Cobia is an internationally occurring species, and the last limb of its family tree. That is to say, they have no known relatives. They are a wanderlust stricken, dark, typically brown fish, with darker lateral lines that fade to a bright white belly. Their spindle shaped body can be up to six or more feet long and cruises through the water, propelled by a distinctive crescent shaped tail. These seemingly docile rogues can weigh up to 150-pounds and move with impressive speed when excited, thus making them a highly prized adversary in the game fishing world. Their diet of mollusk, crustaceans and fish gives them a championed spot on the table fare charts as well. In short, they are a fine eating, hard fighting fish that can be caught in all the warm waters of the world, but this list of fine adjectives isn't what makes the cobia so special.
As a general rule, cobia winter in the waters of south Florida, but spawn in the late spring and summer all throughout the Mississippi River delta. They make an annual trek from their wintering grounds to the big bend area of Florida, then run the beaches west. The offshore current in the Gulf of Mexico runs west to east, giving the cobias reason to hug the shoreline, as the shallower waters weaken the current's strength and lightens the effort needed for their journey. While cobia can be caught year round, this particular event has been coined as "Cobia Season."
Most anglers' interest in the cobia is queued by the thrill of the hunt; rather, the means eclipse the end. This is probably displayed best on none-other than the panhandle's Emerald Coast. Starting as early as late February and lasting as late as early June, cobia season on the Emerald Coast could almost be described as festive. Like dove season for the huntsmen, cobia season kicks off the fishing year for charter boat and recreational anglers alike. Enthusiast and experts of all types emerge and every bait shop, tackle store and back deck becomes the scene of a friendly banter fest, all discussing and debating and even sometimes arguing about the finer points of the art. In a group of three or more, there are sure to be varying opinions about every little detail, except two; the magical water temperature is 69-degrees Fahrenheit and when the azaleas start to bloom, cobia are on there way.
Just as the upland bird hunters have their favorite shotgun, perhaps a Browning Citori 12 gauge with custom etchings on the receiver depicting their favorite bird dog flushing prospective game, and their Stetson hats, matching their khaki outfits; the cobia fishermen have their own superfluous necessities. Sight fishing for cobia is indeed the gentry' sport of northwest Florida. Like the hunter's afore mentioned personalized firearm and favorite hunting dog, most every cobe seeker has at least one custom rod equipped with a reel chosen for a specific attribute, such as a manual bail or smooth drag. Some favorites are the Penn 706Z or Mitchell 302 because they're durable and simple, they're quick to cast and smooth to retrieve and a properly maintained drag system will yield great performance year after year, fish after fish. Although neither of these reels are in heavy circulation/production, they are still swapped and sold from time to time. While they do offer immense line capacity even with the 20-30 lb monofilament needed for cobia and rugged bodies that can take a good beating, the newer Penn and Shimano reels are just as good, if not better.
When choosing a rod, I personally like something in the 9-foot range with large wire guides that just feels right. "Just feels right" to me is, for obviously reasons, probably going to be different than the blank you pick out of the corner, but keep in mind you need enough flex and quickness in the action to load and launch a 3-ounce jig, 40- or 50-yards to a location no bigger than a hula hoop, but enough backbone to set a 7/0 hook into a cobia's tough mouth and change his direction when he's hell-bent on a rhinoceristic charge off into the deep. If you've never purchased a cobia rod before, it might be prudent to bring someone a little more seasoned to the tackle depot as a guide when choosing your blank. You should be ready to fork out anywhere from $50-175 for an unfinished blank and depending on your rod builder's ability and price list, another $100-150 on labor and materials. If you're not quite ready to spring for a custom job, you can find a perfectly affordable solution in the Offshore Angler Cobia Special, which Bass Pro Shops sells for about $100. Star Rods has a couple of blanks worth shaking, although I've never personally found one that felt "right." When it comes to rod builders, I like Ernie Cavitt of Cavitt's Custom Rods in Pensacola. He does good, sharp work and has worked with me in the past to expedite special orders, whereas most rod builders would just tell you to get in line and wait your turn.
As you can probably imagine, everyone has their theory on what will make the difference between sacking 'em up or returning to the dock with a big goose egg (aka. skunked, 0), but there are a few things that most anglers agree on. For instance, the more eyes in the boat the better. Since cobia are traditionally sight fished, it is advantageous to elevate your viewpoint (i.e. a tuna tower.) It doesn't take a professional to spot a cobia, especially on a clear day, but it definitely helps to know what you're looking for. I usually tell novices to look for anything that doesn't look normal. When the sun is high, from about 0900 to 1500, is prime time to go lookin'. The preferred method for seeking out cobia is to run parallel to the beach, cruising along inside or outside of the second sand bar and checking out every little thing that may seem out of the ordinary. Things like tide lines and weed lines are always an area of interest. A few things always worth a second and third look are schools of stingray and manta rays, even the occasional sturgeon. These larger animals cruise up and down the beaches in large schools, and in doing so, kick up a lot of sand and various marine life hiding in said sand. This makes an easy meal for a cobia, thus they are inclined to follow closely behind these gravy trains scouring everything that moves. Another interesting place to find an unsuspecting wad is on the underbelly of an ocean sunfish. These prehistoric behemoths tend to weigh around a half-ton and are sometimes referred to as headfish because they are nothing more than a giant head with a dorsal and caudal fin. They move inshore off the beaches of the gulf coast in the spring to feed on jellyfish and their large, flat bodies provide shade for baitfish and cobia.
Once one or more cobia are spotted, it is important to keep a level head, as this will be exciting, especially if it's your first time. Depending on where the fish is relative to the boat, I like to close the distance between the fish and my vessel, then reposition my vessel offshore of the swimmer and running parallel and in the same direction. I don't like to rush the cast or hassle the fish. In my ideal situation I can wait for the opportunity to present its self. This luxury isn't always present, as often the fish will dive or spook. If the fish dives to the bottom, known as sounding, don't panic. Simply keep in stride and wait for a resurfacing. Keep in mind that cobia are rovers by nature and the possibility of your fish resurfacing on the same track as it was on before is slim, but not unheard of. This is where "more eyes the better" comes in handy. Everyone aboard should be scanning the adjacent water looking for evidence of the allusive animal's presents.
Once the opportunity for a cast does present itself, take it. Take a breath and avoid the buck fever, then make a crisp cast out in front of the fish. I like to throw a cobia jig first, and if snubbed, follow that with a finbait or a whole squid. If all else fails, a live eel won't. Remember, play the wind and don't throw short. The idea is for him to see it with his outside eye and follow the jig towards the boat after it has crossed his path. A common mistake made here is setting the hook too soon. Cobia will often swim right over the top of your jig, concealing it with its chin. Wait until you feel the fish pull away with your jig before setting the hook, HARD. If your jig gets snubbed, recast and work the jig violently. Once the fish is in a curious pursuit, have another angler cast the live bait in the path of the excited cobia. Usually, the excitement from the jig will invoke a strike on the natural bait. This method is called the one-two punch.
Once you've set the hook, jack his jaw a good three or four times and then let the fish run. You don't want to be too gentle with these brutes, as they will take advantage of you in a hurry, but there is no real reason to get heavy handed.
When the fight is coming to a close, and the fish seems ready to be put on ice, make sure the fish's energy is truly spent. Have another crewmember tap the fish with the bend of the gaff, or the tip of a rod. Do this until the fish no longer makes blistering runs. All this is necessary because gaffing a green (energized) cobia is a great way to get hurt and break stuff. Cobia are large and strong with a row of about ten spines on their forehead. I'd suggest letting the fish cool his heels in the fish box for about 15 minutes before taking pictures. When a cobia gets loose in a boat, it can only be described as spastic and never good. In light of these words of warning, it is always a good idea to have the most experienced angler not on the rod to do the gaff job. A good gaff job, as most old salts will tell you, is an over the top shoulder shot, executed fluidly. Once the gaff hits home, the trip from the water to the box should be one smooth motion. It's a good idea to make sure no one stands in between the gaffer and the box during these few, critical seconds.
After a successful day of cobia fishing, it is always fun to head to a local marina and have your fished weighed on their official scale, hear the "oohs" and "awes" and take some more pictures. As for to cleanning your catch, make sure you have a good quality blade, with plenty of backbone and edge retention, as these studs have tough skin and thick bones. If you've never cleaned one before, you may ask someone who has to help you. They're quite literally a handful.
While so far, I've mostly spoken of cobia season along the Gulf Coast of northwest Florida, these styles and tactics apply as well on the Atlantic coast, especially in the Cape Canaveral area. Of course, this is not the only way to catch a cobia. Some angles like to anchor up and put out a chum line, while others incidentally catch them while bottom fishing. But, like all gentry sports, there is a set way of doing things, then there is the way things are done, and in this, indeed lies all the fun.
Go Fishing Today,
Call Ernie Cavetts of Cavett's Custom Rods in Pensacola Florida at (850) 375-2757
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.
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."