On The Hook: Identifying the successful fishing trip

Bill Walsh
Fishing at sunset 40 miles off of Marco.

School’s out and the summer is just about to break open on the scene. We recognize that fact, being in this charter fishing endeavor, because we begin to get families from the “other coast” over here for their family fishing excursions.

Long trek? Not as far as their concerned as they escape the summer clatter and crushing water crowds annihilating reasonable conditions on the “Gold Coast.” And it’s good for business here; a hotel room for a couple nights, a pizza dinner and an evening at the Esplanade doesn’t hurt the Paradise Coast’s economics.

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They’ve started to arrive this past week and it’s rekindled my thoughts of a few landmark trips we ran a few years back for a family who loved this place and visited several times every summer.

Our story this week is about this family and a landmark trip that, I think, defines what fishing is all about; so here we go!

It’s an ungodly hour in Boca Raton as the Smith (name protected) family sounds reveille to commence a two plus hour excursion over Alligator Alley for a half day of fishing and a day or so stay on the Paradise Coast.

In past years, I’ve often inquired “why” and that answer in unison, “you gotta see it over here on Saturday, everything is crowded and the people are frantic and it’s so nice and laid back and peaceful here.”

Amen. Me … silently, “That’s why most of us are here.”

Now, you always want to do well for your customers but for these folks who streamed through the morning darkness, you naturally feel a special need to deliver results. The goal is a good, if not great, fishing trip that makes that early wake-up call worthwhile.

On our first few excursions on the briny, a few years back, we spoiled them. We hit days with gin clear water, balmy breezes and terrific tidal pattern that delivered great results. The two pre-teen sons would be counting the variety of legal species that we landed that were chilling down in the cooler as we made our way back to the marina. All the chat was about how they would prepare them when they got back home.

And like Red Auerbach, the famous coach of the Boston Celtics, Don Smith would light up a agonizingly aromatic cigar as we would transition the Marco River and call his brother, entrenched in Miami, and deliver a boastful blow by blow fishing report; you could almost sense the brother’s anguish.

After two trips with almost identical great results, I spent time, while cleaning the catch, to spell out at just how fortunate they were to pick such days with great conditions. It would not always be that wonderful and they should look at fishing for the sport and the excitement of the catch, not for the weight of the population in the cooler.

With oblivious smirks on their face, that message sailed in one ear and out the other.

Then last late summer, their day of atonement arrived.

They had heard that we were having fantastic mackerel and bluefish action here on the nearshore reefs and scurried to make a charter reservation. Their observation was totally accurate however, this time, their weather conditions didn’t cooperate at all. In fact, they were downright awful.

The winds were ripping out of the southeast and the sea state looked like a chapter from Victory at Sea.

We weren’t going to challenge the nearshore turmoil and had to settle for a moderately chopped up backwater which would be our domain for this day.

It was a strong incoming tide that morning and we started our trip working tipped jigs in the Capri Pass. Our super target would be the Florida Pompano, which would rival and surpass the fight and take home quality of any of our past nearshore catch. We set up drifts working tipped jigs. Almost immediately, we were attacked by legions of ladyfish which ripped and ran in every direction; thwarting Don but energizing the two teenagers. The action was wall to wall, but unfortunately for the Smith’s were non-tablefare. After 30 minutes of screaming ladyfish runs, Don called a time-out.

“No food value here, let’s move on, Captain. Let’s move on.” This interlude was not putting fish in the box and to the leader here, that’s what fishing was all about … food!

So off we went to the backwaters and the world of snappers, speckled trout, redfish and black drum this time of year. We targeted the very best of fishing spots; ones that always (or almost) produced … food.

They all fished their hearts out with just about every rig and bait on the boat. We were catching fish just great; snapper, early season sheepshead, trout, all of which were exactly an inch short of keeper size. It’s as if the fish knew!

With charter time ebbing away, Bob became more and more agitated. And the two boys were losing their fishing macho with these small tepid creatures with their relatively meek struggles. These trips over here from the east coast weren’t supposed to be like this. They were targeted to be a live “Whole Foods” seafood experience.

Finally, I called Bob aside.

“Bob, this is a tough fishing day and your bountiful take of seafood is probably not going to happen. What say we salvage what’s left of the trip and get the kid’s into some fun fishing.”

After some hemming and hawing he reluctantly agreed. Remember; Bob’s definition of fishing success was a tub of filets; fishing for fun was not in his piscatorial vocabulary.

We announced that we were starting a ladyfish contest. “Ten bucks for the most ladyfish caught and released and another 10 for the biggest ladyfish.”

Back we went to Capri Pass with a new excitement aboard. Kids love action and they were into it as soon as the first bait hit the water. We were using small jigs with the barb smushed down with just a tad of shrimp as bait.

The action was “electric”; boys hooting and hollering with Dad as the scorekeeper and I as the official fish releaser. We both had trouble keeping up with the action.

We finally called a “two-minute warning” as time ran out. The boys slumped into seats exhausted and looking like spotted Dalmatians with the ladyfish “splatter” … but both with big smiles.

We had no fish to clean that day but the boys were still psyched with the fun experience of pure fishing. One blurted “Captain, that’s the best fun we ever had on a fishing trip, can we do it again?

“Sure, if your dad approves”

Sort of looked at dad who nodded and asked directions to the nearest fish market. Sensed the family fishing trips could well be based on fun not food from then on.

Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to dawnpatrolmarco@cs.com.