long as you know what to look for and you know how to use and read your bottom machine. On the left coast, you'll want to run out to 90-feet of water before you start your search. As summer wears on and water temperatures continue to soar, you'll need to run even deeper. The first thing to look for is bait stacks or a show of fish holding on or near the bottom. Baitfish that are on the move will often hold somewhere in the mid to upper portions of the water column. Find fish holding near the bottom and there's a good chance they're holding over a piece of cheese bottom. A huge show of fish or tiny little blips--it doesn't matter--fish them all. Another sign to look for is the echo below the bottom on your machine. Note these marks--the longer they are the harder the bottom. Find an area with deep echoes and a show of fish and you may have just found yourself a new honey hole. A little hint here, if you don't know what you're looking at on your bottom machine, try this: Go over an area that you know is hard, an artificial reef or the like, and watch your screen closely. Then go over an area of soft, sandy bottom and look for the differences. Do this in shallow water, as most machines will give a better reading there.
As far as tackle is concerned, it really comes down to a matter of personal preference. For grouper I use fast-action heavy 6'-6" Daiwa Eliminator Rods matched up with Daiwa Sealine 400 reels. I spool the reels up with 50- or 60-pound mono. I also carry some 15- to 30-pound class, seven-foot Shakespeare Custom rods matched up with Pflueger Contender G50 reels. The reels are spooled up with 30-pound mono. These I use to target snapper but they also have enough backbone to land a fairly large grouper. You may want to carry along a few lighter spinning outfits in the 15- to 25-pound class for smaller snapper. As I stated earlier, rods and reels really come down to individual preferences. Ask ten guides what they use and you'll more than likely get ten different answers.
As far as terminal tackle, this too is a matter of personal preference. If grouper are the main target, I use Gamakatsu 7/0 to 8/0 9841 4x strong hooks for grouper and 2/0 to 5/0 9841 4x strong hooks for snapper. The size depends on which species of snapper I'm targeting. To rig for grouper I tie a four- to ten-ounce swivel weight to the main line, the size of the weight will depend on water depth, current flow and if I anchor or drift. Quick tip: Use just enough weight to take your bait to the bottom and hold it there. It's been proven that a fish is more likely to hit a piece of bait naturally falling to the bottom as opposed to a bait that is dragged to the bottom by a heavy lead weight. Next, I tie a four- to five-foot length of clear mono leader to the other end of the swivel weight and then tie on the hook. For snapper, use a knocker rig or a slip weight and swivel. To set up a knocker rig, simply slide a slip weight onto the main line and then attach your hook. If you are using light line, braided line or colored line, you may want to tie on a five-foot length of clear mono leader using a double surgeons knot. Then slide the slip weight onto the leader and tie on your hook. The idea is to let the weight slide right up against the hook. This is a very effective rig for snapper. Another way to rig for snapper is to slide the sinker onto the main line and then tie a #5 90-pound barrel swivel to the line. Next, tie a four- to five-foot length of clear mono leader to the other end of the swivel and attach your hook to the leader. Now, I know some of you are thinking, "I know all this already, get on with it." But for every one of you that knows, there are two that may not.
Alright, we've found a good piece of cheese bottom, we're rigged up and ready to fish... wait, what about bait? Well, I'm glad you asked. My number one bait for hard bottom grouper digging is a jig and grub. Without a doubt I've caught more and bigger fish on a jig and grub tail than any other bait. Both Spro and Mission Fishin make a great jig head. Both use quality materials and super-sharp, extra-strong hooks. For shallow water, I use a three- to four-ounce Spro Prime bucktail jig head. In water over 100 feet, I use the Mission Fishin jig heads in six- to ten-ounces. The color of the jig head isn't as important as the color of the grub tail. Match three- and four-ounce jig heads with six-inch Bubba's Super Grub Tail in a glow color. For heavier jigs use eight-inch glow colored tails. Quick tip: Leave the bag of tails out in the sun when moving from one spot to the next to make the tails really glow. Also keep in mind these are just the brand names I use and may or may not be the best choices for you. To rig a jig, just tie a five-foot length of 60- to 80-pound (depending on jig size) mono leader onto the main line, and then tie the jig onto the leader. Next slip a grub tail onto the hook and tip it with a whole Spanish sardine or strip of squid. If you are using 'dines, just pinch off the tail and secure the sardine by placing the hook through both eyes so it pivots freely. Another tip: Make sure the body of your sardine is straight and use the freshest bait you can find. Then just send it to the bottom and take up one full crank on the reel. The idea here is to let the jig bounce off the bottom, kicking up some sand. This bait is deadly on red and gag grouper. As far as other baits go, you can use just about any cut or live bait that you would normally use when targeting grouper and snapper.
OK, it's time to fish. Just a couple of pointers here. I found it works best to drift-fish a new spot versus anchoring. After marking a show of fish, just shut the motor(s) off and start a drift. If you find you are drifting too fast, use a drift sock (sea anchor) to slow your drift. If the drift is still too fast, you can use your motor(s) to hold you in place.
Once over the spot, drop the baits down and see what comes up. If you hook into a good fish, throw a marker over and save the waypoint. If you're just picking up small fish, still save the number in your GPS, but move onto the next spot. If you do land a good fish, keep drifting till the bite stops. Then move upwind/current of the marker and make another drift. Use the marker to get an idea of the size of the spot and to keep you drifting over the same area. With each pass move over a few feet to thoroughly comb the area. If you boat a gag grouper or mangrove snapper, mark that spot and really take a good look at the area of bottom these fish came from. Remember that gags and mangos are structure-oriented fish and if you look closely you might find a nice break or crack in the bottom that could just turn out to be a honey hole. If you do locate some kind of structure mark it and try anchor-fishing it.
In the heat of summer slow drift-fishing a big chunk of cheese bottom is a great way to fish a number of spots without dropping anchor every time. Not having to set and pull the anchor every stop when that sun is beating down on you like a hammer sounds a lot better. Good luck and have fun. I hope this method works as well for you as it does for me.
Shallow-water blackout often affects free divers and skin divers (those divers without any sort of breathing apparatus other than a snorkel). I used to think the only dangerous kind of diving was with tanks or compressed air because I had heard of and seen so many disastrous outcomes. However, studies have now shown that many fatalities among experienced divers and swimmers have occurred simply from free diving. Some medical experts believe many of the backyard pool drownings are caused by the physiologic changes that result in shallow-water blackout.
WHY DOES SHALLOW-WATER BLACKOUT HAPPEN?
It really is all about physics and gas pressure in the lungs, so here are the nuts and bolts. First, we all know we need oxygen (O2) to live but the body uses our levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) to tell us when to breath.
Most of us deplete our O2 stores more quickly than we build up CO2. This is even more pronounced in experienced divers who can hold their breath for longer periods of time (at least more so than us out-of-shape individuals).
Second, the deeper you are in the water, the more compressed the air in your lungs will become and the more concentrated the oxygen you are able to use.
As you rise in the water the lungs expand resulting in the decrease in concentration of usable oxygen. This expansion of the lungs is more pronounced as you reach 15 feet of the surface and continues to progress as you ascend in the water column. In effect, what can then happen is that your brain becomes starved of precious oxygen and you may blackout. Unless you are helped to safety immediately, you will drown.
WHO IS AT RISK FOR SHALLOW-WATER BLACKOUT?
As a rule, we all are at risk for shallow-water blackout. Statistics have shown, however, that shallow-water blackout tends to occur more often in experienced divers as well as younger divers. This may be due to experienced divers having become accustomed to ignoring that burning sensation in their lungs longer thus leading to lower levels of available oxygen as they attempt to surface.
Pre-dive hyperventilation is thought to be another dangerous practice that predisposes us to shallow-water blackout.
Just visiting any pool with a bunch of kids competing to see who can stay under the longest can show you this breathing practice when preparing to dive.
Physiologically it makes sense. Several deep breaths with prolonged expirations actually allows you to blow more carbon dioxide from you lungs thus staving off the sensation of needing to take a breath a little longer during a free dive.
Unfortunately, hyperventilating in this manner does not put more oxygen in the lungs and can lead to disastrous results. The U.S. Navy Diving Manual recommends hyperventilating no more than three or four breaths prior to a free dive for the same safety reasons.
Divers who use weights to descend--as well as spear fishermen and our lobster grabbers--are also at special risk because they will likely become focused on their prey and exhaust their oxygen supply beyond safe levels. Thinking "just a few more seconds" puts these sportsmen at risk of drowning due to shallow-water blackout as they try to surface.
WHAT CAN I DO TO PREVENT SHALLOW-WATER BLACKOUT?
If you are as hard headed as I am and intend to go diving any way, here is a summary and suggestions of what you can do to prevent disaster on what will hopefully be a fun day on (and under) the water:
As always, be safe. Live to fish another day!
Now that I am a physician, there are many things I pay attention to, like when flu season starts, when the moon is full and when strep season starts to name a few. More recently I have become very interested in tracking the red tide bloom not only as a physician but also as an avid fisherman.
Since mid-September we have been experiencing a large algae bloom along the panhandle of Florida. I'm sure that many of you have noticed the dead fish along the beach and in the tide lines. Since September, I have also noticed a remarkable increase in visits to the various emergency rooms that I work with multiple complaints relating to the algae bloom.
The most common complaint I have seen is from worsening of asthma symptoms, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. This is caused by the toxins produced by the blooming algae, commonly called a red tide. The worst cases I have seen have been very resistant to common treatment. I imagine this was likely due to the fact that our hospital is located so close to the water in the first place. Several individuals had to return for multiple asthma or emphysema exacerbations and required maintenance doses of steroids until the red tide passed.
One of the things I have run across during this most recent red tide event that most concerns me is the lack of communication between resorts and our all-important tourists. Often, I have found that unsuspecting tourists had not been notified of the beach conditions where they are spending their hard-earned money to visit. One mother brought her daughter to me in respiratory distress, stating that she was allergic to the beach! She had taken her children to the beach for two consecutive days and all of her children had experienced burning, watery eyes, runny noses and a cough that became worse as the day progressed. Her youngest child had a history of asthma and started having significant difficulty breathing after the second day. The mother had no knowledge of what red tide was or why there were so many dead fish along the beach. The resort did not even have the common courtesy to post warnings to their unsuspecting patrons. Fortunately, this particular woman's child did remarkably well with conservative medical treatment. I hope that this was only an oversight by the resort and not a calculated decision based on greed.
I have also seen multiple and curious types of skin rashes--all of which responded to either Benadryl or steroids--that I had not seen prior to the bloom. Although I cannot prove red tide was responsible, I am quite sure there is some connection.
Thankfully, there are state agencies that monitor our oyster stocks to let us know when it is safe to eat them after a red tide passes. Unfortunately, however, there are those folks out there that don't heed warnings and go pick up their own shellfish to eat while standing knee-deep in the red tide water. One poor soul I met had done just that. He was presented to the emergency department wheezing, short of breath, vomiting, watery diarrhea and with a terrible rash! After a three-day hospital stay he was feeling a bit better but I regret to say that he has lost his taste for oysters.
Some types of algae bloom in the Northern states can cause a rare, but potentially fatal condition, called paralytic shellfish poisoning. If the name sounds ominous, that's because it is. Thankfully, it is a rare condition caused from eating shellfish with high levels of a specific type of algae that is not common, at least in high concentrations, in our local waters. If it ever decides to pop up down here I am sure that we at GAFF Magazine will inform you about it.
Needless to say, if there is any message that I can pass on to you concerning red tide it would be to stay away from it if at all possible. Stay indoors if you live close to an affected area and keep your air filters cleaned as often as possible. Also, if you know that someone has any type of lung disorder or disease, please encourage them to stay away from our coastal waters until the red tide passes.
You won't normally find us out on the flats under the midday sun. With air temperatures reaching 95 degrees and the heat index near 105, I would rather split up my full day of fishing between a cool summer morning and a slightly breezy afternoon. Why be out there fishing when the fish aren't biting? Just step out of the boat onto your favorite flat and take a temperature reading when the sun is directly overhead. That 78-degree reading you took at sunrise is now pushing 90-plus and climbing. It only makes sense, if the water feels hot to you, it probably feels the same way to the trout, redfish or snook you're stalking.
Whether it's fishing the flats or their deep drop-offs, the Florida summertime inshore fisherman needs to constantly change his tactics to constantly remain successful. First off, get your butts out of bed and out on the flats while the fish are feeding. It's not uncommon even without a full moon for us to be fishing at three or four in the morning. I'm a firm believer in "bigger lures catch the bigger fish" and in the dark you want something that will make a lot of noise and a lot of splash. At this time of day (or night) our arsenal consists of large popping and rattling lures like the Yo-Zuri(R) Banana Boat, the Rebel(R) Pop-R, or the Storm(R) Thunder Dog topwater series.
Typically, we slow our retrieves way down and completely stop them at times for the feeding fish to locate the lure in the dark. A fast retrieve on a high-speed reel at this time of night will significantly cut the chances down of the cruising fish finding your lure.
Once the sun has broken over the eastern tree line, most anglers find the topwater bite comes to a screeching halt. As the fish begin to move, it's now time to make your move to the edges of the flat and its deep drop-offs. Put the topwater plugs away and change over to a Yo-Zuri(R) suspending plug or a Riptide(R) soft plastic jerkbait. Two of my favorite plugs for this time of the morning are their 3D Minnow and Crystal Minnow. Both have great underwater action and make a lot of noise to attract fish. After casting the plugs, give them three or four hard tugs to force the lure deep to where the fish are. Most fish will hit the plug after you stop the retrieve or as it begins its slow rise to the surface.
When it comes to soft plastics, there are several ways to rig them to extend your fishing day well into mid-morning. Since the fish have moved down into the grass or deeper holes, so should your bait. Our favorite rig is a Riptide(R) Flats Chub or Weedless Shrimp rigged with a split shot sinker attached to the leader. Placement of the sinker is crucial and you must attempt to determine the depth of the grass up from the bottom. What you want is the sinker to drop into the grass with the bait suspending just above the top of the grass. This method keeps the bait out of the grass and visible to the fish in a 360-degree circle. We also like to place a rattle into the soft bait if the size of the bait allows. As with topwater fishing "if you make enough noise, the fish will come."
When hitting the flats in the evening, the fisherman just needs to reverse the order in which he rigs his lures. Go ahead and start out with the soft plastic then make your change up to the topwater plugs as the sun is setting into the western tree line. Because the fish are normally heading back up onto the flats as the water cools, a good suspending or floating lure should also be added to your bag of tricks. The Yo-Zuri 3D Flat Crack or Crystal Minnows are some of my favorite lures for this time of the day/evening. The Flat Crank is a floating lure that when tugged on quickly, will sharply dive to the bottom. As you stop cranking the lure will slowing float back to the surface. It's during this rise that a feeding trout or redfish will normally engulf this lure.
Before concluding, I'd like to take a moment and talk about the environmental factors that the summertime flats fisherman will encounter on those early morning/ late evening outings. Countless articles have been written about the dangers of skin cancer in the Florida sun. I'm often asked by clients why I am wearing a long sleeve shirt, pants and a big floppy hat and not working on my tan. Sometimes I'd like to say, "So my skin doesn't look like yours in twenty years." Bottom line, the money spent on one quality type fishing shirt with an SPF 30 rating will not only extend your fishing time, but it may also extend your life.
Mosquitoes and no-see-ums can also ruin a fishing trip. Look into purchasing a Therma Cell(R) repellent system and keep it on the boat or in your tackle bag. It normally takes about ten minutes for the device to warm up and begin working. Start it up as you're leaving the dock and once on the flat, place it on the upwind side of the boat. When wading, the optional carrying case has an adjustable strap. I simply place it on the back of my upper right arm where it's out of the way and dry. While the other fishermen in the area are swatting bugs, you will be comfortably landing fish.
Oh, did I forget to mention fishing after those ever-predictable afternoon thunderstorms? I can't tell you how many times I've run out the door with rod and reel in hand in the middle of a downpour just to be at the shore's edge when the water "slicks off." Just standing there and watching the flats come alive with jumping bait and feeding fish is often worth the drive, but then again so is a tight line.
See you on the Boat or in the Blind!
With my "Hot Water Game Plan," grouper are targeted but I'm using a "shotgun" approach for other fish too. When the water is hot, I fish the biggest spots I can find with tall ledges, wrecks, and rocks being best. On a typical "hot water" day, barracuda often provide the most spectacular action. Barracuda hang out over high rocks and wrecks, picking off stragglers from bait schools, and often, fish off your hooks. Yeah, I hate to lose a good fish to a 'cuda, but for folks who have never seen it happen, it just might be the most exciting part of the trip. To land a 'cuda, you either have to get mighty lucky with a mono leader or have a three-foot length of #2 wire. The #2 wire is only 27-pound test and mighty hard to see. No weight or float is needed. Live sardines, cigar minnows or a two-foot-long Spanish mackerel all get bit by the 'cuda. Spinning tackle or heavy freshwater bait-casting gear is all that's needed. Expect lots of high jumps and screaming runs. Barracuda aren't docile in the boat, so use a lip gaff if you want a picture, or better yet, release them at boatside. I've eaten barracuda, but be advised they can carry Ciguatera poisoning. Spanish mackerel, cobia, sharks, and an occasional kingfish grab this line too.
A large pinfish hooked behind the dorsal fin on 30- to 50-pound gear with no weight or leader catches a lot of big grouper if the current isn't running too hard. First and third quarter moon phases usually have slow enough tides for this technique to work. The pinfish tries to get to the bottom but the drag of the current against the line keeps him from making it most of the time. He can, however, make it down into the strike zone. Grouper that are used to seeing baits tethered to four- to eight-ounce sinkers find an unweighted pinfish hard to resist. Probably the most common catches on this rig will be gag grouper, mangrove snapper, and jack crevalle--bigger than you might want to hook. Expect cobia just about every trip.
Then there is the basic bottom rig with a circle hook and live sardine or cigar minnow. I said "live," and I do mean live. Dead bait catches grunts, sea bass and, I'll admit, an occasional grouper or snapper. Most days in shallow, hot water, if it ain't live, you can forget grouper. Cigar minnows or blue runners really shine here. They are strong, active and mighty attractive to big grouper. Again, cobia grab these baits often.
If you can find a shrimper culling his catch, try to get a few dozen rock shrimp and small crabs. Fish these on a basic bottom rig and expect hog snapper (hogfish). Hogfish are seldom caught along the Gulf coast, with most being speared. They are excellent eating, maybe the best fish of all. A large rock shrimp or a two-inch crab really gets their attention and they darn near never take any other bait. The hogfish bite is always best very early and very late in the day.
Another rod rigged with a six-foot wire leader and 10/0 hook baited with a fillet from a jack crevalle or bonita is sure to get a shark bite. Most of the sharks we catch are less than six feet long, but once last summer we caught a hammerhead that was close to 12 feet. Hammerheads, blacktips, bulls, nurse and an occasional tiger shark, provide excitement nearly every trip. Occasionally, a big grouper or cobia grabs the shark bait too.
Hot water fishing is usually productive for me because I use my "Hot Water Game Plan"--unless I have folks who want grouper only. These folks don't know what they are missing. When I come in with five or six grouper, a cobia or two, several Spanish mackerel and maybe a couple of hogfish, I've had a pretty good day for mid-summer. The dozen or so other fish that aren't brought back to the dock plus a "sea monster" or two that got away are just bonuses. If you measure the success of your catch by the total pounds of fillets, you'd better wait until cool weather or fish with somebody who knows something I don't.
That being said, I do have to function in the real world where I am ultimately not the center of the universe. Because of this, I have an appreciation for the balance of my life due to the extreme masculinity of my husband. (Picture Tim Taylor on a testosterone-induced chest-beating frenzy on Home Improvement.)
In God's infinite wisdom, we came together like Yin and Yang, leveling each other out to provide a perfect example of opposites attracting. One thing I have noticed as I attempt to analyze how we work as husband and wife is that both of us represent the typical attributes of others in our specific genders.
Like me, most women I know love to shop. Call it a weakness or a gift, it's just a fact of life. Shopping brings me an incredible amount of pleasure. In contrast, what I could say about my husband's passion for fishing is equally true: I've met very few men who didn't enjoy wetting a line on a regular basis.
Since I consider women to be the more balanced gender, I can also add (thankfully), that many of us enjoy the sport of fishing as well. The difference is that with women, it's not usually quite the obsession I've encountered it to be with the male species. As a result of my unscientific research on the subject, I have developed a set of key rationalizations to help decipher which of these two activities is actually more sensible in the long run. No matter which side of the fence you find yourself, these could make valuable fuel for justifying your point.
Like women at the accessory counter in the local department store, fishermen glean an extraordinary amount of pleasure from going to the tackle store.
Besides the fact they get to fish AND shop, I wondered, is it possible that buying all of those annoying little lures is as fun as buying earrings?
Interestingly enough, as I formulated a distinct delineation between shopping and fishing, I also came to the realization that the two activities have much more in common than one would ever expect... suggesting, perhaps, that we all be a little more tolerant of the passions of our significant others.
Tight lines and happy bargain hunting!
fishermen know that trusting the weather can be frustrating. We
usually just cross our fingers and hope for the best. Lucky for
us, with each day brings night and as the sun fades and daytime
winds calm, the seas flatten and the fishing world comes alive.
It is at this time that we pull up to our favorite dock and begin
to fish...Under the Lights
Some species actually feed better at night. One look
at a tarpon's huge, round eyes and it is obvious that
this fish is designed to find prey in the darkest night.
Along with tarpon, snook, speckled trout, stripers and redfish
all feed well after the sun goes down. These species, like
most predators, are opportunists. They will feed whenever
they can, and at night, that means under the lights.
Bridges, reefs, wrecks, rivers, and flats all present good
nighttime fishing spots. But it can be argued that fishing
lighted docks at night is the best place to be for a night
To be a successful dock fisherman, you must keep one thing first
and foremost in your mind: courtesy. Remember that you will be
fishing in what is essentially someone's backyard. If you
throw a nine-inch plug on someone's dock, hook their gear,
and leap out of the boat onto their private dock, I guarantee
the party is over. The dock lights will be turned off and the
dog will be turned out to bark relentlessly until you leave. Success
as a night angler means being quiet and respectful.
Preparation goes a long way in night fishing. Dark is dark.
The fishing won't be any better at 3 a.m. than it will be
at 9 p.m.--the key to a good catch by a reasonable hour is
to know exactly what you need to do to bring home the fish.
Look for moving water. Currents bring in free-floating zooplankton.
Even though the plankton will move to the lights naturally, a
strong current brings in greater number of these small creatures--and
a concentration of plankton means a concentration of bait. This
in turn means a concentration of the species you're after.
This is supposed to be an easy trip. Don't spend half
the night looking for live bait. Unless you have a consistently
reliable source of live bait, pick up some live shrimp for the
trip. Shrimp is excellent night time bait, but because they don't
drag a hook that well, you still need to keep the current in mind.
Especially when you want to use the current to drift your shrimp
behind the third piling where you just know that monster snook
is lurking. Focus on casting up stream and present the bait to
the entire strike zone by allowing it to move naturally with the
You also need to know a little bit about your location. In an
area where the current is lighter, docks on the ends of the finger
canals and those on the bends of the channels will have the most
fish. When the current is stronger, fish will want to find places
where they can get out of the movement of the water and may lie
in wait behind pilings.
Another consideration is the dock's construction. I prefer
the old wooden, rickety docks to those constructed of concrete
or metal. That old wooden dock full of worms, barnacles and oysters
provides both food and habitat. For snook and redfish, you need
to be able to cast under the dock and between the pilings. A dock
that is set very close to the water may be too difficult to fish.
Some docks, especially the very old ones, may have so many poles
that even if you do manage to hook a fish, you're likely
to get tangled up trying to bring it in. Old poles deteriorate
at the water line and are rarely pulled out when the dock is repaired.
Instead, new poles are just added on. Too many poles and no matter
how many fish there are, you just might not be able to get to
them. For two years I fished a dock that we called the "Re-Rig"
because that's about all we did while we were there. That
old dock is probably being held up by all the terminal tackle
that we left behind.
Think about the other obstacles you may encounter. Check out
how boats are tied to the dock as well as what kind of boat is
docked there. Typically, docks with smaller boats are easier to
fish than docks with larger boats. The larger boats may have spring
lines running across your casting path. Their physical size also
can prevent you from getting your baits to where they need to
be. The keels and the running gear of larger boats, like sailboats,
present a very large obstacle to landing big fish. But don't
disregard the larger boats altogether. Many times, snook and tarpon
will actually hang out under the boats themselves. I have a favorite
place that is among some densely packed sailboats and I fish it,
spring lines and all. The results have been tarpon and tarpon-sized
snook at this unlikely spot.
Take the opportunity to look for night fishing spots during
the day. Consider bait habitat near the dock. Vegetation and bottom
structure hold bait and a dock that is set alone in a barren area
of sand will not attract bait as readily as one very near a grassy
area. At night, shrimp and other bait are likely to make the short
trip from the nearby grasses to the dock lights.
The depth of the water at the dock can also be an important
factor. I choose to fish the shallower docks because typically,
they are easier to fish since less water means fewer hiding places
for the fish. You can also fish closer to the shallow dock which
may improve the accuracy of your casts. If you are fishing a deep
dock, you may find that you have to position yourself farther
away from the structure to have a chance of getting the bigger
fish out and allow your weights to sink to the right depth. If
you are too close while fishing a deep dock, you will be pulling
the fish up vertically from the bottom instead of out from the
structure at hookup. The fighting fish can then swim laterally
in any direction to a piling almost all the way to the surface.
By positioning yourself as far away as practical on the deeper
docks, you will be pulling the fish out horizontally, extracting
him from the pilings faster. Get the fish out from the pilings,
and you usually win the battle!
Docks are also lighted many ways. Seek out docks that have lights
that are close to the water. The classic "Snook light"
has a broad circular reflector and is sometimes positioned a couple
of feet off the water. It casts a circle of light into the water
with a very definite edge of dark and light. The snook, redfish,
tarpon and trout will wait in the shadows, ready to ambush any
unfortunate bait that ventures toward the light. These lights
were set up specifically to attract fish and they do a great job.
Most lights, however, are set up for the convenience of the
dock owner. Look for lights that are lower rather than higher
and those that are at the ends of the docks rather than those
set back near a seawall. If you are looking for nighttime fishing
spots during the day, check the lights for sensors that will turn
them on automatically at night. No matter how great the light
is, if it's not turned on, you're out of luck.
The way you position your boat is very important for both getting
the bait to the fish and catching the kind of fish you're
after. With live bait it's best to begin upstream and drift
the baits back to the strike zone. If fishing near a light and
your bait ends up 15 feet or more away from the spread of light,
you need to move. In a fast current, positioning directly upstream
is usually your only option, so where you anchor is very critical
to getting your baits to the strike zone. In slower moving water,
position upstream, but about 30-45 degrees off the direct flow
path to the light. Cast so that the bait sweeps through the lighted
area. When it passes through the light into the dark about 10
yards, bring it in for a new drift. With a little practice, you
will have your bait covering all the lighted area. Fish the shadow
lines extensively. Make the bait move in and out of the light.
Tarpon will typically cruise an area searching for fodder rather
than waiting for something to come to them. If seeking these big
shiners, position back from the docks and make long casts. Tarpon
will take bait very close to your boat and far from the dock.
I have been soaked several times by a tarpon that sucked in bait
right next to the boat. If fishing a deep dock or one with diffuse
lights, you will likely be pretty far from the dock anyhow, so
stay on your toes and be alert. Fish the bait all the way into
the boat and you may end up with the prize.
Keeping a log is extremely important. After doing all of this
hard work and research, you need somewhere to write it down for
future reference (and fish). If you get spanked by a tarpon on
one night, write it down. Include time, location, date, and tide.
Record every night catch. The next night trip that you plan, refer
to your records and the tide charts. If it worked once, duplicating
the same conditions will bring you success again.
In Florida, the tide shifts about 45 minutes later each consecutive
day. You will often find that there is about a four-day window
where you can fish this same tide under the same circumstances.
Use this window to pick your night(s) and the time to fish (and
you might still make it home by bedtime).
Figuring out the bite time at a particular location, requires
a bit of dedication and time on the water. Once you find a fishing
spot, try spending a good ten hours there. Get there two hours
before the tide change and stay for two hours afterwards. Observe
for yourself when they are feeding and write it down. Once you
pay your dues this way, you will know exactly when to fish and
when to stay home on the sofa. Your night trips will be short,
precise and productive. This is the secret for getting an action
packed evening trip under you belt and still being home for a
good night's sleep!
Beautiful Florida sunsets, tough daytime conditions and calm
nights offer some excellent night fishing opportunities. Whether
fishing dock lights for snook and redfish, jigging bridge fenders
for stripers, drifting goggle-eyes with calumet sticks or throwing
plugs to tarpon under a full moon on the flats, few things can
top a night spent under the lights.
The greatest thing about fishing Santa Rosa Sound is the fact that catching a three-fish Santa Rosa Slam can easily be done. This requires catching a speckled trout, redfish, and flounder all in one fishing trip. Another appealing aspect is it can all be done using the same rod and reel. Ideally, you'll want to use a six-and-a-half or seven-foot rod with a reel that can hold at least two hundred yards of eight- to twelve-pound test line. If you want to give the trout and redfish a try on the fly rod, a six- to eight-weight outfit will work fine.
There are several good boat launches down on the sound, but you may be limited, depending on the size of your boat. Shoreline Park in Gulf Breeze has an excellent launch that can accommodate any size boat. If you're in Navarre, you may want to try the launch located next to Sailor's Grill on Navarre Beach.
For those who don't have boats, inshore charters are readily available. Up-to-date fishing reports and information on charters are available at www.hotspotsfishing.com.
It's also a good idea to check out the local tackle shops. Gulf Breeze Bait & Tackle located in Gulf Breeze carries a full line of live and dead bait as well as any tackle or equipment you could need. They're only minutes from the water and have a parking lot to accommodate boat trailers.
Roaming the Grass for Speckled Trout
Fishing for speckled trout is what Santa Rosa Sound is best known for. At anytime of the year the sound can produce a good stringer of fish. Summertime produces more fish, but the average size is much smaller. Much of the sound is made up of brown, sea-grass bottom. This grass is home to loads of small baitfish, which of course, the larger fish feed on. Equally important though, the grass keeps the oxygen level up and filters the water, which in return, is the reason why the water is crystal clear much of the year. Depending on where you are in the sound, you may find grass flats in only inches of water, yet in other places it may be so deep it's not even visible.
Once you reach the flats the fun begins. As with all types of fishing, there are countless different tactics to try. For myself, I like to drift or slowly move around using the trolling motor. You'll likely have better luck fishing shallow water early in the morning and then moving deeper once it begins to warm up.
When trout fishing, I like to use a combination of live and artificial baits. Speckled trout are one of those fish where 'the larger the bait, the larger the fish' definitely applies. If you're searching for big fish, try four- to eight-inch baits like pinfish, pigfish, mullet, or my personal favorite, croakers. For those anglers looking for quantity over quality, your best bet will be live shrimp. Expect however, to be harassed by every pinfish that comes along.
As I said above, I like a combination. This means I put a couple of live baits out behind the boat and then proceed to throw artificials off the bow. The only way to go in the mornings and late afternoons is with top water lures--the top water explosions you'll witness from trout are amazing. Most top water lures are similar and work much the same, although, I feel Rapala's Skitterwalk has something special about it and is my top pick. Once the top water action slows down you'll need to move to sinking lures, whether you're using soft plastics, hard lures, spinner baits, or flies, there should be no problem continuing to catch trout.
Stalking the Reds
While redfish may be caught throughout the sound, the residential docks offer you the best chance of getting into them in good numbers. The ideal way to fish the docks is to use a trolling motor while moving from one dock to the next as you cast around and beneath them. The water depth around these docks will range anywhere from two to fifteen feet, depending on where you are in the sound and the length of the dock.
My favorite tactic for redfish is live bait fishing. Ordinarily you can fish the docks without a weight unless you encounter heavy winds or a strong moving tide. Taking that into consideration, splicing a 24- to 36-inch, twenty to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader to your line seems to work best. A wide variety of hooks can be used and should be determined by the type of bait you're fishing with. My preferred hook is an Eagle Claw #1 straight hook when using live shrimp. As with trout fishing, when using larger baits such as pinfish or mullet, you will need to increase the size of your hook to accommodate the bait.
When it comes to artificial lures the options are basically unlimited. Personally I use soft plastics with a jig head or even a worm hook in some situations. Some of the more popular soft plastics anglers use in the sound include; Saltwater Assassins, Berkley Gulp's, and Fin-S. The newer styles of lures on the market that look like fish and have the hook designed into them have also worked well. These lures are produced by Storm, Tsunami, Calcutta, and Berkley.
Another fun way to fish the docks is with a fly rod. Redfish offer an incredible fight on a fly rod, but be prepared to lose some flies and tippets. Generally, I only use a fly rod when the fish are on the outside or between two docks roaming the flats. Since redfish love to feed on shrimp and crabs, flies tied in these patterns work very well. An assortment of other flies including Clousers will also produce fish. You'll need to use a fairly heavy tippet of the 20- to 30-pound variety to avoid being cut off by the barnacles on the dock pilings.
Bouncing for Flounder
Finding flounder can sometimes be the toughest part of completing a slam in the sound. They are mostly found around structure, which could include the docks where you were just searching for redfish.
Some of my favorite places to look for flounder are around bridges such as Bob Sikes Bridge, which connects Gulf Breeze to Pensacola Beach. You'll also find a handful of rock structures in the sound. The Environmental Protection Agency located on the west end of the sound is surrounded with rocks and relatively deep water. These are the two key elements for finding a reliable flounder spot.
Once you find a good spot, the ideal way to fish it is with a Carolina-rigged live bull minnow. Most places in the sound you'll only need a half-ounce weight to get your bait to the bottom. Along with the sinker, I like to use a 20-pound leader and #1 or #2 straight hook. Remember, when live bait fishing for flounder, it's best to keep your line taught and be ready for a light bump.
Another popular tactic is bouncing grubs on the bottom. The same grubs or soft plastics you use for trout and redfish will work just fine. But keep in mind, it may be necessary to use a larger head to keep the bait on the bottom.
Tides are more important when fishing for flounder than for the other species I've mentioned. Depending on the spot, you'll want the tide to be right and definitely not moving too strongly. With a slow moving tide, the flounder seem to become much more active and begin feeding.
After Completing the Slam
After a successful day of fishing there are plenty of other entertaining things to do which are accessible by water. Some of the area's most popular waterfront restaurants, including Peg Leg Pete's and Flounder's Chowder House, offer boat docking and excellent dining. If you're up for a drink and some live music, you may want to check out Bamboo Willie's located on the Boardwalk at Pensacola Beach.
Many organizations strive to make a difference in their communities and most do. Unfortunately, as it is nearly impossible to visit with every organization in every community around this state, we are not always aware of all they do.
Recently, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend some time with the HSFC at their beautiful headquarters in Port Orange, as a part of their Lady Angler's Tournament. What a refreshing look at human nature to see all that this club is doing to introduce our sport to the physically- or economically-challenged. Additionally, they provide fishing outings for the elderly, especially those in group living facilities, which I can only imagine brings back old memories the elderly cherish as they sit again, fishing pole in hand, beside the water. From the construction of wheelchair accessible docks, maintenance and placement of artificial reefs, fundraising for other non-profits and community causes, to support for local Marine Science Centers and museums, this club seems to be fully-involved.
They invited me to fish the ladies tournament with them and put me on one of the most beautiful boats I have ever fished on... the Trina Dai. It was like giving candy to a baby, or in terms more familiar to us, ballyhoo to a king!
Captain DT (Dave Thompson) introduced himself at the Captains' meeting shortly before running off to handle the Calcutta. We (my partner-in-crime, Brooke Van Eck, and I) grabbed some food, sat down, and were observing the other anglers, when a man known only as an acronym to us, TAD, approached us to let us know what time we should be on the boat in the morning. Unless, of course, we wanted to sleep on the boat. Well, I don't know about you, but I seldom get the chance to sleep on a 58-foot Buddy Davis, so we jumped on it!
When we arrived at the boat, Aaron Watson and Carl Lentz were rigging ballyhoo for the upcoming day of fishing. They had as much fresh bait for the dredges as some of us use for an entire day of fishing, mullet for one, and ballyhoo for the other... about thirty fish for each of them! I have used artificial teasers before, but hadn't had the opportunity to use a dredge loaded with natural bait, so I was anxious to see how it worked. First though, we had to get a good night's sleep, (four hours is generally considered "good" on the night before a tournament).
As I lay in the bunk, my thoughts were; since I was already on the boat, I could sleep peacefully until about 7:00 a.m., then come out and fish as we reached our spot. But when Captain DT fired up those twin 1350hp diesel Caterpillars, I couldn't stand the excitement and chose to get up. By the time I crawled out of the bat cave, (that little bunk where your head is under your buddies bunk and your feet are under the stairs), and got dressed, we were well on our way.
Aaron and Carl were already rigging the dredges, as one by one, sleepy-eyed team members began emerging from the salon. First out were Sarah Blanford and Dai Durrance, followed shortly thereafter by KC Vosmik. Brittney Raehn remained snoozing, and Alyson Durrance and Brooke weren't quite ready to come out yet either.
Cruising along at about 30 knots, we made it to our first spot right as the sun was coming up. The team worked well together, Carl got on the outriggers, Aaron and TAD wrestled the dredges over the side, and before I knew it, there were flawlessly-rigged lines out everywhere. The first line started singing at around 9:30 a.m. and Sarah was there to bring it in. It was a nice dolphin, the first of many to go in the box that day.
Almost all of the women took a turn in the fighting chair and did a fabulous job of bringing the fish to the boat. The guys helped rig lines, bait hooks, gaff the fish, clean up... sounding pretty good huh? Kind of like when we cook and they watch TV then just come and sit down to dinner! All joking aside though, the teamwork was impressive. Early in the afternoon, fresh ballyhoo were put on the lines and TAD changed the pink skirt on the shotgun rod to a blue and white Islander.
It was about 2:30 p.m. and Sarah was in the fighting chair when the way back shotgun started screaming. We were in about 150 feet of 79.8* blue water and whatever had the other end of the line meant business! She fought it in the chair the best she could, but with nothing to brace her feet on and with the sweat causing her to slide off the chair, she was going to have to stand up!
For the first time that day I heard Sarah say, "This one is kicking my ass!" About that time, someone put a vest on her and she got the pole set in the harness and the fight was on again. In an incredibly short time, (the fight began at 2:30 and the fish hit the deck at 2:39), the fish was gaffed and brought on board. As soon as it hit the deck the celebration began. It was a big wahoo and we knew it was a money fish! The captain estimated it to be 60-65 pounds, but if you could've heard our personal bets, you would have thought we'd just boated Fishzilla!
This was the biggest wahoo Sarah ever landed and in true fisherman form, she cried! Now you guys say what you want, but I guarantee more than one of you has shed a tear when you landed a big one and blamed it on the sunscreen getting in your eyes! We fished a little bit longer, and then headed back to weigh in. There were looks of admiration and maybe even envy as the team put the big one in the cart to roll it to the scale. They weighed three of the dolphin for 22 pounds and then hoisted the wahoo into the scale... 57.9 pounds! This of course put them on the leader board, but there were still a few boats left to weigh in. No one would know the final results until the following day so we returned to the Trina Dai to clean her up.
The next day we congregated at Caribbean Jacks and anxiously awaited the announcement of the winners. The Trina Dai had taken first place for wahoo and third overall! What a great day of fishing! But, regardless of how we placed, the day was absolutely wonderful, the team was a pleasure to fish with and the tournament was a huge success. Thank you to the Halifax Sport Fishing Club for such an exciting introduction to their organization, and thank you to the family and friends of the Trina Dai for an amazing experience!
For more information or to join the Halifax Sport Fishing Club, visit www.HSFC.com.
Does this scenario sound too good to be true? Well, I'm telling you it is true. Sailfish, dolphin, wahoo, white marlin, and blue marlin all travel this fertile, purple and blue, energized highway just out of reach of the fishing boats herding the 100-foot to 200-foot edge trolling the traditional spreads of ballyhoo, goggle eyes, greenies and tinker mackerel. Now let's do the math, cost of a dozen rigged ballyhoo is approximately $36, live baits double that price, and unless you are penny pinching you are going to use a whole lot more than a dozen natural baits.
What if I told you there was a way to catch a larger variety of these fish, and not have to buy a single fresh bait?
Well, there is no secret here if you grew up fishing off Hawaii or other oceans where artificial lure fishing is the preferred method over natural bait. You would then believe in artificial lures with out any further coaxing.
But it's a good idea to review the techniques used by fishermen who have been successfully trolling with artificial lures for the last fifty years.
While lure fishing, you are able to cover more ground, and in turn you will discover opportunities out of the reach of the pack. I recommend placing yourself much further offshore. Reach out to 100 fathoms and beyond to 200, 300, 400 fathoms. Systematically troll these different zones of water.
Lures come in a variety of sizes. The lures that will produce the most all-around action will be the smaller sizes: five-inch, seven-inch, and nine-inch models. Hook sizes will range from 7/0 to 9/0. Leaders will range from two hundred, to three hundred-pound test. A solid trolling spread would consist of five lures: two flat, and three lures from the riggers.
Better quality lures today are sold in packs, ready to fish. These packs consist of five lures. You would be well advised to purchase one of these convenient trolling packs as well as have spare or additional lure models, hooks, skirts, leader, stainless steel cable, and crimps to make secure connections.
Not to worry--the changes necessary to make the transition from trolling natural baits to lures is much easier than you might imagine.
The most difficult thing to deal with will be the loud voices in your head shouting, "What the hell am I doing out here all alone?" The real truth is you are not alone. These fertile deep water highways can throw back at you on any given day more action than you may have ever imagined, or can even deal with. True, it would be a whole lot easier for you if you cut your teeth fishing lures in Hawaii. Still it is not too late to learn. And it won't take you very long to adapt once you give yourself a chance. I say dare to compare! Give lure fishing a try, and don't give up if at first you don't succeed.
Allow me to relate a short fishing story. The year is 1994. I had just moved from Hawaii to Florida. Naturally invitations to go fishing came my way quite often, but none to fish lures, only live bait.
From time to time I would suggest, "Why don't we try some lure fishing?" Every time I asked, the gesture was met with disapproval (in a nice way) until one day, after eight hours of live bait sail fishing without any visitors, I decided to ask the good-natured captain if I could try out some lure fishing for an hour or so. Not a problem he assured me, only problem was we did not have any lures on board. I scuffled through the captain's tackle collection and found four lure skirts: two blue and two white, and thought, "That will work". Now all I needed were two egg leads that I could push up into the head of the skirts. Then all that was needed was to simply puncture a small hole in the head of the skirt, pass a leader through the hole and center hole of the egg lead and attach a hook. I took the two makeshift lures to the captain and suggested that we troll just two lines, and he nodded with his approval.
The big 65-foot ocean yacht's engines revved up as we raced for a starting point determined to be located in one hundred fathoms. The sleek, fast sport fisher moved along at a rapid pace. Soon enough we were deploying the two lead-headed blue and white skirt lures, placed one in the right rigger and the other in the left. The sea conditions were blue and calm. Both lures trolled just inches beneath the surface and I could see the blue and white skirts flashing. We were only minutes into the troll when a 250-pound blue marlin appeared and without hesitation, grabbed the left rigger and got hooked. Suddenly this otherwise boring but beautiful day was now filled with the electric fury of a wild blue marlin making his way across the waves at high speed, acrobatics being thrown in to make the experience just that much more memorable. The captain was glowing. Later he confided in me he had never caught a blue marlin. The blue gave us all it had before we released the surprise-of-the-day catch. Since we still had plenty of daylight I decided to once again deploy the two blue and white lures. Back up to trolling speed and there she was, "Right rigger, blue marlin," I yelled out. Another super fight and release. On the way home that afternoon I heard the captain giving a recount of his fishing day. He was laughing and smiling, as was everyone on board.
The happy memory of a great day of fishing still lingered months later when I was asked again to go fishing with another friend by the name of Captain Art, who kept his 41-foot Viking in Stuart. I told him about the double blue marlin trip and asked if we could troll some lures. Art's reply was quick and certain, "Bart, troll anything you want, peanut butter sandwiches if you wish. I don't care." Art was not known for having exceptional fishing skills; he does have good tackle, a clean boat, and super electronics. For me this was a golden opportunity--no resistance to the method I wished to fish, plus Art was a good-natured host with like-new fishing gear.
This time I brought plenty of rigged lures. I was ready and hungry to learn more about the potential of offshore fishing in Florida--Hawaiian-style.
The plan for the day was to travel 35 miles offshore, which would put us in the deepest water possible between the coast of Florida and the Bahamas. Once we arrived at our destination, Captain Art put the nose of his boat south into the current.
Here is the fish count for this wild and crazy experience while fishing 35 miles offshore, lure fishing only, six busy hours of too much fun:
3 blue marlin; approximate weights: 75 pounds, 90 pounds, 110 pounds
1 white marlin
23 dolphin; sizes small to medium
2 wahoo; 25 pounds each
7 other bites that didn't hook up
I have experienced this kind of action, and much more, all over the world on lures. Now go out and find your own honey hole.
I hear that several times each summer and I don't remember many folks going home without catching one. If folks want to target cobia, we generally catch them. In fact, it's an unusual day in the summer when we don't catch several, with at least half being legal whether we're targeting them exclusively or not. This doesn't mean cobia are accidental catches for Whopper Stopper though.
Cobia are, by far, the easiest to catch of all large fish on the Gulf coast. For the life of me, I can't see why more folks don't catch cobia almost every trip. Here are a few tips that should make you a better cobia fisherman.
Live bait works best, but I often catch them on a bonita fillet lying on the bottom while fishing for tarpon and sharks.
Wire leader is not necessary except when kingfish and big Spanish mackerel are around. Sharks are seldom enough trouble to make me use wire.
Where? Darn near anywhere from the rivers and flats to grass lines a hundred miles offshore.
A large percentage of grass flats cobia are accidentally hooked by trout fishermen on bait or artificial lures. Notice that I said "hooked" instead of caught. Fifty percent of folks who are fishing for trout will lose every cobia they hook because they are not prepared for a fish that can pull more than five pounds of drag. I have seen more than one person grab the spool to stop the fish when line started screaming off the reel. Not a good technique when you are fishing with eight-pound test! I'd venture to say that 25 percent of the boats out trout fishing on any given day don't have a gaff aboard and if they do, they don't have a clue how to use it!
Lots of decent-sized cobia are hooked on the flats but the larger ones are landed by guys who are prepared. For most shallow water cobia, eight-pound mono is entirely adequate as long as you have a smooth drag, set right. With a six-foot long 20-pound shock leader and a foot or so of 50-pound mono for a bite leader, I'll cast at any cobia that ever swam and feel pretty confident--as long as I have Rhett handling the boat. But in deep water, light tackle isn't a good idea because you can't apply enough pressure to lift a fish.
We catch more cobia while bottom fishing for grouper than any other time. Why? I make ten or more moves most days. Sooner or later we are going to drop a baitfish in front of a cobia and hook up. Move around enough and you should get lucky too. Cobia hang out on the same rocks that hold grouper.
OK, so you are too lazy to move around. Invite cobia to come to you. Enough fresh chum will pull cobia from long distances. Frozen ground chum works, but fresh is best every time. If you are going to stay in one spot and chum, pick a good spot. Large breaks, channel edges, especially channel bends and intersections, artificial reefs and wrecks are all great spots to chum. How you are anchored in relation to the spot you are fishing is also very important. I can't stress this enough. Try to anchor so that your chum disperses over as much of the structure as possible. Your baits should be deployed so that any fish that follows the scent trail of your chum will see them. Chumming on the grass flats and around deeper bars works fine too.
Last summer, I added a new fishing weapon to my arsenal, a Chum Churn. The Chum Churn is the best piece of equipment I've added to my boat in years. On tough fishing days in mid-summer, sooner or later you are going to call in a cobia. Most days it doesn't take long. The sound made by the Chum Churn may be as attractive to cobia as the scent and chopped bait trail it produces. I've seen cobia, spadefish and mangrove snapper come up long before they could have detected the chum.
Think about this. If your bait is sitting on the bottom, it may be hard for a cobia swimming a few feet off the bottom to see. I like to have one bait about six feet off the bottom and another right under the boat within three feet of the surface. Believe me, this shallow bait gets bit often and you better make sure that the drag isn't locked. A baitfish suspended about six feet under a float and about 30 feet behind the boat will also get hit by fish attracted by the chum.
I can't help but mention fishing channel markers. Everybody fishes channel markers and they catch cobia. Sometimes you need to stand in line or have a reservation to fish some of the gang markers. One Saturday last year I was chumming for Spanish mackerel and cobia along the edge of the Crystal River Coal Canal. A steady procession of boats stopped to fish marker 28. As soon as one boat left, another tied up (illegal) or anchored near the marker. This went on the entire tide. If there isn't a boat fishing a channel marker, I ride by close and look. If I see a cobia, I usually catch it.
Which bait? Most of the time it doesn't matter what live bait you use. Cobia will eat about anything from glass minnows to stingrays, crabs to filefish and seagulls to turtles. Live eels are a hot bait, but not always easy to obtain. For tournament fishing, I wouldn't enter unless I had several eels. Eels are a pain in the butt to handle because of the slime and a fresh-out-of-the-well eel will twist up into a ball and around your line. In my opinion, a 10- to 12-inch live squid is the best of all baits for almost any fish I fish for. I don't think anything turns down a squid. Unfortunately, the only time I get to use a squid is when I catch one at night.
From my point of view, the cobia is the best fish we have around here. It is great to eat, much more fun to catch than grouper and they average a heck of a lot bigger than most other fish. For many of my clients, the cobia they catch will be the biggest fish they have ever caught. Just try explaining to an elated client they have to release the biggest fish they have ever caught because it is only a 32-incher.
I have a couple of other sure-fire cobia fishing tips, but I gotta hang onto something.
My neighbor is an avid outdoorsman. He has hunted and fished year 'round for probably longer than I have been alive and has evidently soaked up more than his fair share of sun over the years as well. He certainly can't count the number of times he has been burnt on his many outdoor adventures.
About two years ago he started having pain in his leg so bad that it hindered him from the activities that he loved to do. Begrudgingly, I imagine, he went to his doctor to get it checked out. What was found was a femur bone that, in effect, was being eaten away. The lesion on the bone was subsequently biopsied and found to be caused by the skin cancer, melanoma.
He has since undergone multiple surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy. I am happy to say that he is doing remarkably well considering the circumstances and likely due in no small part to his great attitude and tenacity. He doubts, however, he will ever resume the rigors of offshore fishing. In fact, the last time I talked with him he was selling his boat.
I am relaying this story to you so as to impress upon you the dangers of prolonged sun exposure. While it is true that some skin conditions improve from sun exposure, by and large most of us can expect more and more outcomes like my neighbor's. Health-wise, sun exposure should be looked at in much the same way that cigarettes are looked at. With both, you don't suffer the maximum effects until years after exposure. That sunburn your kid has now will likely be the skin cancer that they suffer from later.
The Center for Disease Control states that more than one million cases of squamous cell and basal cell cancer will be diagnosed this year. Malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer is the most common type of cancer found in 25- to 29-year-olds. At least 59,580 people are expected to be diagnosed with melanoma in this year alone! Malignant melanoma causes 75 percent of all deaths from skin cancer.
WHO IS AT RISK?
Everyone is at risk, period. Some of us have a higher risk than others. Higher than average risk individuals include:
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF AND YOUR CHILDREN?
Telling you to stay out of the sun would be pointless, given that I am an avid fisherman and promote the sport of fishing. You can however, minimize exposure to the sun's damaging rays in many ways. Clothing is likely the best way to do this. In the last few years, many great and relatively inexpensive lines of fishing clothing have come out that are light weight and outright comfortable. You won't sweat to death or burn up either. If however, you just can't stand the thought of wearing long sleeve clothing in the spring, fall or summer, you need to lube up with the highest SPF sunscreen that you can find. I prefer to use only one kind, Bullfrog(R). They make a quick-drying gel that is not greasy, oily or smelly. Put it on before you leave the house and again later after you have been sweating for a while. For my kids I use a pump spray version of Bullfrog(R). All three of my kids are blonde-haired and blue-eyed and this product consistently keeps them from burning. You can swim with it without having to immediately reapply it. It's great stuff!
WHAT IS THIS SPOT?
Now that I have you looking at your skin wondering if you have skin cancer, I think we should go over the different types of skin cancer individually.
BASAL CELL CANCER
Basal cell cancer is typically the most benign type of skin cancer. It can however cause quite a bit of disfigurement if allowed to grow unchecked. As with all skin cancers, it is typically found in sun exposed areas, especially on the face. It often has a smooth, pearly appearance with very small blood vessels on its surface. For treatment it has to be surgically removed and has more than a 90 percent cure rate.
SQUAMOUS CELL CANCER
This can be very ugly looking stuff, or look like no big deal at all--but believe me it can be. Typically it looks and feels scaly and often bleeds easily. It can look like a typical wart or a patch of "rash" to the untrained eye. The early forms of the cancer have been treated topically with freezing, ointments and lasers. Many times squamous cell cancer has to be surgically removed.
This is scary stuff as my neighbor can attest. It can look like a common freckle, but is usually multicolored and has irregular borders. All suspected lesions need to be biopsied and analyzed under a microscope. Once confirmed, a melanoma has to be surgically removed with wide margins. Even small melanomas have been found to be malignant.
ACTINIC KERATOSIS AND SEBORRHEIC KERATOSIS
This is the stuff that grandma and grandpa have on their skin. Actinic keratosis has a rough, scaly texture and is thought to be pre-cancerous. This means that it has the potential to turn into cancer if left untreated. As with anything in medicine, early treatment is the easiest and certainly the most effective. Mostly it is treated with special creams or ointments that help remove it.
Seborrheic keratosis, sometimes called "liver spots" grows to look like rough pieces of rubber that appear to be "stuck" or glued on the skin. It typically continues to grow until it is inadvertently pulled or scraped off. It is not considered a form of cancer and doesn't have the potential to turn into one. No treatment is necessary unless a lesion becomes infected or is in an area that is particularly bothersome.
A WORD OF CAUTION
I am not writing this so that you can diagnose a skin lesion yourself. It is dangerous and way too difficult to diagnose these skin conditions by merely looking at them. Often a biopsy is needed to make an accurate diagnosis. It has been recommended that a full body skin exam be performed on a yearly basis by a physician that is comfortable doing so. I recommend this to you as well. Biopsies are easily performed and usually don't leave much of a scar at all. They are minimally--if at all--painful, so do not let that keep you from getting that "spot" looked at by your doctor.
Every outdoor activity has inherent risks. Participants must understand these risks before undertaking these activities. Kayak fishing for large game fish is no exception. Your understanding of what could go wrong and your preparedness to deal with these situations can aide you in dealing with them while on the water. In some situations you only have a split moment to make a decision, and that decision could mean the difference between safely landing the fish of a lifetime--or death.
I don't bring this up in attempt to scare anyone from attempting to fight and land large game fish from their kayaks, but instead, to remind you to think about the dangers involved before hitting the water. A great deal of knowledge and some caution are often enough to help a person make those important decisions when it matters most, while ignorance can lead to serious injury or worse.
During the many seminars that I give throughout the country each year, a number of people always ask me what is the most important thing for taking large game fish by kayak. There are actually three things, equally important, that I stress to everyone wanting to try this. The first thing is to never do it alone. I can't stress how important it is to never attempt fighting large game fish from a kayak by yourself. Sure, you can do it and probably have some success, but eventually something will go wrong and having someone with you could mean the difference between coming home safe or seriously injured. The second thing is to always have a safety kit onboard in case of emergencies. When putting together your safety kit it is best to use the Boy Scout motto and "be prepared." My personal kit includes a first aid kit, whistle, headlamp for signaling boats at night, my cell phone, VHF radio, a hand held GPS, an extra paddle, tow ropes, and extra batteries for any electronic safety devices. It is also important to remember and keep your electronic items and first aid kit securely fastened in a dry, waterproof bag. And also keep in mind that it is your life at stake if something does go terribly wrong. So when purchasing a first aid kit, don't get the smallest and cheapest one available but rather one that is stocked for serious injury. After all, a few band-aids and some gauze aren't going to help control the bleeding from a major laceration. Finally, the last thing I tell people is to always have a boating plan. By this I mean a written itinerary of what your plans are for your trip. Simply write down in detail where you are leaving from, which way you will be traveling, how long you plan to be on the water, your cell phone number, basically any information that can aide in locating you should something go wrong. Then give it to someone.
One of the most basic things about kayak fishing is simply keeping your balance. Today's sit-on-top kayaks are amazingly stable, but during the fight, a sudden movement too far can lead to an unexpected bath. The key to staying in the boat is to keep your center of gravity in the middle of the boat and to re-adjust or shift your weight as needed throughout the fight to maintain this. It really is easy to do once you get a feel for your kayak. The key is to simply keep your head while fighting your trophy and not let excitement get the better of you. All too often anglers get over-excited about a large fish which causes them to do something that could have serious consequences. Just remember to keep yourself calm and balanced and you won't have to go for a swim.
Should you fall from your sit-on-top kayak, it is really easy to get back in. The first thing to do is remain calm. Once you get back to your kayak and have it turned over, re-entry is simple. Reach across your kayak and grab the far side of the cockpit with both your hands. While pulling on the kayak, use your feet to kick and propel yourself back up and onto it. If you are still having difficulty have your fishing partner come up on the far side of your kayak and help pull you on.
Bringing a large fish along side of your kayak is probably the most dangerous part of the entire experience. Bringing a "green" fish into a kayak can cause some serious injuries. I can never stress to people enough that they should never bring a large game fish such as a tarpon, sailfish, or especially a shark onto the kayak. One swipe of a tail, thrust of a bill, or bite can be fatal--especially if you are a great distance from shore. Bring the fish along side and have your fishing partner snap a photo or two of your fish while it is still in the water. This will be better for the fish's health as well as yours. Besides, a picture is worth a thousand words. After the picture, remove your hook. Or if your fish has a mouth full of teeth, simply cut the leader as close as safely possible to the hook and let it go.
In closing, let me just say something about shark fishing by kayak. Over the past year and a half, I have gained quite a reputation across the country as being the "crazy bastard from Florida" who fishes for large sharks by kayak. My largest landed to date is over 380 pounds, while my largest hooked was over 12 feet in estimated length and the fight lasted almost 5 hours before the steel leader gave way. People ask me all the time how to do it and my answer is always the same. Don't. There are sharks in our Florida waters that are some of the most aggressive on earth and you don't have to go very far to find them. Most of these sharks can be found mere feet off of our beaches and in the passes. These animals are powerful and deadly. Remember, the only thing that separates you from what you are fishing for is a piece of plastic. With sharks, any mistake can lead to serious injury. If you are really serious about targeting sharks by kayak, hire a professional kayak fishing guide who has experience with these animals to help you. And never, never try it alone. One mistake with a large predator could be your last.
Years ago, when I was diving at least part of every trip, I made a discovery that has affected my fishing and led to new and more productive techniques for me.
Sometimes, and more often than you might imagine, the surface water is crystal clear while the water near bottom is murky. I've seen times when this murky, even muddy, layer was more than ten feet thick. In this situation, visibility changes from practically unlimited down to zero. As you might imagine, spearfishing ranges from difficult to impossible. Now, think about the implications for hook and line fishermen.
You might be wondering what causes this phenomenon. Thermoclines are often the culprit in deep water, but strong tides affect clarity too. In warmer water, plankton blooms and clouds of algae affect visibility. Generally speaking, in the Gulf of Mexico, late winter through early spring provides the clearest water.
A powerful and properly tuned depth finder will sometimes indicate murky water. A good color depth finder is easier to interpret than a monochrome machine. I run the gain on my DF higher than most folks and I seldom use auto functions. Thermoclines are generally barely visible as a thin line above the bottom. When a thermocline is strongly visible on your depth finder and there appears to be a lot of "hash" underneath, I expect visibility to be poor. I've predicted this when preparing to dive and, more often than not, I have been right. This is a good reason to have someone who can make deep free dives jump in and take a look before everybody suits up.
Seriously murky water may explain slow bite days. If we have a game plan to counter poor visibility, we are sure to be more successful. Let's develop a plan.
Fish locate your bait or lure with at least three senses; smell, sound, and sight. Different fish depend on ones of these senses more than others but let's just talk grouper here. In very murky water, visibility is often limited to mere inches. In this case, we should respond by using smelly baits, using baits that give off strong vibrations, use vibration/sound producing devices, and doing anything possible to enhance a bait's visibility.
Chumming, in this situation, provides its own Catch-22. A lot of scent in the water may interfere with a fish's ability to find your bait. The fish's olfactory apparatus may be overwhelmed by the chums scent and your bait lies on the bottom, unnoticed. No, I can't prove this happens but I'd give it high probability.
I may give grouper too much credit but I prefer to think that fresh bait is more attractive than long dead, several times refrozen bait. A fresh Spanish sardine, hooked through the eyes and twisted so that the skin and body cavity is broken open has always worked wonders for me. If stinky dead stuff works for you, go for it. Red grouper are far less picky than gags.
One of my favorite responses to murky water is a lively pinfish or small blue runner hooked upside down on a heavy jig head. Hooked through the lips from the top down and out the bottom, the bait fish struggles mightily to right itself. Vibrations/sounds of this struggle often provoke a savage bite. Unfortunately, baitfish hooked this way, tire out very quickly and soon die.
There are several other possible sound/vibration producing techniques you can try that may make your fishing more successful. Bouncing your sinker on the bottom gets a fish's attention. Try replacing the sinker on your "dropper" rig with a piece of chain or a sinker made out of steel rod. This harder material is definitely louder. Japanese long-line rattles attract fish from a long distance. Try rigging one on your line between droppers. I've seen this work.
Hot fluorescent colors are more visible than regular colors. A fluorescent bass lure skirt or a fluorescent tube squid on your baited hook may make the bait easier to see, even in the murkiest water.
Adaptability is the key to consistent catches. Develop a game plan for murky water and you will have fewer days to complain, "They just weren't biting today."
This time of year, Jimmy spent nearly every day on the water being paid $350 a trip to sell his fishing secrets to others. He made enough money during the summer months to support his wife and daughter for the entire year. Jimmy wasn't rich, but he paid the bills. Most of his customers were regulars, including Ricky, who had been fishing with Jimmy since college. Then again, most of his other regular customers showed up on time. Jimmy checked his watch again; it was almost seven.
Forty minutes late, Ricky Robertson stumbled down the dock with a battered blue cooler in one hand and an ancient flyrod in the other. First it was the conference call that ran late so he got caught in Atlanta traffic. Then the rundown hotel on the river didn't have wake up calls. And he forgot his alarm clock. This was supposed to be a vacation not an endurance event. "Hey Jimmy!" Ricky beamed with hopeful enthusiasm, knowing that he was in trouble.
Jimmy took a minute to appraise his wayward client. Ricky was pushing thirty, the same age as Jimmy, but his body was shaped by too many hours spent in the office. His athletic build was starting to gravitate southward and his handsome and once tan face was now drawn and pale. He wore a broad-brim hat, faded pink shirt, baggy green shorts and ridiculous flip-flops--probably purchased from the same convenience store where Ricky bought the beer currently sloshing in his cooler. Ricky's pale skin was painful to look at in the early morning sunlight.
Jimmy shook his head slowly. He knew no amount of chastising would change Ricky's tardy ways. "Ricky," Jimmy said dryly, "Next time you go to the beach, you should get out of the car. I've seen better tans on fish bellies."
Ricky glanced down at his white legs and laughed in his good-natured way that always endeared him to people. It made Jimmy laugh in spite of himself.
"Sorry I'm late, boss," Ricky said as they loaded the last of the gear into the boat.
"Tell it to the fish," Jimmy answered as he cranked the engine and pushed away from the dock. As Jimmy's boat sped across the flats, Ricky felt his world decompress. The early morning sun colored the water gold with accents of white provided by the wading shorebirds. The light wind was magnified by the speed of the skiff as it sped through the shallow water. Ricky didn't ask where they were going and didn't really care. He knew better than to pester Jimmy with questions this early in the morning. Jimmy knew where he was going and that was good enough. Ricky closed his eyes and settled in for the ride.
Jimmy ran the boat through a series of salt marshes until they escaped into a deep cove framed by the mainland on one side and Apalachicola Bay on the other. The calm water rippled as Jimmy cut the engine and began to drift with the incoming tide. A great blue heron walked gingerly in the shallows looking for minnows.
Under the bright sky it was difficult to tell where the water ended and the sky began. Jimmy scanned the horizon, looking for the giant osprey nest that appeared last fall. The osprey was there, watching Jimmy carefully, waiting for him to spook fish from their hiding places.
Jimmy glanced down at his friend who had somehow managed to fall asleep despite the 60 mph ride through shallow water. Jimmy pried open the live well and scooped out a particularly active pilchard which he slid down the back of Ricky's shirt. As the baitfish made its way down Ricky's spine, he jumped up, tripped over the cooler and narrowly avoided falling overboard by grabbing the center console of the skiff. "I'm up, damnit!" he growled at Jimmy.
"Good," Jimmy replied, "Let's start fishing."
Ricky tried to blink himself awake. "Where are we?" he asked.
"Jurassic Park or the G-Spot" Jimmy answered, "Depends on who you ask."
"Well, I'm asking you, Captain, since you are the only one here."
"We are in the middle of Jurassic Park... where all the big dinosaurs live. That's what we are fishing for, a big old dinosaur of a tarpon."
"And the G-Spot?" Ricky wondered.
"Because that is where all the action is," Jimmy replied.
They spent the rest of the morning searching for tarpon. Jimmy spotted a few singles but Ricky pressed too hard and missed the cast. They had one good hook-up but it turned out to be a six-foot bull shark. While Ricky was excited to finally catch something, Jimmy was relieved when the line broke and the shark swam off.
As the sun climbed higher into the Florida sky, Jimmy stood on the poling platform scanning the water for movement. Ricky stopped fishing and started drinking. "How 'bout it, Jimmy? You want to call it a day?" Ricky asked between gulps of the ice-cold beer.
"Not yet, brother, not even close," Jimmy answered without taking his eyes off water. He finally saw what they needed. There were pods of tarpon rolling on the surface about two hundred yards away. Jimmy began slowly poling the flats boat closer to the circling fish. They could hear the sound of the fish gulping air from the prehistoric lung on their backs.
"Get ready. Thirty yards at two o'clock. Keep it in front of him," Jimmy ordered. Ricky looked but couldn't see anything but water. "Just put the fly out there nice and soft," Jimmy was whispering now.
Ricky made two quick false casts and then let the line go. For once his timing was right and Ricky sent the fly just where Jimmy had told him. As he began to strip the fly back he felt a tug at the other end.
"For the love of God, set the hook!" Jimmy yelled. Ricky reared back with all of his strength. There was a pause and then less than twenty yards from the boat the tarpon erupted from the surface of the water, gills rattling like silver armor. As the fish hung in mid-air, it was eye to eye with Ricky. The 100-pound fish made a leap that was close to ten feet above the surface of the water.
After a series of spectacular jumps, the fish stripped off 200 yards of line and backing from the reel in just a few seconds. It would take Ricky almost half an hour to get half that much line back. For every twenty yards Ricky would retrieve, the fish would take back ten spirit-sapping yards.
An electronic chime of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony rang out from Ricky's cooler. "Can you get that, Jimmy? I'm kinda busy right now," Ricky gasped as he fought the fish.
"Sure. No problem," Jimmy replied. He opened the cooler, dug out the cell phone from a plastic bag and threw it into the bay. "If there is anything more important in your life right now than catching that fish, let's do you both a favor and go home."
Another ten minutes passed and Jimmy felt the air cool behind him. He turned and saw the thunderheads that had engulfed the horizon. Jimmy knew they should break off the fish and head for cover, but they were so close. A few more minutes would do it.
The temperature dropped 20*F as the cold rain began to fall. The entire skyline was black behind them. The distant rumbles of thunder grew louder and closer as Ricky fought the fish. Jimmy could see the flashes of lightning behind them. Every time Ricky got the fish close, it would see the boat and strip off another fifty yards of line.
"This is too dangerous," Jimmy thought. He started forward but Ricky said, "I think I've got him." Ricky was gaining line with every turn of the reel. Jimmy laid flat on the casting deck next to where Ricky was standing. As Ricky reeled in the line, Jimmy reached over the side of the boat and wrapped his hand once through the leader and brought the big fish to the boat. Its enormous body broke the surface.
Jimmy touched the fish along its side and pulled free a single scale. He turned to look at Ricky. As the air heated up around them, Jimmy heard a crackling sound followed by a catastrophic roar. The hairs on Jimmy's arms stood straight up. He saw the flash as the lightning ripped past their heads and struck the nearby channel marker. The buoy exploded and the water around it began to boil.
Just then the fish surged and broke the leader. Jimmy handed the tarpon scale to Ricky and cranked the engine. They ran the boat at full throttle through the shallow water. The heavy rain felt like pin pricks as they raced for safety. Ricky kept his head down studying the day's only trophy. The tarpon scale was silver with a bluish tint and nearly as big around as a CD.
Ricky started laughing. "What's so funny?" Jimmy yelled above the engine.
"Nothing," Ricky answered. "Every once in a while you have to do something really stupid just so you know you are still alive."
"You're alive now buddy... but just barely," Jimmy said with a smile.
The full moon left a silvery path across the rippled
surface of the water while dorsal fins gleamed in the light.
Tarpon feeding at night are noisy and the night was so still
that we could hear the gentle exhalations as they rolled.
Frequently there was an eruption as a fish took a shrimp,
and occasionally we heard rattling gill plates as a free
jumper took to the air.
Mark Nichols, owner of the D.O.A. Bait Co. accompanied me on
this night time trip to test his Bait Buster Finger Mullet lures
on these late-winter tarpon in Government Cut. We expected a challenge
since conventional wisdom has it that tarpon eat only shrimp during
this time period but the lure performed very well. It equaled
the number of bites on the live shrimp in fish weighing 25 to
60 pounds. We spent a few hours in a fish-fighting frenzy; we
were constantly re-rigging and marveling at the thrashing spectacle
before us. There is nothing like fishing for tarpon at night...
Tarpon are nocturnal feeders. This is partly because this species
is by nature more active at night and also because there is less
boat traffic to disturb them. Night tarpon fishing can be done
wherever there are tarpon, which includes 90% of the inshore saltwater
and a significant amount of the freshwater in south Florida. Some
likely places include residential docks, bridges, ocean inlets,
deep channels among flats, and off beaches. Snook, jack and mangrove
snapper are also sometimes caught when night fishing for tarpon.
There are many elements to successful nighttime tarpon fishing.
Tides are very important as most fishing spots depend on a certain
tide to be successful. Tide direction and speed determine the
amount of bait being swept through the area as well as the difficulty
the fish may face to hold its position in the current. You should
research individual spots to determine the optimal tidal state
to find the fish.
Moon phases are also important since they influence the magnitude
of the tides while providing various amounts of nocturnal illumination.
Full and new moon phases usually have the greatest tidal fluctuation.
Generally speaking, the greater the changes in tidal elevation,
the faster the current will be, flushing more bait through a given
area and encouraging the tarpon to feed. A new moon makes for
the best night fishing under a light, while a full moon provides
enough light for the fish to pursue their prey wherever they choose.
Three different fishing techniques are used depending on the
amount of available light. When tarpon are laid up or busting
bait under a bright light, the angler simply presents the fly
or bait to the fish and hopes for a take. While refusals are common,
the fish rarely spook because of a bad cast as they may in shallow
water. The brightest lights are usually found on residential docks,
around bridges, or alongside a large, commercial wharf. Halogen
lights produce the best fishing light. Any light that creates
a pool on the water's surface and provides illumination
several feet down will attract the bait and, as a result, tarpon
and snook, among others. Under a bright light, you are sight-fishing,
much as you would fish in the day in some well-known tarpon locations.
The second technique is to fish slightly dimmer lights where
the fish are not actually visible. Examples include the street
lights on a bridge or causeway. These fainter lights can also
produce fish. Here the technique should be blind casting repetitively
to the shadow line. While the fish may make their presence known
by occasionally attacking food on the surface, they often go undetected.
The last technique is for fishing in almost-darkness without
any artificial light and it can apply to any water where tarpon
are found. Here the fish are often located by sound. During full
moon periods, often very active times for tarpon, they can be
seen with the naked eye. Most anglers drift live shrimp, crabs
or live fish near the surface. Fly or spin fishermen will need
to blind cast repetitively in areas where tarpon are likely.
An understanding of what tarpon eat at various times of the
year is crucial to success. Generally, tarpon eat whatever is
currently in greatest abundance and will rarely take a different
offering. During the months from December to April, shrimp dominate
their diet. Drawn to the warmer waters of the ocean inlets, they
feast on the shrimp runs, particularly on an outgoing tide. During
the transition months of April, May, October, and November, mullet
migrate along the coast and make up the bulk of the tarpon's
prey. In the summer months, most of the larger fish have migrated
out of the area leaving the smaller fish behind. These tarpon
usually weigh between 10 and 30 pounds. Because of their small
size and the lack of other types of feed, these fish concentrate
on the tiny pilchards and glass minnows attracted to the lights.
In fly selection, the key to success is close imitation of the
size, shape and color of the current prey. The clearer the water
and the more light there is, the more precise the required match.
Bait fish and shrimp tend to be very pale and iridescent at night
so most patterns should be a combination of chartreuse, white
or silver. Imitation glass minnows flies are usually very small,
measuring 1/2" to 1 inch. Because of this small size, spin
fishing for tarpon when they are feeding on this food source is
not as successful as fly fishing since lures this small cannot
be thrown with spinning rods.
When choosing a leader, visibility is a primary concern. Flourocarbon
should be used in the smallest diameter possible depending on
the size of the fish. 25 pound test will work for fish less than
10 pounds, 40 pound for those weighing between 10 pounds and 30
pounds, 60 pound test for those weighing 30 to 80 pounds, and
80 pound test for the big ones. In really clear water, tie a leader
with an extra long shock (bite) tippet to get the knots as far
away from the fish's eye as possible. This will result in
more hits but renders catches ineligible for certain tournaments
and IGFA records.
In the winter, the tarpon that inhabit ocean inlets and the
environs are probably the hardest fighters of their kind. They
are in superb condition from feasting on plentiful shrimp and
swimming in the strong currents. The deep water and current also
work against the angler when the fish head for deep water to fight
it out. All the rules of standard tarpon fishing apply here: bow
when he jumps and don't strike until you feel him take the
bait or fly and run with it. A skilled captain to handle the boat
is very useful on account of swift water and boat traffic but
when fighting a fish busier areas, backing down with a small boat
is not advisable due to the large wakes produced by other vessels.
There can be a downside, in spite of all the excitement of tarpon
fishing at night. Performing simple tasks like knot tying are
more difficult, but good lighting on the boat will help. In the
summer, mosquitoes can be very bad, particularly near mangrove
shorelines. In seaports and busier inlets, there is a greater
danger of collision or swamping due to high wakes and as always,
navigation lights should be in good working order. Crime is also
a concern in the more urban locations and some boat ramps are
not safe at night. And while the presence of law enforcement makes
you safer, the night angler is often a suspect. Keep your licenses
and registration updated and be sure all required safety equipment
is on board. You may be stopped by a variety of local, state,
and federal patrol boats. When you are dock fishing, a homeowner
or neighbor may call the police to report a suspicious boat (yours)!
Though waterborne burglars may be an issue for these homeowners,
you usually have the right to be on the water as long as you are
not touching the dock or venturing past the pilings farthest from
the shore. Local laws may vary, but knowing the rules will ensure
your rights and safety.
Despite these drawbacks, those who venture out after tarpon
under the cover of darkness will discover peaceful waters free
from the fast pace and intense sun of south Florida while catching
more tarpon in the process.
Capt Adam Redford runs night tarpon, snook and Permit fishing
in Biscayne Bay and the Upper Keys. He also works out of Flamingo
in Everglades National Park. For more information visit his web
or call 800-632-0394
We left the dock in Ft. Lauderdale at 5 p.m. and set up our first drift at 6:30. After an hour of fishing, we hooked up with a 50-pound swordfish that was released by my father after a 20-minute battle. We reset our drift and things were quiet until 10 p.m. when the tip rod that was 50 feet below the boat started bouncing. Greg reeled in the live tinker mackerel to within 25 feet from the boat, where a sword got a hold of it and headed south.
Greg fought the fish for 90 minutes before making any real progress. Every time he would gain 100 feet of line, the fish would effortlessly rip it back off. At 11:30, the fish seemed to get a second wind and made a big run. We thought it was over, but Greg suddenly started gaining line quickly and after 20 more minutes, we could see a light rising under the boat. We readied the gaff and took a shot as soon as she was within reach. The fish just laid there motionless as we brought it in through the transom door and we slid it onto the deck before ever noticing anything peculiar. Suddenly, we noticed that the swordfish had no bill and half of its tail was missing. There were also slashes on its belly. We realized that a big shark had to have done this kind of damage and we quickly reached out and shut the transom door.
Knowing that the shark was probably still nearby, we slit open the stomach of the swordfish and started tossing out the contents while we attached a shark rig to one of the rods. As soon as we did this, a huge shadow appeared off the bow and began circling the boat. There was blood all over the deck so we took a bucket of water and rinsed the blood out through the scuppers. This really got the shark going. That shadow became clearer as it got closer and the blood in the water was too much for it to resist. Suddenly we had a mako that was easily over 500 pounds trying to stick his nose into the scupper hole. The Predator has a 12-foot beam and this shark was longer than that and just inches from our feet.
Even after the two-hour fight with the swordfish, Greg was ready to do battle with this beast, so he took a small piece of swordfish and put it on his hook. He flipped it out the back of the boat, but the shark wasn't interested at first. She kept her nose right up against the scupper while the bait drifted 20 feet back. Greg Salsburg grabbed the leader and pulled it in until he was able to dangle it on the mako's nose. The shark rolled and took the bait before resuming her search for whatever was coming out the scuppers. She didn't even know she was hooked. We thought about hitting her with the flying gaff but had heard the stories of green makos spinning into the boat and doing more damage than any of us wanted, so we decided we needed to fight this fish on rod and reel before gaffing it.
Greg yanked on the rod two or three times to let the shark know she was hooked and the shark took notice. The mako took off on a long run before making a huge leap out of the water and landing on the main line, breaking it clean.
Here we were, with a 200-pound swordfish on the deck, yet the only thing any of us could think about was the shark. It was easily the biggest fish any of us had ever been inches away from and more impressive than any living thing we'd ever experienced. We headed home and tried to figure out what exactly had happened.
Our best guess is that Greg's battle was developing into a standoff before this mako came along and got interested in the sword. The sword made a huge run to get away from the shark but it was not enough. The mako took away the swords weapon (its bill) and its motor (its tail) before making the move for the meat (the belly). Greg probably got that fish to the boat just before it was going to be finished off by the mako. The swordfish weighed in at 203 pounds after the damage was done.
The water across the lake began to explode. Bass were ripping
through the helpless shad with unrelenting ferocity. I looked
at the tip of my rod only to see a lure that vaguely resembled
a minnow. It only made sense to me to use a bait that fish eat;
their natural prey. From that point on, I began to explore different
ways to catch a bass's natural food, mainly lake shiners.
I first started catching shiners on cane poles at local ponds,
but this became too time consuming. I then purchased my first
cast net at the local K-Mart with money I saved from mowing lawns.
With about a half a loaf of bread and my new cast net, catching
enough shiners to fish with was easy.
From the first moment I began to fish with live shiners, I was
hooked. Nothing in my opinion compares to live bait fishing. It
all begins with your cork slightly bobbing up and down and slowly
moving around, and then all of a sudden, things begin to change.
The movement of your cork increases dramatically and then wham,
your cork disappears with a swirl. Maybe it's those few
seconds between the time the shiner gets nervous and the time
you set the hook that makes it so exciting. Sometimes the cork
will disappear less dramatically. It just slowly goes under. It
doesn't matter how it goes under, it's still a thrill.
After I began using live shiners for bait, artificials became
obsolete. Live shiners became a priority for me. This was a difference
between a lot of fishermen in the area and myself. This was very
apparent when you saw the amount of emphasis I placed on catching
them. Shiners were not always readily available in the local ponds
and sometimes I had to travel several miles to catch them and
then several more miles to fish them at my favorite bass fishing
spot. Indeed this was a challenge for someone who didn't
have a driver's license, but I always got it done somehow.
The result, I caught more fish. It was worth it for me to go the
extra mile to have the best bait. It still is today.
I've since graduated from those lakes and ponds to the gorgeous
Gulf of Mexico. I've spent the last twenty years fishing
these beautiful waters for just about every species of fish that
frequents the area. However, without a doubt, fishing for grouper
has become my favorite. Digging these fish out of rocks has become
an obsession of mine. Having a family that has been in the seafood
industry for four generations has given me the opportunity to
learn from some of the best. Whether I was decking on a boat or
captaining my own vessel, I quickly realized how important live
pinfish were to catching our limit of grouper. Just as shiners
were to bass fishing, pinfish were just as important to filling
the ice chest. I rarely left the dock without them.
With the priority that I placed on having live pinfish for every
offshore trip, I quickly learned how to fill the live well with
these frisky baitfish. But it was not until I decided one summer
to sell them commercially to local marinas that I truly mastered
the art of catching them. As you probably already know, catching
live pinfish may not be very difficult, but with a few helpful
tips, you can increase your catch dramatically and on a more consistent
Trap DesignIt amazes me at how much trap design
varies depending on the area your in. I've traveled all
along Florida's gulf coast and I've seen about as
many different trap designs as people who use them. Just as there
are numerous designs, there are just as many opinions on what
design catches the most. I've used just about every one
of them, and even designed a few of my own, and I still don't
have a favorite. My advice to you is to experiment. There are
many factors that affect the ability of a trap to catch fish.
Among them are water temperature, water clarity, time of year,
salinity, type of bottom the trap is on, etc.... Most local
fishermen have an opinion on what type and color of a trap works
best. This may be a good place to start. Especially if they contend
that the trap they're recommending catches fish in the area
that you want to place the traps. Try starting with the least
expensive traps and see if they're successful. Those small
fifteen-dollar hexagonal traps will sometimes out-catch those
expensive one-inch square colored traps, depending on the water
variables. I can't tell you how many times I've kept
those expensive traps in the boat and only used the cheap ones
because they would out-catch them, even when placed right next
to one another. Least expensive is also important because bad
weather, sharks, porpoises, boat motor props and bait pirates
(a term I will later define) can make them mysteriously disappear.
Nothing will ruin your day more quickly than to arrive at your
traps, expecting several dozen live pinfish, only to find the
BaitI've experimented with just about
everything to use as bait in traps. From cat food to grouper heads
and everything in between, I've tried it all. Keep in mind
that pinfish are scavengers and they'll eat anything dead.
My advice is to stop by your local seafood store and kindly ask
if you can take some discarded seafood wastes off their hands.
Don't forget your five-gallon bucket. I've rarely
been turned down. In fact, when I did it commercially, one local
seafood house gave me two 35 gallon trashcans full of discarded
wastes from the local sales of that day. They were glad I took
it off their hands. In those cans were grouper heads, mullet heads,
shrimp heads, crab shells and other assorted discarded wastes.
I didn't have a favorite and I don't think the pinfish
did either. They all seemed to catch equally. Before choosing
which bait to use, take notice of the size mesh of the bait holder
in the trap. The larger the mesh size of the wire, the larger
the bait should be. This will make it harder for the smaller fish
to eat all your bait before your trap can catch enough pinfish.
You can also freeze your own bait. Just keep the discarded fish
parts from you last trip. Don't pay for bait. Offshore fishing
is expensive enough.
Trap PlacementWhere you place your traps will
certainly affect the amount of bait you catch. Some fishermen
will insist that grassy bottom is vital to catching pinfish. I
disagree. I've caught just as many on mud and sand bottom,
and next to oyster bars as I have on the grass flats. The bottom
line is you need to place them where the pinfish are. Find the
fish by experimenting. Place your traps on different types of
bottom, at different water depths and next to different types
of structures. See what works best in your area. Keep in mind
that an area that may have water on it at the time you place the
trap may not have it all the time. Be aware of the tidal flow
and place your traps in an area that's constantly covered
with water. Also ask around to local fishermen. Chances are they'll
know where the pinfish are.
Bait PiratesIf you've run pinfish traps
long enough, chances are a "bait pirate" has probably
stolen your bait. I must admit, nothing angers me more than to
arrive at my traps and find the bait trap release door is open
and empty of baitfish. Those of you that have had this happen
know what I mean. It makes you look incompetent in front of your
charter, especially when they begin to realize they're not
going to catch as many grouper. In Florida, it's illegal
to pull a bait trap that's not yours. Still, bait pirates
refuse to be deterred and continue to steal what's not theirs.
Over the years, I've found some ways to keep the bait pirates
away. The first is to place your traps away from boating channels.
Try to place them in areas that are less prone to boat traffic,
especially boat traffic that's going offshore bottom fishing.
Pinfish aren't cheap. Their price per dozen generally ranges
from $3.00 to $5.00 or even more. This is all the motivation bait
pirates need in order to steal your bait.
Also, if possible, try to place your traps in front of waterfront
homes. Pirates tend to be less bold if they know someone may be
watching. I've had traps in front of homes go undisturbed
for years. Another way is to ask permission from homeowners to
use their docks. Docks are great places to catch pinfish.
Chute Size and DirectionI've always wondered
why two identical traps with identical bait, placed right next
to each other will catch different amounts of pinfish. One trap
may have fifty pinfish in it and the one right next to it has
none. This has happened to me on more than one occasion. I've
found that the size of the opening of the trap's chutes
or their necks (where the fish enters the trap), can dramatically
affect the amount of baitfish you collect. It's important
that we make a distinction between the two different openings
of the chutes (necks). One end of the chute attaches to the trap.
From here the chute funnels down to the inner opening. It's
mainly the width of the inner opening of the chute I'm talking
about. If you have traps that are not catching that are among
other traps that are, you may want to adjust the inner opening
of those that are not. I like to have mine opened just enough
to allow my hand to barely fit in right up to where my thumb adjoins
my hand. At this point, you should not be able to push your hand
through the inner opening without forcing it through. Take a look
at the traps that are catching and try to adjust the traps that
are not to the same width. It's important to remember that
a chute that's adjusted too wide will allow more fish to
escape by swimming back through the chute and an opening that's
too thin will not allow as many pinfish to enter the trap.
Another important step in placing your traps is to point the chutes
in the direction of tidal flow. In other words, if the tidal flow
is north and south, then place your traps with the chutes pointed
north and south. I had a local crabber one time tell me that by
placing his blue crab traps in this manner, he increased his catch.
He recommended that I try it with my pinfish traps and as he predicted,
I caught more pinfish.
Although I've changed the type of fishing I do, I haven't
changed the type of bait I prefer. Live baitfish will always be
a priority for me. Whether it's the increased number of
grouper I catch or just the sheer excitement of fishing with them,
I've got to have them. And hopefully with these few helpful
tips, you'll experience more full traps and ultimately more
fish in your cooler.
Watch the Fins
Over a 3-year-period actually raising catfish (I have always been intrigued with aquaculture), I learned some plum handy, good-to-know tips I'd like to share.
The dorsal fin and the pectoral (side) fins of all catfish (including tropical catfish) are sharp, barbed and to be avoided. Upon entering your skin, the mucous-covered protein covering the barb is sloughed off and left in the puncture wound. After the initial pain sets in, the associated infection is a real attention-getter. Saltwater catfish wounds sting a lot more than freshwater catfish (in case you were wondering) but both can very easily become infected. Believe me.
In fact, a very severe puncture wound experienced by a friend courtesy of a saltwater catfish almost caused him to pass out from the pain. Even worse (from my perspective) it ended a potentially great day on the water fishing.
So here's the best advice: avoidance is your best defense.
Stay in Control
Control the fish while the fish is on the line and while bringing it on the boat, pier, dock or shore. Don't let the fish swing about on the end of the line any longer than necessary. Get it down on the ground immediately.
If a child has the fishing pole--stop, drop and roll, then run away! (Numerous people have been finned by a swinging catfish).
I've heard tales of fins in hands, knees, thighs, and bottoms (butts and sneaker soles). There are a variety of techniques for getting hooks out of these rascals. If it is a simple lip hook, grab the hook at the shank with a pair of pliers and turn the fish upside down over the rail of the boat and give a quick shake or two. That way you never have to touch the beast.
If the catfish needs to be handled because it swallowed the hook, I immediately snip off the dorsal fin and the two pectoral fins before I handle the fish. That puts you on a level playing field. A standard pair of catfish skinning pliers works well to snip off these fins. Make sure you dispose of these removed fins properly because they are still potential hazards on the floor of your boat should you kick or step on them. Once done you can safely grab the fella and remove the hook and release the fish.
This may sound cruel for a fish you are going to release, but I have had numerous catfish get entangled in my seines when I was harvesting them and would have to remove fins to get them out of the net. Upon recapturing the fish months later, they are no worse for the wear. Although the barbed fins do not apparently grow back, the soft fin coverings do. The fish can still actively maneuver on its way without its defense mechanism (PETA folks: it is really not that bad).
The third way (aside from cutting the line which does not hurt the fish), involves decisively grabbing the fish with the thumb and ring finger behind each pectoral fin with the dorsal fin straight up between the pointer finger and middle finger. There is some risk involved in grabbing the fish like this. In fact every time I have been finned it has been doing exactly this maneuver. Hence, I strongly endorse clipping the fins. The release is done in one quick fluid motion also.
Butt Juice for Catfish Wounds?
So you've been finned? You dummy. Now what?
Of course you yell, scream, then cuss a little (or a lot). About 15 seconds later the real pain sets in, as do your second wave of curse words.
Then--and you won't believe this trick--you take the very same fish that did the evil deed (presently without its dorsal or pectoral fins because you are now a convert) and you squeeze the juice from the anus onto the finned area. Yes, rub the fish's slime from this excretion all over and into the puncture wound. It will stop hurting immediately if it is a fairly shallow puncture wound. Yes, this really works.
Now what is the chemistry behind this? I don't really know. My best scientific guess is that there is a gland that is expressed which produces some very effective neutralizing and blocking agents. Upon discussing this with other buddies over a beer or two and cleaning a few catfish, they don't bother to think too hard about it and they just call it "Catfish Butt Juice" (also known as CBJ). But, whatever school one is from--it works.
Not sure you must use the exact same catfish you were hit with (or whether any other catfish will do). All I can offer is this: if you think you have been scraped or hit, use that same catfish! And here's some more advice: keep that same catfish for at least 30 minutes because the pain comes in waves and you can reapply the CBJ. The catfish does not have to be kept alive. Nor should it be for doing this evil, evil deed.
Now what is the doctor going to say about this practice? Well you can ask him/her when you get there. I don't really know, but at the point you have been actively finned you've already got a whole lot of foreign protein directly injected into a meaty part of your body. Topically adding a little more interesting goo can't really do much more harm and, besides, it takes the pain away--guaran-damn-teed.
If the catfish is fully stuck to you, you have really screwed up. Attempt to cut the fin so you can start your next round of the genuine First Aid as you rapidly make your way to Urgent Care. A web search for first aid of catfish stings recommends submerging in hot water to deactivate the poisons. The judgement call should then be made on when to apply ice (if at all) to decrease swelling and the spread of the poisons that were not deactivated. I carry both meat tenderizer and a product called Sting-Eze which has an active ingredient of Camphor which works on a lot of other stinging insects, as well as catfish and jellyfish.
Cleaning Catfish Quickly and Easily
If you have a lot of lively catfish you need to put down all at once, put them in a cooler and drain all the water out. Then, with the plug back in the cooler, take a single 16-ounce warm beer, freshly pop it and quickly but gently pour over the fish. Then close the cooler tightly. Give it about a minute completely sealed and viola! Dead fish in less than one minute.
Now, where and when can you use this interesting fact, I don't really know. Maybe on a bet you can use this little ditty to get rid of that warm beer in your hand and have someone fetch you a cold one. My best guess on the science behind this little known phenomenon is that the CO2 causes the fish to rapid-gill, directly injecting beer and CO2 into their system.
This displaces the oxygen and some type of an embolism in the brain occurs. (I can only hope to go this way myself). My preference is to keep catfish alive as long as possible, and then quickly clean them freshly dead.
Catfish clean easiest when they are fresh. Otherwise the skin sticks to the meat when you start pulling it off. I've seen cleaning of catfish performed many different ways with some more effective than others. Here is the quickest and easiest way I've found. I can completely skin a catfish in 30 seconds, and have it filleted out (with no bones) in another 30. No fuss, no muss. The trick is finding the zippers to their little "tuxedos".
Finding the Zipper
Now this quick and easy skinning technique is also important for saltwater fishermen because if you happen to catch a small hardhead catfish while loading up on pinfish for bait, throw the catfish in your live well (with fins removed). These make great cobia bait. Prior to placing the catfish on the hook, strip a piece of skin back on both sides of the catfish approximately one-inch, same as you would if cleaning the fish.
A fully-skinned catfish can swim around in a child's wading pool for at least 5 minutes; which is where I spontaneously tossed a fish I was cleaning to deal with the emergency of my four-year-old standing in a fire ant mound. So, pulling back and leaving a one-inch flap of skin on a catfish is merely a flesh wound to these fellas.
Getting the Best Flavor
To get the best tasting catfish, assessment of the water bodies where you are fishing is important. Catfish are susceptible to nutrients in the water and when the nitrite levels are elevated it imparts a very unique and unpleasant quality to the flavor of the fish. This condition is referred to as nitrite toxicosis or brown blood disease in catfish.
There is plenty written on the subject of brown blood disease and it is easily accessible on the internet.
What information isn't available is how to check for this condition in fresh fish and at your fish market. The ability to identify this flavor in catfish comes with experience but the test is simple: from a fresh cut area running directly down the backbone, examine the condition of the fillet for color and then simply smell the fillet.
If it smells stale, muddy and earthy this flavor will be present when cooked. This is indicative of brown blood disease. This is not harmful to the consumer, but it does impart an offensive odor and renders it less than the perfect fish to enjoy at the dinner table.
Now, with your new-found interesting and bizarre knowledge of catfish--I should probably have some type of legal disclaimer here in the article. So, here it is: Always know the difference between a catfish and an attorney!
One is a scum-sucking bottom dweller and the other is, well... a fish.
"Maannn..." my husband said aloud, with more than a hint of envy slipping out. He didn't have to say any more. After 25 years of marriage, I knew exactly what he was thinking: How was it possible that an entire family could labor so cheerfully together after (what he knew to be) an extremely hard day of fishing, in a tournament no less? Moreover, how was it possible they were still fishing together at all?
It was the voice of someone who has recently faced the disappointment of his (mostly) grown sons no longer having time to go fishing. "I'm really sorry Dad, but I've got too much to do this weekend... uuhh... I've got a party... a... a... paper to write... homework... a hot date, etc." Or his personal favorite: "Ummm... gee, I'm sorry I can't join you, but I need to give the cat an enema."
As a not-so-passive partner and a woman who shares his passion for fishing, I found myself in conflict: Part of me was empathetic; I recently endured my own parental heart-ache when, upon his arrival from a 5-week vacation, our youngest son ran right past his ol' ma and into the arms of his girlfriend. Owwwuch!
And then there's my all-knowing self-righteous side that's just itching to say "I told you so!" After all, what did the man expect? Both boys had been dragged offshore from the time they were in diapers and asked to entertain themselves for hours on end while their parents feverishly chased any number of fish from one end of the state to another.
No Saturday soccer games for these kids. Their lives revolved around the phases of the moon, weekend weather predictions, and of course, the seasonal migration of various species: kingfish, redfish, tarpon, Spanish mackerel, red snapper, trout and yes, even the winter sheepshead run. (You'd think he could take a rest for at least a month!)
Instead of honing their fishing skills on bluegill or catfish, Ian and Joseph started off with red snapper, bull redfish and an occasional jack crevalle.
Ahhh, the memories:
"Hungry son? Here you go, have a mustard sardine... or maybe a few crackers... Tired of fishing? Here's another tarpon scale to play with. Ain't it purdy?
"A nap, you say? Just lay down there on that wet life jacket and have a little rest. We'll be ready to head home in, oh, about eight hours." And then there was the time he decided to tag and release 1,000 fish in one year (which he did). Lord knows my enthusiasm--and marriage vows--were seriously tested that year.
So what comforting words could I offer my dear captain at such a time?
Of course, my first reaction was to blame myself for not protecting the boys from our affliction. But then later, a different answer began to percolate to the surface.
While they're not currently demanding to head offshore, they have developed many of the traits I admire so much in their father--one of the most tenacious and intuitive fishermen I've ever seen. It's just manifested differently.
Could it be possible that Ian developed his infinite patience from those untold hours spent playing on the beach, while we stalked trout nearby? Could all of that unstructured time spent looking out across the waves, waiting for a fish to bite--far away from a frantic TV culture--have contributed to his amazing ability to analyze an issue or problem from multiple perspectives?
If so, then it might also explain Joseph's enthusiasm for a good challenge and his extraordinary lust for life. It seems to come with the territory: spend enough time fighting huge fish under a boundless blue sky and something happens inside. To this day, he craves the freedom of open spaces and salt spray on his face. He's also the first to plunge into the surf every spring (clothing optional), no matter the temperature.
So, maybe we haven't done so badly, after all. And who knows, maybe with a little patience, a little time, in the not-so-distant future, one or both of our lovely lads will say, "Hey ol' man, let's go fishing!"
I just hope I'm within earshot when it happens.
It wasn't long before Hurricane Ivan slammed into the Gulf and took away her dock. It destroyed her office, her decks and pool, and a good part of her home. She was very sad.
To relieve the grief from her loss, she bought chest waders and waded out to cast her net into the beautiful emerald waters in front of her damaged home. This is where she meditated and where her neighbors often saw her, the beautiful wife and mother of two, an athlete accomplished in snow skiing, basketball, track and field, a part-time model, an ex-pharmaceutical and grits salesman, a financial wizard with several advanced degrees. They thought something was wrong. But they were wrong.
Everything was beginning to fall into place for the solitary wader. On Mother's Day she went to the bait shop and said, "I want everything I need to start fishing with a rod and reel." Tricked out, she went back to her seawall and immediately
caught a 27-inch redfish. She was so excited, she was screaming as if she had won the lottery and she took it to be a sign. She would be a fishing chick. The hurricanes could take away her home but she could "still feed the family," a satisfying
sentiment, albeit unnecessary.
Word spread along the coast and soon other women were "feeding their families" too. This lovely sea nymph, actually, drop-dead gorgeous vision
from any shore, Claudia Espenscheid, was so excited about her new passion that she emailed all her friends and decided to start an all women's fishing club, and it would be called, Fishin' Chix, no experience necessary. The motto: "Reel Women, Fun Loving, Like Fish!"
The 80 members, ages 30-something through 70-something,
desperately wanted and needed a diversion to help them deal with the destruction from the hurricanes, first Ivan then Dennis. And so the fashionable fishing club got underway with the first meeting at the Fishhouse Restaurant in Pensacola. It was gourmet. These ladies are no slouches. They wanted to sip wine and eat well while learning from the experts and guides who volunteered to coach them. (Who wouldn't?)
Claudia, who calls herself "the Martha Stewart of fishing,
no prison," set the tone for the Fishin' Chix: fun-loving, glamorous, stylish, pink. The women would have instruction,
they would fish and they would look good doing it. She started an online store so the club members could find special gear designed for chix. She started a newsletter, the Monthly Chum, with stories and a calendar of events. She quit her real job.
Claudia will tell you she is a risk taker, a team player with an athletic spirit, and she needed all of those qualities to pull off her very first fishing tournament, the Pink Rubber
Boots Ladies Fishing Rodeo, which benefited the Covenant Hospice Children's Programs.
She said it was like planning a wedding in only three months. And it was a huge success, donating over $5000 to Hospice.
The Pink Rubber Boots Ladies Fishing Rodeo was held June 3rd, from 6 to 10 a.m. with 75 ladies in designer boots competing for the bounty of donated prizes, aboard 26 boats whose captains volunteered their services and all the provisions for the anglers. Women were "screaming their brains out" for a pinfish. While ten-year-old Katerina Espenscheid manned the merchandise booth, her nine-year-old sister, Isabella, caught the 3rd place ladyfish. Of course being
related to the director, she was ineligible for the tournament prize, but was awarded a fish necklace for her catch.
The Fishin' Chix popularity is booming so Claudia can't find time to fish, cast or wade. She is busy planning for the future. And with her enviable energy and imagination the future looks like serious fun. She is expanding the online store. The next "meet and greet" new members' orientation
will be on a yacht. The next club meeting is a Dock Hop, a family event, along her waterfront with a fishing expert on each newly repaired dock, teaching skills (along with the required music and refreshments). Another tournament is on schedule for the fall which she calls a "picture"
tournament. It will be a "catch, photograph and release" rodeo in the evening, in the dark. Time to order a pink water-proof camera to go with the pink rubber boots.
Also, tugging on the cast net, are the requests for "Chapters" of the Fishin' Chix from around Florida and as far away as Michigan and Colorado. The Chapters will follow the direction of the original Fishin' Chix club, with by-laws, scheduled meetings, experienced
guides and charitable tournaments.
The original purpose of the club was to help reduce daily stress, to learn to cope with the aftermath of the hurricanes, to comfort and support
each other, to spread a passion for fishing and encourage enthusiasm for new skills and techniques. Will the lovely sea nymph ever find time to fish again? Will she wade again after her latest misadventure, which she tells with eyes wide as saucers?
One evening when the Espenscheids
and their neighbors were fishing from the seawall, Katerina caught a nice redfish. The plan was to release the fish but the line parted above the bobber before she could. Everyone was upset and feeling sorry for the fish as the bobber would disappear then pop up again. Someone
suggested Claudia get her chest waders and go after it, "But don't forget, you can drown in waders," they warned. She responded with a look of disbelief, "I may be a blonde but..." and headed out into the chest deep waters to free the redfish. After stalking the bobber for a few minutes with a net, she got close enough and lunged for it, miss-stepped and went completely underwater. Her waders filled up and pulled her farther under. She was going to drown after all. A combination of athletic ability and determination got her to the top but the redfish got away and she still feels bad about that. And, she believes you can drown in waders.
My granddaughter plays dress-up and sashays around saying, "I've had a bizarre life."Well, my dear, you have to meet the dynamic Claudia Espenscheid. She invented bizarre.
There are numerous articles about the Chix online from the Pensacola News Journal. Just "google" Claudia Espenscheid and enjoy a reel fishing trip. You'll be exhausted, guaranteed.
On Thursday, December 30, 2004, the City of Jacksonville Beach dedicated and opened the new Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier. Don Streeter, pier manager with Dania Pier Management, noted the incredible turnout citing attendance that topped the other two recently opened piers. Since losing our old pier after irreparable Hurricane Floyd damage in 1999, we have been lonely for the opportunity to walk far and above the waters of the Atlantic, drop a line, and see what might bite. No longer do we have to wait.
Though this is the most well-designed pier Jacksonville has ever seen, it is not our first, and some old timers might argue about it being the best. Our first pier, located between 2nd and 3rd Avenues North, in what was then known as Pablo Beach, was constructed of wood with palmetto tree pilings. In June of 1922, the daughter of Mr. Shad, president of The Pier Company, broke a bottle of ocean water on the end of the pier, christening it "Shad's Pier".
The opening was quite an event, and Mr. Shad stopped at nothing to make it memorable. The pier had yet to be electrified, so he installed his own 10-watt electric generating system. Hundreds of lights were run along the promenade and throughout the structure, making it visible as far away as Atlantic Beach. Although the pier offered ocean fishing, it wasn't long before it was referred to as the dancing pier. Built relatively close to land but on the pier nonetheless was a large dance pavilion, La Presa. The dance hall hosted some of the best bands of the time and was the highlight of evening entertainment for many years. Even when there was not a band playing, the locals were almost as happy dancing the night away to the jukebox.
Shad's pier was not without it's share of problems. Storms severely damaged the pier in 1925 and 1932, and then a fire in 1938 caused damage once again. By this time, Pablo Beach had changed its name to Jacksonville Beach and was incorporated as a city in 1925. The owners were able to rebuild the pier each time, and it remained a popular evening destination until Friday, October 13, 1962 when a fire gutted the dance hall and burned a large portion of the pier. Rebuilding was not an option this time.
Shortly after that, recognizing the need for a pier, a new all wood pier, owned by R.L. Williams, was constructed at 6th Avenue South. Some of the locals were hesitant to rejoice, as there was not a dance pavilion on the pier. Overall though, the pier was welcomed and accepted for what is was, a fishing pier. Originally extending 1,200 feet into the Atlantic, the Jacksonville Beach Pier was quite a structure, until September 9, 1964 when Hurricane Dora made a direct hit. Heading due west with sustained winds at 125 mph, this Category 3 storm hit at nearly high tide creating ocean levels eight feet above normal. The pier, less than a year old at the time, lost 192 feet to Dora. After necessary demolition and repairs, the remaining structure was 800 feet long.
Though the pier had been significantly reduced in length, there was no arguing the value of what still remained. From an afternoon of fishing, to a romantic stroll along the rickety old walkway, it could not be beat. One of the neatest things about fishing on the Jacksonville Beach Pier was the way it swayed with the waves. Ultimately, that swaying motion probably led to the demise of the pier, but while it was still with us, you could close their eyes and imagine that you were out to sea on a wonderful fishing adventure.
When my little brother came to visit in May of 1994, he caught a small hammerhead off the end of the pier. Other fish were caught that day, but there is something infinitely exciting about landing such a powerful creature, even if it was only a foot or two long! That feeling must have been only a fraction of how Blackie Ressor felt on June 5th, 1975 when he landed the world record hammerhead shark right off of Jacksonville Beach Pier. The shark weighed in at 703 pounds and measured 14 feet, 4 inches! The record has since been broken, and Allen Ogle who caught a 991-lb. hammerhead out of Sarasota, Florida holds the current record.
Hurricanes and Florida have become synonymous this past year, but a near miss in 1999 is how we lost our old friend, rickety and swaying as it may have been. Hurricane Floyd raged unpredictably in the waters of the Atlantic, triggering one of the most catastrophic attempts at evacuation ever. Those of us that were able watched the news. The news cameras were fixed on the end of the pier as it swayed back and forth like a drunken sailor. We all watched as the Jacksonville Beach Pier, after hours of relentless pounding by the waves, swayed one final time before the end of it went crashing into the ocean.
For those of us who were avid pier fisherman, and for those of us who had an odd affection for the pier, it was a very sad moment. At the very least, we knew it was the end of pier fishing for the fall bite. Realistically though, seeing the damage as we did, we knew deep down that it would be a very long time before we could fish the pier again. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend.
Now, in its place, right where 5th Avenue South dead ends in to the ocean, you'll find Ocean Front Park. Designed in a manner to offer a good deal of information about the hurricanes that have impacted the First Coast and the surrounding plants and wildlife, it also serves as a memorial to the pier. Centered in the park is a beautiful sculpture by Kristen Visbal, commissioned in celebration of the park. But more moving and visual than all of that is the sidewalk. In the southwest corner of the park lies a brick map of the state of Florida (below). Beginning at the sidewalk on the south side of the park, and continuing to the map, are two curving lines, one in red bricks, one in tan. The lines represent the paths that Hurricanes Dora, (in red), and Floyd, (in tan), took as they ravaged the coastline. As you walk along the paths of the storms, it is hard not to imagine the wind and the waves pounding the very spot you are standing with enough force to destroy homes, businesses, and piers.
The powers that be in the City of Jacksonville Beach led the effort to save the pier and were instrumental in partnering with the City of Jacksonville to purchase it. Additionally, they contributed $250,000 dollars to help with reconstruction. Soon thereafter, it was determined that it would cost almost as much to rebuild the old pier as it would take to construct a new pier. After much discussion, the decision was made to construct a new pier and to relocate it north of where it had been, to the commercial district of Jacksonville Beach.
Originally, the new pier was supposed to be 1000 feet long, but luckily for us fisherman, someone thought to check the topography of the ocean floor at the proposed end of the pier. Turns out that there was a sandbar there that would have made it very shallow, even at high tide. So a local charter captain was called in to do an evaluation of the area and determine what would need to happen to make it a first class fishing pier. His answer was seemingly simple: make it 300 feet longer, and it'll be the best fishing pier in the state. As is the case with anything involving local government, 300 feet might as well have been a mile, but in the capable and persistent hands of all involved in the project, it was approved.
Jacksonville Beach was finally going to get a new pier, and with a budget of $3.5 million dollars, it was going to be a nice one! Plans included 1300 feet of handicap accessible pier, (20 feet wide), four cleaning stations, (two facing north, and two facing south), benches and sunshades along the way. At the seaward end, there was to be a 48- by 31-foot T-platform that would also serve in the future for fireworks displays, and at the entrance, a bait shop and restroom facility. At high tide, the water will be about 20 feet deep allowing access to deeper ocean species.
The project was completed as planned, within budget, and none too soon for the eagerly waiting fisherman! Though the pier's structure is primarily concrete, it's wooden deck panels are designed to break away in the event of a severe storm making it more resistant to the force of the waves and the wind. Needless to say, the pier no longer sways gently with the waves, it is now a formidable opponent to the forces of Mother Nature, and it will not likely crash into the Atlantic any time soon!
Since 1922, Jacksonville Beach has recognized and satisfied the need for an ocean fishing pier. Thanks to a combined effort by the cities of Jacksonville and Jacksonville Beach, the Duval County Tourism Development Council, the mayors past and present of both sites, and countless other city officials, we once again boast an incredible structure of which we can all be proud. As we lost our old friend and sadly said goodbye, we now welcome our new friend, (one of the best in the state I might add), and are eagerly creating new memories as each day goes by.
As the day progressed we each reached our limit on grouper and even managed some really nice mangrove snappers. What makes this even more impressive though is we were only three miles off of Sarasota, Florida fishing in 32 feet of water and we were all in kayaks. Now, I know what you are thinking because I have heard it a thousand times. "You can't catch grouper in kayaks! You'll tip over. You'll get towed to Mexico." I've heard them all, but the truth is, you can catch large game fish in kayaks.
As the water temperature drops, large game fish begin moving closer to the shore off of Florida's coastlines. Here in Sarasota they even come into the shallow waters of Sarasota Bay were people often take legal-sized grouper by accident while fishing for trout or sheepshead around the docks or bridges. This is the one time of year were it is possible for kayak anglers of all skill levels to find and catch large game fish within a short paddling distance. If you are willing to do your homework and fine-tune your style of fishing, then any kayak angler can land these bruisers.
Remember, the key to being a successful angler--whether you fish from a kayak or not--is doing your homework. This is what separates the really good and consistent anglers from the angler who occasionally has a good day. Know the fish you are targeting. Understand what kind of habitat it likes, or what kind of water temperatures it prefers. Read as much information as you can, whether in magazines or on the internet. Check maps and charts that show bottom topography. Talk to other anglers and learn what techniques they use and where they are fishing. Knowledge is key. The more you know when you hit the water the better your chances of success will be.
When searching for large offshore game fish, the first thing I look for is any kind of bottom structure that will hold fish. It doesn't have to be large a structure either. Look for ledges or quick drop-offs that fish can collect around. I also look for underwater springs and upwellings. As you are paddling to one location, watch your depth finder and mark any potential areas that you may want to come back and try later. Check local charts for hard bottom and Swiss cheese bottom. All of these are places to begin.
Once you have done your homework and located some areas close to shore to begin your search, then it is time to consider your tactics. What you need to do is actually take some big boat tactics and incorporate them into how you fish from your kayak. These small adjustments, coupled with the stealth of your kayak, will prove ultra effective for taking near shore game fish. Another key to success is learning to use your bottom finder and GPS effectively. This can mean the difference between a great day and a bad day. Take your gear out on the water and practice using it until you can differentiate the subtle differences in bottom structure and recognize fish from other debris. Up size your gear as well. When heading offshore I like to take a couple of large conventional outfits and some smaller, medium-heavy spinning outfits instead of my lighter, inshore gear. Since most of the fishing will be bottom fishing, it is better to go with a heavier line and tie into an even heavier Fluorocarbon leader. I often go with 40- to 50-lb. mono main lines on my conventional outfits and 20-lb. on my spinning outfits. This will come in handy during long up and down battles and fishing heavy structure where the chance of getting broken off is greater.
Once you reach the location you are going to be fishing, it is important to mark the structure or area you plan to fish. For this it is important to bring a couple of small marker buoys with at least 50 to 100 feet of line. Once you've marked the area you want to fish on your bottom finder, drop a buoy and move away. The last thing you want to do is drop your bait and tackle right on top of the fish you are fishing for. Instead, back off about thirty yards and drop anchor. Once the anchor is secure, let out the line until you are positioned about 15 yards off of your marker or watch your bottom finder and position yourself just on the edge of the structure. This allows you to drop your bait to the bottom and not alert the fish to your presence by dropping it right on their heads. Large fish will usually be circling the structure and will inhale your bait as they move around. Keep in mind; you will need a slightly heavier anchor than the typical kayak anchors and a lot more line. I typically go with a 10-lb. anchor and at least 150 feet of line.
The most crucial part of it all though, is what you do when you actually hook the fish. These fish are much larger than most fish that you will encounter inshore and will put up a hard fight. Fish such as amberjack and grouper, to name a few, will test your will. The trick is keeping your balance and center of gravity at all times. If you lean too far in either direction or let yourself be jerked about, chances are you are going for a swim, as well as losing the fish and your rod. I find the best way to combat such large fish is to let the rod do most of the work for me. I position myself in such a way that I am leaning a little farther back and I rest the rod across my leg and use it as a lever to pull the fish to the surface. Reel down to the water and get back as much line as possible and then let the rod slowly bounce back up. Essentially, it is doing the work for you. Continue this until the fish is weakened or until it reaches the boat. It is painstakingly slow and your back and arms will hate you in the morning, but the rewards of landing a large offshore game fish from your kayak is well worth it.
The last thing to remember as you head offshore, and probably the most important, is never go alone. Fishing offshore from a kayak can be more than just an adrenaline rush--it can be dangerous or even deadly. If something goes wrong it can prove fatal if you are by yourself. Always have someone else with you. Also, make sure you bring the proper safety equipment including a VHF radio, cell phone, first aid kit, Type III PFD, extra paddle, signaling device, and a throw bag in case the need arises for a water rescue. Most of all, use your head and don't take any unnecessary risks. Landing a fish isn't worth losing your life. Lastly, keep an eye on the weather. Offshore conditions can change quickly and what was once calm water can become three- to four-foot seas in a matter of minutes. Good luck and tight lines!
If you are reading this article, chances are you love to eat fish just like I do. Unfortunately there are several things you should be aware of before consuming certain types of fish. I could eat fish on a daily basis, but some of the things that I will show you here should give you pause when deciding whether or not to eat certain types of fish or fish from certain locations. The state of Florida does a very good job of posting warnings on consumption of certain fish species or of fish from specific bodies of water. I think however, that informing the public about what could happen to them or their family members if they disregard these warnings is much more effective. Some of the things that you will learn in this article are down right scary.
The easiest way to describe symptoms from this type of poisoning is that in many ways it can act like nerve gas or insecticide poisoning. It is the most common food poisoning that is not associated with bacterial contamination in the United States. Almost all ciguatera poisonings come from consuming fish caught on semitropical coral reefs or in tropical regions. Most of us associate ciguatera toxin with barracuda. We should also associate it with snapper, grouper and the jack family. About 75% of ciguatera poisonings come from these four types of fish.
Ciguatera is naturally occurring and is due to organisms called photosynthetic dinoflagellate algae. The higher up the food chain a fish is, the more of the toxin from these organisms a it accumulates. Also, the size of the fish also has an impact on the amount of toxin. I have never personally seen a case here in north Florida, with the exception of two physicians that ate fish from south Florida prior to being stricken with this disease.
Unfortunately, freezing, freeze-drying, heating and gastric acid have no effect on the toxin's protein structure. It also does not affect the taste, odor or color of the fish. Fortunately, there are test kits that can be purchased to test fish before consuming. One such test is Cigua-Check(R) which is apparently a very easy test for anyone to perform. All that is needed is a small sample of the fish in question's meat.
Symptoms that can be expected from ciguatera poisoning include diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain usually within three to six hours after ingestion. Also, a characteristic symptom of ciguatera poisoning is the reversal of hot and cold perception. This means that you would feel cold when it is hot and visa versa. There are more than 100 other commonly reported symptoms to go along with the above, but ciguatera poisoning is rarely fatal and symptoms can last from weeks to months.
There is no cure for ciguatera poisoning, but the symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can be treated. The diagnosis is purely on clinical grounds and no test has yet been developed to detect ciguatera toxin in the human body. Also, there are specific remedies for many of the other symptoms associated with this poisoning.
Scombroid is not specific to, but most often associated with, tuna (albacore, blue fin and yellow fin), mackerel, wahoo, amberjack and marlin, among others too long to list, unless I want to run the risk of boring you to death. When these types of red-meat fish are improperly preserved their muscle is broken down by bacteria to produce several types of histamine. These histamines cause an allergic type of reaction which includes flushing, a sensation of being hot, asthma-type symptoms, headache, dizziness and low blood pressure. The symptoms usually subside within 12 hours without treatment. Sometimes however, medical attention is necessary (and should be sought) if asthmatic or other severe symptoms occur.
Scombroid can easily be prevented with the careful preservation of all red-meat fish. Refer to previous "From Sea to Seasoning" article (page 80 of GAFF Vol. 1, No. 1) on proper ways to keep fish cold.
A few saxitoxin poisonings have occurred in Florida. All seem to have occurred from the consumption of puffer fish. This is a very dangerous poisoning, leading rapidly to paralysis and death. I hope I don't really have to tell you this but, DON'T EAT PUFFER FISH! They don't look appetizing anyway.
Of all of the marine-born toxins and infections, this organism scares me the most and should scare the hell out of you as well. It has been getting more media attention as of late because it is being reported more. In my opinion, it is still under-diagnosed as a whole which leads to high morbidity and mortality rates.
Vibrio vulnificus is found world wide, but here in the United States, there are more cases reported from the Gulf of Mexico. It is naturally occurring and found predominantly in warm coastal waters. You can become infected with this by eating contaminated seafood (mostly raw oysters in my experience) or exposing a cut to the marine environment.
Typically, in a normal, healthy individual, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are the predominant symptoms and usually self-limited. But, don't bet on it! Sometimes, in healthy people but more commonly in folks with liver disease or a dysfunctional immune system this bacteria crosses into the blood stream. The Center for Disease Control reports 50% mortality when this happens. In lay terms, half of the people with this blood infection die.
As stated in my previous article (page 77 of GAFF Vol. 1, No. 2) on Vibrio vulnificus, this infection is easily treated but unfortunately it is often not recognized early enough. Also, it is easily prevented by not consuming raw shellfish most especially in the warm months of the year when there are higher counts of Vibrio in our coastal waters and by not exposing open wounds to sea water. If they get cut in the water, I always put my patients on antibiotics even if the cut is minor and there is no sign of infection. For the patient, the penalty for being wrong is extremely stiff.
With all of the advisories that have been put out by the Center for Disease Control and our own Florida Game and Fish Commission concerning the consumption of many popular fish species along the Florida coast, I am amazed that they are so often ignored. I think that this is likely due to the fact that no one is explaining to the public what can happen if mercury exceeds an arbitrary "acceptable" level in the human body.
Mercury is a naturally occurring substance that has likely always been around in our marine environment due to erosion and volcanic eruption (although I'm no geologist). Unfortunately, the level of mercury has apparently increased due to industrial wastes such as coal burning plants, insecticides, computer manufacturing, household batteries and seed preservatives to name a few. In fact, probably several things within reach of you right now had mercury involved in it's production at some point.
One of the best-studied places on earth with respect to mercury contamination and poisoning is Minimata Bay, Japan. In the 1930s, mercury-laden industrial waste was being dumped into Minimata Bay. At the time, this was apparently an acceptable practice throughout the world. Over time, the mercury rose through the food chain until the fish in the Bay were contaminated. The villagers who consumed the fish suffered from multiple ailments and sometimes died. Babies born to poisoned mothers had multiple deformities including gnarled limbs, neurological defects and developmental retardation. In fact, methyl mercury, a particularly nasty form of mercury, is now thought to cause a form of cerebral palsy.
In our own local waters, contamination is no where near the level seen in Minimata Bay but we shouldn't look at it through rose-colored glasses either. With the help of a "mercury calculator" that can be found at http://www.gotmercury.org, I found that my consumption of 16 ounces of red snapper in a week's time gives me 390% more mercury in my diet than the acceptable Environmental Protection Agency limit. The level for grouper is not much different. I found this to be shocking, if not a bit depressing to say the least. I hope you will to.
We really don't hear much about mercury poisoning in the greater media. I think that this is likely due to the fact that most of us including the medical field are ignorant concerning what is an acceptable level of mercury in the human body. I suspect that even at levels considered acceptable we become prone to many neurological diseases not yet recognized to be caused by mercury.
Just when you thought fish was healthy, huh? Choose your poison: cholesterol-filled pork or mercury-laden fish. I'm not saying that I am not going to eat fish from here on out but, I am going to be cautious about the amount that I eat. I will also severely limit the amount of fish that my children consume as well. I will keep you posted on any new developments that I come across. In the meantime we should collectively put our feet at the throat of our law makers to clean up this mess. How about starting with the Everglades?