Sunday, November 30, 2014

Frenzy (Part 4)



Fred bolted down the beach into the dark, chasing an orange glowstick attached to his surf rod, which was attached to a big shark which was in mid-attempt of dragging the entire rig to Cuba. The rod had been violently yanked from its PVC spike, dragged through the sand and was now rapidly making its way through the knee-deep water of the first gut. Fred never broke stride and dove — Pete Rose-style — into the waves, which were briefly illuminated by the trippy colors of the neon orange glowstick and the fluorescent blue hue of Fred’s headlamp. 

Joe and I watched the scene from a few paces away, laughing uncontrollably. It was around 9 p.m., and we were the only souls on the beach. We had been there since just before sunset. The bulk of the day had been spent chasing black and red drum on Apalachicola Bay with Capt. Dwayne, but after arriving back at the house, we quickly hit the sand and got the surf rods out. At dark, we switched out our pompano rigs for shark leaders and big circle hooks. I cut up a ladyfish we had caught just before sundown, and we deployed chunks of fresh bait among six rods, each placed insanely close to the water’s edge (as we soon learned) and adorned with a variation of aforementioned glow-sticks Fred had purchased the day before. 

After a quick swim in the black water, Fred emerged, completely soaked and holding a doubled-over surf rod while his Daiwa reel spit salt water and angrily screamed against an angrier foe which worked hard to empty the spool of its contents. 

Fred, with his rod-stealing blacktip.

Fred’s freestyle in shark-infested waters would’ve made for a great story on its own (side-note: this was not the first time something like this has happened to Fred), but the evening proved to be epic for other reasons. In addition to retrieving his rod, Fred beached the chunky, five-foot, black-tip shark responsible for the near theft. More importantly, this event started a run of successive bites that was unprecedented in our fishing adventures. Rod after rod would hit the sand within the next hour, as seemingly dozens of sharks cruised the shallow waters in front of us. Casted baits would last only moments in the surf before being gobbled up by toothy fish, sending us scrambling to grab valuable fishing gear before it was dredged in sand and doused in saltwater. It was a strange symphony. The incoming tide provided the percussion — a steady hiss and boom with an occasional polyrhythmic crash — and amidst the wash, we soloed, trading fours under the stage-light glow of the half-moon, our reels’ drags screaming in off-beat blue notes, our runs punctuated with randomly placed whoops of reactionary joy.

Yes, the headlamp is pink. Gotta problem with it?

Our lines were stretched. Knots were tested. Each enjoyed success and endured failure. I don’t remember how many sharks we actually landed. It probably wasn’t many. Those which did make it to the beach were quickly photographed and released. We had tackle and ability to handle the four-and-five footers, but we were under-gunned for many of the fish cruising the shallow waters in front of us. The larger sharks would explode into amazing runs would nearly drain our reels of braid before leaders broke, lines snapped and hooks were bitten in two (Fred had a 7/0 circle hook snapped in half). Eventually, we ran out of bait, ending our evening as the fish were still biting, and sending us limping back to the beach house with sore shoulders, frayed lines and gigantic smiles on our faces. 

The next evening — our last night on the beach — we sat side-by-side in respective beach chairs, several yards from the water’s edge. We fished with only three rods — one per person, placed in sand spikes directly in front of us and within an easy arm’s reach of our seated positions. At least, we had learned from our mistakes. 

It's Joe ... I swear. 
The sharks showed up around the usual time, but the bite, while OK, was nothing compared to the previous night’s. Our energy was fading, too. It had been a long but good day, and we just wanted to catch one more fish before heading back to the house to clean up and prepare for the drive home the next day. A massive cold front was on its way. To the northwest, we could see it approach, as blackness devoured the stars and a storm boiled over into the Gulf. Around 10 p.m., after a long period of exhausted silence among our crew, I said, “Ten more minutes.” The moon danced in and out of the clouds, spotlighting us one minute and drenching us in blackness the next. 

As the moon peaked out, Joe spotted something in the surf. 

“What is that?!” He pointed towards where the water met the sand just a few yards in front of us. A big dorsal fin, exposed above the black water, and cruising less than 10 feet off the beach. We sprang from our chairs and turned our head lamps on the big shark — a tiger, close to 10 feet long — which menaced almost the exact location in which Fred had involuntary swam the night before. Indifferently, the shark slowly turned southward and disappeared into the ink black water. 

“Holy crap.” 
“That was almost 10 feet long.” 
“I hope you hook it, Joe.” 
“Fred, wanna go swimming again?” 

Electrified by what we had seen, we sat back down in our chairs and waited for one of our rods to go off — each of us secretly hoping it would be one of the other guy’s. Ten more minutes. No bites. Ten more minutes. Our yawns were growing more frequent and the encroaching rain clouds had us wondering if we had waited too long to pack up and head inside. Eventually, reason overcame obsession and we gathered up our gear for the last time and headed back to the house. 

Overnight, the cold front came. The winds howled out of the north and the fronds from the front yard palm tree rattled against the window above my bed. When we awoke, the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees and we wore multiple layers of clothing as we packed our respective vehicles. Fred, Joe and I shook hands in the driveway, and in the wintry wind and cold, we reflected on another excellent trip, exchanged well wishes in the months ahead, and discussed plans for tuna trips to Louisiana, trout fishing in Arkansas, and bass-fishing excursions in northern Florida. Such is tradition. 

It's good to have friends, but it’s better to have friends who fish. 

Until the next adventure ...

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.