The summer is finally over. The rains have stopped and we’ve had our first cold front. If you fish, what’s more important is that they’ve had a severe change in temperature up north in the Florida panhandle.
So what does that mean? Remember back in April and May, when the weather was warming so nicely and everyone who fished was going gaga over the arrival of the tarpon (and sharks) nearshore and the kingfish and the cobia just a little further out in the Gulf? The big pelagics had arrived and accelerated the heartbeat of anglers with these big fish opportunities. Well, those guys summer in the northern Gulf and with the cold snap, are now on their way back (like our Snowbirds) to warmer winter grounds.
Their feeding is not as veracious as it was on their way north for spawning, but still quite formidable as they make their way back. All of this is probably best told in the happenings on a charter this week that was worked not more than a mile off the beach. Now mind you, you’re not supposed to catch major fish on small- to medium-size boats close in to shore. That’s reserved for the folks with 500 hp hanging off the transom of a $100K dream boat who only wet a line when they can’t see land anymore. But, if you’re listening, I’m about to punch a hole in that belief.
My charter was three guys from northern Florida. Three generations: Grandpop, Dad and a 12-year-old, all running to the fall warmth of Southwest Florida. Our first fishing spot on that nice calm morning was a spot less than a mile off the beach. We put chum out and worked the bottom with fresh shrimp, but our first half-hour was super quiet – some small grunts and snapper.
Then, all of a sudden, things changed. Where the chum reached the bottom, we began to have really nice size lane snapper, one after the other. We boxed a few of the really larger ones and the others were mercifully released. The youngest of the three generation gang yelled, “There’s some big fish right behind the boat.”
I’ll say! There were two cobia in the 40-inch range circling through our chum slick. I raced to get a pinfish on a major rod and dropped it in front of the two cobia. They looked and left. Bummer.
Grandpop was still fishing his bottom shrimp rig on the other side of the boat and suddenly yelped, “I’ve got something huge on here!” Apparently, one of the cobia that ignored the pinfish had opted for the shrimp and was heading for Fort Myers. Before the cobia could spool Grandpop, we pulled the anchor and began the chase north. It was a wild and wooly event, with our senior angler struggling to recover line in the bow of the boat and the cobia running near the surface and heading for tomorrow.
Somehow, we mananged to recover most of the line and could see the fish just forward of the boat. Hopes of landing this once-in-a lifetime giant soared as we raced to get the gaff. That’s when the fish decided to change course and dove under the boat.
The light line touched the hull and parted with a pop. Fish gone. Grandpop slumped into one of the seats, exhausted. “I almost had him,” he blurted. “Well, that’s fishin’, Dad,” came the unnecessary cliché from his son.
Now, one of the strange phenomena I’ve learned fishing here over the years is that the grouper fishing, even nearshore, gets hot once the pelagics show up on their route south. Don’t have a single reason as to why – the water is still superheated and conditions are unchanged, except that the “cruisers” have shown up. So, we moved our spot another half-mile out and set up on a major structure.
This time, we put our pinfish on the big rig, set it one turn off the bottom and began working our shrimp rigs for snapper. The action for the snapper was at best, sporadic, but we hung in there as the morning sun made the day into summer. Just as we mentioned moving to another spot, the big rod lurched, doubled over and stayed strained in a half-arc in the rod holder.
Had to slack the line a bit just to remove the rod from the rod holder, and it remained in the arc. The big guy on the other end had quaffed the pinfish and ran back in its hole. Dad and Grandpop passed the rod back and forth. None of the pulls and yanks moved anything. I told them to slack the line and put the rod back in the holder, we’d try it again in five minutes or so, and we went back to our snapper fishing.
Then, we try the grouper rod again. By jove, it’s free and you can feel the fish shake it’s head. Dad’s on the rod this time. Grandpop is still recovering from the cobia. It’s a strained fight trying to keep the fish from diving back in the hole. We gain two feet and lose one, again and again. Dad’s arms are beginning to cramp up, but we continue on.
And then, in the clear water, we see a mega gag grouper ascending beneath the boat. It’s pull and hold line and finally, it’s on the surface and in the net. Wow! A beautiful 26-inch gag grouper. High fives and photos all around. Who woulda thunk this big a grouper would be this close to shore. The cobia loss was quickly forgotten.
But we still have a hour of fishing time left. We rerig with another pinfish (heck with the snapper fishing) and have another major strike, but this one never makes it back into its hole and Junior lands his prize grouper; a gag of keeper size, but not quite as big as the first one.
Didn’t make any difference. Photos and congrats, and maybe the best event of the day. The guys released this gag with the admission that, “We have enough for a dinner or two, let’s give this fish a chance to live on and thrill somebody else.” And, you know what? More anglers release fish like that than the state and federal wildlife moguls give the recreational anglers credit for.
As we head for home, the discussion is focused on a day of cobia and mega grouper fishing extraordinaire, all just a mile offshore of Paradise. Fantastic!
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.