This is the second installment of the Cast and Blast Saga. If you missed the first part you can read it here.
Still being on California time, and after having one too many cocktails the night before, I wasn’t feeling all that excited about going fishing when my alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. But after several minutes spent fumbling around my room I’d located my camera, sunscreen and a light jacket. I got out the door and most of the way to the dock before having to go back to the room and get my lunch which I’d been warned not to forget because, “there won’t be any other food on the boat”.
Our assigned meeting spot was under the large fiberglass manatee that hung proudly in front of the hotel’s dive shop. There were only a couple other guys there when I arrived and we stood around making awkward small talk about the weather, the hotel’s amenities and whether or not we’d remembered to bring our lunches. People continued to trickle in and eventually we’d formed a crowd comprised of several dozen outdoor writers, social media personalities and tackle reps. The group, all tired and mostly hung over, not surprisingly, proved difficult to organize. Rather than follow the basic instructions of where to go and what to do, most of us chose to wander around aimlessly while looking confused and conferring among ourselves as to what we thought we were supposed to do. Paul Michele, with the help of Buddy Prause, the National Sales Manager for Cuda Brand, stepped in and finally got all of us pointed in the right direction. Buddy even brought extra lunches for those who’d forgotten, which turned out to be a fairly large percentage of those assembled.
Glad to have remembered my own lunch, I made my way across the grass to where my assigned boat was waiting along the seawall of a canal. Once there I was greeted by my guide for the day, Captain James Marko, a young and enthusiastic Floridian, who’s charter business, Goliath Fishing, is based out of the Sanibel area. I was the first to arrive so Captain Marko spent some time showing me around his boat, a new 23-foot Epic Bay Boat. Other than sporting a tower, the boat’s layout was very similar to my own Robalo Cayman.
With the tour complete, he pointed at my lunch and said, “You might as well eat that now or throw it away because there’s no room in the cooler. They already gave me lunches for everyone.” Warnings of potential on the water food scarcity, followed by a constant overabundance of it, were a recurring theme of the trip, leaving me to wonder what might have transpired at the previous year’s event to warrant the extreme over-provisioning.
Next to arrive was John Bretza, Director of Product Development for Okuma. Lastly we were joined by social media personality and Pelagic Girl Michelle Dalton, who is best known as bombchelle_fishing on Instagram. Once everyone was aboard we departed with a plan to stop for gas and then head offshore.
Once out of the canal, Captain Marko ran the boat up on plane but within a few minutes pulled it back as we were entering a posted manatee zone. According to someone I’d spoken with in the bar, the waters of Crystal River are foul with manatees due to the river being fed by a warm spring that keeps the water temperature in the low 70’s year round and the manatees fat and happy. As we slowly made our way through the shallow water, Captain Marko, who was new to traversing manatee infested waterways, spotted one in our path and turned the wheel while pulling the boat out of gear to avoid running it over.
Never having seen a manatee, I walked to the bow and looked over the side just in time to witness a very large animal turn and attack the boat. I’m not sure if we startled it or if these gentle sea cows weren’t really as docile as the billboards would lead you to believe, but the thing rammed the bow of the boat, almost knocking me in the water, before swimming under it and leaving a 100-foot long froth of foam and mud as it hammered its way through the very shallow water. The look of utter uncomprehending shock I saw on our guide’s face was similar to the expression I’d imagine Captain Ahab wore the moment the white whale stove his beloved Pequod. Needless to say, the experience left us all a little shaken and not really interested in having any more manatee encounters.
After stopping for gas, and running temporarily aground on an unmarked reef in the middle of the river, we made our way to open water. Because the water on the Gulf coast of Florida is extremely shallow, we had to run through a marked channel until we were over a mile off the beach. As the marker poles flashed past in the lake-like water, Captain Marko informed us we were going to be making about an hour run to fish a reef in 25-feet of water and if that didn’t bite we might have to run out to 40-miles to find deeper water. Being from California I had some trouble getting my brain around 25-feet of water 25 miles offshore, but he explained that the water depth in that part of the Gulf increased by approximately one-foot every mile.
Arriving at our destination, a reef made from cars that someone had decided to drop seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Captain Marko deployed the goliath rod, a two speed Okuma reel filled with 400# line, mounted to a stout down wrapped rod and ending in a large hook with a long dead and quite fragrant mullet. Neither of us particularly wanting to stand too close to the mullet smell, or get our asses kicked by a big Goliath, John and I agreed that “ladies first” was only proper and suggested Michelle be given the first opportunity if we got a bite. Goliath fishing being pretty boring when they’re not biting, Captain Marko gave John and I a couple of spinning rods with light lead heads and a bag of live shrimp to use as bait.
We spent the next half hour mostly not catching the small fish that were biting our shrimp and Captain Marko took every missed opportunity to remind us, “Don’t set the hook! Just wind until it’s tight!” After the fifth or sixth reprimand, I handed him my rod I asked him to show me how it’s done. After watching him miss back to back bites, I suggested, “Don’t set the hook! Just wind until it’s tight!” We finally got our technique dialed in and ended up catching quite a few little guys that I think were grunts or something along those lines and our guide threw several of them in the bait tank for later. It soon became obvious that the grouper weren’t going to cooperate so Captain Marko moved the boat and on the next stop and a black tip shark swam by and ate a live bait Michelle was fly-lining. The shark put up a good fight on the Okuma Makaira spinning reel she was fishing and after much boat side thrashing and splashing it was pulled up, photographed and released without anyone losing fingers or toes.
The fishing was slow all day, despite running to multiple spots, and after not even seeing any signs of our intended quarry, Captain Marko decided to go and run weed lines while looking for tripletail. After a bit of driving around we located our first weed line, which is basically a long ribbon of torn out sea grass floating on the surface. I’m not sure if it’s the current or the wind that makes the grass gather in a long string like that but there was lots of life around it. I guess it’s the Gulf version of a 2 foot wide, 200 yard long kelp paddy in 20 feet of water. As we cruised along we scared off small schools of bait that were hiding under the floating grass and at one point we saw what was likely a large tarpon jump in the distance. We never did find any tripletail, but I did spot a huge needlefish that I cast to with a YoZuri 3D Inshore Twitch Bait. The cast was surprisingly accurate considering I was using a spinning rod and after only a couple of twitches the fish lit up and turned on the bait like a striped marlin with its bill out of the water and destroyed it but came off after making an extended run.
We were approximately 40-miles from the dock when I hooked and lost that fish so it was time to head for home. On the ride home, John and I shot the shit about fishing in Southern California and talked about the Okuma tackle he’d designed. Prior to this trip, my last experience with Okuma tackle had been at least 20 years earlier and I mentioned that to John. “We’ve come a long way since then” he assured me with a chuckle and after using the tackle and listening to the thought process that went into the design and manufacturing of each rod and reel, I can attest to the fact that they’re making a high end product that’s comparable to anything on the market and quite a bit better than some.
Once back to the dock I had time to shower, change and grab a cocktail before jumping on a pontoon boat for the ride to a small restaurant that sat adjacent to a commercial crab fishing dock. Still leary of Moby Manatee I chose a spot near the center of the boat just in case. The restaurant’s smoked mullet spread was raved about by enough people on the short ride there that I decided to try it despite the fact that I was still having trouble getting the stench of the day old mullet we’d used as grouper bait out of my nostrils. The spread, which was served in a plastic tub with a side of Ritz crackers, was delicious as were the grouper sandwich and multiple beers I washed it down with.
Service was slow at the restaurant, likely due to fifty hungry anglers all showing up at once, but the guys at my table had lots of laughs while we waited. It was long after dark by the time the last of us finished eating and having missed the pontoon boat I jumped on Paul Michele’s 26-foot Andros for the ride back to the hotel. Paul’s boat is over loaded with all of the latest Raymarine electronics and he used the FLIR (forward looking infrared) camera to find a clear path home. I was shocked by just how well that technology works. It was very dark out but the display had a crisp black and white image of everything ahead of us, even the myriad of crab trap buoys that were about the size of a grapefruit. I kept a close eye on the screen for signs of impending manatee aggression but apparently they’d all retired for the the night to wherever those violent beasts retire and we made it back to the dock free from assault.
Part III: Big Boats and Broken Docks