The day was hot, humid, and without a hint of wind. At 8 a.m. the mercury had already climbed the bars of the thermometer to an uncomfortable level. As we departed the Florida Keys from the Lori-Lei (a popular watering hole and guide hangout) in Islamorada, Captain Ron Wagner pointed the bow of the boat west toward Flamingo. The wind created by the speedy flats skiff felt refreshing.
We were headed to the Florida Bay in hopes of a “backcountry slam”- catching a redfish, a snook, and a tarpon all in the same day; a plan more easily plotted than produced. A healthy dose of good old-fashioned fisherman’s luck is always a necessary ingredient.
I had fished with Capt. Ron plenty of times. We had a good guide/client relationship. I trusted him and appreciated his uncanny ability to find fish; he knew my angling strengths and weaknesses.
We had only traveled a short time when Capt. Ron pulled back the throttle, bringing the boat to a rock-n-roll stop. “Look over there,” he said, extending an arm to point the way. It all looked the same. An incredible aqua-colored flat seemed to extend to the horizon, interrupted only by the green of mangrove shoots. Ron turned the skiff southwest at about one-quarter speed. The hunt was on. After traveling several hundred yards the water’s complexion changed. A muddied expanse extended the length of a football field. It was a school of feeding redfish. I thought to myself- there must be a thousand of ‘em. Ron quickly dispelled the estimate to a more realistic hundred.
It was difficult to keep my composure. Within eighty feet of the boat were dozens and dozens of routing redfish, tails waving above the waterline as if in a greeting gesture. After a few presentations to the edge of the brown-stained water went unrewarded, the guide suggested a cast right into the melee. It worked. After catching three redfish on three casts with a crab fly, including a 14-pounder (not big by redfish standards, but a good size for the Florida Bay), we were on to a second species for the “slam.”
As Capt. Ron poled the boat along the mangrove-studded shoreline of a small island, cast after cast brought nothing but practice and arm weariness. We then changed our approach and concentrated on the white sand holes located among the submergent grass. These clearly defined pockets are where snook often set up feeding stations. The predators patiently lie in wait for tidal currents to carry prey to their dinner plate. It is exciting shallow-water sight fishing.
It wasn’t long before a fish was spotted. An errant cast sent the quarry speeding into a nearby mangrove patch. Snook in clear water can be extremely challenging, testing an angler’s skills to the limit. The second snook we found was receptive to a Lefty’s Deceiver. After a few acrobatic jumps and a brief battle, the fish was ours. It tipped the scales at 6-lb. Species number two had been caught.
The tarpon is arguably the most difficult of the three to catch. Unless the Captain knew where some baby tarpon (those under 40-lb.) were hanging out, a tough task was at hand. It was already one o’clock in the afternoon and knowing Ron’s penchant for being back at the bar for happy hour, fisherman’s luck would have to be shining brightly to complete the “slam.”
Capt. Ron explained that he had been seeing some 30-lb. to 40-lb tarpon in one particular area for several weeks. During the boat ride I rigged a 10-weight rod with a 12-lb. leader and a 50-lb. shock tippet (a length of leader for protection against abrasion from the tarpon’s rough mouth, scales, and gill covers). A fly called the Green Weenie was the guide’s choice. It consisted of a chartreuse tail and wing, and a body of gold mylar tubing. The hook was tested for sharpness and the barb smashed down, a procedure frowned upon by the Captain.
After about an hour of searching, Capt. Ron suddenly stopped poling and stuck the push pole in the sandy bottom to hold position. About 70 feet away was a tarpon laid-up in a deep channel. I couldn’t see the fish because of the sun’s glare and my lower elevation on the boat’s front deck. With exacting instruction Ron directed me where to place the fly. Cast after cast, adjustments were suggested, “Ten feet more and a little to the right. Five feet farther, five to the right.” Each cast was retrieved without any reaction from the tarpon. According to Ron, it just laid there. Was it asleep or simply ignoring the offering?
Continued next week.