Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bahia Honda Channel: Cero Mackerel, Groupers, Snappers, Bar Jack, Florida Keys Bridge Sharks

 Our third day boating, we tried once again to make the reef and beyond, only to turn back, sure we would, but I had to give it a try for my son. Better that a 13-year-old learn by experience than by being told. Once again, he felt it was best we go back, in fact wise, seas just as high as the previous day. Fishing inside the Bahia Honda bridge was a rough experience itself, whitecaps rocking the boat constantly, although neither of us really felt much discomfort. First consideration against reaching for the reef was not how unstable the boat would be for fishing, but whether we would make it there or not. But certainly if we did make it: 1. The boat would be extremely unstable. 2. To go beyond over deep water (sloping sharply to over a thousand feet deep) would have been tantamount to suicide as seas gathered height without bottom resistance. I wonder how high seas may have been over the reef, since those high swells would have been rolling right into them.

Lots of memories of manning my 17 1/2-runabout craft through enormous bay swells many years ago as a commercial clammer. But a bay can only roar so ferociously, because shallow. Nevertheless, the 15 to 20 foot deep Bahia Honda Channel never pitched up and threw anything at us as fierce as Great Bay and Little Egg Harbor used to challenge me on occasion. I loved that action with a passion rooted a lot deeper than the bottom muck reached. All there with nothing in reserve, I didn't feel it with any affectation. No one fishes the bay when the wind hounds that hard. But a few shellfishermen did.

Five years ago, we got to the reef and beyond in a 19-foot boat with a 90-horsepower outboard. That's how light the seas can be. But even on that day I refused to go further out than 120-foot depths not far from the reef. The swells very widely spaced (not so these two days this year), they sank deeper and rose higher the further we ventured away from the reef. The 23-foot Mako could have gone well out beyond; we could have fished Mahi with reasonable seas. 

A nice cero mackerel by Matt. Hit on the retrieve, not surprisingly--shrimp. We used live and frozen. All real anglers feel an affinity for at least one fish species. I have felt affinities for different animal species from early boyhood; I desired to go to the Arizona desert to find gila monsters, for example, something uncannily compelling about these creatures. Since I was 17, I tried to catch Spanish mackerel on North Carolina's Outer Banks, having seen one laid out on the wooden planks of Kitty Hawk Pier, feeling awestruck by the beauty. Those golden spots--like gold for a second. I fished the Outer Banks five or six non-consecutive years before finally catching Spanish on a charter trip trolling, and they were wonderful. This is when cero became distantly fascinating to me, just enough possibility of hooking one in Ocracoke Inlet to tantalize interest. It is uncanny how these affinities take hold, and I doubt psychologists understand the phenomena, although it involves intuition. It is almost as if it involves a complex, but greatly simplified foresight, because it's a gut feeling and must have origin in our ancestral foraging. But to me, a cero felt worth more than I could assign value somehow; here, my son caught one, that golden, horizontal line edged by gold spots suggesting some arcane code by which nature teases the mind and tempts me to proclaim that the pattern is absurd, without meaning.

More groupers, grunts. As the photo demonstrates, grunts have large, narrow mouths. They have a kissing ritual. Those mouths open as they face off. And yes, they grunt.

That's a lane snapper with the red tail, nearly a foot long. My bar jack was a real pelagic fighter on the light tackle, also hit on the retrieve after I missed the strike from another (can tell), schooled obviously.

The cero got my thumb; I guess that prompted the camera close-up on the teeth.

This was a long, deeply involved yet simple day of fishing. As a clammer I had spent day after day for most of 13 years on the water in the hot sun as well as bitter chill of January, which both simplified my life enormously and awakened me to complexities I couldn't have begun to approach any other way than by prolonged exposure to given nature. But the complexities came about through intellectual stimulus: I would come off the water and go directly to my notebook and write. And I would read, often hours each day.

I haven't felt so closely reacquainted to how I was those years, since those years.

That night we went for sharks with our head lamps on, casting from the No Name Key bridge. Nothing this time; five years ago Matt caught the bonnethead I estimated at 25 pounds. Perhaps it was 18, but if so, a big bonnethead.

Nurse sharks beneath Keys bridges are often eight feet long.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Big Small River, Stream Smallmouth Bass and Little Swartswood Lake Nesting Eagles

Some things aren't meant to be. And then misfortune, even by a second twist, works to the party's favor as it did for my son and I.
At Little Swartswood Lake near Newton, New Jersey, we found nearly a full third of the 152 surface acres off limits to boaters for the sake of a nesting pair of eagles. This troubled me little--plenty of weedy depths remained to fish--but I'll get to my thoughts about it in a moment. For the time being, I troubled myself with inflating our inflatable boat, which is a pain. And I found that mice or racoons had taken large bites out of the vynyl, or by whatever means, there were holes. That's when my son and I agreed we should just look for a 12-foot boat. We really need a 16-foot, but a 12-foot will replace this chore of inflation even if I can repair the boat. I'm probably looking five years down the pike before I can buy a lake sufficient craft with an outboard.

I knew exactly where to go with the bucket of large shiners I bought for my son to fish pickerel, a dozen-and-a-half. But I want to type my thoughts about the eagle situation before I relate more. I'm never one to blithely accept people's actions as given, as if the choices people make are just facts of nature like sticks and stones, no judgement and evaluations involved. And plenty of people are like me: they see something done and they examine, question, and evaluate for themselves. 

I agree that wildlife should be protected. Birds, for example, are living creatures like us. This is why, viewing the statistics on loon, other waterfowl, and eagle deaths attributed to lead poisoning, I think it's a good idea to use tin split shot. They die needlessly from lead when tin is a suitable use. I know steelhead trout shun the shine of tin shot, but the Boss Tin company, for one example, produces a tin/bismuth mixture that has a duller finish than new lead shot. 

I'm only posing the question, because I don't know the answer: Why close a third of Little Swartswood Lake to boating (which is limited to electric outboards) for a nesting pair of eagles? It seems to me that less space could have been secured. But here's the rub. Do you remember those environmental films in the late 1960's and 1970's that always referred to man in ominous tones and posed him as the cause of nature's demise as if he were evil? I thought of that, and it only seemed to me as if environmentalists had won a little victory here...over man. That it had more to do with excluding people than actually protecting this pair of eagles. But I don't really know.

Enough on that issue. We drove to the Paulinskill River. Matt had the first cast and a smallmouth bass tangled with it as I cast mid-stream.

Now I know shiners can be more exciting than topwater plugs--beyond a doubt. A big smallmouth bass exploding the surface with great splashes and spray four distinct times, once leaping clear out of the water on a quiet, clear stream is something I beheld singularly in a way to last in memory. A shiner on a light wire hook knows how to dodge a predator. 

But I caught this bass so easily having just arrived that it was sort of la de da. I admired the bass, but not only had it come easy, I still felt the loss of our Little Swartswood endeavor, which I had planned since about January. That little lake has a personal history for me. In 1992, a friend who became best man at our wedding lived on Little Swartswood. I rowed the boat he owned to enjoy outstanding topwater action, freshwater quality I hadn't experienced in over 10 years. Months before, I happened upon a mail order ad for wooden Dalton Special topwater plugs. I had the intuition to buy and did. What for, I had no idea. But the Dalton Special was a favorite of my fishing mentor many years before when I fished freshwater constantly. I used the Dalton Specials that day on Little Swartswood. I also ice fished a couple of times with my friend's son. 

We caught a few more bass in this particular stretch of the Paulinskill, and then Matt discovered more very nice bass well downstream. This is when things got screwy. He had missed three, he told me, about three pounds each, setting the hook too soon. I fetched the bucket and camera and hiked. A bass of about a pound broke his line. I found it frayed and retied his hook.

"Is your drag set right?" I asked too casually.

"I think so." He pulled on the line.

I took the rod, pulled, loosened a little, gave it back. As he turned, the words sort of escaped whatever had me confused below the level of my awareness, consciously I just felt relaxed.

"Loosen it if you have to."

But why on earth would I think that--the truth is, I hardly really thought it, a loose idea. Why wouldn't I have just grabbed the line and pulled it from the rod tip to be certain? A friend of mine used to say, "Excuse me, I was temporarily insane."

Matt's first cast I thought came short of where it should go. His second cast landed exactly where I told him to aim. A smallish bass struck at the shiner several times, then a great whoosh and the very thick tail end of the big bass rose high above surface for a split second and slipped under.

"That's a nice bass." I said. 

Hooked, it came into view--this bass much larger than the one I'm photographed with--then turned hard and sharp exactly as I know big smallmouths do. There is no escaping the likes, only preparation for the eventuality. The line snapped loudly.

We had caught and released 17 bass and I fished the last shiner, the baitfish now debilitated and barely alive. Another nice bass of nearly three pounds took it, and rather than set right there and then as I should have, I hesitated. Just that instant, the bass ejected the shiner. I then followed the bass in the clear water. I got a cast off and the bass rushed the shiner. My next thought: Why is my line limp? The shiner, debilitated, simply got knocked off the hook.

That ended our foray. Yes, I tried plastics for ten minutes, taking a couple of hits, and interest from a foot-long fish that stopped short. But I didn't want to play that game. Earlier on, before Matt hooked and played that nice bass, he had seen another become fully visible, a lunker risen into view from the depths of the same hole. He has no doubt this bass was larger than the one he hooked. He knows what a five pound bass looks like, and he claims that's what it was.

The moral of the story is: getting jinxed is no superstition. I was too complacent about my first bass and mixed up within and that set not the mood, really, but the attitude in so far as attitude or approach is more than what is in conscous control. How we consciously go about fishing is only a relatively small part of our total attitude or approach, our actual moves in what we do. And that approach, consciousness and unconsciousness together, is what determines how we will perform except for what chance elements get involved. A good argument for solid habits, really, but sometimes in my experience, I've got taken for a ride, and there's humor in that.

We left the Paulinskill in very high spirits. It had been a much more intense outing than we expected of Little Swartswood, and we learned much more about this river. We had achieved some resolve about a boat, and just as we got home and had unloaded, we got hit with a severe thunderstorm that stretched all the way up and beyond the state line. We would have been blown off the lake anyway when the whole point was to fish topwater plugs around sunset.

Groupers, Snappers in Bahia Honda Channel, Tarpon Attempt near No Name Key Florida

 Our second day of boating, we planned to go out to the reef and beyond. A steady breeze didn't seem enough to curtail what we most looked forward to, and the ever so reliable weather channel predicted two-foot seas, no problem with a 23-foot Mako, if a little unstable. What we encountered trying to get out three times was much worse. Seas loomed at least three feet over 26 feet of water. They looked more like four feet on occasion and even my daring son Matt wanted to turn back. Later that evening I spoke to guys who got out there in a 29-foot boat, and they reported six-foot seas beyond the reef.

So we fished inside and outside the Bahia Honda bridge, mostly inside plumbing 15 to 22-foot depths with half-ounce egg sinkers weighting size 2 hooks. Many dozens of small snappers and grunts came over the gunnels on light tackle as we persisted with shrimp, having each lost a couple of good fish. The yellow tail snapper photographed I had measured to be sure not mistaken that the fish was about 11 inches--that exactly--because I wanted to try a yellow tail at the table.

Then we tried cut bait and caught four or five groupers. That's a Nassau grouper I'm holding--the fish fought harder than a comparable bass--Nassau grouper protected. None may be taken to the table. The others photographed red groupers; I caught a black grouper little over a foot long.

Action slowed or we faded; at any rate, we went in for lunch, about a seven-mile boat trek around No Name Key, under the bridge and into the marina. The deal involved going back out and returning around five to pick Patricia up in town, having dropped her off. So we headed back to Bahia Honda.

I hooked something enormous. I'm positive a sting ray because of the steady, one direction swimming. We followed it at idle speed for 20 minutes, the fish hooked on 10-pound test line, I could not lift the fish off bottom at all, absolutely not. Matt had visions of a hundred-pound Goliath grouper, but a grouper would have really ran on the line I'm sure.

The motor quit. Wouldn't start. The sting ray or whatever it was simply kept on going at the same speed and spooled the reel, the line snapping loudly. Matt gave a grimace. He really wanted that fish more than I did. I did want to at least raise it to visible level, but I grew convinced this would never happen, even before the motor conked.

I suddenly noticed us as if drifting down the Mississippi River--current enormously powerful going through Bahia Channel as concrete bridge pillars loomed. I threw anchor thoughtlessly. Just try holding an anchor line against a 23-foot Mako in really powerful current. Had I got tangled in the line and yanked over, I'd have drowned. With no time to think out loud, I went for the center bow cleat with all my might and got the line secure. Anchor held.

The only really serious thought in my head--if we couldn't get the motor started, my wife remained in town without a cell phone. Hers got wet. On a boat rescued by the Coast Guard once many years before, this isn't a big deal. But Patricia having no concrete idea why was she abandoned in town at night would have really sucked.

Just an air lock in the line. I pumped the bulb about 25 times until it hardened, turned the key, and we resumed fishing.

After fetching Patricia, we all went out together for more tarpon fishing. As the two-and-a-half hours lengthened, Matt grew convinced we did something wrong. We saw tarpon rise. One of them rose yards from my crab. Why didn't they hit? We live lined the crabs as naturally as if they were free.

I later learned from another guy at the marina that he had simply taken a bucket of fresh fish carcasses to throw overboard, creating a slick, to which the tarpon swarmed. When I told Matt this, he pointed out our watching tarpon get fed at Islamorada Fish Company. This guy had then tossed out a hook with a fish chunk, hooked up, and fought a tarpon for three hours, finally jumping overboard in shallow water to just wrap both arms around the enormous fish for a photo.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Inshore Florida Keys Fishing for Barracuda, Snappers, Grunts, etc., Tarpon

The plan for the first day with the 23-foot Mako we rented for three days included barracuda with tube lures and plugs, snappers and whatever would take shrimp, and tarpon towards sunset.

The barracuda particularly disappointed. Five years ago, Matt walked onto the bridge, cast a Bomber, and hooked one about four feet long. I caught another of about three feet on a live pinfish from the bridge. So we just assumed that by plying weedy drop-offs and flats with cuda tubes and by trolling Bombers, we would catch a few.

We must have fished more than two hours before we let our dismay go and got plenty involved with fish on shrimp and light tackle--size 2 hooks and split shot. It is true that barracuda season during winter explodes when ballyhoo move onto the flats and you can catch not a few barracuda, but perhaps 50.

That's a bar jack Matt held for the camera--very tasty. And one of the hardest fighting small--but pelagic--fish you will ever hook. World record is just over seven pounds.

Porgies and grunts proved prolific. Great tasting, the grunts really fight; porgies fight, but not as hard as grunts. I haven't gone into books to find out what that weird fish is I threw back. We caught and released plenty undersize snappers. Snorkeling on the reef the day before, we saw plenty three-pound yellowtail snappers, but to catch a legal-size 12-incher inshore is a rare event as far as we know.

The word everywhere is that blue crabs catch tarpon. We knew them present because we had spotted a lot from the bridge, and we spotted them that evening as we fished. But none would take the crab unless whatever did take, then let go, was a tarpon subtle as a rainbow trout in New Jersey's Pequest. This happened quite a number of times, the crabs not phased.

No, the tarpon photos below are not fish we spotted, but that I somehow caught by camera as we fished. (I used my camera sparingly as we tarpon fished because I needed to be ready.) We ate at the Islamorada Fish Company, immediately adjacent the World Wide Sportsmen--a huge retail outlet--and most significantly witnessed an ornate bar upstairs in honor of Zane Grey.

Reading Zane Grey is like taking the very highest thrills of fishing in pure essence distilled.

Watching hundred-pound tarpon feed at your feet is a thrill, but not nearly the thrill of reading Zane Grey. The restaurant is situated mostly over the water and surrounds a square area where tarpon apparently have taken up permanent residence because they get fed. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Florida Keys Bridge Fishing

 Feels odd to be typing words onto a screen, anticipating your reading them, my having been away from doing this it seems for an eternity. I guess 11 days, but it certainly is not the same sort of time frame of 11 days I felt used to before we left.

Tonight I'll post on our second evening on Big Pine Key when we fished from the bridge to No Name Key from the back of Big Pine. Actually, the first night we did go out and jig bucktails and I lost something around four pounds or so, possibly two pounds considering how hard groupers and jacks fight. The cottage we rented is situated yards from the bridge on Big Pine. We had a slip for a 23-foot Mako center consol we rented for three days. I'll write about those outings tomorrow and Thursday.

Bridge fishing is popular and productive on the Keys. If you need a big profile to lend credence to the value of this low budget approach, I suppose Ernest Hemingway fished Keys bridges, if not all the bridges offering fishing--in his time. Hemingway was the sort of angler who needed to try divergent approaches to fish, if mainly to freshen those ways he most valued. He caught huge marlin, and tiny trout in Michigan.

My son caught a four-foot plus bonnethead from this bridge five years ago. We broke the line rather than attempted to treble hook and haul it up. Later we learned that the world record was 23 pounds and some ounces. I had estimated Matt's shark at 25 pounds. If 18 pounds, it still qualified as a huge bonnethead.

Matt's Bermuda chub achieved high hook of the evening, over a pound. I decided to taste it. Matt wouldn't dare since his book on Florida fish doesn't rate it highly. It tasted ok, not bad.

The pork fish tasted great--the bright yellow panfish. Other panfish available include grunts, porgies, and snappers. Although most snappers are short of keeper size, I know of a 22-inch mutton snapper caught from this bridge. 

My triggerfish measured less than legal size, but I consider it a cool catch.

They supposedly taste excellent. Know what else does? Barracuda. They told us down here, five years ago, not to eat it. Poison. The 12-pounder I caught six miles out on the reef. We sure did, delicious, with no side effects. We baked all 39 1/2 inches (tail & head cut off) to have a feast. I also caught a three-footer from this bridge, but the real whooo-ha was the big one my son hooked. This fish, all of 42 inches at the very least, leapt six feet into the air three times, ran down current, and frayed Matt's 10-pound test against bridge abutment. I had put on a big Bomber jerkbait for him and his medium-power Ugly Stik.

Matt was eight years old.