As we leave the marina and its light behind, the only
sound heard is the hum of the Honda outboard. Our eyes adjust
to the darkness and we see the silhouette of an occasional
buoy or channel marker against the dim light of the half-moon
and thousands of stars.
Captain "Mac" Daniel, now using the on-board
GPS as his guide, is taking us out to find flounder. His boat,
aptly named The Flounder Barge, cruises towards the saltwater
marsh where the flounder feed on mud minnow and other small bait.
Flounder are made, not born. Though the adults are oddly-shaped,
flatfish with eyes on only one side of the head, a flounder is
hatched swimming upright with eyes in a more normal position.
As the fish grows, the right eye migrates across the head and
by the time the fish is half an inch, the migration is complete.
The fish takes on its left-sided, flat position for the rest of
its life. Feeding on crustaceans and some fish, Flounder meat
is white, mild-tasting and popular.
Though some sportsman gig flounder by walking the shoreline
with a Coleman lantern in one hand and a gig in the other, the
sharks, stingray and jellyfish that also lurk along the shore
make this a less than desirable method. Captain Mac created The
Flounder Barge to solve this problem. The 24', aluminum
boat can float in just 4" of water, and can accommodate
up to six people at a time. After the outboard motor is trimmed
up, the boat is powered by a custom-built air motor. An on-board
generator lights up the river bottom with 6,000 watts of bow-mounted
Halogen lights for almost-perfect visibility.
After a pleasant boat ride, Captain Mac switches to the air
motor and we ride into the nearby marsh bed. After a brief intro
to Flounder Gigging 101, I take a few well-aimed stabs at a stationary
bed of marsh grass until I feel comfortable using the gigs.
The ground below seems so shallow, I'm convinced we're
going to rub against the sand but the boat never touches the bottom.
With the powerful lights turned on, an entire underwater world
is revealed. We see redfish, sheepshead, needlefish, mullet and
even a sea turtle. The raised platform with aluminum handrails
that wrap around the boat allows me to clearly see everything
Lightweight gigs in hand, we cruise along the salt marsh until
we come upon some sizeable flounder lying motionless below. Without
the halogen lights, I would never have seen them. Heart pounding,
I wonder if the whirring of the air motor's fan will spook
the fish, but Captain Mac explains that since the motor never
touches or disturbs the water, the flounder don't seem to
Seconds later, I aim at a large flounder, also called a doormat,
and the water explodes in a burst of cloudy sand. I hang on tight
and as I bring the big fish up over the side of the boat, I realize
what flounder gigging is all about.
Captain Mac easily removes the flounder from the gig with his
custom, aluminum "flounder rake." This eliminates
having to touch the fish, or more importantly, the risk of injury
from the gig or the flounder's sharp teeth. After a few
high-five's and digital pictures, my eyes are glued to the
sandy bottom again. Four hours later, our party has gigged eighteen
flounder and we head back to port as the tide comes in. Though
we see more flounder, Captain Mac is quick to observe size and
number limits; Minimum size is 12" and the max number per
person is 10. Covered under the captain's charter fishing
license, we do not need individual licenses while on board.
The night cruise, amazing sea life and the flounder just waiting
to be cooked made this a wonderful experience. I certainly didn't
miss having to handle bait, deal with cumbersome tackle and the
long, hot, offshore boat ride other trips bring. Flounder gigging
is one of those things that you have to try to believe--and
Captain Mac and his Barge made the experience all the better.
In 2005, this aspiring producer who dreamed of making fishing shows that were exciting, as well as entertaining, has seen a whole new breed of angling entertainment flood the air waves. Without disrespect to Bill and the others--after all, they were pioneers in their field--today's shows are anything but basic. With shows on every subject from fresh to saltwater, big game to brook trout, there's a fishing show out there for every fisherman.
Technology and programming have made leaps and bounds of gigantic proportions and along with the hundreds of shows available, there are entire channels devoted to outdoor programming. After finishing college and determining I wanted to produce fishing shows, I had the very specific goal of wanting to provide the marine industry with the same high quality production values that were being given to other industries. I was determined to take what some people viewed as a boring, ordinary sport and add a "new school" approach to the production. Fast cuts, creative angles, and high-energy music are exactly what this industry needed. I know that by the time I entered production work, my ideas weren't entirely original; the emphasis on production value has come to the forefront and shows like Shaw Grisby's One More Cast, Off Shore Adventures, and a slew of others really raised the production bar. Even tournament coverage like Bassmaster's took it to another level. In fishing, even good fishing, there's bound to be a lot of waiting. The right editing, music and graphics, are what make fishing TV-friendly.
During my previous employment at a production company, which catered to state government along with local and regional clients, a call came in from a man named Joe Mercurio. He wanted to produce seven, one-hour television shows based on a fishing tournament series in Florida's Boca Grande Pass. As he talked about the world-class tarpon fishing that happened in the Pass each May through June, my excitement grew. He paused and asked if I'd ever heard of or seen the action that had been going on there for decades. Of course I answered yes. Being an avid fisherman and compulsive recorder of every fishing show on TV in the name of "research" (at least I always tell my wife it's research, not sure she's bought into it yet). I knew enough about the fishing in the Boca Grand Pass to realize this was going to my dream project. But, it would also turn out to be the toughest production I had ever done. In the initial meetings, we began ironing out details. It would involve four cameras, each on their own boat, along with a live commentator detailing the action as it happened. Live.
"Who's the host?" I asked.
"I am," Joe announced.
There was shocked silence. "Have you ever been on camera before?"
"No," he answered, "but I've done radio."
Some worries set in. I had a 22-year-old host with no camera experience who wanted to create a show that rivaled anything else on television and I wasn't sure it could be done. I told my crew I wasn't even sure we could fill a show longer than a half-hour and when we found out how tight the production schedule was, it seemed impossible. We had three weeks to turn the tournament footage into a television-ready show. It seemed like a logistical nightmare for a staff of one producer, two editors, and four photographers. I realized I was going to have to eat, sleep, and breathe the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series for the next 10 weeks. I was nervous about persuading my wife, who'd just had our first child, of my need to disappear from the routine of our life for that long. But my wife simply said, "This is your dream. Just make it great."
Because of the migratory patterns of the tarpon, they usually appeared in the pass in the first week of May. Usually. We waited until then to head down to capture some footage for the opening of the show. Having heard all the stories of the "orchestrated chaos" involving these silver kings and the hundreds of boats trying to land them, I began to expect the unexpected. The organizers of the tournament described their vision for the show to be like "NASCAR meets Monday Night Football." They wanted chills and thrills and it was an ambitious vision for a show on fishing.
Our base was located at the beautiful Palm Island Resort and we conducted our initial meetings with a breathtaking view of the Gulf of Mexico. We assembled a mobile production station and set up a brutal schedule of interviews and shoots, as well as guided fishing trips with the best area guides in search of tarpon. Most of these guides fished the tournament as well, so we knew they were experts. As we boarded the boat with our first guide, Capt. Jeff Hagaman, it became obvious that this was a top-notch tournament series and that these guys meant business. Capt. Jeff motored up to the dock in a 22-ft. Century bay boat with a graphic wrap that rivaled any bass boat on the water. I'd learned earlier from Joe that Century Boats of Panama City had signed on as the tournament's title sponsor and was offering an unprecedented six boats as prizes. They were also sponsoring four teams in the tournament.
As we headed out with Capt. Jeff, he told me we might have a slight problem. He said the tarpon had not shown up yet, that there were no tarpon in the pass. I thought at first it was a joke--how could you have a tarpon tournament without the tarpon? But after several days of searching the waters with the best guides in the area, we still had no footage of tarpon. Slowly, we began to panic. We were just days away from the first tournament and the tarpon fishing capital of the world had no tarpon. Joe and the other tournament officials were faced with difficult decisions and after days spent contemplating the situation they decided they had to move forward with the tournament and pray the silver kings would arrive on time. Everyone involved stayed positive and the sponsors agreed to give away a boat even if no one caught a tarpon and they would have to have a blind draw. I was glad to see everyone was optimistic, but as the show's producer I was petrified. I wasn't sure how to produce a show on tarpon without the main attraction.
Even under the best conditions, this tournament was unique. The challenge was not about finding the fish. When they appeared in the Pass, they were simply there. The real challenge was to land the powerful fish before it broke off or was eaten by sharks. (More on the sharks later.) The first tournament weekend was everything Joe promised. The Pass was full of teams, from corporately-sponsored boats to weekend anglers. We began rolling and Joe did a three minute long, off-the-cuff commentary that made my jaw drop--suddenly I had one less thing to worry about. Unfortunately, it's impossible to catch tarpon when none are present, and no one weighed in a fish that weekend. Staying true to their commitment, the tournament staff still gave away a boat through a blind draw. The next weekend, rumors were floating around that a few tarpon had appeared. During the last ten minutes of the tournament, a tarpon was hooked and the team was able touch the leader before losing it. The leader touch gave them points and because no one else had even hooked a tarpon that day, the team won the tournament and took second and third place as well. By this time, the production of the first show was complete and somehow we managed to fill the hour with something other than tarpon.
The captains fishing the tournament kept saying the same thing: Just wait, they assured me, when they get here, it'll be the most amazing thing you've ever seen. Well, when we arrived for the third tournament, so did the tarpon. The reports rolling in estimated the numbers to be a hundred thousand or more. I was still a little skeptical, but after two weekends of practice, I was confident we could handle anything. The tournament began with frantic radio calls of "Fish on!" With ten to twenty hookups, and only four cameras, I quickly realized I had to make instant decisions and stick to them. If a camera started with a team, they had to follow it from start to finish. If they switched to cover a new team, it would be a nightmare to try and sync up later in the editing. With bumper-to-bumper boats and huge fish everywhere, the earlier comparison to NASCAR suddenly made sense. Joe was rattling off commentary so fast that my cameraman was having trouble keeping up. Between the non-stop commentary, hundreds of rolling tarpon and constant hook-ups, I found myself almost dancing with excitement.
With ten minutes left in the tournament, one of the teams had what they believed to be a 160+ pound tarpon on. If they could land it, and get it to the weigh scales it would put them in first place. I radioed for the camera boats to all move in on this one team, and right as they got into position and started rolling, the unthinkable happened. The team started yelling, "It's coming up, it's about to jump!" With our boat pointed right at the other team, and a tarpon ready to leap towards us, I knew we had the money shot. As the fish skyrocketed out of the water, a huge hammerhead shark followed it up and took a mid-air bite out of the winning fish. The shark was every bit of 18 feet and its teeth were latched on to the tarpon. Everything went into slow motion. I looked down at my legs and noted my knees were shaking. In a daze, I realized I had three cameras rolling from almost every angle, all focused on this shot. That moment made up for the slow starts and the doubts--I suddenly realized this was precisely what had been promised.
The rest of the tournaments proved to be as action packed as that one and we had some unbelievable moments, all captured for television. We had over six shark encounters, and at the beginning of one tournament we had twenty or so hookups in the first three minutes. My fears of not having enough footage vanished. Although the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series proved to be the toughest thing I had ever produced, it was also the most exciting thing I had ever witnessed. Joe Mercurio, the organizers, and the fishermen were the most dedicated and professional group I had ever worked with. The sponsors and my production crew were treated with the utmost respect and professionalism, despite the slow start.
This year, the organizers assure me, will be even better than last year. Among other improvements, they have moved the first tournament back a few weeks to ensure the silver kings will be there in full force. They've also brought on Nextel as the headlining sponsor, and Century boats is on board again, so with that combination the 2005 Series is sure to be a success. I can say with confidence that NASCAR and Monday Night Football can't touch the excitement of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series. There is nothing in the world like being perched on the bow of a boat watching a shark devour a 150-pound fish in mid-air, while the surface around you erupts with more than thirty boats hooked up with leaping, thrashing giants. You have to see it to believe it--fishing shows will never be the same.
Imagine yourself in an 18th century sea tavern.
A dark, leathery-skinned man in a tri-corner hat stands with one
think boot propped up on a chair and surveys the room.
He gestures with the large tankard of grog in his hand, calls
out to the patrons, trying to assemble himself a crew for the
"Bring me a First Mate," he cries, then takes a
swig of grog. He slams the thick wooden table with his hand.
"I need a boatswain's mate," he shouts. "A
"A wench, perhaps," someone shouts and there's
hearty laughter all around. A Captain always has to work to pick
the right crew.
As a fisherman in 2004, your choices are much different than
that old sea captain. If you can go online, you can scan through
the websites of dozens of full-time, fully accredited fishing
guides in your area, and, in a matter of minutes, have the cut
of his jib, so to speak.
Is that enough? Exactly how do you go about selecting the one
fishing boat Captain who'll be perfect for your fishing
Here are some important do's, don'ts and not-in-this-lifetimes
to always keep in mind as you plan your day on the water.
First off, remember that just about every day of their working
life as a guide, captains come in contact with fishermen who,
in normal circumstances, wouldn't have a chance of being
invited to fish with them. This is, in some ways, about like expecting
Atlanta Braves' Manager Bobby Cox to have to coach T-Ball--(and
Consequently, these Captains are often very picky about what
shoes you wear, what fruits you bring ("Yes, we have NO
bananas") whether they're tipped or not (better be!),
how kids behave, whether they're tipped or not (did I say
that?) being clear about the fish they're targeting and,
oh yes, whether they're tipped at the end of the trip.
But grant them that. Understand that by spending as much time
and effort and money as each one of them does chasing all different
types of fish around the Gulf, they've acquired a Master's
Degree education in the sport. If you listen, ask the right questions,
watch and learn, your fishing trip can continue to pay dividends
long after you've docked.
Plan Your Trip
That means going beyond making a late-night phone call to some
Captain who had his number on the wall in some bait shop you visited
last week. Think about what you want. Who will go with you? What
kind of fish do you want to go after? How much time (and money!)
do you want to spend?
What do you expect of your guide? Fun? Information? To teach
you and your friends how to fish, what to look for? Try and make
as much of all this as clear as you can going in. That will not
only save you time, it'll enable the Captain to weight the
pluses and minuses of your requests and to decide whether he'll
be able to meet them.
What does every husband say to every wife before their vacation?
The same goes for those heading out on a 23-foot boat for an afternoon
of fishing. Sure, it's important to find out if lunch is
provided (probably not) or if drinks are available (probably)
or light snacks (likely) or alcohol (possibly). And it's
also important to gauge how the Captain feels about drinking on
the boat, maybe even smoking. Of course, no drugs.
Ask the Captain what he would suggest you wear, if you're
not sure. Sunglasses are a must. So is a hat. Or two, in case
one blows off. Many Captains recommend a good SPF fishing shirt
to protect you from that ferocious Florida sun. Even if you may
think you normally tan, conditions are much different out on the
water. Sun poisoning is no fun. And shoes? Unless you want to
walk the plank, don't wear black-soled shoes. Not only are
they slippery when wet, the can mark up the deck. Captains hate
that sort of thing.
Make Goals & Expectations Clear
Finally, what's your ultimate goal for your catch? Are you
just interested in catching the biggest dang fish you've
ever seen or is there a particularly tasty species that you'd
like to snare? Are you after trophy fish or eatables? And how
does this particular boat handle that sort of thing? Some boats
will clean fish for you, some won't. It's a good idea
to discuss all this with the Captain before you leave the dock.
Remember, though you may see yourself as a would-be ace fisherman
in your world, the Captain has thrown away more fish than you'll
ever catch. As writer Hunter S. Thompson noted in his Great Shark
Hunt: "Not even the most egotistical anglers deny that a
good boat and a hot-rod captain to handle it are crucial factors
in ocean fishing.
"Most pros I talked to ... suggested anglers were more
of a hazard than a help and as a general rule of thumb, you could
catch more fish by just jamming the rod into a holder on the rear
end of the boat and letting the fish do the work."
Go into your fishing trip with the attitude of a kid on a field
trip. What can I learn? How much fun can I have? How neat it is
to have the day out of school (or work). Keep the Cappy happy.
You'll have a trip you'll never forget.
The author would like to send special thanks to Captains Alex
Crawford, Dave Sipler, Vic Tison, James Cleare, Jeff Kraynik,
Ken Roy, and Tom van Horn, all of whom were kind enough to respond
to our queries. We'd like to hear from more of you.
An award-winning sportswriter and author, John Nogowski has
lived in Tallahassee for a dozen years. His latest book, "Last
Time Out"--about baseball --will be published
by Roman and Littlefield in the Fall.
Safety First ... Always
Since you want to be sure to have ANOTHER fishing trip, its important
for you and your party to come back from this one. Consequently,
discuss safety and health issues wit the Captain before you go.
What is his policy regarding inclement weather? What about having
a shipmate who's had a heart attack or other health-related
conditions? What will the Captain do with children if a lightning
storm breaks out? These are all good questions to think about--and
A Guide to Guides
Remember, as with everything, experience matters. A fishing guide
accredited by various and sundry organizations and at his craft
for 20 years is bound to bring more to your fishing trip than
a guy who's been at it for a year. But he's also likely
to be more expensive. Very often you get what you pay for. Remember
Take a kid fishing?
Well, maybe. You'll need to be prepared for it. Young children,
especially those under 7, will need to be wearing a life vest
for the entire time the boat is in motion. Consequently, they'll
need one that's very comfortable for them. Some captains
suggest a "Snoopy" style vest. Check it out with your
child before you go. You can save yourself--and your shipmates--a
lot of headaches.
Hats, sunglasses and appropriate clothing is also essential
for youngsters. You may also want to find out if your prospective
boat has an area where the youngsters can escape the sun. Check
If you're sure your child is up for it, bring a fish and
bird ID book or perhaps a coloring book with fish and fowl in
it. And a favorite toy, as long as it's small, is always
a good idea--as long as you don't lose it overboard.
Should you bring your rod?
Most fishing boat Captains discourage anglers from bringing their
own equipment. Since it's their livelihood to have tackle
that's accessible and user-friendly, why not take them up
on it? If something goes awry, it's the Captain's
problem, not yours.
How much time do you want?
Naturally, you'd like to spend as much time fishing as you
possibly can. But remember, for youngsters, and first-timers,
four hours may be plenty. Captains get paid by the hour, of course,
so the more time out for them, the better. But be judicious with
your time and your money. It's better to leave the boat
wanting more than counting down the minutes until you spot land.
Most Captains have a ready price list for half-day (4 hours),
three-quarter day (6 hours), and full day (8 hours) excursions.
There comes a time in every new relationship when the euphoria
wanes and reality creeps in. All this putting-your-best-foot-forward
stuff starts to wear on both of you. This is not necessarily a
bad thing, as there are definite advantages to being able to let
your guard down.
For me, I knew I was getting to this point when the lace on my
Victoria Secret "nightmares", I mean nightgowns, started
chafing and I began contemplating pulling out the old flannel
PJs to see what kind of reaction they would bring. For my husband
(then-boyfriend), I knew he was ready for a dose of reality when
he turned to me one lazy Sunday morning, as we were lounging around
reading the paper, and asked "So, do you like to fish?"
To the untrained (i.e. the non-females), this may seem like a
benign inquiry. However, for those of us who are uncannily intuitive
(i.e. the females), we know that answering a question like this
is like navigating a minefield. This issue puts menacing blips
on the radar screen and it is imperative to proceed with caution.
This being said, the first reaction is to do what any normal,
red- blooded American woman would do, you lie like a rug. I, when
confronted with this scenario, heard something remarkably similar
to my voice (a few octaves higher than normal) screeching in reply,
AB-SO-LUTELY. Ok, its possible I might have over sold the enthusiasm.
But, even though there may be several reasons why a woman might
take up the sport of fishing, lets face it, the number one all-time
reason why a woman would start fishing is to impress a man. As
you may have guessed by now, and I'm not ashamed to admit, I really
wanted to impress this man.
Let me pause here for just a moment. Before anyone starts sending
nasty letters or e-mails about how they are the President of the
He-Woman Man-Haters Fishing Club and their love of fishing has
absolutely nothing to do with a man or that they have been fishing
since Carter was in office (blah, blah, blah) Ð stop. As I
said, I know women come to love fishing for a lot of reasons.
This particular article just happens to be from my perspective.
This is what we in the world of professional journalism call a
background piece. Besides, I'm the author so I get to write whatever
Back to the story. So, even before his grin of pleasure begins
to fade, you realize there is a significant flaw in your approach.
If he is serious, you may have just committed yourself to actually
going fishing. Whatever you do, don't panic. There is always the
possibility that by "fishing" he means going to the
beach, drinking beer all day and taking along a couple of fishing
poles so you don't just look like two drunks on the beach. I wasn't
so lucky. While my own piercing, AB-SO-LUTELY was still ringing
in my ears, I was whisked down to the garage to survey the fishing
gear. I had been through his garage dozens of times. How is it
that I never noticed the magnitude of fishing paraphernalia lining
the walls and shelves? I guess love does make you blind. Apparently
it makes you stupid, too. Because the very next Saturday the alarm
clock was blaring at an hour usually reserved for roosters. Early
in our relationship, this was about the time we were usually getting
to sleep, if you know what I mean. But not this weekend, No Siree,
because we were goin' fishin' and that is way more fun than that
As I mentioned before, he doesn't realize that this outing opens
up a whole new can of worms (and I'm not talking about bait).
Up until this point in a relationship, most people are able to
remain in their comfort zone, thereby making it possible to always
cast yourself in the best possible light. This little jaunt was
about to change all of that for me. Once loaded up, we were en
route and there was no turning back. The miles between civilization
and me were steadily widening, and my mind drifted anxiously to
the task at hand.
Talk about the consummate test. Not only did I need to feign
at least some working knowledge of fishing, but I also had to
do it in such a way as to look reasonably competent and maintain
some of the feminine qualities that initially caught his eye.
I mean, he didn't become dumbstruck with love and admiration for
me because I could burp the alphabet. So, armed with a crash course
in fishing from my brother, I resigned myself to my fate. The
sun began to peek over the horizon as we grew ever closer to 'The
Spot'. He had discovered 'The Spot', as I learned, many years
ago and it apparently yielded unheard of numbers of fish. Over
the past week, descriptions of 'The Spot' reached near mythical
proportions. It was rumored that the fish practically jumped right
out of the water and into your cooler. The location of a spot
this fruitful was so coveted that I was sworn to secrecy.
I sensed, however, as we pulled in, that perhaps word of 'The
Spot' had leaked out, (60 Minutes had probably done a piece on
it or something) as it was lined with anglers looking equally
resolved to make their mark. My fellow was not to be deterred.
While I caught a momentary look of apprehension cross his face,
he soon regained his determination. We were going to catch some
fish because he "felt it in his bones." The only thing
I felt was sick because we left so God-awful early that McDonald's
wasn't open so I couldn't get a sausage biscuit. Not to mention
the van was beginning to take on the odor of the not-so-fresh
shrimp we were hauling to use as bait. We pulled in and picked
our spot at "The Spot." My spirits lifted a little as
we parked, stepped into the fresh salt air and unloaded all we
needed to set about our task. One thing became clear almost immediately,
the set up of the gear was going to be critical to our success.
This was not going to be an open-your-lawn-chair, bait-your-hook,
operation. Oh, no. This was going to be a multiple-rod-multiple-bait-fishing-extravaganza.
I sat back, sipping my coffee and watching in amazement. Which
brings me to another matter. After about my third cup of coffee
it suddenly occurred to me that I had overlooked one very important
detail in my pre-event planning, where the heck was I going to
go to the bathroom? The nanosecond the realization of being bathroomless
hit me, of course, my need to go grew exponentially. So, I had
no choice. This rather delicate issue had to be broached.
I patiently waited for him to have all of the rods placed in
the PVC pipes he was using as mounts, sit back in his lawn chair
and survey all the work he had done. As nonchalantly as possible,
I asked, "So, where would be the closest bathroom?"
I actually lapsed into a momentary state of shock when he replied,
"There isn't a bathroom within ten miles of this place, but
there is a bucket in the back of the van."
My mind was racing as this potential disaster loomed. I didn't
know much about fishing, but I was pretty sure that once he'd
seen me pee in a bucket, the mystery would be gone forever from
our relationship. The ensuing debate over this issue had the potential
to create a lot of tension in the day. Once I was able to adequately
explain my position on the matter (and he realized that it would
be futile to resist), we agreed to a compromise. Anytime I needed
to go to the bathroom, I would go ahead and drive the ten miles
to the convenience store.
When I returned from my twenty-mile round trip to the bathroom,
it was time for lunch. After we got that out of the way, we were
able to once again commence with the fishing. Okay, I hadn't actually
done any fishing yet, but I had significantly participated in
the prep work. I could have never predicted what happened next.
I had a ball. He helped me hone my casting skills and I even got
to the point where I was baiting my own hook. We caught red fish,
flounder and even a few stingrays. I was placed in charge of catching
the pinfish that, he assured me, would be an integral part of
our success. We fished all day, enjoyed the beauty of "The
Spot," laughed, talked, relaxed and just had a plain old
good time. I was hooked. A few years have gone by since that day.
We're married now and have a beautiful daughter. We've been blessed
in ways too numerous to count. And, I'm proud to say, we are a
The Stake Out Some
of my favorite banks are Schooner Bank, Sprigger Bank, Arsenic Bank,
Bamboo Bank, Bethel Bank, Elbow Bank, and Bluefi sh Bank, just to name
a few. All can be found on the Top Spot charts from Islamorada to
Marathon to Big Pine Key on the bay side. When you look at them on the
charts you will see how and where the banks curve, start, stop and
create deeper channels with ledges. This structure holds large mangrove
snapper, grouper, permit, lobsters and more because when the tide is
moving, the channels funnel baitfish through, making them easy targets.
What you want to do is note the current direction of the winds in
relation to the way the banks are laid out. Ideally, you want the wind
and tide moving in the same direction, this makes for a more
comfortable boat while at anchor, and therefore, more enjoyable fi
shing for the family. Now, I do fi nd the falling tide results in
better fi shing on most banks, but any fish on the end of your kids
line is great, even if the numbers arent great.
You can fi nd tide
charts for any given area at most bait and tackle shops up and down the
Keys, or look on your GPSmost of them have the tide tables already set
in them for you. The tides vary throughout the Keys so you will have
different tides from one end of an island to the next. Knowing them
allows you to hit the right tide for your situation. And remember,
youll be in relatively shallow water so the waves shouldnt be too bad
and the family will be out on the boat having a good time even though
Locking Down Anchoring here is very important because
you want to be in the channels for the snappers and still able to reach
trout on top of the banks. It may be necessary to use a longer chain
than youre used to or let out an unusually longer scope to hold in
place. Even though you are fishing in only four feet of water, you may
have to use 150 to 300 feet of scope to grab the bottom. This is
because the bottom is covered in grasses that can build up on your
anchor causing it to drag. Plus, you are out in higher than normal
winds, causing the boat to get pushed around more. Using two anchors is
not a bad idea if one is slipping, and you wont have to start your day
frustrated because you cant hold your spot. Besides, you should have a
spare onboard already set up anyway.
Ammunition Where do you fi nd
the bait? Drop over the Bionic Bait chum and watch for the small pinfi
sh and ballyhoo to show up behind your boat. Just dont forget your
Sabiki rigs and hair hooks. When the bite is hot you can get a bite on
every cast. By chumming, not only do you attract baitfi sh, but also
snapper, trout and a variety of others species too. Now, it isnt always
that easy, but more times than not they will be there. To be safe, I
always show up with at least 60 live baits, oneor two-dozen ballyhoo to
cut up, fi ve-dozen live shrimp, six crabs and a case of chum. You can
get pinfi sh, shrimp, and sometimes pilchards from bait and tackle
shops like Big Time Bait and Tackle in Marathon. If you intend to go
out for several consecutive days, I recommend buying a pinfi sh trap
and re-baiting each morning before you go, to get you started. Pinfi sh
traps pay for themselves very quickly.
Tools When you see that your
chum line is established, it is time to get fi shing. I like to use
12-pound tackle to keep it light enough to make it a fun fi ght for a
snapper or trout, yet still have a chance if a permit, mackerel or
tarpon sneaks in there and takes the bait! As for my leader I use two
feet of 15- to 30-pound Yo-Zuri pink fl uorocarbon, tied line-to-line
with a double uni-knot. Its best to use the lightest leader possible,
while still being able to land fi sh without too many break-offs.
This is where it gets a little trickier. I like to use several
different rigs depending on current and bottom structure, and just what
the snapper seem to prefer at the time. One is called a knocker rig
with a 1/2- to one-ounce egg sinker. Slide it on first, then a red bead
and then tie on a 3407 Mustad 1/0 hook. This is for a small, two to
three-inch pinfish. If the pinfish or pilchards are four inches or
better, then I bump it up to a 3/0, 3407 Mustad hook. A chartreuse 1/8-
to 1/4-ounce Calcutta Ultra jig on the end of the line will work
wonders too. Hook the bait through the bottom and upper jaw and toss it
out behind the boat in the chum slick, feed it out by keeping your bail
open and letting the bait slowly drift back and down with the lighter
chum pieces. When you feel the line starting to take off rapidly,
manually close the bail and just start reeling. Do not give a strong
hook-set like you're bass fishing because you will pull the jig out of
the fish's mouth. By just reeling against the fish they will hold on
tighter to the bait thinking it's trying to escape and the hook will
find a nice spot to set itself. Easy lifting on the rod will aid in
keeping the snapper out of the sea fans and coral heads.
rig that works well on a not-so-rocky bottom is the standard Carolina
rig consisting of a sinker, swivel, a two-foot leader and then your
hook. This method is great for grass beds or casting in sandy spots.
You can keep the bail open once again and when the fish eats the bait,
in this case a one- or two-inch chunk of ballyhoo, let them run with it
for a three-second count and then just reel to set the hook. Many times
the snapper will snatch up the bait with their fangs and swim off
before swal- lowing it. So don't be in too much of a hurry to start
winding on the fish.
When you have a livewell full of pilchards, it's
good to live-chum. Toss out six or eight baits and quickly throw one on
just a bare 2/0 hook and freeline it back with the free swimmers. When
doing this I like to hook them in the belly so they swim down in the
water column where the snappers are waiting for something to scoot on
through. The last rig I use is the peanut jig in one- to three-ounce
weights, re- gardless of color. These jigs are great for all baits.
Whole shrimp hooked in the head, pinfi sh hooked through the upper and
lower jaws, or pilchards hooked through the back. Toss this along the
edge of the bank and your kid should be rewarded with a hefty mangrove
The Law Mangrove snapper are protected by a fi
ve-per-person limit in State waters and all these banks are in that
range. The size limit is 10 inches minimum, but I prefer to practice
keeping noth- ing under 14 inches. You will fi nd if you wait it out
for the larger fi sh, your cooler will look much more impressive at the
end of the day when it's full of fi ve-pound mangrove snap- per.
Especially when your neighbors come out to see how badly you were
beaten up and your smiling family shows them the fat cooler. This is
one way to rob a bank in the Florida Keys with out going to jail, but
take more than your limit, or undersized fi sh, and you just may fi nd
yourself there! Tight lines!
Starting June 1, 2008, recreational anglers in the Gulf of Mexico must have two devices on-board when fishing for reef fish in State waters: a "dehooking device" and a "swim bladder venting tool." In addition, to fish with natural bait (live or dead) you can only use a circle hook, and it cannot be made of stainless steel.
Recreational red snapper daily bag limits were halved; starting April 1, 2008, the daily bag limit is two (2) red snapper per person per day in Gulf of Mexico state waters.
The new gear restrictions and tighter rules for commercial and recreational harvest of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico were motivated by recent Federal actions.
Federal Red Snapper Rules Tightened in Gulf of Mexico
After being sued for not protecting the red snapper stocks, in late 2007, Federal regulators tightened commercial and recreational red snapper restrictions in the Gulf of Mexico. But those changes only apply in federal waters regulated by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). In the Gulf of Mexico, red snapper is overfished and is undergoing overfishing, hence tougher restrictions on harvesting red snapper (and red snapper bycatch from commercial shrimping). While NMFS final rules are due later this year, NMFS has extended "interim" Gulf measures in federal waters:
* reduce the recreational bag limit from four (4) to two (2) fish
* set quotas for head boat/charter captain/crew to zero (0)
* shorten the recreational season to June 1 - September 30
Florida, like other Gulf States, is under heavy federal pressure to increase conservation of red snapper and other reef fish.
FWCC's Red Snapper Rules
FWCC regulates the harvest of red snapper in State waters, which extend nine (9) nautical miles from shore into the Gulf of Mexico, and three (3) nautical miles in the Atlantic Ocean.
Red snapper is regulated by FWCC as a "reef fish" along with the amberjacks, groupers and sea bass, snappers, triggerfish, hogfish and red porgy. Reef fish are subject to a maze of seasonal, regional, bag, possession, gear and other restrictions.
Be aware that FWCC' has different red snapper recreational fishing rules in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic regions. For example, the Atlantic region's minimum harvest size is twenty (20) inches total length, but it is only sixteen (16) inches total length in the Gulf of Mexico region. [Note, FWCC has different rules for commercial fishing. The commercial minimum size for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico region was changed from 15 inches total length to 13 inches by FWCC's recent action, effective April 1, 2008].
The current FWCC regulations for red snapper harvested in the Gulf of Mexico are not as strict as the Federal Gulf of Mexico rules. A basic summary of FWCC recreational rules for red snapper for both regions is as follows:
In both FWCC regions, the use of hook and line gear, including snagging or "snatch hooking" is allowed. However, effective June 1, 2008, only non-stainless steel circle hooks can be used with natural bait in the Gulf of Mexico region. Bow hunting, spearfishing, gigging and gaffing is allowed. However, it is unlawful to use a net to harvest red snapper, although red snapper may be taken as "incidental bycatch" with otherwise legal recreational nets. As noted above, effective June 1, 2008, anyone fishing for "reef fish" in the Gulf of Mexico must have a fish dehooker and a venting tool on-board, and use those tools to release fish as appropriate.
Subject to an exception for immediate onboard consumption, red snapper must be landed in whole condition. You may remove the guts and gills only.
All violations of a red snapper restriction by anyone onboard are implied to the vessel operator. In other words, the captain is responsible for the actions of all persons on his or her vessel.
Harvest or possession of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico Region is prohibited from November 1 through April 14. The minimum size is 16 inches total length. The daily recreational bag and possession limit is four (4) per day until April 1, 2008, when it is reduced to two (2) per day. However, there is a ten (10) person per day limit for all snappers including red snapper. FWCC has overnight trip exceptions that allow for double the daily bag limit under certain conditions.
There is no closed red snapper season in the Atlantic Region. The minimum size is 20 inches total length. The daily recreational bag and possession limit is two (2) per day. However, there is a ten (10) person per day limit for all snappers including red snapper. FWCC's overnight trip exceptions also apply.
Gulf of Mexico recreational anglers saw their daily bag limit for red snapper cut in half, effective April 1, 2008, just in time for the April 15th opening of the season. However, FWCC declined to go along with the calls to further limit the season's opening to June 1st to match the NMFS season in Federal Gulf waters.
The most notable recreational rule changes made by FWC are gear changes effective June 1, 2008 in State Gulf waters: - allowing only non-stainless steel circle hooks in conjunction with natural baits and requiring venting tools (for swim bladder puncture) and de-hooking devices to be onboard a vessel fishing for reef fish. While these tools may not be sold in every bait and tackle shop, they can be ordered by phone, or on-line from some companies and no doubt will be more readily available before June.
Two favorites of GAFF are the ARC Dehooker and the PreVent venting tool by Team Marine USA.
Future harvest of red snapper and other reef fish will present more of a challenge to Florida's recreational anglers, as Federal and FWCC rules try to keep up with changes in fish stocks, technology, and politics.
After the strong initial run, I realized I didn't have a tarpon. No jumps, no rolls, just major stress on my line. Soon, my prize surfaced about 50-yards away, between the boat and the bridge pilings.
The loggerhead's shell glistened in the sunlight. I was suddenly faced with the heavy responsibility of an unfortunate hookup - how to "immediately release" a 200-plus-pound sea turtle "alive and unharmed."
The above-quoted regulation generally stated, applies to all marine life "taken" but not "harvested." An unfortunate hookup can include many life forms: a prohibited finfish - goliath grouper - which cannot be harvested and can distract from targeted fishing, a sea turtle - my Key's loggerhead - or another endangered or threatened sea turtle species, or a bird, such as a brown pelican.
Fishing involves an element of danger, and release of "bycatch" is no exception. A sea turtle can easily bite your fingers off and a pelican's beak can take out your eye. You can't go to school to learn such release techniques... apart from the school of hard knocks. What follows may assist you in releasing a sea turtle or bird, or maybe it will inspire you to educate and prepare yourself for an unfortunate hook-up.
SO YOU HOOKED A SEA TURTLE
I've caught Kemp's Ridley turtles in Apalachee Bay in the Florida Panhandle while jigging for trout. These are the smallest of Florida's five sea turtle species, growing to about 100 pounds. Kemp's Ridley and loggerhead turtles' diet includes crabs, and perhaps that accounts for my unfortunate hookups.
All sea turtle species are at risk of being hooked with fishing gear, either by feeding or by being snagged. The leatherback is an endangered turtle that grows to 2,000-pounds and feeds mostly on jellyfish. The endangered green sea turtle grazes on seagrass and algae. The distinctive hawksbill, also endangered, feeds mostly on sponges. Accidental foul hooking or snagging is possible.
A great place to see and learn about Florida's sea turtles is the Sea Turtle Hospital at the Hidden Harbor Environmental Project in Marathon, Florida. The Hospital is located on the Bay side of U.S. Highway One, about a mile east of the 7-Mile Bridge. Educational tours are conducted for a nominal fee: call (305) 743-2552 for a reservation, or go to www.turtlehospital.org.
One thing I learned there is that monofilament fishing line and fishing hooks often result in suffering and death to sea turtles. It is crucial that anglers take responsibility for their fishing gear and properly release any sea turtle that is accidentally hooked. It is also a legal duty, since all Florida sea turtles are listed as either endangered or threatened species under Federal and State law.
If you doubt whether you can safely or properly release an accidentally hooked sea turtle, call for help immediately! Call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC, (or *FWC or #FWC from some cell phones). Or, try to contact the United States Coast Guard or local marine law enforcement agency on your marine radio or cell phone. Be ready to describe your vessel, your location, and your situation.
Many factors can contribute to a successful release, including whether you are fishing from a vessel, pier or along the shoreline. Weather conditions, time-of-day, and other considerations come into play when the decision is made to call the authorities for assistance with a turtle. Your gear selection can be important both as to the type of gear being fished, and whether you have a large, sturdy landing net and a de-hooking tool available.
The ideal is quick removal of all gear without injury, and without using excessive force to reel the turtle in. Depending upon the current and type of vessel, you may be able to gain line on the turtle by drifting, poling or rowing toward it. Use of the vessel's motor is risky since the noise might spook the turtle, and because of the risk of a propeller or lower unit striking the turtle. If you are fishing from shore, you may need to wade or swim out to the turtle to gain line.
If the turtle is lightly hooked in the mouth, and you can reach the turtle, then many experts advise simply cutting the line as close to the hook as possible. If the hook has been swallowed or is deeply embedded, you must call for help instead of attempting to remove the hook yourself.
Remember, you must exercise extreme care when attempting to release a sea turtle to avoid personal injury. In addition to strong jaws, sea turtles have very strong flippers that can easily break your arm or wrist, and can inflict nasty cuts.
SO YOU LANDED A SEA BIRD
While I have been spared the indignity of hooking into a sea bird, I have helped other anglers with their unfortunate hookups and have rescued a pelican floating that was entangled in fishing line. Try to avoid casting into flocks of diving birds, or to a seagull that is interested in eating your bait.
In addition to brown pelicans and seagulls, you might accidentally hook an egret, a heron or a cormorant.
As with sea turtles, accidentally hooked birds should be slowly and steadily reeled in, without excessive force or jerking. The same concern for personal safety applies as well. Birds can inflict serious injury, especially from their beaks.
Once the bird is within reach, use a towel (or your shirt) to cover the bird's head and eyes, and carefully tuck the bird's wings and feet while you subdue it. For pelicans, it is recommended to hold the bill (or beak), and then only by grabbing the top bill near the eyes. The other birds are best subdued by securely holding the head facing away from you using your thumb and fingers at the top and back of the head. Do not hold the bill closed on a pelican, egret, heron or cormorant, because the bird will struggle since it will be deprived of air. A recommended approach is to tuck the bird in one arm like a football with the beak facing away from your body, thus freeing up your other hand to subdue the bird's bill or beak (pelicans) or head (egret, heron or cormorant).
Remove as much fishing line as possible and remove the hook if possible without injury to the bird. A good method is using a pair of wire cutters to cut the hook just below the barb, so you can back the remainder of the hook out.
If the bird is injured, then call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or your local bird sanctuary or humane society for assistance.
Countless numbers of sea turtles and shorebirds are killed, injured or caused to suffer needlessly from entanglement in fishing gear. The general duty to "tend one's gear" is of paramount importance when endangered, threatened or rare species are at risk of extinction.
This duty extends to the choice of fishing gear and methods, and to the decision to carry the proper tools - wire cutters, de-hookers, and landing nets. These tools have other important conservation and safety benefits, such as releasing unwanted finfish.
Once, I was 20-miles offshore when a brand new jig pierced all the way through my finger. Nobody put a towel over my head or held my arms tight to my body, but I sure was glad for that pair of wire cutters on board. I am certain my feeling of relief is a feeling shared by a sea turtle or bird that has been properly released after an unfortunate hookup.
A big "Thank you" to Richie and Ryan at the Turtle Hospital and Shirley Reynolds for all of her help with this article.
Photo credits: The Turtle Hospital
My first impression is of a bank of glowing, white clouds. I stare out the plane window and see dunes, then finally realize I am staring at snow-covered mountains, stretching as far as I can see. Finally, the levity of my trip hits me. I am en route to Kuwait, and then ultimately, heading into Baghdad, Iraq. And strangest of all, I am going there to shoot a fishing television show.
The question I keep asking (and will continue to ask for months) is why I, a mostly-sane, civilian father of four, am willing to travel into a war zone for fish? The answer I have given everyone else is I am going to shoot a documentary about a fishing tournament sponsored by the US Armed Forces Entertainment. The answer I give myself is far more complicated.
We begin the descent into Kuwait City Airport and I look around at the other passengers. Most are civilian-clothed American military personnel catching a ride on the commercial Boeing 777, but as I exit the plane, there's no doubt I'm in a foreign land. Men wearing suits with briefcases in hand and white turbans wrapped around their heads hustle past, while women in long, black burkas wait patiently in metal chairs. Only their eyes are visible as I walk past. As we head to Immigration, a beacon of Western commercialism greets me like an old friend; Ronald McDonald, resplendent in his fiberglass and resin glory, welcomes me to the golden arches. The menu, of course, is in Arabic.
The idea for the trip was born almost a year earlier when Col. Terry Sopher, a former competing angler and tournament boat driver, began talking to Joe Mercurio of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series about going to Iraq with some fishing gear for the troops stationed there. The idea took off like a tail-hooked tarpon and Operation Catch Fish came into being.
A long series of meetings, US Military communications, and endless red tape later, and the trip became a reality. Facilitated by Armed Forces Entertainment, the trip began to take on a life of it's own. But my reality began after I brought the trip idea to my wife and, her curiosity piqued, she told me unhesitatingly that I had to go.
The concept soon developed into the first-ever Baghdad fishing tournament held in, of all places, the palace lakes of fallen dictator Sadam Hussein. The mission was two-fold: to entertain the troops in camps Victory and Liberty in Iraq with the OCF tournament, and to travel through Kuwait and Iraq doing a series of "Grip & Grins" with Mercurio and Kristen Berset (also of the PTTS) and Eric Mannino of the TV show, Inshore Fishing Techniques.
The knock comes on the door at 5:45AM. I am surprisingly awake for someone who has had very little sleep. Even though the barracks are still calm and quiet, my body tries to tell me it is high noon. We met Col. Sopher in the unexpectedly well-appointed D-Fac (dining facility.) Plastic flowers and koi-filled fish tanks set off the amazing buffet breakfast spread before us. The lacquer tables gleam and the chairs are plush. My ham and cheese omelet comes with a healthy side of hash browns. If it weren't for the military acronyms requiring constant explanation, and the uniformed (and armed) personnel coming in and out of the room, I could have believed I was in a nice restaurant at home. But, I am nowhere near home, and our day begins with a series of briefings. I am instructed on what I can and cannot videotape and we are all given straightforward advice on how to handle any emergency that may arise.
As we begin our day, there is no forgetting we are heading into a war zone. In less than 24 hours, I will be wearing 40 pounds of Kevlar body armor and taking off in a military c-130 with a cameraman, two fishing-TV personalities, a former Miss America contestant and a host of well-armed guards, for a first-hand glimpse of the war in Iraq. Still, in the back of my head, I wonder... will I ever get a chance to fish?
I wake up in the barracks at Camp Arifjon, 45-minutes away from the Kuwait City airport.
I have only slept for three hours. Perhaps it is the vast quantities of Red Bull I've consumed, or the fact that I am getting ready to board a military transport C-130 and fly into the battle-torn country of Iraq, but the usual toll sleep deprivation takes on me is mercifully absent.
I walk down the stairs and into the hallway to meet the rest of our group. Eric Manino, of Inshore Fishing Techniques, Joe Mercurio and Kristen Berset, of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, and accomplished videographer, Greig Smith, have traveled with me from Tampa, Florida. Our military escort, Major Steve Matthews, also met us in Tampa and will stay with us throughout the whole trip.
A short drive from the camp and we pull into a restricted section at Kuwait City International Airport. Upon arrival, we find the thousands-of-pounds of donated fishing gear, clothing and various fishing-related paraphernalia we brought from the U.S., have already arrived and are sitting on two huge pallets waiting to be loaded. These products will be donated to the MWR (Morale, Wellness and Recreation) departments that support our service men and women, as well as this trip.
A tall soldier wearing full body armor enters the room and we all take notice. He introduces himself as "Smiley," and he fits his nickname well. Smiley is otherwise known as Mark C. McCullohs, Lt Col, USAF MNC-I C1 Chief of Programs. He will be accompanying us as we "FOB hop" (FOB being military speak for Forward Operating Base) across Iraq en route to our ultimate destination of Camps Liberty and Victory in Baghdad. We are issued our forty pounds of body armor and instructed in the various intricacies associated with the gear. I realize I will be lugging around this extra weight in addition to the thirty pounds of camera gear I typically carry. There is an advantage, though, to this extra baggage: It keeps me warm in the 39o-desert air.
The term "hurry up and wait" takes on a new reality as our plane is delayed and our plans change multiple times. Our military cohorts seem unbothered, and they assure us this is normal. When our "bird" does land, we scurry out to the runway and board the C-130 cargo plane. The red cargo-net seats leave an exquisite cross hatch pattern over my body as the engines roar to life and exhaust fumes waft through the cabin. I don't mind the smell though, as it brings much appreciated heat with it.
Nearly two hours later, the plane begins a series of steep and erratic banking maneuvers on its descent into Mozul, Iraq. We will learn afterwards that this landing technique is intended to make it more difficult for the plane to be targeted by enemy fire during landing. Walking off of the plane, Mannino turns to my constantly rolling camera and booms "Welcome to Iraq!"
Traveling with a trio of fishing personalities means a large part of our tour consists of holding a series of "grip n' grins." This gives the troops a chance to meet our group, talk fishing, and receive some of the free swag provided by the OCF sponsors. As neither fishing celebrity, fishing expert, or attractive model, Greig and I are not nearly as interesting a draw, making it easier for us to keep our heads buried in the camera viewfinder, documenting the interactions with the team.
Unexpectedly, the grip n' grins turn out to be the most personally gratifying experience of the trip. No matter where we went or who we saw, there were always fishing tales to be told. Whether bone fishing in the Keys, walleye fishing in the Great Lakes, or ice fishing in Alaska, each soldier, sailor and airman we spoke to had a story to share. It was fascinating to watch the teller's face light up with memories of home while recalling their experience in our nation's most popular participant sport. Providing a momentary escape from the realities of war by the simple exchange of fishing stories unanimously turned out to be the most rewarding part of the trip for our group. In the end, we left feeling like we'd gained far more than we'd been able to give.
While many of the troops enjoyed talking with Joe and Eric about the sport of fishing, there was a keen interest in Joe's PTTS co-host, former Miss Florida, Kristen Berset. Kristen, an avid angler and outdoors enthusiast, had no problem talking fishing with the troops, while her quick, warm smile and all-American good looks brought them a reminder of home.
It is here, in the outskirts of Mozul, that I encounter perhaps the most surreal moment of the trip and possibly my life. Visiting yet another group of soldiers stationed in this unforgiving country, we make our way to the makeshift recreation facility. In stark contrast to the armored vehicles surrounding the building, the jubilant sounds of jazz fill the air. It is Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras has found its way into Iraq.
Heavily armed soldiers dressed in camo fatigues greet us wearing thick strings of brightly colored beads. As we enter the building, a pulsating line of soldiers move to a calypso beat as they limbo with abandon. Respect for Muslim law prevents any alcohol consumption while deployed in Iraq. As a result, near beer stands as the only option and many of the soldiers grip a bottle. Presiding over the festivities, the Burger King himself marches though the line and bows before the troops. I find out later that the King is, in fact, a soldier from South Florida who bought the mask on eBay just for this occasion.
The conclusion I reach is this: even in the bleakest conditions, the American spirit will find a way to manifest itself and bring light and life into even the darkest corners of the world.
Our first day in Iraq comes to a close as we once again board the C-130 for a brief flight to another FOB where we will sleep. The military issue cots are far more comfortable than expected, especially with the labors of a long day mercifully behind us. I sleep well, but not nearly long enough, and morning seems to come just a little too soon.
Secured again in our body armor, we climb aboard a pair of fully armed U.S. Blackhawk helicopters. Perched on each side of us, a soldier mans a .50 caliber machine gun as the military aircraft flies at 200 mph, a mere 150 feet from the ground. I learn that we do this because it is more difficult for enemy ground fire to target us while flying at such a low altitude. I struggle to frame a shot though the window, fighting my seat straps and the cumbersome body armor. The countryside passes at rapid speed and I reflect on what a unique view I am being given. The most absorbing sight is not the efforts of a struggling, war-torn people trying to scratch out an existence in the dessert, but of the reactions of the people as we fly above them. Dirt houses equipped with rudimentary irrigation systems dot the landscape as families dart outside when they hear the Blackhawks approach. They wave and smile as we rocket overhead on our journey to yet another FOB.
Six FOB's and thousands of troops later, our final stop leaves us at Camp War Horse, only a few dozen miles from the Iranian border. We are instructed to be mindful of the warning sirens and always be aware of the closest bunker since they have had recent "activity" in the area. Walking from the D-Fac to our HOOCH (our bedrooms), we are invited to an improvised birthday party. A 55-gallon drum, on its side and cut in half, has become a makeshift fire pit. A boiling pot of water sits over the flames and cigar smoke drifts overhead. A soldier with a weathered but friendly face offers me a cluster of Alaskan King Crab legs from the boiling pot. I decline, but smile at the irony of this delicacy in the Iraqi desert. As tired and exhausted as I am, I know my fatigue doesn't compare to living this life on a daily basis. As we sit and swap war and fishing stories, swigging near beer, I forget for a moment I am in a war zone. I could be anywhere sharing a drink with friends, united by the universal camaraderie of story telling and the warmth of a fire.
Fatigue takes a commanding hold as I climb into my bed. Before sleep claims me, I realize I will be standing in Baghdad in less than eight hours. We will finally be facing our ultimate mission of holding the Operation Catch Fish tournament in the palace lakes of Sadam Hussein. The last thought that passes through my mind before I give in to overwhelming exhaustion is 'will I get to see the legendary Saddam Bass?'
A gentle breeze blows across the still-calm water, rippling the reflection of the cumulus clouds floating serenely overhead. The sun hangs above like an old friend while we wait patiently for a bite on the fishing lines we've cast into the lake. Then, without warning or pretense, we hear the blare of the sirens: INCOMING, INCOMING!!!
Instinctively, my thumb migrates to the record button and the tape comes up to speed. In one continuous move, I sling the camera up to my shoulder and begin running for the safety of the nearby concrete bunker. It is at this moment I seriously question my decision to travel to Baghdad to videotape a fishing show.
I am part of a small crew who made the journey to the Middle East to support our troops by hosting the first-ever Operation Catch Fish tournament at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq. My trek into this war zone began a week before and has seemed like one long blur full of smiling faces, camouflage and desert. After meeting thousands of troops as we made our way across Iraq in a pair of Blackhawk helicopters, we are finally heading into the last leg of our fourteen-day excursion.
Adorned with body armor and camera gear, I am filled with anticipation of finally arriving in Baghdad and searching for the fabled "Saddam Bass." Legend holds that the bass (also called an Asp) is in fact a crossbred species of freshwater fish created by geneticists on Saddam Hussein's mandate. Located on the outskirts of Baghdad, the area knows as Camp Victory encompasses the large area originally built as a hunting and fishing retreat by the former dictator. The multiple, opulent buildings are surrounded by man-made lakes. The lakes are fed through an elaborate filtration and irrigation system that diverts water from the historic Tigris River, turning this patch of desert into an oasis.
The landscape changes from brown to green as the Blackhawk helicopter approaches the airfield. The voice in the speaker of my headset announces the body of water we are flying over is Z Lake, the place where we will hold our fishing tournament in two days.
The helicopter lands and we heft our gear, again, from one place to the next, cameras rolling. Loading into a small van, we get our first glimpse of Camp Victory. It is sensory overload. Barbed wire cradles the compound, creating a false sense of security, and countless sandbags line the walls under every window. Concrete "T" walls are another reminder of the ever-present danger these troops live with.
Gravel has been trucked in to cover much of the ground in an attempt to transform the dusty desert soil into traversable terrain.
Our hooch lies on an isthmus in the shadow of an unfinished palace. Ironically, and quite assuredly a brazen decision, our building, Hussein's mother-in-law's suite, is directly across from what was reportedly the home of Hussein's mistress.
The architecture and scenery are breathtaking. Amidst the barbed wire, sandbags and military vehicles, a glimpse of the pre-occupation splendor shows through, revealing the vanity of a dictator who could surround himself with excess while the majority of his people lived in poverty.
In the morning, the sun rises over a surreal vision of water, temporary fences and foreign architecture. As I prep my gear and label videotapes, the anticipation mounts. Accompanied by our military escorts, we are en route to a fishing hole revealed by some of the soldiers as the "secret spot." As we turn off the main road, I see a large drainage pipe slowly emptying into one of the large lakes. I look at Eric Mannino and we exchange a look of understanding and excitement. After all, every fisherman knows fish love to ambush bait near moving water.
Eric ties on a soft bait and starts methodically covering water as I point the lens and follow every twitch of the rod. Cast after cast is made and before long, our excitement fades. Each time, the line comes back empty. This is not necessarily new territory for me. As most fishermen (and fishing show cameramen) know, this is simply the reality of fishing. I doubt it shocks many viewers to learn some TV fishermen don't always land a big one every cast.
Just as I begin to fade into daydreaming, water begins to spill from the pipe at a furious rate. The water erupts into a deluge and the previously calm lake transforms into a fury of white-capped action - it's like a dinner bell. As the camera rolls, I hear the glorious sound of a drag screaming. I focus the lens on Eric as he angles the fish out of the turbulent water and before I realize what is happening, he is holding a Saddam Bass. I push in to a close up, very aware I am capturing something that has rarely been documented on video before. Trout-like in body shape and fight, the fish's unusual mouth is more like that of a snook. Though, this one is not much over a foot long, we have heard stories of fish reaching over thee feet. Over the next few hours, we catch a half-dozen more fish, each one progressively larger. By early afternoon, we have enough footage for the show and we meet up with the rest of the crew to prepare for the Operation Catch Fish tournament.
The OCF tournament is sponsored by Armed Forces Entertainment, and is the primary reason for our journey. Operation Catch Fish will be held on the shores of Z Lake; the first-ever fishing tournament held here in Baghdad. Replete with prizes and regulations like any other fishing tournament, the most notable difference is that the anglers in this contest hold a pole in one hand and a weapon in the other.
The military band plays as the soldiers line up to get their free swag. Dozens of companies have donated thousands of dollars worth of fishing rods, reels, hats, sunglasses and t-shirts. The fishing gear will stay here and be made available for the men and women to use on their off time while the other freebies offer them a rare opportunity to wear non-military issue garb.
PTTS hosts, Joe Mercurio and Kristen Berset, take the stage to explain the tournament rules to more than 350 participants who showed up for the four-hour event. Prizes will be given for the largest fish as well as the most fish caught. The tournament is not species-specific because no one quite knows what he or she may pull out of the water.
The crowd hums with anticipation as the tournament begins and lines hit the water. Two cameras are scarcely adequate coverage for a tournament of this size, but we compensate by frantically roaming the five miles of shoreline and waiting for the words, "fish on!" Thankfully, we don't have to wait long before we get word on the radio that the east bank of the lake is the hot spot. We load into the Gator utility vehicle and zoom past scores of camouflage-clad anglers before arriving at our destination. As I maneuver through the crowd, I am forced to look twice at what's on the other end of the camera. Marine Bobby Carter of Smith, Alabama, is holding what we later find out to be a 14-pound member of the carp family. Grey in body color with an enlarged dorsal fin, the fish is shockingly unlike any carp I have ever seen. Carter excitedly recounts the story of his catch for the camera, leaving no detail unmentioned. As the tournament goes on, we continue to interview soldier after soldier as they proudly hold up their catch and swap fishing tales.
As the tournament comes to a close, so does my adventure in the Middle East. Carter's carp stays at the top of the leader board and takes home the title of OCF tournament winner.
Early the next morning we will travel by C-130 aircraft back to Kuwait and then by commercial air back home to the US. My last night in Baghdad, I review footage and revisit the last twelve days I have spent in Iraq. I leave with a different understanding of the war here than the one I came with courtesy of the US media. I have a profound respect for the men and women living and working under the constant threat of danger, so the rest of us do not.
And, I am struck again by the power and community found in the primordial act of pulling a fish from water. Fishing seems like a simple, subtle thing, until I filmed it on the other side of the world in a former dictator's palace with a bunch of soldiers. I leave Iraq with the knowledge that fishing is so much more than simply baiting a hook and tossing in a line. It's a sport that inspires passion, courage, and camaraderie no matter where it's done.