Saturday, November 22, 2014

Be careful what you fish for; you just might catch it (Part 3)

About to be put to the test.
Wednesday. As night arrived after a full day of surf-fishing for pompano and whiting, we left out a couple of rods a piece, stuck in rod-holders right next to the water’s edge, and strewn across a 50-yard stretch of beach. They were each baited with chunk of freshly-cut bait, impaled on a 7/0 circle hook, snelled to a section of heavy mono and anchored to the bottom with a 3 oz pyramid sinker. We were hoping for bull reds. That’s not what we got. 

Bluefish arrived first, right at last light. They provided some decent sport — and excellent bait — but tended to swallow the circle hook and fray the hell out of the leader. So, we adjusted by opting for heavier mono and nylon-coated wire. Then, bigger critters arrived. 

And that's all she wrote.
I was the first to beach a shark. A healthy, fat, four-foot-plus blacktip that pulled drag and decided to head east down the beach, which was unfortunate because my rod was on the western end of our spread. In a way, you could say we all caught that first shark, and after the fish was unhooked and released, all of us participated in the untangling, cutting and retying our lines. 

Emboldened but not enlightened (figuratively and literally; my headlamp’s battery was dying), I tied up another leader — this time with 80-pound mono — and crimped on another circle hook. I placed the hook through the belly and near the tail of a live whiting, which I suspected would result in a tantalizing offering to a big red or shark. I was wrong. After just a few minutes of waiting, the rod doubled and a heavy fish steadily peeled line from my reel. Losing an alarming amount of braid, I dialed up the drag to hopefully slow the beast. It did nothing, as the fish continued its march toward Cape San Blas. I followed it down the beach, as Fred followed to provide assistance should I be able to land whatever I had hooked. Twenty minutes passed, and the battle was at a standstill. I had regained a bunch of line and continued to walk down the sand at night, my rod-tip down and pulling hard to the left, drag locked down and hoping to turn the fish around. It wasn’t fighting like a big red, nor did it offer the electric runs that blacktip sharks provide. This was different. Like I had hooked a dump truck. 

Rigging up under the dim light of a headlamp in need of a new battery.
Suddenly, the truck stopped and pulled up on the emergency brake. I knew then that I had hooked a very large stingray. The big fish hugged the bottom, used it’s wings like a suction cup, and there was little I could do to move the fish. In the dark, by myself (Fred gave up 10 minutes before in order to go back to base camp), and a half-a-mile from my buddies, I decided that I’d had enough fun, and didn’t really want to mess with beaching a ray this big. I made sure the drag was tight, reeled up any excess, pointed my rod-tip at the stationary creature, turned my back on the Gulf and walked straight back towards the beach houses behind me. The line snapped and I reeled in the resulting slack. Thankfully, the line broke at the crimped connection, which hopefully meant the circle hook was soon to fall from the fish’s mouth. I’m sure the ray swam away no worse for the wear. I suspect it never even realized it was hooked. 

As I made the slow walk back in my buddies, my shadow haphazardly danced in the sand a few feet in front of me, and the waxing crescent moon fell low to the western horizon. Well down the beach, Joe and Fred were re-baiting rods, their activity betrayed by the twinkling lights of their headlamps. 

Every fish story needs a fish picture. Here's Chalky Joe with a tasty chalky.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Big Ugly (Part 2)

“Fellas, it’s gonna be a rough day,” Capt. Dwayne said. He held his hands up on either side of his head, palms facing us, and moved them toward us on the words “rough” and “day.” It was Halloween morning. Early. Dark. The wind was zipping out of the northwest at 15 mph. We were standing on the uneven wooden dock at Allen's Bay Charters in Apalachicola, Fla. The brisk and steady breeze bent the nearby spartina grass and blew the sweet-and-briny smell of the marsh out through the creek mouth and into the unseen bay. 

“It’s gonna be rough. Winds are supposed to be 5 to 15 mph … but you can usually add those two numbers together.” 
“Well, is it worth going?”
Capt. Dwayne rubbed the back of his neck, “I know we can catch fish, but … “ 

It was 7:30 a.m. ET, the sun had not yet come up and the wind made a cool morning colder. We were layered up, in sweatshirts and pullovers. Our captain was in shorts and wore a short-sleeved fishing shirt. Fred, Joe and I stared at each other, contemplating the ominous greeting we received from our guide. 

“Would tomorrow be better?” Fred asked Capt. Dwayne. 
“Maybe. It’s up to ya’ll.” 

Yeah, I don't know.
While Fred and I have enjoyed 15 or so offshore adventures over the years, Joe’s seafaring days ended after trip No. 3, when he decided paying $600 to throw up for 30 straight hours was not money or time well spent. I've been fortunate to not be regularly afflicted by seasickness, although I do know the helpless feeling of overwhelming nausea brought on by the motion of the ocean. Before leaving on an overnight bottom-fishing trip several years ago, Fred and I and 10 other fishermen arrived at the dock in Destin Harbor one morning to be given a similar warning by our captain. He told us it would be rough, but it was our choice if we wanted to go. We opted to give it a shot. It was a regrettable decision, as the sea was angry that day, my friends, and the relentless churn of conflicting swells caused a majority of us to abandon fishing in order to grip the railing and regurgitate breakfast. The 36-hour charter ended after 12. Amongst the survivors, the experience is seldom retold; when it is rehashed, it is simply referred to as "that one trip." That one trip instantly sprang to mind when Capt. Dwayne greeted us.

“If you think tomorrow would be better, we could come back Friday. Guys, what do you think?” Fred looked at Joe.
Joe weighed options quickly, and answered as I had thought (and hoped) he would.
“We got up early and we’re here. I say we fish. I’m not getting up and doing this again tomorrow.” 
Bring it on. 

Keep your rod tip down, Dan.
We boarded a 24-foot, center-console bay boat and Capt. Dwayne fired up the outboard. We cruised a short distance to the creek mouth and throttled down into the expanse of Apalachicola Bay. In front of us, an agitated chop danced across an immense lake of gray water as darker gray skies loomed above and spit rain that bounced off our faces and caused us to grab rain jackets. After a short run, we anchored up on a nondescript spot in the middle of the bay. Capt. Dwayne baited medium-heavy spinning rods with pieces of shrimp and offered precise instruction. 

“Cast anywhere.” 

It was awesome. The simple set-up — main line to a short stretch of bite tippet to an offset octopus hook — and the very willing fish made for a great start to the day. We soon boated several white and speckled trout, along with a few hardhead and gafftopsail catfish. About 20 fish in, I felt a quick tap-tap and set the hook. The rod doubled and the reel squealed as line left the spool. 

“That ain’t no trout,” Capt. Dwayne said matter-of-factly as he dug into a small blue-and-white cooler for a fresh bait. 

Joe's black drum.
The fight was a tug-o-war, and after a few minutes (including a harrowing segment as the fish burrowed under the boat, and forced me to bury the top section of the rod in the bay and carefully navigate around the outboard), a giant black drum rolled on the surface and revealed its mottled gray flank and enormous noggin. A short time later, Capt. Dwayne scooped up the fish — which barely fit in his net — and flopped it into the bottom of the boat. Photo ops ensued, and eventually, the big ugly was safely returned to the bay. 

Fred has a delicate complexion. The black drum does not.
As the day unfolded, the rain and clouds departed and the sun drenched us in warmth, causing us to shed jackets and pullovers. The wind kept blowing, and the rough day we dreaded proved to be both manageable and incredibly fun. We caught redfish, big sail cats, black sea bass, trout, pigfish and all three of us boated oversized black drum. Capt. Dwayne was great to fish with: patient, skilled and totally focused on putting us on fish. Joe never got close to puking, all three of us really enjoyed the time on the water, and we drove back to the beach house with a cooler full of fillets and a few more fish stories to our repertoire. 

It was a great day of fishing ... but it wasn't over yet. 

I highly recommend fishing with Capt. Dwayne Allen. He's fun to fish with, easy-going, highly informative and, best of all, very patient. It's low pressure, high fun fishing. Please reach out to him via the Book Me a Charter website