Fishing is a simple sport – it’s us anglers that make it complex. Walk into any tackle shop and take a look at the array of gear hanging from groaning shop walls and piled on cramped shelves. There are literally thousands of items, all intended to
do one thing – catch fish.
There are hooks and lures of every size and color of the rainbow, all touting “sure catch.” There are many accessories, all promising to enhance the pleasure and effectiveness of your next trip on the briny. Imagine someone on their very first day after deciding that they’d take up the great sport of fishing. Where do they begin?
Even if we charter folks think we have the system and equipment all worked out to maximize the catch, every once in awhile, someone comes along and we become the humble student. Let me tell you about a charter last week where I became that student.
As a backdrop, recognize that the fishing conditions here have been topsy-turvey since the second weekend in January. The extreme cold weather dropped the water temperatures into the mid-40s and either killed fish, sent them into a catatonic state or scurrying to deeper, warmer waters offshore.
Only now is it warming back up to normal condition, and the fish are very slowly returning to normal feeding habits, but it has a lot to do with the species. Sheepshead, a cold water fish by nature, is the first to return to expected habits but, snook, a warm water advocate, is much slower to the feed.
So, fishing continues to be a bit dicey. Spots where you normally caught fish last year are piscatorial deserts. Added to that has been the continual windy conditions that churn up the water and make it look like Starbucks latte. Right now, you need prime conditions like clean water and a favorable tide to maximize your take on any fishing spot.
So, with all of those caveats in mind, we booked a charter for three guys from the Naples area. The night before, one of them called and mentioned that his teenage son had a day off from school because of a teacher’s conference, and could be bring him along. “No problem. I’ll buy a little more bait,” was my response.
Our conditions that morning were fairly typical; okay tide, but the wind from the southwest continued to roil the incoming water. Knew we’d have to search for the clearer backwater spots that morning. The guys had been customers on prior trips, but this was the first time the youngster was along. Kevin made it known right up front that he knew his way around fishing. While the adults made small talk about the local news and the economy, he was checking the bait well and inspecting the spinning rods.
He reinforced his familiarity with the sport when he asked me the gear ratio on the Penn Slammer reels we were going to use. I sheepishly replied, “I’ll look it up, Kevin – later”
The cloudy to muddy water that morning was the devil. Our first spot was well into the backwater of Addison Bay, one that usually had a slower current flow than its surroundings, and thus cleaner water. We dropped anchor, baited up and had at it. Inquiries of “Any strikes?” went unanswered for well into the first 15 minutes of effort. Nothing.
Before we pulled anchor and moved on, I sight-checked the visibility in the water by seeing how well I could see the lower unit on the eTec outboard. I could make it out, but it was definitely hazy. Kevin was watching me. “Watcha doing, captain?”
“Just checking the water clarity, Kevin”. He said nothing and we moved on.
We hustled over to Three River Cove and anchored up on a spot that had seldom disappointed. I was going with the best I knew how that morning. As we got our gear into the water, Kevin went to the stern of the boat and looked down at the lower unit. “Not much better than the first spot, captain,” was his announcement. And he was right, although we managed a limited number of sheepshead strikes and even lucked out with two keepers. But it was slow action. You could have knitted a shawl between strikes.
We prepared to move on, and as we collected the anchor, Kevin asked a question. “How much visibility do you think the fish need to feed on presented bait, captain?”
“Probably, between three and four feet at a minimum, Kevin,” was my response to a question never considered before.
“Why don’t we make a fish stick with measurements on it to see how well we can see in the water?”
With the guys bemused by the concept, Kevin and I marked up a old antenna that I had made into a mackerel gaff, with stripes every 12 inches and got ready to try it out. We moved to another spot deeper in Three River, but before we anchored, Kevin deployed the fish stick and could only see the 2-foot mark; the 3- and 4-foot marks were occluded.
We aborted the stop and moved over to Bear Point, where we tried our new technique again. This time, you could see the 3-foot mark and evidence of the one beyond. We set anchor.
Within minutes, we had our first strike and steady action continued for the remaining time of the trip. With the current continuing just as good throughout the time, the percent of water clarity made a major difference. Most fish work on a combination of olfactory and visual senses to move to a bait, and the improved ability to see the bait made our difference.
I’ve been using Kevin’s fish stick since, and you know what? It works.
The fish stick is a simple device to make and use no matter where you fish. Try it and see if it makes a difference for you.
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.