I am the son of a preacher. As a youngster, Easter Sundays were spent in church. Once married, Lauri and I enjoyed Easter with our family.
However, one Easter Sunday I played hooky and went fishing for “bull reds” in the Indian River watershed near Titusville, Florida.
I traveled to the area with my son, Seth, who played baseball the following week with his Thomas Worthington High School baseball teammates at the Cocoa Beach complex. The Cardinals competed against different high school teams from all over the country who would escape northern climates and head to Florida for an abbreviated “spring training”.
Having done some research, I booked a fishing trip with Capt. Kelly Wiggins. Kelly had worked for many years at Cape Canaveral but had always dreamed of becoming a fishing guide in his home waters of the Banana and Indian River watersheds. Upon retirement from his real job, he did just that. Kelly loved fishing for what he referred to as “Buuuulll Reds” in his slow southern drawl.
We agreed to meet at 7 AM on the causeway leading from Titusville to the Cape Canaveral National Seashore. After launching the boat, we stored our fishing gear and lunches and roared off in pursuit of redfish. 200 yards from the dock, the outboard engine began to sputter and after a few meek coughs, the engine died. Kelly administered first aid to no avail. He pulled the push pole from its chocks and poled us back to the dock. It was 7:15 am as Kelly apologized and said that perhaps we could fish later in the week after his engine was repaired. Unfortunately, the exciting baseball schedule permitted fishing only on Easter Sunday.
I looked around. There were very few boats or trailers at the ramp or parking lot. Of course, most sane people were either at sunrise church service or sleeping in the church of the “holy comforter” getting their last minutes of rest before spending the day with their families.
I asked, “Kelly, do you have any buddies who are guides? If so, maybe they do not have a charter and you could borrow their boat.” Kelly hesitated and I could sense the wheels grinding. I said, “Tell you what, Kelly, I’m going to go over to that picnic bench across the parking lot, sit down and relax. I have nothing else to do. Why don’t you do some checking and see if you can find a boat? Let’s fish as much of the day as we can.” I walked across the parking lot to give Kelly some space and time to come up with a plan. He went to a phone booth and began to make phone calls.
Ten minutes later, he gave me a thumbs up. Thirty minutes later, a friend of Kelly’s pulled up in a pickup truck with trailer and skiff attached. Kelly and he launched the replacement boat and then Kelly poled the disabled skiff close enough to attach the sick skiff to the hook and cable of the power winch of his friend’s trailer. As my Grandpa Hessey would say when the fishing was looking up, “Now we are in business!!”
As we roared away, Kelly said, “Good idea, Rowe”. I replied, “Well, I have known for a long time that I cannot catch a fish sitting at the dock!”
As the day rolled on, we had a few shots at redfish but caught nothing. My casting was mediocre as usual. At about 2 o’clock, Kelly floated the skiff towards a group of three teenagers who after exiting their canoes were wading about 200 yards from shore in water three feet deep. Bait buckets floated at their sides. They also had several nice redfish on a stringer which they were not shy about showing off.
Kelly asked “What are they biting on?” “Mud minnows”, was the reply. “Got any extra?” “We could spare a couple.” One of the young teenagers handed Kelly a couple of mud minnows which he threw in the live well. After easing the skiff away from the wading boys, Kelly slammed the throttle forward as we raced to the mouth of the Indian River to a spot just outside the restricted area near Cape Canaveral.
Once we were in position, Kelly hooked a mud minnow below an egg sinker and encouraged me to cast the rig as far towards the mouth of the creek draining the restricted area as I could. Moments earlier, he had warned me that unfortunately, the best fishing was INSIDE the restricted area. Not today, I thought to myself.
The bait splashed into the tannin stained water which appeared brown as it reflected the cloud cover of a sheet metal gray sky. I reeled up the slack line and we waited. After about ten minutes, the tip of my rod began to pulse as a fish slowly pulled the mud minnow through the egg sinker. “Let him take it, ” Kelly whispered. I opened the bail of my spinning reel and let the fish run with the bait until Kelly told me to strike. When I struck, it felt as if I was attached to an automobile.
The drag began to scream and for a what seemed like a half hour, all I could do was hold on. Finally, I began to gain line by reeling down towards the water and pumping back with rod. Repeat often. When the fish was twenty yards from the boat, we could see a hazy bronze flash from the light reflecting scales of its thick body. The fish began to steadily swim around the boat. Kelly had staked the skiff off and so when the fish circled, I followed the fish by walking with fishing rod held precariously over my head. I left the bow and wobbled down the six inch wide port gunwale. Around the stern the fish raced with his angler attached – then up the starboard gunwale.
We repeated this tight rope fish catching dance three times. As I approached the starboard corner of the stern on trip four, I began to lose my balance and teeter towards the water. My past “falling in” fishing experiences, which had been frequent, informed my actions. I simply jumped in while holding the rod high over my head still tight to an irritated bull redfish.
“What are you doing Rowe?”, Kelly screamed as his now wet angler standing in 3 feet of water. “Well, Kelly, it was either fall in and lose the fish or jump in and catch him,” I shouted with a smile in my loud voice.
After climbing back on board, I was able to bring the redfish to the boat and Kelly hoisted it onto the bow. As I held the 30 pound red for pictures, I felt no guilt about my decision to play hooky from church on Easter! I am sure you understand why!