Fishing the flats in The Florida Keys

29 04 2015

I think I’m jinxed.

When it comes to guided trips I have the worst luck for weather.  The conditions never seem to be right.  It’s either to windy or to cloudy or the water is to clear or something.  I have had some great guides but the conditions always seem to be less than optimal.  This held true for my bucket list trip to the Florida Keys to fish the flats for Tarpon, Bonefish and Permit.

Late last year my girlfriend Susan told me she wanted to go back to Key West for the week of her birthday at the end of April.  I already had my laptop up and immediately pulled up fishing charters.  I saw what was available and being a good boyfriend I quickly agreed.  I made a few phone  calls and signed up for an all day trip on the flats for the Big 3 with Captain Gabe Nyblad of Tail Chasin’ Charters.  While I was talking to him, he told me how great the tarpon fishing was at night during high tide and full moon periods.  He asked me if I had a problem with fishing in the dark………..I assured him that I didn’t and booked a trip for the following evening.

The day of my charter started out ok.  We arrived at the marina about 8:30 and waited for Gabe.  It was a little overcast but what bothered me was the wind.  It eventually got up to +20 mph and I knew fly casting was going to be difficult.  Once Gabe arrived, he told me the plan for the day.  He said the overcast skies and wind would make sight fishing for Bonefish very difficult.  He also told me that the Permit were still out in the deeper water and any fish on the flats would be few and far between.  The Tarpon were starting their migration so we were going to try for them first.  Once that was settled, Susan and I grabbed our stuff and climbed into his boat and hauled ass out to the first spot.  After some quick instruction on how this was going to work, I took my spot on the front of the boat while Gabe climbed up on his perch in the back so he could push us a long and spot for fish.  The wind pushed us along nicely but it also clouded up the water.  This meant that I was going to have a short window of opportunity to spot a fish and then put that fly right on his nose.  It wasn’t long and I spotted the first Tarpon coming at us from the stern of the boat.  I made a quick cast in front of him but he swam right past the fly.  This process would repeat itself for the next few hours.  Some of my casts were near perfect, others not so much. Most of the time I was casting into the wind and even though I was using a 12 weight rod and line it was still a challenge.  It was still cool to see those big fish come cruising through.  One was probably in the 150 pound range but like all the others he wasn’t interested.

After our first drift, Gabe asked how determined I was to get one on a fly.  I told him I just wanted to put one in the boat.  A quick change of plans and a stop to pick up some bait and we were on our way to one of the bridges of US 1.  The tide flowing between the pilings acts like a natural funnel and the fish of course congregate around the pilings.  The fly rod was stored now and out came the meat rod with a small live pin fish and a circle hook.  I would cast out in front of the pilings and let the tide drift it into the strike zone.  We saw one tarpon swirl on the surface but like the previous fish he didn’t want nothing to do with my offering.  I did manage to catch a Jack Crevalle.  Nice looking fish.  I figured we would let him go but Gabe had other plans.  Since I told him I wanted to catch something, anything, he decided we were going to head over to The Gulf side of the islands and try for sharks and whatever else presented itself.

After a long boat ride we arrived on another flat area with some mangrove islands around it.  Gabe dropped the fish carcasses in the water and rigged up 3 rods.  The meat rod had a circle hook and a chunk of the Jack on it.  Another rod was rigged up with a rubber snubber with some treble hooks in it for Barracuda.  The third rod was a light action rod that had a live shrimp.  That one was for any Bonefish, Permit, Jack or possibly a Redfish we might see.  This rod I held most of the time since I wasn’t going to get much of a warning if we spotted one of it’s intended quarry.  The sharks were a lot bigger and swam more slowly so they could be easily spotted and give me ample time to switch.  About 20 minutes in, I spotted a shark swimming our way.  I grabbed the other rod and cast the bait a few feet in front of the fish.  She turned on the bait and picked it up.  I reeled hard and once she felt that circle hook dig in she was off and running.  She didn’t make any long runs and pretty much stayed around the boat.  After about 10 minutes she tired and we were able to release her unscathed.  A few more sharks cruised through the area but none of them came into range.  While Gabe was watching behind us, I spotted another shark coming in off the bow.  This was a bigger Lemon Shark in the 5 to 6 foot range.  I made my cast and once he felt that hook he took off for the next 200 yards.  That’s right, he made a 200 yard non stop run before he even slowed down and I could start reeling him back in.  It had been a long time since I have heard a drag scream like that.  Thank God for good reels with good drag systems.  I slowly worked him back in and eventually we got him to the side of the boat for a quick pic and release.  I ended up hooking into two more sharks, one of them right by the boat and we all got to watch him swim up and take the bait which was really cool to see.  After we released him, Gabe wanted to try one more spot before we quit for the day.

We pulled up to another flat area right on the edge of The Gulf and deep water.  Gabe told us that we could see just about anything out here and he was hoping for Bonefish and Permit.  After about 30 minutes, he spotted some “nervous water” which turned out to be Permit.  I couldn’t see them so I made a cast based on his directions.  Unfortunately, I over shot.  A few minutes later Gabe spotted another patch of nervous water and this time I made a good cast in front of them.  They never saw the bait and swam back out to the deeper water.

That was the last cast I would make.  The clouds were darkening up and a big thunderstorm was headed our way.  We locked everything down and hauled ass back to the Marina.  We had a quick chat about tomorrow night and then headed off to a nearby Gabe approved restaurant for dinner.  Good thing we left when we did.  We weren’t in the car 5 minutes when it started to pour.

So that was my trip to the flats, 4 shark and 1 Jack.  I had a great time and will definitely book another trip with Gabe if I ever come back down here.  He took us to areas that most people never see.  The majority of the people that come down here only see what is going on from the road, especially Duvall street and all of the parties, but Susan and I got to see the water and what goes on in a way that has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Next time I just hope the weather cooperates.

Open Wide Shark 1

Shark Bait Ooh Ah Ha!

Shark Bait Ooh Ah Ha!

Shark II Shark On II Shark On

SSP Walleye 04/18/15

19 04 2015

With my boat still down and river fishing pressure being absolutely ridiculous my friend Chris decided to take his boat out for its inaugural run on Lake Erie.  We had originally talked about going up to Lexington to try for some Spring Browns and Salmon but the threat of a NE wind and bad fishing reports kept us closer to home.  We arrived at the Sterling State Park ramp around 6:30 am and we were pleasantly surprised that there was no wait to launch.  A stark contrast to the river where lines have been over a mile long and wait times for launching averaging over an hour.  Several minutes later we had the boat in the water and we were slowly making our way out to Stoney Point.  Winds were dead calm and the water was very clear.  The only drawback was the amount of debris in the water.  Lots of logs and blow downs all over the bay.  The big blow downs were easy to spot, especially when they had gull sitting on them.  It was the smaller logs that had us nervous.  We slowly made our way out and managed not to hit anything.  We set 4 lines pulling Reef Runners and Deep Diving Husky Jerks in various colors anywhere from 35 to 80 feet back on Off Shore Planer boards.

Wow, 3 shameless plugs in one sentence.  I should drive for NASCAR.

The first thing we realized was that we couldn’t get the motor to idle low enough to a speed we wanted.  We were running around 2 to 2.1 SOG and we needed to be down around 1.4 SOG.  We started to make a “S” pattern troll to try and get at least 2 lures at a time down to a slower speed.  About 30 minutes later we had our first flag down and Chris reeled in the first walleye into his new Lund, a nice 25 inch fish.  This one hit a purple RR little ripper so we dug through the lure boxes for something smaller and purple.  Chris found a purple Flicker Minnow and put that out while I swapped out my DDHJ’s for Shad Raps.  It wasn’t much longer when we had our 2nd fish on.  A few minutes later Chris netted our biggest fish of the day.  A 27 inch spawned out female that went around 7 pounds.  Things were looking good but as soon as we started to get a little cocky the fish decided to serve me a big piece of humble pie, or in this case Silver pie.  That’s right, my next fish was a $#(&$)(&$%#&#)%_)$#@@#)(*)(&^$(*&%(&#$@$_#_%#_  Silver Bass!!!  I swear that no matter where I go I just can’t escape those things.  No matter, he was quickly release and my custom painted Fire Tiger Shad Rap was run back out.  Not much longer after that Chris noticed that my outside board was drifting back.  The flag was still up but with the board drifting in towards my inside board we knew we had a fish on.  I marked the spot on the GPS and started to reel in the fish while Chris got the other rod out of the way.  Trolling for walleye with multiple boards out takes a fair amount of team work and a clear are in the boat.  While I was reeling in the fish Chris cleared the port lines and made sure no other boats were getting to close.  This fish was being very difficult and we thought it might be a 10 pounder or possibly a big catfish.  I slowly reeled him and and Chris eventually removed the board.  A few minutes later he was in the boat, a rather upset male in the 24 inch range.  Not as big as we expected but a nice addition to the live well.  We fished for about another hour until the wind started to shift to the NE.  We knew this was coming and any type of an east wind on Erie is nothing to mess with so we pulled lines and headed in.  We accomplished what we wanted to do today.  The first shakedown cruise was in the books, made some notes on what to change and get (drift sock, plug for live well and a first aid kit) and we put 3 nice fish in the live well.  Not a bad day, except for that one unmentionable.

The best part of launching at Sterling is that they have a fish cleaning station and it was open.  4 fishermen were there cleaning their 4 man limit.  I was a little surprised to see this since I did not recognize their boat but I soon found out why.  They fished Huron Ohio near Cedar Point.  They were just stopping here on their way home to clean fish.  Can’t say that I blame them.  I would do the same thing if I could.  No sense messing up my fish cleaning station at home if I don’t have too.  A few minutes later our fish were clean (need to remember an extension cord for the electric knife) and we were on our way home as well.  Not a bad morning and by the time we got home the NE wind really picked up and the flags were horizontal.  Everything pretty much went according to plan.  Can’t complain when it all works out.  Especially since we were able to catch walleye without having to compete with the 1,000 plus boats on the Detroit River.

Chris Walleye SSP SB SSP Walleye 1 SSP Walleye 2

Weekend Steel

4 04 2015

While the rest of Michigan was waiting for the annual Detroit river walleye run to get started I decided to go Steelhead fishing instead.  There is still ice in lake St. Clair so that means I’m staying put until it is all passed by on it’s way to Erie.  In the mean time I was going to try my luck on the Lower Huron.

One of my handlining disciples sent me a text message last week and asked if I had Friday off.  Thanks to my employer I did so Larry and I made arrangements to meet at the launch at 7:00 am on 4/3.  When I arrived Larry had the boat in the water and was loading it up.  I grabbed my stuff and a few minutes later we were headed downstream or upstream, I really can’t remember.  We were running shallow diving KVD crank baits.  Most holding areas on the river were less than 6 feet deep so a deep diving bait like a Wiggle Wart or a Hot-n-Tot wasn’t going to cut it.  We trolled through a few holes and drifted the lures into a few log jams but nothing so far.  At the next hole we finally had a hit.  As I was reeling it in something didn’t feel right.  It was fighting but the head shakes were these big slow shakes and no running that is characteristic of a steelhead.  I kept working the fish in and then I saw why it felt so weird……it was a walleye.

1st Lower Huron Walleye

1st Lower Huron Walleye

Since the season is closed for inland water walleye we took a quick picture and sent him on his way.  Back to the steel.  We tried a few more spots but no luck.  We did talk to one fisherman who had caught 3 drifting spawn.  I made note of where he was at for future reference.  About noon time we headed back to the ramp and called it a day.  I thanked Larry for the trip and showing me some of the areas and made plans to hit the “D” when it was wire time.

The next day I slept in for the first time in what seemed like forever.  Or at least that was the plan.  I forgot to shut my alarm off from the previous day and it went off at 6:30 am.  I shut it off but it was no use.  I eventually got up and started putzing around the house.  Around 11 I picked up my friend Chris and headed up to Lockeman’s Hardware to see about getting some corner brackets for my boat.  I figured he was my best bet to try and find a pair and I was right.  He had 4 left and once I left he was down to his last two.  Now all I have to do is get my transom built and these attached and I will be good to go.  I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning up and tying more flies.  After dinner I grabbed my Switch Rod and made the 10 minute drive to the Lower Huron again.  I walked down to the same area where Larry and I talked to the guy who had 3.  I carefully waded in and started working the shoreline.  I was throwing a Zudweg Wicked Leech with a little bit of metallic blue flashabou.  After about 2 minutes I had a hit.  It wasn’t a very savage hit but I definitely felt it.  After about 10 minutes of fighting the fish and maneuvering my feet around the sunken logs I was able to get her close to shore where I could grab her by the tail.  Mission accomplished, my first Lower Huron river steelhead, caught on a fly I tied and landed by hand.  I really need to get a net.  After a quick pic I pointed her back upstream and let her get her strength back.  After a minute she swam off to fight another day.  I played around a bit more and checked out some more spots but didn’t catch anything else.  The wind was starting to pick up and casting was getting difficult so I decided to head home.  There will be plenty of other days.

1st Lower Huron Steelhead on a Zudweg Wicked Leech.

1st Lower Huron Steelhead on a Zudweg Wicked Leech.