Let’s say you and your family are new to the environs of Southwest Florida and are overwhelmingly smitten with the sub-tropic surroundings. The beauty of the fauna; the near endless sunshine; the meandering pace of things and last, and far from least, the beauty of the surrounding Gulf waters are all like magnets drawing your gang helplessly onward.
Naturally, with the lure of the water as the central attraction, there comes a new found inquisitiveness about getting involved in giving sportfishing a whirl. Being out there on the briny with a sea creature tugging at the other end of a fishing line, is an ageless quest dating back to ancient times; so why would it be any different now for any of us?
It isn’t. And it wasn’t for the nice family from the heartland, down here to take possession of their new condo a few years back that called and asked about a charter.
The initial contact was from the father and I remember that the conversation was like “true confessions” and went something like ... “We’re from Lake Wobegone and just bought a condo here and we’ve never really fished. Well, maybe just a little, for blue gills. Anyhow, there are five of us and we want to try fishing here and see how we like it. Can you accommodate us?”
“Absolutely, would be my pleasure”. We set a date and went through the items that they would need to bring. A hat, sunscreen, a camera (for the big one) and good luck. We would provide everything else for them.
Now, experience with novice anglers is always a roll of the dice. Even if they have had a modicum of fishing time, getting them up to speed in the salt water environment, was quite simple. But then on the other hand, there are some who don’t even know how to hold the rod and that creates a much higher level of challenge. I had no idea as to what level of experience my Lake Wobegone gang would bring to the table. That is until our appointed morning.
They showed up super early and watched every move as I set up the boat. There was mom and dad, a teenage daughter and two pre-teen boys. They chatted and asked questions as I worked. Nice folks that disclosed they had not only never saltwater fished before but this would be their first time on a boat; for all but dad.
This was going to be a world of firsts. That early summer morning was cradled in perfect conditions – beautiful sunshine, cloudless skies, good tides, clear water and no wind which was like a handpicked environment especially for these first time sailors. They boarded with a bound and just stood there.
I showed them around the boat which doesn’t take long on a 22’ craft and pointed out the safety features. Cautiously they found seats and then asked if they could all wear life jackets.
“Absolutely, it’s your right”, as they donned the orange PFD’s which certainly provide a optimum level of on-the-water safety but are bulky and uncomfortable on warm humid summer mornings. But they were nervous and strung pretty tight on this first boat trip; so more caution was certainly best.
We made a decision to fish the backwaters where they’d see more of their new island and hopefully encounter some events with dolphins and sea birds also. Our first spot was just on the edge of Capri Pass on an open water spot that usually produced some nice mangrove snapper this time of year.
We anchored up off to the side of the light boat traffic and set up to bottom fish. Went through the litany of how to hold the rod, wind the reel, set the hook etc to the family. They were totally attentive, asked questions, and were totally overwhelmed; but we’d get started slow with a some real live casts. We baited up the kids first and cast their rigs in a spread behind the boat which was sitting nicely on the outgoing tide. Then proceeded to help mom get started but was interrupted with mayhem that had broken out with the kids in the stern.
One of the boys had the rod slip out of his sunscreen soaked hands and the rig was dangling precariously on the swim platform about ready to take a goodbye dive. Simultaneously, the girl had a fish hit her line that was heading to the horizon egged on by her shrill screams and the second boy was on his knees convulsed in laughter.
With the help of the father we retrieved the rod, cut off the stingray and got laughing boy under control; in that order.
Then we did something that I had never attempted before.
We set up a fishing school. Explaining to the group that we’d add a half hour to their trip and duck off to some quiet cove and go to school on fishing skills. They were OK with the idea and off we went. For a good half hour we all went through instruction on how to handle the rod; the technique of casting; setting the hook and landing the fish; all wrapped up in principles of courtesy and safety. They all had hookless rods that they flayed into the open water until little by little you could sense the improvement in technique and comfort level.
Told them as we finished school that they were all ready for Fishing 102 and off we went with hooks retied and spirits high. They even stowed those life jackets.
We fished two or three more backwater spots that morning and the Lake Wobegone gang did quite well. There were a few tangled lines and tree casts but, by and large, they did as well as experienced folks after that short “school.”
They released all their fish that day but have been back with me several times in the intervening years with nice fishing trips rewarding themselves with just enough fruits of the Gulf for nice seafood dinners.
They still talk about the day they went to “school” and wonder why more people don’t do the same thing.
So do I.