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Fish On: Saving the best for last

COURTESY PHOTO
A trophy-sized redfish, landed by our columnist on a cast in a Florida cove.

My old pal Jim Pampinella and I recently fished with a well known guide, Tony Fontano, in the Marco, Florida area looking for tarpon and if not them, snook, trout, jacks, redfish and whatever else came along.

We headed out to the Gulf, which started out flat calm toward a spot to net redfin bait for the tarpon. We only got a dozen and the Gulf had decided to get worked up a bit — not a good thing for Jim who has a sensitive stomach, so we went in for action along the sandy beaches.

Things started well, with Jim catching nine fish in a row including sea trout, a nice jack,and several small snook. I eventually broke the ice with a nice jack and a few other fish. The tide turned around and was going our way so we headed to where the tarpon should be.

We were on top of a bright sandy flat in 3 feet of water and could see everything for a long stretch.

As we slowly motored in we had scared a few tarpon off the flat and so went to the electric motor for a slow, quiet, look around, spotting several small schools of tarpon slowly traversing the shoal.

We got a few baits near them, but they weren’t receptive. They rolled their silvery backs out of the water about 8 to 10 inches or so, giving us a good look at their size, which was in the 50-to-100-pound range.

Spotting a 15-fish school coming right at us, the guide put on few active fresh baits. We drifted, waiting to ambush them when they came within casting range. These were fish you dream about.

As they closed the gap, some idiot in a 25-foot outboard skiff was headed right at us at a high rate of speed. I jumped up on the platform at the front of our boat and waved my arms like a mad man, indicating the direction the intruder should take to avoid panicking the fish. The boob at the wheel ignored my signals and came closer within 20 yards of us throwing a huge wake.

The fish — and the boat — were gone.

We left the flat and headed into a canal. The day got warmer and quieter and Jim continued to catch a bunch of smaller fish, mostly trout and jacks, but it was pretty slow. With about an hour to go, we started back toward the marina on the south end of Naples as the wind came up and the tide started in. Tony idled us into a small cove about 150 yards wide and 2 feet deep that was getting a good dose of the wind blowing down the channel.

He anchored us and started chumming the area — spewing dozens of small baits all over the place. He said that when the tide is rising and the wind blows in that particular spot the fish really like to be there. Within two minutes we had hungry fish chasing the chum and we started casting.

Jim continued to pick up smaller fish but I didn’t. I decided to toss a nice bait as far under the mangroves on the margin of the cove as I could when the whole day changed for me in a second.

My first cast got the bait within inches of where I wanted it. Before I was ready I had a fish grab my bait taking off with it. I set the hook by pulling the rod away from the fish and expected a small fish to come in the direction I had pulled. Wrong. The rod bent right back to where the fish was creating a scene and started. Serious amounts of line went screaming off the reel. I had a serious fish on, my first of the day.

It was a terrific war for more than five minutes before Tony slipped his landing net under a 27-inch-long redfish, over 9 pounds on the scale.

After a few photos we released it because, despite its reputation as a great eating fish, neither of us wanted to kill it. They are hard fighters and their breed was seriously damaged by the “Redtide,” which killed thousands of fish last fall.

I re-baited and cast under the same bushes and got another immediate hit from a fish that fought harder than his brother, and came in at 28 inches. I was pretty giddy by this time, and happy with the photos, when Tony said I might want to take another shot at the spot before we went in.

He had to twist my arm to do so — not — and as soon as my bait hit the water it was consumed by a real slugger of a fish called a snook, known for their high jumps and long runs. This fish gave me even more trouble than either of the hearty reds. Tony slipped the net under the snook, a fish 34 inches in length and several inches above the legal limit. It, too, was returned to the water to fight another day.

As we closed shop on the water to scoot back to the launching ramp, it was hard to believe I’d caught three trophy-sized fish on the last three casts of the day.

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