Summertime in Florida means the weather is heating up. Temperatures start in the 70's, humidity is so thick you can cut it, and after about five minutes, your clothing sticks to you like honey. During the next few hours, the sun rises, temperatures quickly climb into the 90's, and the humidity only increases. Yes, it can be downright oppressive. This is the reason we tend to move a little slower in the South; we've learned how to adapt and still make the most of it. This is also why the movies portray Southerners sitting on porches, with fans, during the hottest part of the day. I know, it doesn't sound too inviting. Let's add a little to the picture though.
Just prior to the sun rising, you pull up to the ramp. There, nestled up to the dock is a streamlined skiff. The water is calm, appearing like a sheet of glass. The skiff is awaiting your arrival, ready to take you into a whole new world. As you take your step onto the bow, it rocks gently, settling in to the new guests. Your greeted with a smile and an enthusiastic, "Good Morning, Welcome to Paradise!" You settle into the seat, enjoying that first good cup of coffee. You look back at the parking lot, give a little sigh, and prepare for relaxation; the hustle and bustle of the world escaping your body with that final long sigh. This is the start to a new day. Your adventure awaits! Everything is possible! You've mentally prepared for this moment, but nothing can replace actually being here, in this moment, right now. Your told of the day's plan, what will take place, and where you will be going; that is, if everything goes according to my plans. If not, the adventure will take twists and turns as we try plans B, C, D, and on. As the boat eases away from the dock, so do all of your worries. A gentle breeze blows in your face, created by the boat's movement through the water. The sun is just starting to glint over the treetops. The sky is a wonderment of color; as though an artist reached up and painted the entire sky just for you.
The day starts with snook fishing. This fishing is not for the faint of heart. Snook are ambush predators and have earned the nickname "linesider" not only for their black lateral line, but for their strikes and fights. My favorite technique is topwater. Whether throwing a popper fly or working a wooden plug, there is nothing more exciting than topwater fishing for snook. This game is played near cover, so accuracy is much more important than distance. A lot of times the fishing takes place around docks or mangroves. The angler must try to reach every nook and cranny around the cover; these fish are smart and do not like to leave the cover of their world. Once the cast is made, the angler must entice a wary fish to take the offer. Like a ballroom dance between strangers, the angler must think ahead, working the fly or plug seductively, without needing to stop and giving the fish a chance to identify it as a fake. The pace cannot be too fast nor too slow. When the correct retrieve is figured out, it will rewarded. Usually, the angler notices a wake from behind, the water rises up, rushing toward the offering. A green back will appear, highlighted by yellow fin tips. Before the angler can think, an eruption takes place; this is where the tricky part comes. Many times the eruption is so ferocious the plug or fly is thrown into the air. If an angler isn't paying attention, they will strike, causing the plug or fly to shoot back at themselves or me. No, patience is needed. You must wait to feel the weight of the fish on the line. Once you feel it, be prepared for a brawl. This isn't a delicate fight! No, this will be a fight between two heavyweight boxers; nothing but a pure show of brute force. The snook will immediately head back to his lair. Trust me, no one knows that lair better than the fish. He knows every single dock piling, rock, mangrove limb or root, every oyster, or any other object that he can wrap you around and set himself free. Your job: prevent him from doing this. It sounds easy, especially if it isn't a big fish. Trust me, it isn't. Even the small "snooklets" are powerful fighters. Their tails are thick, designed to apply quick bursts and power; their body is pure muscle. Add in gill plates as sharp as razors and you can now understand why you hook more snook that you land. If you stop the fish, the battle is over. The fish is brought to the boat, a quick photo, revived and released. The release is a true connection to nature. Snook have a habit of "sucking on your thumb" while reviving. Once they regain their energy, they head back into the lair from where they came. Congratulations, you won the slugfest this time!
Just when you regain your breath, it's time to try for another one. This time, you place your offer along the dockside. As you begin to retrieve, you see a wake coming up again. You prepare your eyes to identify the green back and yellow fins. Instead, you see a green back, silver sides, and eyes the size of silver dollars. Before your brain can completely understand, their is a flash: a silver blur, followed by the sound of water slurping. The line comes tight and you instinctively set the hook. Then all hell breaks loose! The water erupts as 100 pounds of adrenaline pumping silver leaps from the water. As the fish breaches the water surface, you catch a glimpse of its size, the head begins to shake and you can feel every muscle in the fish. You ears hear a rattling and your eyes and ears work together to identify the sound as the gill rattle from the fish. This fish is angry; dinner has never bitten back and he doesn't like it. This all happens in a second. Then the fish leaps again, and again, and again. Each time, he becomes more angry, shaking his head, "walking on his tail", trying desperately to throw back what he has eaten. Once the fish realizes the hook is set, precariously holding onto a mouth of pure bone, he changes tactics. The fish dives, going straight for the deepest water it can find. You are now in a battle of wills; the fish wants to get away, you just want a chance to take a picture. A proper fighting technique will land the fish in 10-20 minutes; the wrong technique can make for a long day. Pumping and reeling, you try to break his fighting spirit. All the while, you can feel the rhythmic pulse of every tail stroke. Your goal, break his stride, roll him over, and get him boat side; more times than not, this doesn't happen. Instead, a "long release" takes place. The fish wins and you are left with an image burned into your memory: the fish's first jump, where you both locked eyes, that moment when you were introduced to the Silver King. This image has caused several people to go mad; selling off their homes, leaving businesses, even divorcing loved ones, all so they could chase this majestic fish and hope to land one. Yes, tarpon can be as addictive as any drug. They can also be as aggravating as trying to teach a new puppy not to chew on your shoe. One day they are aggressive, the next they won't take anything. But since you never know, the chance to place a fly or lure in front of them is one you don't want to pass up.
Your day is not over! Yes, you're drenched in sweat, your breathing is rapid, and your heart is pounding. You reach in, grab an ice cold drink and sit back in the seat. Now we take a run. As the boat jumps up on plane, the breeze feels wonderful. The air rushes by your face, turning the sweat into your own personal air conditioning. Your heart rate settles and your breathing returns to normal. Now it is time for sight fishing. The sun has risen, reflecting from the waters surface. Racing into the back country, we pass mangroves, oyster bars, and sandbars, working our way through unseen channels, across the flats. As we reach the spot, the boat comes off plane, the motor stops and trims up, and your rod is handed to you. Relaxation time is over! You ease up on the bow, your new home for the day. I'll climb up the poling platform, taking my office for the day. For the next several hours, we will hunt fish in shallow water; a pushpole becomes one with me, propelling us across grassy flats, around oyster bars, silently guiding us toward our targets: redfish, seatrout, and black drum. You stand on the bow, looking at the plethora of life around us: herons stalking shrimp along the shorelines, osprey flying high above looking for dinner, a porpoise cruising a deeper channel, manatee rising to the surface for a breath of air, raccoons scurrying the shores fishing with their little paws, and maybe even a bobcat resting in the shade of an oak hammock. All the while, I am looking for your target. I am paying attention to those areas I know fish like to hunt. Suddenly, a fin breaks the surface; a blue tint glimmers in the sun. The rest of the water is calm, except for this one area where the fin pulsates in the water. "10 o'clock, 35 feet!". You are snapped out of watching the wildlife around you. You look, noticing the blue reflection, tiny water droplets falling from the end of the fin. An explosion! The water around the tail erupts as a crab or shrimp is engulfed in its final act on the circle of life. The water settles and the fin continues to slowly lumber across the water: a redfish tail, giving you target identification and a direction to cast. Before you rush the cast, you need to take moment and watch the fish; you have to know exactly what it is doing so you can decide where to place the cast. This fish is hunting prey, head down, tail up. His area of awareness is relatively small, so an accurate cast is a must. Not too accurate, or you'll bonk him on the head, causing the fish to head for the next county. No, the cast needs to be in front, just far enough so the fish can stumble upon an offering it can't refuse. A perfect cast, a slight retrieve and a twitch of the tail. You'll notice a slight change in the blue, like it was plugged into an electrical outlet. This fish is hungry and has decided your offering is its next meal. It rushes forward, intercepting the offering, a flash as gills open up, allowing water and the offering to be sucked into the fish's mouth. It takes a second, but then the fish realizes its meal isn't its typical meal! With that, it shakes it head, trying to throw the meal back out. If that isn't successful, the fish runs. A powerful run, with pure adrenaline and brute strength. There isn't any deep water here, so the fish just continues to run, shaking its head and trying to get away. You can't stop the first run, just let it go. Once the fish begins to tire, you can now fight it. Applying side pressure, fighting down and dirty, breaking the spirit of the fish and bringing him to the boat. Next to the boat, you realize just how special this fish is. Everything about this fish is designed to make it a premier hunter in this world. Coloration is beautiful: a dark back, fading into bronze sides, with a white belly, each fin tipped with a blue that no camera can capture; iridescent, electrified, and unmistakable once you see it. This fish has given you everything it had; all to help you erase the worries of the world, to remind each of us what pure joy is like. For that reason, it deserves to live another day. Photos taken, the fish is eased back into the water, slowly pulsed back and forth in the water. With every second, you can tell the fish is getting stronger. After a few moments, he beats his tail, slipping away into the grass, ready to hunt again.
The day pushes on, with the scene repeated as often as possible. You forget about the heat, the humidity and worries of the world. You are connected to the "real" world, nature. A slight shift in the wind means the day is coming to an end. Clouds begin to push in, darkening with heavy loads of water. Maybe it's time to head in and celebrate with a cold drink: a beverage of your choice. A late lunch/early dinner on the water, with a cold drink. Then the run back to the dock. The wind is cooler, a rumble of thunder in the distance. Summer in Florida means afternoon thunderstorms. A perfect way to end the day! The rains cool the air and the water, providing energy to all of the life in the water; you don't mind, you're tired and ready for nap. If you're lucky, you've booked a couple of days and get to do it all over again tomorrow!
Yep, this adventure can be yours too! Slams (three species of fish) and Grandslams (Four or more) are possible all summer long. Yes, the temperatures are hot, but so is the fishing!
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