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Fish On: Patience is a virtue

COURTEY PHOTO A tarpon shadows our columnist’s boat.
COURTESY PHOTO A tarpon shadows our columnist’s boat.

Fish On has just returned from Florida where we enjoyed the best winter weather in years. And the worst fishing.

Hurricane Irma did a job on the southwest coast causing incredible damage in every direction in the Ft. Myers and Naples areas. The damage done to the rivers, bays and nearshore in the Gulf of Mexico was not as easy to see. Thousands of mangrove trees were uprooted and floated into deeper water causing obstructions.

The water in the bays and inlets was the color of cafe au lait so fishing was restricted to blind casting ”where they used to be.”

From the time of my arrival in October I tried all my favorite spots looking for snook, seatrout and redfish, the big three of the backcountry, with dismal results. I soon grew frustrated with the saltwater and fished for largemouth bass in our neighborhood ponds and had fun with them but, while 2-to-4-pound bass on surface lures is fun, I was impatient to catch larger fish on a larger stage.

I called Tony, a guide and friend of mine, and asked about tarpon. He said the large tarpons, up to 150 pounds, were “going crazy” on both live bait and lures. I met Tony dockside one morning dockside in Naples. We headed out into the Gulf to get some four-inch inch live baits and soon filled our baitwell, then headed 20 miles south into a large expanse of “inside” water in the Everglades Park.

We expected some blowy weather later in the day so stayed behind the barrier islands and started at a place called the “Mud Hole” where the water depth averaged seven feet. We started drifting two baits behind the boat while I cast a heavy spinning rod with a 9-inch lure that was a dead ringer for a mullet, a tarpon favorite.

It stayed dead calm on a strong incoming tide. There were dozens of large tarpon close by our boat “free jumping” — coming completely out of the water and reentering with a terrific splash — and rolling on the surface, showing their backs. I was losing patience primarily because one of Tony’s buddies, who was about 150 yards from us, hooked up four tarpon, landed one, and we couldn’t get a hit on the lure or our baits.

We finally moved a few hundred yards away from them and just bobbed along waiting, yes, impatiently, for a turn in our fortunes. We had no action on our live bait so I kept casting the big mullet lure without a touch for hours.

COURTESY PHOTO A tarpon breaks the surface of Florida waters.
COURTESY PHOTO A tarpon breaks the surface of Florida waters.

Suddenly, on my 205th cast (yes —I count them), as I brought the lure within 20 feet of the boat a silver lightning streak came from the depths of the murky water, hit the lure and we were eye-to-eye with a 100-pound tarpon. I had a solid hookup while he jumped three times in the first 30 seconds, all of the jumps close to the boat and above our heads. We were concerned that he’d fall into our laps.

The fish ran line out and made three more jumps in the next 10 minutes before landing on the tight fishing line on the last jump, breaking it and taking our $20 lure with him. I was happy. I became the patient soul I pretend to be and got back to casting a new mullet lure.

Tony hooked up a smaller fish right next to the boat but lost him on the second jump. I had another fish on briefly using a live bait but the hook pulled out. When it got quiet for us again we headed back north about two miles and saw lots of tarpon activity. I immediately hooked and fought a big fish that pulled the hook loose and lost another after he chewed through my 80-pound test leader.

Using the mullet imitation lure, I hooked and landed — meaning touched the leader since tarpon can’t be taken out of the water if over 40 inches without a special permit — a fish about 100 pounds that took me 20 minutes of hard hauling. That fish jumped about 6 times and was as stubborn as can be next to the boat.

We headed back on flat seas under a bright sky and agreed we’d done very well. I was sore from all the casting of that heavy lure and fighting that last fish, but it was all worth it. I admitted that being — what’s the word? — patient helps make the day.

A quick note on the Shelter Island/Gardiners Island fishing scene: I returned to the Island May 4 and spoke to several Clarks who had seen large schools of menhaden in and around their traps along with a good number of porgies. Another fisherman told me he’d done some plug casting with surface lures and landed one fish on one trip and had some “tail whacks” from annoyed fish on another.

I’ll see if I can find any stripers and bluefish who are trailing the menhaden. You’ll have the whole story next week. Be patient.