Florida 2012 Part I: Monsters in the Mangroves

Sometimes the stars just align, and things fall into place. Rare as such occurrences may be, it is simply a wonderful experience when it all works out. This year, I was lucky enough to present my first graduate school research paper at a national conference. While completing this research paper as a 2nd year had enough luck involved as was, it was when I found out where this conference would be held that I felt incredibly lucky. As it just so happened that this conference was located in Florida. Yes, the Florida of every sportsman’s dreams, the Florida that is mentioned somewhere in almost any fishing magazine or book. With a myriad of fish species ranging from the hulking tarpon to the diminutive pinfish, Florida is well termed as a sportsman’s paradise. What many people don’t realize, however, is that like any outdoor sport, fishing can be highly variable no matter where in the world you are. While there is generally some species of fish biting well in Florida at any given time, temperature, weather, wind, and migratory patterns will all strongly affect whether a fishing trip could be a bust or boom.

I went to Florida with very few real fishing goals, not wanting to inflate my expectations. See, I have only fished in Florida once before, and that was as a child. On a roadtrip with my family, we found that a front was moving in and my parents gave me just a few hours to soak a line on one of the piers in Fort Lauderdale. Despite being excited by all the amazing things I had read about Florida’s legendary fishing, my bait went untouched for hours and I left the pier cold and wet from the sudden downpour that crept up on us. Skunked in Florida, can you imagine?

Nonetheless, things were shaping up to make this trip seem better than I had first planned. The winter had been unusually mild, and water temps were much higher than normal. Given the mild winter, migratory fish were holding to feeding patterns common to later in the season, thus giving a stronger chance to hit a larger variety of species.

With my time highly constricted, I would only really have 2.5 days to fish, as the rest of my time would be completely taken up with meetings. The first conference that I was attending was in Orlando, and I had wished to find some time to fish the variety of freshwater ponds, lakes, canals, and streams in the area.

However, my schedule never opened up enough to really let me get my gear out… especially because my schedule included a trip to Disneyworld as per the request of the missus. However, you can bet that I was eagerly fish spotting in the various ponds that dotted the Disneyworld campus, and I was not disappointed with the variety of wildlife that I saw including softshell turtles, enormous sunfish, and pot bellied bass all lazily meandering beneath the noses of thousands of tourists in the “Happiest place on earth.”

It would be when I relocated to Tampa, when I would really get serious about fishing. Here, I would be spending a few days presenting my research at a conference located downtown. Luckily, I had planned an extra day or two to “set up” and “break down.” It was on the first of these extra days that I planned to go out into the saltwater mangroves that lined the various parts of Tampa bay in pursuit of a fish that has tickled my fancy for quite some time.

As a premier gamefish valued for its dogged fight as well as it’s excellent table fare, the Common Snook (Centropomus undecimalis) has attained an almost cult like following of anglers in Florida. I remember seeing pictures of this fish in various angling books when I was younger, never imagining that one day I might have a chance to tangle against one of these powerful fish.

The day started off shortly after sunrise north west from downtown Tampa. The plan was simple: use some live baits either freelined or under a slip bobber along the edges of mangrove channels in the attempt to attract one of the many snook that were encouraged by the warming water to migrate from their brackish water winter haunts to the saltwater beaches and flats where they could stage for spawning. One of the bycatch species that I was also eager to tangle with was the venerable redfish (Sciaenops ocellatus). Some may remember my experience in New Orleans 2 years ago, when a big bull red refused to be landed with it’s powerful lunges and enormous stamina eventually leading to a straightened hook and lost fish. I was looking for payback…

A quick look at the weather report had me slightly nervous due to the predicted thunderstorms in the afternoon, but luckily for me, the Florida sunshine bathed us all day and we enjoyed glorious weather. Leaving the port, we headed south into the mouth of a backwater bay and parked directly across from a dropoff that curled alongside the edge of a mangrove bank. Perfect ambush point for a hungry predator!

Completely excited at the prospect of catching my first verified Florida fish, I impaled a 4 inch scaled sardine horizontally through the nostrils with a 1/0 octopus hook. This species of baitfish are one of the various species of fish that are often referred to as “white bait,” premier bait for various predators in Florida. According to experienced fishermen, the key to catching big fish in the mangroves was in the cast: accurate casts with the live bait to pinpointed haunts would often lead to hookups.

Casting out, both my gf and I let our baits wander around near the roots of the mangroves. Despite having not fished for months, my girlfriend surprised me by placing each and every bait for the day within inches of her target. Thus, it wasn’t much surprise to me when a few minutes later, I hear her exclaim “Got one!” I glance over to see her rod bent over heavily in her hands. I had given her my Shimano rod with 30 lb PP and a 25 lb fluoro leader. The drag was set to a not so modest setting due to the fact that the fish in these areas often ran straight for the mangroves and not stopping them in time would mean a lost fish. My girlfriend strained heavily against the fish, and surprisingly this fish went for run after run against the heavy drag setting. Slowly but surely, my girlfriend worked the fish in, keeping it away from the mangroves and (unlike me in New Orleans), preventing the fish from making a run underneath the boat. Soon, through the crystalline waters popped a hefty red drum.

After a quick picture, the fish was released and I redoubled my efforts to connect with a fish. Unfortunately, the hole had emptied of any more predators due to a dropping tide, and we made the decision to make a move north.

Arriving at another mangrove bank we found the current running steadily, and this time worked our baits by letting them drift along the edges of the mangroves, hoping to entice a predator to shoot out and grab our offering. On my second drift, I felt my bait begin to dart faster through the water and then a solid thump. I set the hook and the water in front of the mangroves immediately erupted in a spray of water. My fish darted strongly back for the mangroves, while I applied side pressure in the effort to prevent it from reaching that haven. The fish fought hard with vigorous headshakes, but eventually I was able to bring it boatside. Lying there, my first fish of the day, was a small snook, the single most targeted species of the entire trip. I was absolutely overjoyed, and admired it’s cavernous mouth and bronzen armored sides. The jet black line ran from it’s operculum all the way to the end of it’s tail and it’s broad powerful head housed two personable eyes. After a quick picture, the fish was released and darted away into the comfort of it’s mangrove home.

Yet again the dropping tide had emptied this hole of any fish, and we made another run much further into the backwater. Here, the water was stained dark from the mixing of freshwater and saltwater. A few other boats were working the area for fish, with what looked like popping corks. We slipped on some fluorescent floats onto the line and tossed out our scaled sardines to a small bank that ran a few yards in front of mangroves. As usual, my girlfriend struck first blood with a fish that came in much easier than the redfish she had fought earlier. When the dark waters eventually parted along the boat, it revealed the silvery form of a speckled seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus). A species that I had much fun targeting in New Orleans, it’s gaudy spotted pattern was still a pleasure to behold.

Not to be outdone, seconds later I hooked up with a seatrout as well. This one was heftier than the 12-13 inchers that I had found an abundance of in New Orleans, and gave a strong fight with vigorous headshakes. Safely on the boat, it measured out to be a pot bellied 18 incher. It was again quickly released into the water, and took off without hesitation.

My girlfriend, however, would not so easily be outfished. Just a few seconds later, her float shot down and she hooked into something that sizzled her drag. For a few minutes, she battled the fish while I wondered what species she had managed to tangle into? Another big redfish? No, runs were too fast… A snook? No, didn’t seem to want to take to the air.

Slowly and gradually she worked the fish in, as the determined lunges grew shorter and shorter. As she gave one last pull along the boat, the silvery form of a speckled seatrout emerged beside her, but this monster was easily double the size of the seatrout I had caught in NOLA. Pulling it out of the water, the hefty seatrout came out to 24 inches!

After releasing the best seatrout of the day, we continued to catch seatrout, albeit all much smaller than her gargantuan specimen. Again, the changing tidal conditions soon slowed the bite however, and we prepared to move.

Just as my gf was pulling up her bait however, we saw a red flash as something engulfed her bait and went on a drag screeching run. This time, the fight was much more characteristically redfish-like, and being an experienced trophy fisherman now, my girlfriend works the fish in for a quick picture and then a release.

She casts out her bait again hoping that perhaps that redfish had brought along a companion, while I place my rig closer to hers… Seconds go by and her float shoots down yet again, and shes playing another bull red. This time, it is the largest redfish of the day, and it takes her on a great chase around the boat. It appears that Sciaenops ocellatus simply does not want to be caught by me!

And of course, after releasing this big beauty, my girlfriend becomes simply irresistible to the red drum and she brings yet another beautifully colored red to the boat.

After releasing the last red, the bite has died off and no more reds appear to be interested in either mine or the apparently much more attractive baits of my girlfriend. The tide is beginning to change, and this means that the fish will probably change feeding habits. So, we decide to park the boat along the inside bend of a small mangrove studded bay, hoping to drift out baits along the outside and attract cruising predators. This time, my float goes down (wow, it’s been a while since I’ve seen that thing dissappear), and my strike is met with heavy resistance. A nostalgic feeling of connecting to a stubbornly tenacious fish comes back and I allow myself the glimmer of hope that perhaps I had finally achieved capturing the elusive redfish. With 30 lb line, and heavy drag however, this fish had much less capacity to elude me as the one in NOLA and it wasn’t long before I had a 19 inch pup redfish in my hands.

Although dwarfed by the big ones that my girlfriend had been catching all day, I’d like to think that my fish was the prettiest, with bright red fins and orange highlights glimmering on every thick copper scale. Ive always thought of redfish as oafish looking with their oversized snub noses, but there is no denying their status as a great sportfish when they discover they are hooked and go on run after powerful run.

After a quick photoshoot, the lovely colored fish was placed back into the water and it jetted off. Our baits went back out again, and it wasn’t long before my girlfriend’s float shot down again. This time, the fish had wised up to her somewhat, and although a fish had taken the bait, it cleverly avoided the hook and my girlfriend reeled in a smashed bait. Meanwhile, my float had drifted a good 70 yards away to the edge of the inlet to the mangrove bay that we were sitting in. Through the braid I felt my bait twitch a few times, and watched as my float bobbed in the water then slowly slide under. Sometimes when bait gets nervous, it will pull the bobber under in a dash of speed, so I tightened my line to check when I felt something very very solid on the other end of the line. I gave a quick hookset and thats when I found myself connected to a steam engine!

Zzzzz, my heavy drag setting screamed to life as something powerful erupted out of the water in the distance. At the same time, hard headshakes almost wrenched the rod out of my hand as something large was very unhappy with finding a hook in it’s meal. I applied maximum side strain with my rod, knowing that whatever I had connected to was going to try and run into the mangroves lining the inlet. With 70 yards of line out parallel to the mangroves, I was very very worried that I wouldn’t be able to bring this fish in. Zzzzzz, my drag continued to scream as the fish continued it’s powerful run towards the mangroves. With no time and no options, I resorted to a practice that I rarely use as I palmed the spool of my reel and hoped that the line would be able to handle the additional and uncontrolled strain. Mercifully, the run slowed as another set of powerful headshakes reverberated through my arms.

I slowly worked the fish towards the boat, trying to quickly get it away from the danger zone when the line was maximally parallel to the tangled masses of mangrove roots. Luckily the fish dutifully followed, deciding that his next few runs would be out towards the deeper cuts. Finally, it was close enough to see what I had been struggling with, and I found myself looking at the enormous humped back of a giant snook. Distressed by the sight of the boat, the fish took off on yet another drag screeching run back into the mangroves. Again, I had to resort to palming the spool while simultaneously praying that I wasn’t exceeding the breaking strain of the line or the hook hold. The fish gods smiled upon me, however, as the snook began to tire under my relentless pressure, and it was soon safely on the deck of the boat. At 33 inches, this magnificent specimen was an absolute trophy for me. Picture perfect with it’s deep bronze shoulders and a jet black line coursing along it’s flanks, it waved it’s perfect fins at me while I fluttered around it, taking pictures. The cavernous mouth of this epic fish could have easily engulfed my entire fist!

Satisfied with admiring the gorgeous fish, I cradled it by the belly back into the water, and watched as it sucked water into its mouth. Far from enjoying my embrace, it quickly kicked hard and was back among the tangled mangrove roots.

Having been finally bested in a catch, my girlfriend was in no way ready to be beat in species count. Her very next cast had just landed into the water when her rod bent over heavily. Despite the redfish simply adoring her, this fish blasted out of the water and went for a run directly into the mangrove bank next to us. However, with a heavy drag setting, my girlfriend was quickly able to tame the energetic fish and soon had a lively little snook in her hand as well. With that fish, we had both achieved the famed Tampa Bay Inshore Slam: Redfish, Speckled trout, and Snook!

Just in time, too as the tide slowed to a standstill. The bites in these backwaters are inextricably tied to water movement, and the bites quickly dried up as the tide peaked. No matter, because time was about up, and we needed to head back in. We had just a couple more tentative bites, and even one explosive topwater blowup on a bait that was being retrieved back in, but nothing that was eager enough to get a hook in it’s mouth. As probably one of the best fishing experiences of my life, I have to say that fishing in Florida really did live up to it’s reputation on this trip: pure constant action with monstrous hard fighting fish. Although my girlfriend was the real winner of the day with almost double my fish count, I had succeeded in catching two new species as well as one trophy sized gorgeous Snook. What a day!

And yet, it was literally just one day… Fortunately for me, more fishing would be waiting in the coming days. Was this epic fishing day a fluke, or would there be more successes as we ventured further in our Florida fishing adventure?

To be continued…

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