The Florida Keys Bonefish Are In Peril

Bonefish Ghost Of The Flats

Bonefish
Ghost Of The Flats

Are the Florida Keys bonefish disappearing? In my last post, I promised some photographs and stories in support of my conclusion that the Florida Keys bonefish are in peril. From 1988 through 2011, I experienced an annual weeklong trip to the Florida Keys with good friends and great guides. Every fishing day, our guides carefully considered the many variables that determine the best possible fishing location for that day. Although our home base was in Marathon, our guides would actually launch their flats skiffs from Key Largo to Key West or anywhere in between based upon their conclusion as to what fishing venue offered the best possible chance for fishing success depending upon the sun, wind, tides, and weather. Over the 23 year history of our trip, we fished for bonefish throughout the entire length of the Keys. One of the largest bones we caught is pictured below.

A Duck Key 13 1/4 bonefish caught by Chuck Sheley Guide Dustin Huff

A Duck Key 13 1/4 bonefish caught by Chuck Sheley
Guide Dustin Huff

Our connection with guides such as Steve Huff, Dustin Huff, Dale Perez, Nat Ragland, Jose Wejebe, Harry Spear, and Ray Fetcher always provided us with the best guides the Keys had to offer. Their knowledge, experience, eyesight, skill, and effort gave us what we refrer to as “plenty of shots” to catch bonefish, permit and the occasional tarpon. Our trip was typically in early November. We thought enough of these professionals to capture a few pictures.

Steve Huff and Jose Wejebe at Hall's Bait and Tackle 1990

Steve Huff and Jose Wejebe at Hall’s Bait and Tackle 1990

A Boot Key bonefish caught in June 1995 Guide Dustin Huff

A Boot Key bonefish caught in June 1995
Guide Dustin Huff

Guide Dale Perez on the pole on Newport News Flat, Key Largo

Guide Dale Perez on the pole on Newport News Flat, Key Largo

Islamorada Bonefish (00050668@xC4F0B)

Content Keys Bonefish With Guide Harry Spear

 

Nat Ragland holding a baby tarpon caught off Big Pine in 1989

Nat Ragland holding a baby tarpon caught off Big Pine in 1989

Ray Fetcher Guide

Ray Fetcher Baitin’ Up For Bones

 

Not only were we blessed with great guides from a technical point of view, they were known to go above and beyond the call of duty!

Dustin Huff Seven Mile

Guide Dustin Huff Swims Seven Mile Bridge To Free Line With Permit On The Other End

 

Rowe falls in trying to hook a bonefish in Long Key Bight, I can hear my words as I fell in, " I still have him!!!"

Rowe falls in trying to hook a bonefish in Long Key Bight, I can hear my words as I fell in, ” I still have him!!!”

I can also hear Steve Huff’s quiet yet terse reply, ” No…..you don’t.”

Steve Huff lends a hand

Steve Huff lends a hand

By 1989, I began to record every fish that my buddies and I caught during our annual Keys trip. In 1991, Ralph Walls, Lee Mitchell, and I fished for four days in late November. Our guides were Steve Huff and Harry Spear. In four days, the three of us caught 30 bonefish and lost 8 more. My journal for November 14 tells the following tale which I quote verbatim:

November 14, 1991 Warmest day yet! I fish Harry alone and Lee and Ralph fish with Steve. It is apparent early on that Harry feels he has gone to the well one too many times. We fish Rodriguez and Tavernier Keys and have a few tough shots. I do catch a 5 pound bonefish before lunch. Harry seems tired and actually a little depressed but still is working hard. At the end of the day, I can tell Harry is grasping for straws. We start poling a flat we name Lee Mitchell Flat, due to Mitchie’s great ability to catch small bonefish. Well, I outdid him on his own flat. In 15 min. I caught two 3 pound, one 2 pound, and another 1 pound bonefish. Had one eat a half shrimp that had been bitten off. Had several more shots but didn’t catch any. Put in that day at Harry Harris State Park. For the four day fishing week, I caught 8 bonefish and four permit for a great week of fishing. I have written the last page while waiting for Huff, Lee and Ralph to arrive. My prediction – they had fabulous fishing. We will see. Well it was! Mitchell caught a nice bonefish in the morning as did Ralph. They were fishing outside of Big Pine after putting in at Bahai Honda State Park. Next move to Huff’s permit flat. Fished there but conditions were tougher. Ralph caught his first permit, a 20 pound fish. They next moved to the Content Keys. Right off the bat they saw some baby tarpon. On his first cast, Mitchie caught in 8 pound tarpon. No other tarpon caught. As they were gathering their wits, a school of bonefish came up a channel of deeper water and began tailing on the flat. After these fish blew, they looked around and were surrounded by bonefish. Huff didn’t know where to pole next. At least 1,000 bonefish 200 casts. Lee caught two bonefish and had three break off. Ralph didn’t catch any. Both of them were terribly frustrated but excited at the same time. We had the fishing of a lifetime. A total of 36 fish. We each caught 12. Ralph: 11 bonefish – 1 permit; Lee: 11 bonefish – 1 Tarpon; Steve: 8 bonefish – 4 permit.

A year later, our tournament had grown to six anglers who fished for four days. Our guides were Steve Huff, Harry Spear, and José Wejebe, the now deceased host of the television broadcast, The Spanish Fly. In four days, we caught 42 bonefish and lost 8.

From that point forward, there was a steady decline in the number of bonefish we caught with the exception of 2004. In 2004, six anglers in five days fishing with Steve Huff, Dustin Huff and Dale Perez caught 24 bonefish. By 2010, that number had been cut in half to 12 and in our last visit to the Keys six anglers in five days caught three bonefish.

Long Key Bight Bonefish (00050663@xC4F0B)

Steve Huff And I With A Long Key Bight Bone

 

Of course, some readers might reasonably wonder whether the anglers were not very good. Indeed, several of the participants changed as the years rolled on. However, I offer this up for your consideration. Below is a beautiful bonefish caught by good friend, Frank Catchpole who passed away several years ago. Frank was a mainstay in our group in the early years. The bonefish which he holds in the photograph was caught on Ted and Mary’s flat outside of Marathon, Florida.

Ted and Mary’s was a go to spot when bad weather descended on the Keys. When the wind was out of the North and there was very little sun or it was raining, our guides would often head to this dependable flat. Below is a journal note from a day spent in terrible weather on Ted and Mary’s with Capt. Steve Huff.

November 6, 2001. Great start! Frank and Chuck fished with Steve. Stayed at Marathon the whole day and water was a little muddy. Frank caught a 13 and 7/8 pound bonefish right off the bat. They caught 10 bones, Chuck 6 and Frank 4. They lost three. Chuck caught a 5, 6, 7, 7, 8, and 10 pound bonefish. Frank caught a 13,8,8, and 6 pound bonefish.

Frank Catchpole bonefish (00050658@xC4F0B)

Frank Catchpole With A Ted and Mary’s Beauty

I tell this story because I admit my fishing partners and I are amateur enthusiasts in every sense of the word. However, I can say with utmost confidence that not only are Steve and Dustin Huff unbelievably good fishing guides, they are equally good fisherman. In August 2011, I went by myself to the Keys to fly fish for permit. I was not successful in catching one but that’s a story for another day. The day before I arrived, Dustin Huff and Steve Huff, father and son, took turns poling every flat Oceanside of Marathon, Florida, including Ted and Mary’s, High School Flat, and around the corner to what is known as Boot Key. They spent the better part of six hours poking around looking for a single bonefish. They caught nothing. They saw nothing. If there was a bonefish around they would have caught it.

During our trip of 2011, 6 anglers fished for 5 days and we caught 3 bonefish. This was the last year for the trip. For over 20 years, at the end of each trip, I would ask Steve Huff whether he would be willing to take us fishing again the next year. The question was typically, “same place, same dates next year?” For 20 years the answer was “yes”.

I spent the last day of the 2011 trip fishing Key Largo where in years past squadrons of bonefish would stream down the edge of Key Largo. Or after a long run towards Miami, we would encounter one school after another kicking up mud as the bones feasted in Biscayne Bay. Or at the south end of a Key Largo trip, we would set up the skiff on the outside edge of the huge expanse of Newport News flat as hordes of feeding bonefish would stream off the flat on a falling tide pushing wakes that resembled a tight flock of migrating geese.

On this last date for our group in the Keys, good friend, Jim Milam and I fished all of those flats and many others in between.

Jim Milam

A Young Jim Milam At Lake Erie

 

Huff poled his tail off. For the day, we saw one group of two cruising bonefish which were swimming directly at the boat. For me, having one cast in a day makes that cast very difficult. I am just not that good. Needless to say, my cast was terrible and the fish took off.

As we approached the dock at John Pennecamp State Park to take the skiff out of the water and say our goodbyes for the year, I asked Steve Huff the same question I had asked 20 previous years. “Same place, same dates next year?” His answer was, “I don’t think I want to do this again.”

A fishing guide takes the success of his anglers very personally. A catch of an angler on their skiff is their fish. Our guides always apologized when we had a rough day as if our ineptitude or a lack of fish was their fault. If they see no fish, they cannot exercise their laser like vision, poling power, coaching prowess or the infinite number of other skills which empower them in helping their anglers make vivid memories. When a flats guide shares the news of a days’ fishing with their fellow guides, the question is always – “how did you do?” When the answer is nothing too often, something has to change. In 2012, we went with Steve Huff to the Everglades to fish for snook because the Keys bonefish are most certainly in peril.

In my next post, I will offer my opinion on the cause of the peril to the bonefishing in the Keys.

The Lorax Asks: Where Did The Bonefish Go?

Lorax (00051591@xC4F0B)

 My Granddaughter, Izzy, calls me Oompah. One of the great privileges of this Oompah is reading books which I have not touched since my five children were little. One of my favorite children’s authors is Dr. Seuss. Over the last several months, I have read “The Lorax”, first published by Random House in 1971, to Izzy several times. The last occasion was upon my return from the Everglades fishing trip about which I have previously posted.

The Lorax Through The Eyes Of A Young Artist

The Lorax Through The Eyes Of A Young Artist

As I read and thought about Dr. Seuss’ warnings of the dangers progress poses to our world, I thought back to a dream I had while on the Everglades trip. On day 2, Guide Steve Huff and I were talking about how the great bonefishing of years gone by had made fishing in the Florida Keys so much fun.

A Great Bonefish Caught on Ted and Mary's Flat in Marathon, Florida

A Great Bonefish Caught on Ted and Mary’s Flat by Frank Catchpole in Marathon, Florida


Two years ago, the annual November fishing trip I take with five of my fishing buddies ended. Four of us continued the fishing adventure by retreating from the Florida Keys to the Everglades. In part, the decline of the number of bonefish and the quality of the bonefishing in the Keys played a substantial role in that difficult decision.

On Tuesday evening after talking bonefish with Steve, I had a dream. I dreamed Steve was piloting a helicopter in a shockingly beautiful sky over my favorite Keys fishing hole, Long Key Bight.

The Florida Sky

The Florida Sky

With the tropical sun creating infinite visibility of the flats below, I peered from the passenger seat. As the helicopter banked from left to right, we futilely searched every inch of the Bight looking for a sign of a bonefish. There were no muds, no wakes, no tails, no fish. As the copter approached the shoreline, we noticed a small creek running from the gorgeous turtle grass lined bay where we had often seen approaching schools of 20 to 30 bonefish suddenly appearing like a mass of black footballs searching for food over the dark green bottom. The small creek flowed into a crystal clear sand bottom pond. The overhead sun reflected green streaks from the backs of two bonefish which moved easily through the pond creating a milky cloud of sand or what is called a “mud” as the fish attempted to stir up crabs, shrimp, or buried worms for lunch. As we watched the happily feeding bonefish, they swam into a second creek which led to a larger pond which held a school of a dozen big gorgeous bones. As we hovered over this group, they bolted quickly as if spooked by the wash of the helicopter blades. The startled fish streaked off into an even broader creek leading to a larger stunning lake in which hundreds of bonefish were swimming.

Steve quickly landed the helicopter. We jumped out, took rigged rods which had been strapped to the landing gear of the copter, and waded in the pond intent on landing one of these bruiser bonefish. As we began to cast, a man approached the side of the pond yelling “Huff, why are you fishing in my lake?” Steve replied, “What are you doing hoarding all the bonefish?” I awoke. Frankly, I cannot afford the psychoanalysis necessary to determine the full meaning of the dream but I promise you this. If the bonefish were still plentiful in the Keys, our group would still be taking our annual trip. When adults give up something they love and are capable of doing there is often a compelling reason. For us, not enough bonefish was reason enough.

A Long Key Bight Bonefish Caught When A Man Could Wear Short Shorts

A Long Key Bight Bonefish Caught When A Man Could Wear Short Shorts

So I began to wonder, was there anything I could do to improve the Keys bonefishing. The dream, my perplexed curiosity about my own responsibility to do something, my missing bonefishing and our trip to the Florida Keys were on my mind as I read Izzy the Lorax.

The story begins as a young boy wanders up the Street of the Lifted Lorax. The boy is curious about just what the Lifted Lorax was. He has been told that an old man named Once–ler still lives deep in a former forest now covered by sharp edged gricklegrass. The Once-ler is suspected to know what the Lorax was and why Lorax used to make his home in a spot where now the “wind smelled slow and sour and no birds ever sing except old crows”.

After bribing the Once-ler with “fifteen cents, a nail, and the shell of a great great-great-grandfather snail”, the Once-ler whispers through a long sneggley hose which he lowered to the boy on the ground. Once-ler whispers the story of how the Lorax was lifted and taken away.

The old man described a time when the grass was green, the pond was wet, the clouds were clean and the Truffula trees were standing. The Truffula trees were cropped with bright colored tufts which blew gently mile after mile in fresh morning breeze. Under the trees ran playful Brown Bar-ba-loots who munched on Truffula fruits. From the adjoining “rippulous pond came the comfortable sound of Humming fish humming while splashing around.”

Hummin Fish A Hummin

Hummin Fish A Hummin

The Once-ler claimed he had searched for trees such as the Truffula trees his whole life because the “touch of their tufts was much softer than silk and they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk”. With joy in his heart, the Once-ler got out an axe and with “great skillful skill” chopped down the first Truffula tree with a single chop. He plucked the tuft from the top of the tree and knitted a Thneed.

The instant he finished, Once-ler heard a ga-Zump! On top of the fresh tree stump Once-ler saw a “sort of  man. Shortish, oldish, brownish, mossy, the creature spoke with a voice which was sharpish and bossy.” The Lorax claimed to speak for the trees. Lorax inquired, “What’s the THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?”

Lorax Speaks For The Trees

Lorax Speaks For The Trees

Once-ler made the case for Thneed as a “Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need”. He described it as a shirt, a sock, a glove, a carpet, a sheet, a curtain or a cover for bicycle seat! The Lorax warned of crazy greed. As the warning hung in the air, a man came by and bought the Thneed. Once-ler laughed and said “you poor stupid guy! You never can tell what some people will buy.” The Lorax cried, I speak for the trees”. But Once-ler shouted “I’m busy, shut up, if you please.”

 Once-ler recruited his family to work. They became adept at knitting and selling Thneeds and chopping down Truffula trees. As the trees disappeared, so did the Lorax. But as the tree supply dwindled to a precious few, the Lorax reappeared on behalf of his Brown Bar-ba-loots who had “the crummies because they have gas, and no food in their tummies!” There was no Truffula fruit to eat and so the Lorax sent the Bar-ba-loots away.

Bar-ba-loots Playing Under The Truffula Trees

Bar-ba-loots Playing Under The Truffula Trees

Dr. Seuss writes that Once-ler felt sad as he watched the creatures wander away. But, Once-ler knew that business was business. He boasted to the Lorax that “business must grow regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.” And although he meant no harm, Once-ler went right on “biggering” his roads, his factories, and most importantly, his money.

But as we know, factories wear out and on a day when Once-ler was fixing some pipes, the old nuisance Lorax came back with “more gripes”. Lorax complained of “smogulous smoke” in which the “Swomee-Swans could no longer sing. His dander was up because the Once-ler’s machinery created “Gluppity-glupp.” The Lorax showed Once-ler what he did with his “leftover goo”. Lorax explained that Once-ler was “glumping the pond where the humming fish hummed. No more can they hum, for their gills are all glummed.” With no other choice, Lorax sent the swans and fish away.

The Once-ler got mad! He yelled at the Lorax “now listen here, Dad! All you do is yap, yap and say, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad! Well, I have my rights, sir and I’m telling you I intend to go on doing just what I do!” And Once-ler kept biggering until the last Truffula tree fell. No more trees. No more Thneeds. Since there was no more work to do, Once-lers family departed and as they drove away under the “smog smuggered stars” all that remained was a bad smelling sky, empty factory, the Lorax, and Once-ler.

Dr. Seuss writes that while saying nothing, the Lorax gave a sad glance backward, lifted the seat of his pants and hoisted himself through a hole in the smog.

A Hole In The Sky

A Hole In The Sky

He left behind a small pile of rocks with one word… “UNLESS.” For years, Once-ler was curious about what that pile of rocks with the word “UNLESS” meant.

The Lonely Word - Unless

The Lonely Word – Unless

As the story of the Lorax ends, the little boy’s presence made the words of the Lorax clear. Once-ler declares:

UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

And with that, Once-ler drops the very last Truffula tree seed into the outreached hand of the small boy and says:

You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds.

Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.

Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.

Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.

Then the Lorax and all his friends may come back.

And so my dream of rediscovered bonefish swimming from pool to pool of crystal clear water and the Lorax warning “UNLESS” spelled out with a pile of lonely rocks have challenged me to make an effort to explore the question of what a single fisherman can do for the bonefish. Is it possible for me to plant a Truffula tree for my favorite fish? In my next post, I will offer pictorial evidence and fishing stories of my friends to prove that the Florida Keys bonefish population was once significant but is now dwindling.

A Preview Of Coming Attractions

A Preview Of Coming Attractions

 

 

 

Scientific Evidence Proves Fishing Extends Life Expectancy

Every Day Spent Fishing Extends Life Expectancy Two Days

My fishing mentor, Lee Mitchell, has over the years often reminded me of his father’s favorite saying: “For every day a guy goes fishing, the Good Lord gives him two more days of living!” Little did I know that my fishing adventures with Lee Mitchell, Chuck Sheley, and Bob Hamilton would provide indisputable scientific evidence of this hopeful hypothesis!

Lee Mitchell, angler in waiting

Lee Mitchell, angler in waiting

When Lee retired and moved to Florida in 1988, he bought a Silver King skiff and began to learn to fish the Everglades. In the early 90s, he was fishing as many as 150 days per year as he probed the wildness of the back country. Before moving to Florida, Lee ran his 32 foot Bertram while captaining his own fishing expeditions on Lake Erie. Conservative estimates (mine) place the number of fishing days on Lake Erie each spring, summer and fall at 90. Obviously, his fishing has served his longevity very well.

I speculate that Chuck Sheley has spent more time fishing than anyone on the planet. For the last 40 years or so, Chuck has fished for at least two weeks every year in the Florida Keys or the Everglades with Capt. Steve Huff. He has traveled all over the world with his family fishing. Chuck has fished with our Florida group for at least 15 years. He is a member of the Mad River Trout Club in Zanesfield, Ohio where he and his wife Nancy have had a longstanding once a week date to go trout fishing. Obviously, his fishing has served his longevity very well.

Chuck Sheley Works Over Tidal Creek Redfish

Chuck Sheley Works Over Tidal Creek Redfish

Bob Hamilton refuses to even offer up a guess as to how many days he has been fishing and perhaps this is because he firmly believes that “he has never learned anything while he was talking!”

As for me, the above three characters have been hauling me around with them to fishing holes in Ohio and Florida for years. I have also been known to do a little fishing of my own. Indeed, the title of my blog, “Front Yard Fishing”, is taken from the fact that I will stand by myself on dry land in front of my home and practice my casting. We happen to live at a three-way stop. While front yard casting over the last 10 years, I have conducted a scientific study which has reached the conclusion that the drivers of three out of every four cars stopping at the intersection will roll down the driver’s window and ask “are you catching anything?” I am hopeful that even when I am fishing in my front yard with no water and no fish, I am adding two days of living for each day spent casting.

Even our guides are old. Steve Huff is 67 and Andrew Bostick, the youngster of the group, is somewhere in his 50s. Regardless of the actual numbers, I do know that the average age of the anglers on our recent Everglades trip was 76.5 years. Based on our fishing experience all of us expect to live well beyond the age of 100. Since Bob Hamilton is my financial planner, I annually rely upon him to advise my wife, Lauri, whether I can afford to keep fishing until I die. I intend to follow his consistent financial advice: “Keep working.”

I will now provide photographic evidence of the working thesis that each day spent fishing gets you two more days of living. Chuck Sheley has provided the photographs which I use in support of my startling conclusion!

Lee Mitchell, 84, alertly gazes up a tidal creek knowing full well that something is not quite right! How long can you, the reader, stand on the bow of the boat during a 10 hour fishing day?

Mitchie On Point!

Mitchie On Point!

Lee proves that if you stand on the bow of the skiff long enough and cast often enough, very good things are going to happen!

Mitchell Catches Another Keeper Snook

Mitchell Catches Another Keeper Snook

Apparently, this keeper snook caught by Chuck knocked Huff’s sunglasses off his head. We are not sure if it was the fish or the shock that the fish was caught that knocked the sunglasses sideways!

Sheley Knocks Huff's Sunglasses Sideways!

Sheley Knocks Huff’s Sunglasses Sideways!

In their senior years, Chuck and Lee have become hoarders of Rapala Twitch and Rap plugs which are no longer made. We understand they own the last 50 of these fish catching plugs. Apparently, they are even willing to tie one on and cast it!

The Deadly Twitch & Rap

The Deadly Twitch & Rap

Because of the fishing prowess of my colleagues, I often found myself in the position of enjoying the view. My wife informs me that getting adequate rest extends your life as much as fishing!

Chillin'

Chillin’

Once in a while, I was actually allowed by my fishing buddies to fish in the creek. I guess it was because I promised to cook redfish when we got home!

A Red For The Skillet

A Red For The Skillet

Steve Huff did me the great honor of permitting me to fish with a leader and knot which I tied myself! I call that moving up to the big leagues. Here is one of the fish caught on my own knots!

My Own Knots!

My Own Knots!

We were quite reluctant to let Bob Hamilton fish. However, we were more than happy to let him clear cobwebs out of very narrow passageways between gorgeous clear bays so we could fish.

Hamilton Clears The Cobwebs

Hamilton Clears The Cobwebs

The four of us have often speculated that our guides enjoy watching our unparalleled fishing skill set. However, these last two photographs demonstrate without doubt the real reason they let us climb on their skiff. Our actual skills are so humble that Steve Huff can control his trolling motor with his feet and Andrew Bostick can control his trolling motor with a remote control, they can cast in third position on the skiff, and out fish us!

Captain Bostick Can Cast

Captain Bostick Can Cast

Huff Catches 16 lb Snook, Biggest Of The Week

Huff Catches 16 lb Snook, Biggest Of The Week

I submit that the above photographs demonstrate without any question that you should go to your basement or garage, retrieve a rod and reel, go fishing as often as you can and live forever!

Evergaldes Fishing Report

Back to reality! The Everglades fishing trip is over. One of the great joys of any upcoming adventure is the anticipation of the trip. I admit to fishing trips where the anticipation was more exciting than the results of the fishing. As the years have passed, anticipation of the adventure, the memories created, and relationships nurtured have replaced the fishing results as the barometer for a great trip. Based on that measure, this year’s trip was a rousing success. Bob Hamilton, Lee Mitchell, Chuck Sheley and I enjoyed five days of interesting and exciting fishing. However, at our average age of 76.5, the fishing has become secondary to the primary enjoyment of spending time together with our guides, Steve Huff and Andrew Bostick.

Nonetheless, I do have friends that rightfully question whether I ever catch fish on a fishing trip. So here are the details of the catch. With occasional assistance from our guides when they racked the push pole and fished with us, we caught 203 snook and 36 redfish during our five-day trip. We kept a few “keeper” fish within the legal slot limits of 28 to 33 inches for snook and 18 to 27 inches for redfish. May I offer the following amateur recipe: garlic infused olive oil in the bottom of the baking pan, add snook or redfish filets, sprinkle with Panko crumbs, add a touch of parmesan cheese and paprika and bake for 20 min. in a 400° oven. The chef, me, received no complaints!

Keeper Snook

Keeper Snook

Tidal Creek Redfish

Tidal Creek Redfish

Naturally, the fish we did not catch provided the most notable stories. Bob Hamilton had a 100 pound tarpon strike his plug, take off to parts unknown, and strip every inch of this fishing line leaving only a resounding “ping” as the spool emptied. Lee Mitchell on his first cast on day three looked down boat side and saw what we refer to as a “pancake”. A pancake is the only evidence of a missed strike! This particular pancake was 6 feet in diameter. Big tarpon, big snook, we will never know but a great way to get your heart started early in the morning!

Chuck Sheley did his normal thing. Caught everything in sight!

I experienced two mind numbing fish. One keeper snook actually raced some 15 feet pushing a wake the whole way before he struck my plug. I actually managed to catch him!

The second snook was a different story. He struck just 2 minutes after the video card of my new Go Pro camera filled up. As I was speeding up the retrieve of my plug right at the boat preparing to make another cast, a huge snook exploded on the plug not 12 inches from the skiff. After a five-minute fight, the fish began to circle back and forth under the boat. Just as I began to think I might actually catch this fish, the plug pulled out as my rod stretched over the very bow as the big snook swam under the boat for the third time. We did get a look at him and he was no doubt the biggest fish which I hooked the entire week.

So much for the fishing report. Now I will provide a little bit of picture and video evidence that we were actually in the Everglades with fishing rods in hand.

On day one, the truck is unloaded, hands are shaken, hugs exchanged, and smiles of friendship are evident.

The Boys Unpack at Huff's

The Boys Unpack at Huff’s

The best part of every fishing morning is the joy of easing the skiff away from the dock and heading out to the wildness of the Swamp. Is the Swamp a wilderness? On two days, our skiff encountered no other boats or human beings during the entire fishing day.

The second best part of every fishing day is the gorgeous run back home while running thoughts of appreciation through your mind as you give thanks for another fishing day and the awesome beauty of nature which on display as the sun sets. Sometimes you just throw your hands up and say THANKS!

Boys Will Have Their Fun

Boys Will Have Their Fun

When you are on the homebound skiff of Steve Huff, you know you will not only see the sun set but you also see the stars began to shine brightly in the evening sky.

The Inspiring Florida Sky

The Inspiring Florida Sky

Once in a while the anglers have the opportunity of running into a back tidal Creek where redfish gather as the tide floods out of the backcountry. Andrew Bostick loves running his skiff into extremely skinny water to get you to such sites. The rewards can be great!

The Redfish Honey Hole

The Redfish Honey Hole

The anglers are also sometimes given the opportunity of clearing cobwebs which span the mangroves on each side of a narrow creek connecting between two lonely gorgeous bays where if you say nothing there will be no sound!

Clearing The Cobwebs

Clearing The Cobwebs

Finally In The Clear

Finally In The Clear

The sky at the end of the day often speaks to the power of the infinite creation.

Slick Calm

Slick Calm

Off To Fish The Everglades

On Monday morning, good friends Lee Mitchell, Bob Hamilton, Chuck Sheley and I will begin our annual November fishing adventure. We are off to the Swamp! The beauty of the Everglades cannot be over stated. Although blurry, this picture of flamingos in the wild was taken on a previous trip to the Everglades.

Wild Everglades Flamingos

Wild Everglades Flamingos

Our quarry will be the beautiful snook, bulldogging redfish, and there may even be a few tarpon around. The three year ban on keeping a snook due to a huge fish kill as a result of extreme cold in the Everglades has been lifted. So, if we are lucky, there may be a snook and redfish dinner some evening next week.

Everglades Snook

Everglades Snook

We have the good fortune of fishing with tremendous guides, Steve Huff and Andrew Bostick. I am quite sure they are not as excited about fishing us as we are about their being our guides! They will either pole or use their electric motors to direct the skiffs along oyster bars, mangrove islands, channels, and other fish holding structure. With the new moon we are hopeful that enough water will be moving to create tidal exchanges sufficient to encourage hungry fish to strike our plugs.

There will be some bugs, some plugs hung up in the mangroves, a lot of good-natured chop busting, and great camaraderie. If I can master a little technology as the week goes along, my hope is to do a brief daily posting with a little pictorial proof of our adventures.

I have one personal goal. Avoid falling from the boat into the water where alligators and sharks swim. I had two such mishaps last year. Although I am confident I will stay dry, Steve Huff did tell me during a phone call last week that he had stored a snorkel on the boat to make sure it is available for me.

TIGHT LINES!

Ralph Walls Last Fishing Trip

 

Ralph Walls was my best friend. I was introduced to Ralph by a mountain of a man, Mac McDermitt. Mac, who was the kind of guy that simply took over a room as he entered, owned Capital City Excavating Company an underground contractor in Columbus. Ralphie, as we called him, was Capital City’s treasurer and accountant. As Ralphie would self describe, he was a bean counter. Ralph was an outstanding collegiate golfer who played at Ohio State and maintained a four handicap well into his fifth decade. Ralph took me under his wing and tried to teach me to play golf. I was not a very good student.

Ralph as Golfer 1992

Ralph as Golfer 1992

Another mutual friend, Lee Mitchell, provided Ralph and I with the opportunity of becoming fishing buddies as well as golfing friends. Lee owned a gorgeous 32 foot Bertram boat which he captained on Lake Erie. Ralph and I spent many crazy days on Lake Erie catching perch and walleye. When absolutely necessary, we quenched our raging thirst by drinking 7 oz Little Kings. As the summer sun heated up, Ralphie would often be heard to say “I need something for my lips.” Translation – is there a cold Little Kings or Heineken around?

Ralph had many other verbal masterpieces which are carried forward in my own personal vernacular. If I hit an errant golf shot and the ball was resting in difficult spot, Ralph would say “Rowe, you hit it here, now hit it out.” Translation – quit whining and put the ball back in play.

Ralph became a client. Ralphie would say, “Rowe, I will pay you for your legal advice and listen to your business advice.” Translation, I know you have opinions on how I ought to run the business but you are probably wrong.

 When I presented Ralph with a legal document for review, he would sadly shake his head and say “Rowe, you lawyers write all these words, but you never put pencil to paper to see if the numbers work.” Translation, you do not have a practical bone in your body or brain cell in your head!

In late-night gin rummy games, Ralphie was often heard to say, “Rowe, it’s a quick game.” Translation, please make up your mind and make a play!

Ralph and I would often share business and personal concerns. Even though we were guys, we could share not only what we were thinking but also how we were feeling about the challenges of the moment. When discussing a particularly thorny issue, Ralph would shake his head with amusement and say “Rowe, I do not understand everything I know about that.” I ask you to translate that profound observation.

When the incredulous occurred, Ralph would laugh and say ” Been to two goat ropins’ and three county fairs but I ain’t never seen nothing like that before!” Translation – sometimes there is just no explaining the events of real-life.

Each year, Ralph and I looked forward with great anticipation to a fishing trip to the Florida Keys. We dubbed that trip the FIFO Flats challenge. Over the years, many different fishing friends participated in the trip. However, Lee Mitchell, Ralphie, and I were the mainstays. Ralph and Lee fished for one or two years before I was invited to join the group. Starting in 1988, Ralph, Lee, and I would head to Marathon, Florida in the Florida Keys for a November week of pursuing bonefish, permit, and tarpon on the flats.

On November 26, 1989, Ralph, Lee, and I headed to the Keys with friends, Frank Catchpole, Bill Keethler, and Ron Souder.

Ralph and Frank Catchpole waiting on  the fishing day in front of Halls' Bait Store, marathon, Florida

Ralph and Frank Catchpole waiting on the fishing day in front of Halls’ Bait Store, Marathon, Florida

During our road trip certain rituals were honored. We would stop at World Wide Sportsman in Islamorada, Florida and speak with the owner, George Hummell, who had the distinction of being the personal bonefish guide of President George H. W. Bush. Another mandatory stop was the Green Turtle Inn where we dined on the Sunday evening before the fishing began.

As we dined at the Green Turtle, I noticed that as the adult libations were poured and stories of the prior year’s fishing were being shared, inaccuracies popped up. Knowing the nature of fisherman, I did not find the perceived exaggeration the least bit curious. However, I decided to do something about it. Upon arriving in Marathon at about 8:30 in the evening, I asked Lee if I could borrow his truck “Where you going?”  “Kmart,” I replied. “What for?” “Not telling you,” I replied. “Can I use the truck or not?” Mitchell tossed me the keys and off I went.

 I returned with a blank blue journal. For those of us who participated in this spirited fishing tournament known as the FIFO Flats challenge, the Journal became as cherished as the Bible to the religiously inclined. For over 20 years, every fish we caught was recorded. Every story was recited with only slight embellishment. Every adventure and misadventure was noted. As the years rolled by, I never went to dinner after a fishing day without the journal so that the stories we told could be checked against the facts as I had written them.

In thinking and writing about Ralph, the journal prompted many smiles. I hate the fact that Ralph is no longer here to smile with me. In 1993, Ralph discovered he had cancer. Even though he had been a lifelong smoker, the moment the diagnosis was delivered to him, he quit smoking.

Ralph and his True cigarette at the Siesta Motel

Ralph and his True cigarette at the Siesta Motel

A couple of years later, I was visiting Ralph at his home during the final stage of his illness. As we talked, the phone rang. The caller was his doctor. After hanging up the phone, Ralph simply stated, “Doc said there’s no more treatment available for me”. He walked to a drawer in the kitchen, pulled out a pack of his old reliable True cigarettes and lit up. While there was hope of recovery, he was willing and able to do something for himself and his family. Quit smoking. I am certain that all of us have a bad habit we should surrender. If you do, stop now and let Ralph be your inspiration.

When the summer of 1994 rolled around, I sent our annual fishing letter to the prior year’s participants in the FIFO Flats challenge. Basically, the letter asked “are you going fishing or not? If you are going, send me a deposit of $300 which you will lose if you don’t go!”

 As I dropped the letter in the mail, I wondered whether Ralph would send me a check. He did. In the spring after the trip, towards the end of his life, we were talking and I asked Ralph if he had fun on the trip. He said, “No, but I am glad that I went.” Ralphie had a knack for saying things which delivered meaning far beyond the specific words he used.

By reason of Ralph’s illness, the 1994 trip was different. Ralph’s wife, Sherry, came along as nurse and roommate.

Sherry Walls and the Gang

Sherry Walls and the Gang

Sherry helped Ralph prepare as he faced the daily challenge of going to breakfast at Stout’s, climbing into a pickup truck with his guide and heading up or down Highway 1 to a fishing destination. Without Sherry, Ralph could not have fished.

Our guides also went above and beyond the call of ordinary duty. By the time of the 1994 trip, our fishing guides and Ralph were friends. The angler/guide friendship is unique. The relationship is based on a mutual love of a common endeavor. The friendship is nurtured by the respect a guide gives an angler such as Ralph who tried very, very hard no matter what the fishing conditions. The angler reciprocates by genuinely appreciating the skills of a guide who is willing to help an angler try to catch a fish which the guide knows he would without doubt land if only the guide could change places with the angler.

I want to share the events of Ralph’s last fishing week as reflected on the pages of the blue journal.

The first day of the Ralph’s last trip was November 8, 1994. Because of his illness, Capt. Harry Spear decided to fish Ralphie near Marathon where our home away from home, the Siesta Motel, was located. After a couple hours fishing, Harry ran Ralph into the Siesta for a nap.

Ralph Needs Some Rest

Ralph Needs Some Rest

After the rest, Ralph went back out fishing and caught an 11 pound bonefish which is no easy feat. The first run of an 11 pound bone is going to strip somewhere between 100 to 150 yards of line against the drag. Typically, the guide is screaming for his angler to stand with arms and fishing rod extended as far as possible overhead to create a sharp angle between where the line enters the water and the underside of the fish’s mouth. The angle is important to prevent the fishing line from becoming imbedded in the lush turtle grass growing on the Oceanside flats near Marathon. If the angler does not keep the line off the bottom, the streaking fish will eventually brush the line against a small coral head or sea fan and break off.  On this day, Harry was determined to do everything in his power to help Ralph catch the hooked fish even though Ralph could not stand up, let alone extend the rod over his head. Harry fired up the outboard motor and followed this big bad bonefish with the skiff. Ralph fought the fish while seated on the small casting platform strapped to the front of the boat. After a determined dogfight, the fish was captured and released – a good start to a physically challenging week for Ralph.

On November 9, 1994, Ralph and Rich Mealy fished with guide, Steve Huff. They could not find any bonefish but ran into a herd of permit. Ralph caught a 25 and an 18 pound permit. My journal notes indicate that they “chased Ralph’s permit for an hour.” A 25 pound permit typically takes 15 to 25 minutes to land. For a 25 pound permit to stay hooked for the better part of an hour without dragging the line against some obstruction to free itself was a miracle! Also, visualize the effort it took for Steve Huff to pole the 16 foot skiff loaded with two anglers for an hour chasing an angry 25 pound permit!

Steve Huff Unhooks Ralph's Permit

Steve Huff Unhooks Ralph’s Permit

On November 10, 1994, Ralph was feeling tired. He and I fished together with guide, Ray Fetcher. We quit at one o’clock and returned to the hotel. I later fished by myself wading High School Flat. As I entered the water, a huge bonefish was moving slowly along about 8 feet from shore. Needless to say, I did not catch it, but at least Ralph was getting his rest.

On November 11, 1994, the last day of the trip, Ralph and I fished with Harry Spear who launched the skiff near Islamorada. Late in the morning, Harry was running the boat towards a favorite Florida Keys fishing hole, Long Key Bight, which over the years affectionately came to be known as “The Bight”. All of us had sufficient fishing success in the Bight so as to cause us to genuflect each time we approached its entrance. As our boat was flew around the corner of a small mangrove island on the backcountry side of Islamorada, a pelican spooked from its perch in the mangroves and flew directly into the boat. The agitated bird struck Ralphie in the shoulder and knocked him to the bottom of the skiff. The pelican flopped around the boat. Ralph flopped around the boat. As he picked himself up, mildly irritated, Ralphie softly said “What the F…!”

Neither one of us fished well on that last day. We knew the unstated reality that this trip was our last together. We did not see fish well even though there were plenty of fish to see. We did not cast accurately to the fish we did see. According to the journal, we managed to catch one small bonefish the entire day. However, the fishing mattered very little.

All of us privileged to exist in this world long enough to have encountered some living and dying have reflected upon matters of the spirit. We have pondered the question of what awaits us after we pass from this earth.  As for me, my friendship with Ralph is kept alive even though he is not physically present. The memories of our shared adventures keep Ralph at my side. Perhaps this could be eternal life.

Long Key Bight was the last fishing water Ralph and I shared. Harry poled every bit of the huge expanse of the Bight but we saw no fish. As the beautiful golden November afternoon slid away, the angle of the sun sharpened. The brisk ever present wind began to lay down. Rippled water turned to glass. As Harry gently poled out of the Bight, he pushed the skiff approximately 50 yards from shore. The shallow water was punctuated by solitary mangrove shoots fighting to establish themselves in their salty home.

Suddenly in the final moments of the afternoon, a huge permit gently finned out among the sparse patch of mangroves directly in front of the skiff. Ralph and I saw the motionless fish and glanced at each other in wonder. The skiff drifted slowly towards the permit. The fish was not startled. The fish was not scared. The fish did not streak off in panic. We were awestruck. Even though we had our rods in hand with silver dollar sized blue crabs attached to hooks, neither of us cast. Harry said nothing. Harry had never before been mute when a fishing situation called for his angler to cast. The permit slowly began to swim directly in front of the bow of the boat no more than 10 feet from where we stood paralyzed. As we silently watched, the giant fish gently eased away from Long Key Bight on the watery path leading to a sun setting in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunset Over Still Water

Sunset Over Still Water

As the silvery permit faded from sight, I whispered to Harry “If we had cast, what chance did we have to catch that fish?” Harry replied, “None”.

In over 20 years of fishing the Florida Keys, I have never seen a permit behave in similar fashion. This fish had no fear of what came next. Nor did it have any great concern for its current circumstance. Since that bittersweet last fishing day, the gorgeous old permit has for me represented Ralph’s spirit as he too slowly slipped away from his family and friends towards a different destination.

 

 

 

 

Chuck Sheley On The Key To Catching Big Fish: Go Fishing – A Lot

Chuck Sheley is a fisherman. Not only does he fish, Chuck catches fish. Not only does he catch fish, Chuck catches big fish. Since November of 1996, Chuck and I have spent a week each year fishing together in Florida with great fishing friends. Originally, our trip centered in Marathon. We chased bonefish, permit and tarpon around the Florida Keys. We were blessed to have great fishing guides for each of those years. Steve Huff, Dustin Huff, and Dale Perez provided us with many shots at great fish, poled into the wind, took us out in good and bad weather, encouraged us, and offered their abundant expertise on the saltwater flats for our benefit.

Our annual trip moved to the Everglades last year. Although Chuck could call Florida his fishing capital, he is from Ohio and has fished all over the world. He is extremely humble about his angling accomplishments but has graciously given me permission to brag about him a little bit. I must admit that as I write, it is easy to live vicariously through his angling accomplishments.

Part of the fun of each year’s Florida trip was bantering with one another as we negotiated the small side bets on the biggest fish of each day and week. Inevitably, when folks stand side-by-side on a bonefish skiff, or bass boat, bragging rights and a few bets are at stake. Obviously, the rest of us on the trips were optimists because we made the same losing bet each year on the largest fish even though Chuck kept winning.

Chuck almost always releases his fish. If he cannot get a fish to the boat quickly enough to suit him, he frets about its health. If a fish is hooked deep, he is upset. If a shark tracks down a hooked bonefish or permit and eats it, he may not speak for hours. So in return, perhaps as Steve Huff has eloquently written in the article which I have republished below, the fishing Gods have on occasion blessed Chuck because of the positive and joyous attitude he brings to fishing.

Steve Huff Tribute To An Angler

Steve Huff Tribute To An Angler

Chuck has caught the largest bonefish on the boat of Capt. Dale Perez, who has fished in the Florida Keys for well over 30 years. Chuck was fishing with friend, Lee Mitchell at the end of the angling day on Nine Mile Bank which is located in Florida Bay. Florida Bay is such a shallow body of water that a depth of 6 feet is considered a canyon. The Bay is a series of basins which are separated by mud banks. These banks restrict the flow of water as the tide comes in and out. Nine Mile Bank is one of the first barriers to the flow of water at the westernmost point of the day. Historically, it has been a tremendous fishing area. However, finding fish can be difficult because the salinity, oxygen level, forage and temperature very greatly from basin the basin. On this day, however, fish were tailing and waking as they came on to the mud bank covered with lush turtle grass with the incoming tide. Chuck and Lee were watching a school of three very large bonefish. They were moving slowly towards the skiff and at the last possible moment Chuck cast his shrimp in front of the three fish school. A huge bone picked up the shrimp and took off. Chuck’s recollection of the fight is of course dimmed by the reality of this huge once-in-a-lifetime catch.

Captain Dale Perez Holding Possible World Record Bonefish Caught By Chuck Sheley Chuck's Witness, Friend Lee Mitchell Also Pictured

Captain Dale Perez Holding Possible World Record Bonefish Caught By Chuck Sheley Chuck’s Witness, Friend Lee Mitchell Also Pictured

There is much speculation that the bonefish may have weighed as much as 18 pounds and been a world record on 10 pound test. Take a close look at the photograph and you will see the extremely large girth of the fish and the fact that Dale’s hand does not fit around the tail of the fish.

Chuck has also caught the largest bonefish on the skiff of Capt. Dustin Huff. This fish was caught in just off Duck Key. Dustin weighed the fish at 13 1/4 pounds on IGFA approved scales.

Chuck Sheley Largest Bonefish Ever Caught On Skiff Of Guide Dustin Huff

Chuck Sheley Largest Bonefish Ever Caught On Skiff Of Guide Dustin Huff

Chuck has caught the largest snook which IGFA Hall of Fame Guide, Steve Huff has ever touched. Chuck was fishing in January of 2005 in the Everglades with Steve at the time of the catch. The snook weighed 32 pounds and was 44 inches in length.

Largest Snook Ever Caught On Steve Huff's Skiff

Largest Snook Ever Caught On Steve Huff’s Skiff

On that same trip, Chuck caught a 14 1/2 pound snook on fly.

All of us who fish tell stories about the fish we have caught. Once in a while we have proof that the stories are true. I hope you enjoy the photographs and article which demonstrate much more eloquently than I can describe in my words the great skill, determination, and effort which Chuck has expended in pursuing his sport.

When I asked Chuck how he explained his success with big fish, he simply answered, “It pays to be lucky and fish a lot!”

So, fellow anglers, I encourage you to keep fishing… a lot. Who knows, the fishing gods may bless you with a little luck of your own!

Agitation Factor

Sunset Off Seven Mile Bridge

Sunset Off Seven Mile Bridge

This post is a sequel to “Dustin Huff Swims Seven Mile Bridge”. That adventure occurred on the morning of June 18, 1995. As all anglers know, a great catch early in the day does not quench an anglers’ thirst for another shot at a great fish. So the miracle permit caught after Dustin went swimming did not cause us to head for the dock. After Dustin dried off and released the permit unharmed, we ate lunch.

Lunch on a flats skiff is more like an eating contest than a meal. Experience has taught me that sought after fish just love swimming right up to the boat when it is tied off to the push pole, the rods are racked, and the anglers are eating. It is as if the fish know we are not prepared. Our solution is wolfing down the sandwiches and hopping back on the bow of the boat locked and loaded with rod in hand ready for the next shot at a bonefish or permit.

As we ate, Dustin pointed to the water just off the edge of Boot Key as the land curved into a point marking the beginning of the channel ocean side of Seven Mile Bridge. “See that strip of white sand off the point?” Dustin pointed out a football field shaped area of brilliant white sand with lush turtle grass forming the sidelines. “Baby tarpon lay up on that bank on an incoming tide which is just starting now. I’m going to tie on shock leaders and we’ll see if we can jump a baby tarpon.” Dustin whipped out some 80 lb test line, tied the shock leaders on both our lines, and baited the hooks with fresh shrimp. He jumped up on the poling platform after dislodging the tied off push pole from the mucky bottom of the flat. The rods he rigged for the baby tarpon were the seven foot spinning rods we had been using earlier in the day for permit. Our reels were spooled with 10 lb. test Ande clear monofilament.

Tarpon Daisy Chain Off Seven Mile Bridge

Tarpon Daisy Chain Off Seven Mile Bridge

Dustin spun the boat into the current and poled with the noontime sun directly overhead. Visibility was terrific. As we slowly moved towards the leading edge of the sandy bank, a couple of green missile shaped streaks were swimming slowly towards us. “Andy, cast as soon as you think you can reach the first fish. Drop the shrimp ten feet in front of the cruiser and let it sink.” Andy can really cast and did as instructed. The leading green shadow surged toward the sinking bait, opened its large maw and the shrimp simply disappeared. “Hit em, hit em, hit em!” Dustin screamed. Andy reeled down until he felt the weight of a hooked fish and did a terrific job setting the hook. We were in business. One problem. The tarpon was no baby and Andy was using 10 lb test line. The drag screamed as the fish made its first spirited run away from the skiff. Zzzzzzzzz. There is no better sound. Suddenly the water began to bulge in front of the huge tarpon as it launched into its first and only jump. Andy bowed to the fish and somehow the rig held. The fish was hooked!

Tarpon anglers can attest that each fight of a hooked tarpon is unique. Just as we humans have distinct personalities, so do tarpon. This fish acted as if it was a cranky middle child with a chip on its shoulder. After the first jump, this nasty tempered tarpon headed for the bottom and stayed there. The tarpon had an apparent first destination of the Gulf Stream which runs North off the Florida coast. The Gulf Stream was first reported by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513 when he discovered Florida. In the area where we were fishing, the stream is known as the Florida Current. The speed of the Gulf Stream varies. In areas where it happens be narrower it is faster than in wider areas. The speed is up to 2 meters per second. Interestingly, the Gulf Stream meanders. It is like a river which has no banks. It can be experienced as close to a quarter-mile from the Florida coast in spots. Our tarpon must have sensed this because the fish swim directly towards the fast current offshore.

Dustin fired up the boat as the tarpon began to tow the boat towards the ocean and into a depth of water where the push pole could not touch bottom. He also wanted to head off the fish before the bulldogging fish stripped Andy of the 300 yards of mono spooled on his Stradic 4000 reel. The fish cooperated and wheeled back towards shore.

For years I had heard my buddy, Mitchie tell stories of tarpon fights. “Never let the fish rest. Better to lose him early than late. Their rasp like mouth will eventually wear through even an 100 lb leader.” Unfortunately, Andy knew none of this as this was his first tarpon. After about twenty minutes, the fish began to tow the boat. The fish had settled down and was swimming, the tide was slack, the drag was not slipping and Andy could not gain on the fish. Still the skiff moved forward. Dustin coached, ” Reel down to the fish and then lift, reel down lift, reel down lift.” We edged close enough to see the fish in the water. “How big?”, I whispered as I stood on the stern next to Dustin who had jumped down from the poling platform when he fired up the engine. He had not begun to pole again as he hoped Andy could keep just enough pressure on the tarpon so the drag would not slip resulting in the tarpon’s effort in towing the boat wearing the fish out. “Well over 100 lbs., so much for baby tarpon.” Dustin responded.

Andy put very little pressure on the fish as he was inexperienced and I am sure could not imagine how much the 10 lb. mono would stretch if he tightened down the drag and pulled hard on the face of the giant. “We have no chance unless you put more pressure on the fish, Andy,” Dustin shouted. “Let me get the cooler up on the bow and you can sit down and use your hips to fight him.” After a few seconds, the cooler was on the bow and Andy settled down. He said nothing. We were two hours into the fight at that point. The fish swam and towed and Andy held on while we hoped for a miracle. With each passing minute, Andy’s shoulders slumped a little bit more as the fish fought on relentlessly. “The agitation factor is setting in,” whispered Dustin. For the tarpon, it was a life or death struggle. For Andy, it was a first time adventure with a very steep learning curve.

About a mile away from the hookup point, Andy’s fish was joined by another tarpon which began swimming beside the hooked fish. It was as if the confused or perhaps mildly amused tarpon had reached out for reinforcements. We had just concluded the fourth hour of the fight. During the first couple of hours I tried to offer the occasional light hearted remark to break the tension. “When am I going to get to fish, Andy?” No reply. “Great job, Andy!” No reply. “Hang in there, Andy!” No reply.

Slowly the fish pulled the skiff towards Marathon. Just as the shoreline begins to turn in towards Highway 1 and the High School flat, there is a small island about a quarter of a mile off the tip of Boot Key. The island contained a gorgeous home with sunrise views in the morning and sunset vistas in the evening. Just off shore were a couple of boats were moored. As we approached the island, we noticed several small children happily swimming. The tarpon swam straight towards the splashing children. We followed. When the fish was twenty feet from the kids and their cheerful spirited commotion, the tarpon spooked from the water vibrations and bolted in the opposite direction. The companion free swimming tarpon spooked a moment later and as it spun sideways in a mirror image move of the other fish, its tail hit the taut line and the hooked tarpon was free. Over! The struggle was over.

Andy was in a state of shock. As each hour passed, I had begun to think our chances of catching the giant improved. Dustin knew better. And now, Andy and I knew better.
Andy spun on the cooler and faced us. He was drenched in sweat and I sensed a hint of exhausted relief on his face. This struggle with a great strong fish was like life’s moments of uncertainty where we are trapped in the quick sand of the unknown unable to move forward. With resolution of the uncertainty, we can begin to live again. Once the giant tarpon was free, Andy could absorb the lessons of the fight preparing him to handle the next tarpon he encountered. An intense fish fight such as Andy’s also offers all of us a clear demonstration of how hard a wild creature will fight for life. With lessons learned, the next morning Dustin guided Andy to his first tarpon.

June 19, 1995 Andy Rowe's First Tarpon

June 19, 1995 Andy Rowe’s First Tarpon

Although Andy appears elated in the photo, I am confident that the memories of fighting a 100 plus lb tarpon on a bonefish rod and 10 lb test line are more vivid than the fish caught.

Andy's Tarpon Released

Andy’s Tarpon Released

Off To Alaska

I am excited to report that Lauri and I are off to Alaska for a two week adventure. One week on land and one week on the sea. I hope to have at least one fishing story to tell upon my return. I will be fishing the Upper Kenai River on September 6. I am told there could be some Granddaddy rainbow trout in the river. Now whether I can catch one is a totally different matter. Nonetheless, we all need rest. And for now, just as I rested with my Grandpa Hessey after a hard day of fishing in the photograph below, my blog, Front Yard Fishing, will be taking a brief rest until our return. Best wishes to all of our friends and family. Go Bucks! See you soon!

Fishing Is Very Hard Work!

Fishing Is Very Hard Work!

Izzy’s First Fish

Several days ago, I posted a story about my Grandpa Hessey. The events described occurred a long time ago. As we all know, time scorches by. I am now a Grandfather, commonly known in the family as Oompah. My first grandchild, Izzy, was born very early. She weighed 1 lb. 11 oz. Her home for the first several months was Children’s Hospital. Since my law office is only a few blocks away from Children’s, Izzy and I spent many weekday lunch hours holding hands through the holes in the side of her isolette. No doubt there are a few nurses in the ICU who remember a white-haired grandfather singing songs to his new granddaughter.

She has done so well. Nate and Amanda, her Daddy and Mommy, are such great parents. She has blessed our lives in ways unimagined by us until she arrived. But of course, I could not wait to see Izzy catch her first fish. Patience has never been one of my virtues, but Izzy made every day waiting for her to be big enough to go fishing with her Grandpa a day worth remembering. She has been the focal point of many happy and joyous moments for her Oompah and those who love her! For example,

Izzy took me to the Worthington Memorial Day Parade.

Keeping A Close Eye  On The Parade Action

Keeping A Close Eye On The Parade Action

Izzy introduced me to the stylish new hairdos of bathing infants in America.

Is There An Electric Current In This Bathtub?

Is There An Electric Current In This Bathtub?

Izzy makes Lauri, her Mimi, very happy and in turn that makes me very happy.

I Love You Mimi!

I Love You Mimi!

Izzy loves to flirt with Oompah in her sunglasses.

Looking Awesome!

Looking Awesome!

Izzy helped Oompah recover from knee replacement surgery by joining me for long peaceful naps on the front porch.

Nap Time - Nothing Better

Nap Time – Nothing Better

Izzy takes me to eat ice cream.

Yum!!!!!!!!

Yum!!!!!!!!

Izzy tucks me in bed when she gets her sleeper on and combs out her hair for the night.

Night Night!!

Night Night!!

But time passed quickly and a couple of weeks ago the big day for catching her first fish arrived. Her Daddy, Nate, my Mom and Dad, and I were allowed to go along. I had fished this gorgeous farm pond a couple of weeks earlier and I knew Izzy’s chances of success were extremely high and warned everyone to pay attention because catching that first fish would not take long. Our cameras and cell phones were ready to capture the action. Nate was of course in charge. I hope you enjoy seeing Izzy catch her first fish at age 3 as much as the rest of us did.