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

Cold January Days In The Keys

“What do you want to do today?” Huffer asked. The water temperature was 58 degrees and we wore three layers of clothing to keep out the Canadian air of identical temperature. Waves of ice rink air had been blasting the Keys for a week and the chill reminded one of a late fall Ohio football day. After thirteen years of sharing a skiff with our guide, Steve Huff, both of us knew that skimming across the water at thirty miles an hour on a run of half an hour up the oceanside Key Largo shoreline would drive the tears forced by the wind around our face where they would freeze on our ears. So even though we were well prepared for the weather by our dress, our quarry, the bonefish, cope with cold water by seeking comfort in some deep green channel where the water fights off a few degrees of chill. Bones are not fishable under such conditions.

Even the asking of the question was puzzling. Our traditional morning routine includes a conscious effort to avoid even a hint of what we would like to fish for or where we would like to go. Conversation at breakfast with our guides includes a recap of the catches of the day before, the memory spawning disasters which years later are the subject of often told stories, and fishing tackle. But an angler suggesting that a Florida Keys flats guide should seek bonefish instead of permit or tarpon instead of barracuda is taboo. Those decisions are made by guides.

There are times though when the choices do not range from permit at Key West to bonefish at Biscayne Bay. Today was one of those times. We faced the same decision the day before and the answer yielded a destination which was a first for me. Lake Ingraham. We put in at Sandy Moret’s ramp located in the rear of his beautiful Islamorada home which boasts a sunset view of Florida Bay. From there, we wound our way through the back country skirting along the edge of Nine Mile Bank until a deep turquoise channel gave us access to the flats leading past the winter home of the migratory white pelicans. A group of fifteen of the brilliantly bright birds swam quietly along in pursuit of food unlike their dive bombing brown pelican brothers who approach a meal like an airborne freight train.

We hit the mainland shore line just to the west of Flamingo and approached close enough to find the lee of a fifteen mile an hour north wind which caused the Florida weather readers to talk of wind chill as if they were dealing with a Buffalo snow blown forecast. We approached Lake Ingraham through the dredged manmade channel that runs for a half mile from Florida Bay to the mouth of the lake. Arriving at low tide, I was stunned to see a series of exposed mud banks which called up images of a convoluted human brain. Each little crevice or channel in this spider web of mud was an obvious path for the migrating fish as the tide would come in. But today the weak winter tides would never flood the mud flats and the fish were forced to gather in the deeper channel running down the middle of Lake Ingraham.

As the skiff dropped off plane, Steve Huff shut down the Yamaha 120 HP outboard and stepped up to the poling platform. Having long ago learned to be ready when the guide is ready, I grabbed my rod loaded with 10 lb test and a thirty lb shock leader and stepped up scanning the water surface as I settled into my side of the bow. I next edged back so my then 73 year old friend and fishing partner, Lee Mitchell, known to those of us who fish with him as Mitchie, steadied himself for the step up by grabbing on to my belt. Scanning Lake Ingraham was like looking into a huge bowl of Mocha flavored coffee. I thought to myself, “We will never see a fish in this water.” Five pushes into our first approach, we began to see cream puff like explosions of mudding or fleeing fish. “Cast to the muds and look for swirls. You might see a tail on the edges but more than likely the reds will be in the channel. If you see a shake or push hit it and make that jig look alive”, Huff instructed.

Mitchie began to catch redfish. I did not. After three reds Mitchie wondered aloud if I was trying as hard as I could. “Little early in the day to start busting chops isn’t it?” I replied. “Anyway, I would feel bad if I didn’t let you catch at least a couple before taking charge of this water”

“Right”

We fished on and all of a sudden I felt a tap and hooked a two pound red. “Nice Jr. Leaguer, Stevie.” Mitchie calls me Stevie even though I am well over 50 years old. “Need any help landing him?”

“Naw, I thing I can handle it old buddy” I released the red and then the fish started to come. After an hour and fifteen redfish, I uttered the unutterable. “Are there any snook here?” Apparently, the redfish were insulted, took off the feedbag, or fled. The fishing shut down.

“Dammit, Rowe, you know better than to insult the fish. The fishing gods hate that kind of talk. Let’s get out of here.” Huff said with a smile in his voice.

We ran about ten minutes back to the outside and upon reaching the mouth of the inlet, we saw a pack of fishing boats working the incoming tide looking for seatrout, snook, redfish, or any other hungry fish willing to ignore the icy water and take a meal. As we slowed to shut off the wake and work through the pack of boats, all of us indulged in a stolen glance hoping to see a fish caught but knowing that we would feel the catching boat was in a spot where we most certainly would have been fishing had they just not been there. No fish were sighted and so we left the mouth, and motored slowly to the west towards the next cut which was about thirty yards wide and without a boat.

“It’s two o’clock. Let’s drift in towards the mouth and have some lunch” Huff said.

Mitchie and I were both thinking what we always think when fishing with Huff. We had been hungry for two hours but Huff thinks that lunch is at best a time consuming nuisance which steals precious fishing time.

As we wolfed down our food, Mitchie made the mistake of asking, ”What are we going to do here?”

Huff mocked , “What are we going to do here? Why don’t you hurry up and get up on that bow and find out?”

We packed up our left over styrofoam cups which had contained chunky chicken salad and the aluminum foil which had protected the bonefish sandwich Huff favored, a messy combination of gooey egg salad over ham contained by two slices of rye. The trash was stored in the bow compartment

Huff pushed us towards the mouth of the cut which was edged by black mangroves just beginning to receive the touch of an outgoing tide. As we approached the outside edge of the cut we saw two large stationary shapes hovering motionless on the top of a drowned tree which was sitting far enough from the mangroves to catch a shower of sunlight. Two goliath grouper in the range of fifty pounds were warming there bodies and had no interest in the jig we dangled two inches from their snout.

We pushed further out and came to a slot in the mangroves where you could park a pick up truck with no room to spare. Mitchie was on the bow and I backed him up from the middle of the boat. Huff was on the poling platform and jammed the push pole in the muck to hold us away from the slot while the current urged us forward. Mitchie flipped his jig shoreward and bam a five pound snook smacked the jig and after a fight slowed to a sluggish surge or two due to the frigid water, the fish was boated and released. We were in the middle of one of those fishing situations where the boat position permited Lee to demonstrate a basic personality flaw of many anglers – being a fish hog. In the next ten minutes as the tide continued its flood, Mitchie yanked ten snook out of what was an obvious fish parking spot. I managed two.

Have you noticed that anglers have the ability to see through the back of their fishing partners head when he sports an ear to ear grin because he is thrashing you in the boat bet.

“Get back here you evil old man!” I shouted as the last of the ten snook slid towards the starboard sideboard. “Oh, Stevie, I just don’t think this replacement knee can take standing in the middle of the boat. I just have to have this comfortable seat on the bow!”

“Right”

The fishing continued for me and the catching for Mitchie. A total of fifteen snook later, we headed back across Florida Bay for a face freezing run to home.

The next morning, we ate breakfast at Stout’s Restauart. Stouts is one of those Florida Keys establishments that can make a living by remaining open through the noon hour. Fishermen use the establishment for breakfast and lunch sandwiches. The lunch crowd finishes off the day, and the owners hit the water for a little fishing themselves. Bacon, eggs, toast, lots of coffee, and a short wait for the lunch sandwiches to be made. The restaurant seats may be 40 around 10 small tables. The talk is of fishing, fishing guides, lost opportunities, all of which are tied together by a fisherman’s dash of embellishment. Normally, the conversation at breakfast does not include where the anglers might want to fish that day. Such a topic is taboo when you are paying a guide four hundred fifty dollars a day to make such a decision.

But after squeezing two days to fish out of my appointment book to join a best friend on the bow of a sixteen foot super skiff, there was no time to wait on the weather to change, the water to warm up, or the wind to stop howling. So today, I chose to risk the taboo breaking penalty of no fish by answering the question of what we would like to do by saying “ Let’s go find some bonefish.”

After hearing my request, Huffer looked outside saw the north wind and suggested we head to Key Largo. We strolled across Highway 1, got into the pickup truck, and headed towards the John Pennecamp State Park. Pennecamp has one of the best ramps in the Keys. But even on the finest ramps, strange things can happen. After Huffer backed the boat towards the water and down the ramp, he exited the driver side to unhook the safety chain. I was in the back and so after Mitchie exited the vehicle, I began to untangle my long legs by turning my back to the top of the cab, sticking my right foot towards the pavement and stepping out with my left foot. As I twisted to close the door, Mitchie made his way around the front of the pickup truck and and closed the driver’s side door. In the same instant, my right elbow brushed the door lock and I closed the passenger’s door. We were locked out of the pickup. The result was a boat on its trailer, a pickup truck running, and a very distressed fishing guide. The beauty of fishing with Steve Huff, however, is that he knows someone in every town in the Keys who can get things done. Key Largo was no exception. Within minutes, a tow truck driver with a nasty looking metal tool had opened the door and we were back in business.

Once a skiff leaves the ramp at John Pennecamp, the guide and anglers are treated to a gorgeous ride through mangrove lined channels filled with beautiful clear green water. The first time one makes that run, it is impossible to imagine that the Atlantic Ocean lies just a few hundred yards to the east. The Oceanside shoreline of Key Largo is some of the most stunning water in the Keys. The bottom consists of hard coral, which is easily heard by the crunch of the push pole.

Key Largo is a popular destination when the wind is beating on the Gulfside flats. As any angler who fishes for bonefish knows, best results are achieved when one can see the fish. When peering through the clear water to the Key Largo ocean bottom one is confronted by a series of black and green spots which look like an image from the business end of a kaleidoscope. It is not difficult to mistake a stationary black spot for a bonefish. You constantly have to remind yourself that a bonefish moves, but a black spot on the bottom does not. On this day, however, we learned that bonefish sometimes do what is unexpected when the water is more like the temperature found in Lake Erie in the late fall.

As Huffer poled up the shoreline, he remarked, “Is that a school of fish about 500 yards ahead?”

There are many times on the flats, when the guide who stands on an elevated platform sees fish long before the anglers. This was not one of those times. At the edge of our vision range, a huge black wad of something awaited. In 15 years of bonefishing, I had never before seen as school of bonefish swimming in a circle. This group of fish appeared to be wandering in a huge daisy chain. Perhaps the fish were attempting to stay together. How cold-blooded fish in cold water could create warmth by swimming in circles closely together would seem to defy modern science. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what these fish were doing. As we got closer, it did not appear that the fish would spook. Huffer said, “Mitchie, cast to the right edge of the school.” He went on, “Rowe, you cast of the left edge and let’s pull a double out of this group.”

Mitchie cast first. Wide right. I went next and made a decent cast of the left edge of the school and immediately hooked up. Normally, a hooked bonefish will tear through the water stripping line against the drag. A larger fish can take upwards of one hundred and fifty yards of line against the drag. This fish did not seem to have the energy to do what a hooked bonefish normally did. It slowly and sluggishly moved away from the pack which continued to circle slowly. After a brief fight, a beautiful silver sided 8 pound bonefish was in Huffer’s hands. Huffer called over his shoulder, “What the hell were you casting at Mitchie?” No reply.

The lesson learned is one all fisherman know – you never know what might happen when you are fishing while everyone else stays home.

Guide Steve Huff

Fishing Guide

Fishing Guide

What a privilege it has been to fish with this man. This picture was taken at Steve’s induction into the IGFA Hall of fame several years ago. I caught my first Permit with Steve, fist tarpon over 50 pounds with Steve, fished Key West for the fist time with Steve, and many more firsts! Those of us who fish with Steve often look closely to see if he has gills! His instincts are legend.

This sums him up best. I was fishing for snook in the Everglades with great friend, Chuck Sheley, last November.  Huffer was our guide. We had an hour and a half skiff run to return to the dock at Chokoloskee as the fire orange sun was setting in a crushing blue sky behind the mangrove islands. The wind had stilled. The surface was calm as the pockets of water next to the mangroves darkened in the shade. There was silence. All the rest of the guides had long since returned to the dock. I knew we would be able to see the bright stars of the dark night sky by the time we docked. Steve said, “See…wouldn’t it be a shame not to be out here at this time of day?”

Steve was recently featured in an article published in the International Angler, a publication of the International Game Fish Association. The article is titled, “Captain Steve Huff: Secrets for permit on fly”. The article includes links to his IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame induction video and a demonstration of Steve time his permit fly loop knot. Take a look.

First Bonefish

I have a great friend named, Lee Mitchell. His friends call him Mitchie and in fishing circles he is known as Captain Crusty. I enjoyed many fish catching afternoons on his 32 foot Bertram which he ran as the consummate captain on Late Erie. We also had the misfortune of being members of a club in Columbus, Ohio known as The Drummers. The Drummers was one of those clubs with no socially redeeming value. However, we did excel at drinking beer, playing golf, and dealing gin rummy. From years of experience, I knew that if Mitchie had consumed at least two Beefeater martinis on the rocks with blue cheese stuffed olives, I could get him to tell his bonefish stories over and over and over. Mitchie had the unique talent of arriving at the end of a story only to push the restart button so I had the pleasure of hearing the story from the beginning before we ever heard the end.

My memory bank was full of stories of bonefish in the Florida Keys. Mitchie raved about a place called Bonefish Alley where he finished with Guide Steve Huff late in the day on an incoming tide. Schools of bonefish would push up on the flat to feed. As the sun was setting in stunning pink and orange, the bones would wake and tail and Capt. Huff would simply use the push poll to spin the boat to give Mitchie and his fishing buddy of the day another shot. I will tell more of the enticing stories in later posts.

Dreams turned to reality in 1988. Lee and his late wife, Marian, were staying on Key Colony Beach and invited Lauri and I to stay for several days in March. Two fishing days were scheduled. On the first, Mitchie and I headed from Marathon to Islamorada. We were to meet Guide John Kipp at The Lorelei in Islamorada. John did not show. We headed back to Marathon disappointed. But Mitchie is a determined sort and fortunately had the phone number of a then young fishing guide named Jose Wejebe. Mitchie called Jose who wasn’t booked. He agreed to meet us at the Holiday Inn near Vaca Cut in Marathon at noon for a half day of fishing. Jose launched his bonefish skiff and ran around the corner to Ted and Mary’s flat ocean side of Marathon. The flat was named after the proprietors of Hall’s, a must stop bait and tackle store in the Keys. We saw nothing. I would not have seen anything even if there were fish on the flat but Jose and Mitchie also detected no fish clues. On down the flats Jose poled. After fishing High School flats we still had seen nothing. Jose jumped down off the poling platform, fired up the skiff and headed around the corner to Boot Key.

After Jose had poled a couple of hundred yards Mitchie said, “Humph, never seen a bonefish on Boot Key!” Jose, “Really?” No sooner had the words crossed his lips than Jose whispered, “Steve, school of bones 9 o’clock, sixty feet.” I looked, saw nothing and out of panic launched my shrimp towards what I thought was 9 o’clock. The fishing gods smiled that day because a fish ate, set the hook on itself and took off. The drag sang that beautiful song of a fired up bonefish and after a couple of great runs, Jose lifted my first bonefish out of the water. “No bonefish on Boot Key? Someone must have gotten lost! Way to go Rowe!” Thanks Jose. You are missed.

Guide speak

Steve Huff is simply the best salt water flats guide ever. Steve was recently inducted into the IGFA Hall of Fame.

Steve Huff

Steve Huff delivers IGFA Hall of Fame acceptance speech

 

When fishing with Steve, you know that the time of day affects word choice as an early morning shot at a bonefish goes awry. Early in the day, anglers know that optimism is in abundant supply. That optimism is reflected by Steve’s standard line when his angler blows an early in the day shot. It goes something like this, “we’ll get em!”

Scan0014 (2)

Steve Huff holds my first Permit!

 

Sometimes, however, the early blown shot happens to be the only one of the day until what I affectionately refer to as “last chance time”. When fishing with Huff, the last shot always happens as the sun is dropping below the horizon. The angler’s senses are sharpened by the knowledge that Steve’s skiff is the last on the water. No other angler will have this chance because all the other guides are at the dock and their anglers at the bar. A fish caught on the last shot is always the most memorable. Perhaps because you know life promises no next shot.

Scan0018 (2)

A Keys sunset as we scan for the last tailing bonefish..” Last chance time”

 

If I screw up the that last chance with a bad cast or some other angling mishap, Steve’s words are terse, short and to the point – “Forget it!” If the last chance happens to be to a fish that does not want to eat, the words are different, “Sorry, guys, I hate to leave with fish around but it is already dark!”

Steve Huff lends a hand (00053735@xC4F0B)

Steve Huff lends a hand as we recover from one of my many angling mishaps1! Long Key Bight, Florida Keys

 

 

Guide speak!