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The Florida Factor:  365 Days Of Fishing

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A school of stirred-up ballyhoo is a sure sign there are predator fish nearby.

A school of stirred-up ballyhoo is a sure sign there are predator fish nearby.

Without overgeneralizing, Florida’s citizenry and I generally don’t mix well. Whether it’s the drivers who blast down Interstate 95 at 100 mph, the people who show up at Chipotle in their pajamas to pick up dinner, or the owners of quad-engine center consoles who seem intent on running me over on my way out of the inlet, the Sunshine State’s way of doing things sometimes is more than my grumpy disposition can handle.

Photo of Gary Reich

Gary Reich

But then, there’s the fishing.

As bitter cold set in earlier this year and the Chesapeake iced over, I traveled to Miami to run Pursuit’s DC 365 dual console (look for a feature in the May issue of Soundings). On tap for the day was fishing over a complex of wreck sites and slow-trolling live baits for sailfish. As we loaded our gear and untied the lines, the crew reported a slow morning of fishing. “It’s too calm for good sailfish fishing,” our captain said.

We set up drifts over the wrecks, but the Gulf Stream was roaring, which made it difficult to get a good one. Pursuit had hired a photographer to go along with us, and he was in the water as we fished. “There’s a big current line over there,” he said. “I don’t see much else, though.” After about 10 drifts we moved farther south.

As we sat in silence after two hours of fruitless fishing, I felt my bait twitch. I gently lifted the tip of my spinning rod but didn’t connect with anything. Moments later, a school of bait went flying, and the twitching turned into something more like run for your life! I lifted the rod again without hooking up. About 30 seconds later, I felt pressure building and knew the circle hook was about to sink into something. I applied pressure, and it was fish on!

Since we were wreck fishing, we figured I had a grouper, snapper or shark on the line. Then a sailfish exploded into the air like an intercontinental ballistic missile before pirouetting gracefully like a ballerina. It was a small sailfish, but the show it put on remains etched in my memory. That fish was a blast to fight on light spinning tackle. It self-released as we guided it alongside, but I’ll never forget the pulsing colors on its sides.

I laid low after the fight. It was the first billfish I’d ever caught, and I was well aware of what that meant: I’d have to jump into the water. Eventually someone asked: “Hey, was that your first sail?”

“Um, yeah,” I said, “but I am not jumping in the water.”

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten off a boat and to the marina parking lot as quickly as I did that day, and I’m not sure what skipping the dunking ritual is going to do for my fishing mojo.

January and February are prime time for sails off Florida’s east coast, though you can catch them there year-round. The best part is you don’t have to travel far or have special tackle. Simply slow-troll live bait on circle hooks with 30-pound spinning tackle and wait for the take. If you’re lucky, you’ll get quite a show, in and out of the water.

In mid-July a few years ago, Maverick Boat Group invited me to Stuart, Florida, to fish its flats boats and center consoles in the Atlantic and around Indian River Lagoon. Some of the writers in my group were keen to work spinning and conventional gear, but I wanted to target snook and jack crevalle on flies. Maverick provided a guide with fly rods, so we loaded up and headed for the mangroves.

This sail fell to a pilchard fished over a wreck.

This sail fell to a pilchard fished over a wreck.

Snook fishing was slow, despite our being able to see stacks of trophy-size fish holding around the mangrove roots. It was the height of the spawning run, and they were probably more interested in romance. We brought in the lines and headed for some promising waterfront homes, where we’d find fish working bait up against the bulkheads.

As the guide poled us toward a concrete bulkhead, we could identify jacks and snook marauding baitfish. It looked too good not to toss a fly into the melee. In a stroke of dumb luck, I landed a popper directly in front of a sizable jack. The fly hit the surface, and the fish demolished it, reminding me why jacks are one of the most underappreciated “trash” fish around.

What a show. Line peeled off my reel as if someone had tied it to a freight train. I managed to set the drag, but the burly jack broke me off under a complex of docks. We rerigged, and I tossed another popper along the wall. This time a bulge of moving water came out of nowhere, and another jack mashed my fly. This one was not as big as the first, but its nuclear-powered fight got my heart pumping.

What they lack in tastiness, jacks more than make up for in showmanship and fight. These junkyard dogs never disappoint. You can hook them with live bait pitched against bulkheads, with top-water and near-surface flies, and with conventional lures and spinning gear. If your target species isn’t cooperating, go after these beasts.

There aren’t many places where you can catch billfish in the morning, snook in the early afternoon and tuna before sunset, but Florida is one of them. If the weather puts a damper on your local fishing or you’re simply ready for a change, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better angling bang for your buck than here, regardless of what you’re targeting.

Just stay off I-95. Or, at least, wave to me in the slow lane.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue.


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