On The Hook: Keeping credibility in sport fishing

Bill Walsh

Legendary tarpon fishing here in Florida reaches the pinnacle of action, excitement and achievement. That is a truism but not for an 8-year old boy. Amen.

But let’s start at the beginning. Jason, a lawyer and father of a couple of young sons had caught a tarpon here on the outskirts of the Marco River with a companion charter fishing operation a few years back and had categorized the event as the “Super Bowl” of his fishing life.

And now he wanted to recreate the event for his first born, a now 10-year old son, Keith. Jason thought the experience for his son would congeal like a right of passage.

File: Fishing charter boat.

The phone rang here just after dinner one late spring evening with Jason trying to set up this fishing trip extraordinaire.

“I want my boy to experience the thrill; now, that he’ll never forget.”

Dad went deaf when I tried to explain, that is my experience, tarpon fishing is a tedious event for youngsters.

“They would gladly trade that one and only gigantic strike for constant action of the strike and catch regardless of the size.” The idea that size comes later in kid’s fishing excitement book fell on deaf ears.

We did the trip on one gorgeous April morning. All the factors were in place; tide, water clarity, water temperature, except for the tarpon. We changed baits every half hour; we scouted the horizon endlessly. Half way through the event, we had a humongous strike. Dad grabbed the rod and passed it to Keith who dipped the rod on a jump and the tarpon gleefully headed off to the horizon. So, zero that trip except for a few in-crazed ladyfish on our way home.

Bottom line: too much too early. The tarpon outing had showered disappointment all over the 10-year old. And here are several other examples that point to the need to match skill with situation.

This second one happened a few months later. Got a phone call from a dad from up there in Whiteout, MN asking a myriad of questions about a potential trip for he and his family. “Where do you fish? Can kids tolerate the water conditions? Do you always catch fish? Are they big fish? Etc.

Tried to be as honest as possible explaining that fishing here, like most everywhere else was dependent on conditions, a good tide, clean water, favorable water temperature and that we usually did fine on keeping the kids happy and, bottom line, taking enough home for dinner.

Dad wanted to think it over and I was pleasantly surprised when he called back the next day and scheduled a trip.

Had them on the schedule and anticipating a good trip and then an evening phone call from dad; “Captain, sorry, we’re going to have to cancel out trip next week with you.”

“That’s OK; but can you tell me why the cancellation,” I asked.

“Well, we found a site online … that has a daily report on their catch. Yesterday the 15 people on the boat caught 220 fish and that’s the kind of action we’re looking for” was the descriptive response.

Remembering to never talk down a competitor, my response … “Great. No problem in cancelling …  wish you luck on your trip” was offered with no strings.

Never gave it another thought until dad called back a day or so later.

“On an outside chance, captain, would you have any charter slots open later this week.”

“What happened … if I may ask?” Was my curious response.

Dad recounted the miserable trip with 20-plus old timers that went offshore amidst small craft warnings and fishing became secondary to just standing up and tolerating extreme seasickness. The regular “old timers” hogged the best spots and used special baits that they brought on board with them and they rest of the passengers just hung on for dear life.

They caught the “200 fish” with most of them being junk fish or undersized “keepers.” Dad classified it as a bummer experience.

As it happened, I was fully booked for the balance of the week, so save them finding someone one else, their fishing adventure went down in flames. Too bad!

And in the litany of overreaching expectations of fishing trips, meet El Papa. A testosterone rich father wanting to engage his son’s in a macho fishing experience.

On his booking call explaining that we were having great action on pompano, mackerel and bluefish fell on El Papa’s deaf ears. “I want my sons to experience the thrill of a snook or redfish catch. You can leave that puny stuff to someone else.”

So off we went, right past the two dozen boats working a terrific pompano bite in Capri Pass and commenced a search in the backcountry for out-of-season snook and redfish in one of the coldest weeks of the year.

We set up on locations with good current flow and hooked up thread herring to work against the mangrove shallows.

Again the macho spirit was evident from El Papa. When I tried to cast for the 7 and 8 year old, he admonished me. “Let them do it themselves. They must learn!”

For the next hour or so, I pulled errant casts out of trees, shrubs, bushes and various parts of the boat and repaired tackle. With nary a strike save a few hungry catfish, the interest level of the two boys was waning quickly.

Finally, with but an hour to go El Papa recounted with “take them somewhere where they can catch some fish.”

We headed back to to the Capri Pass and the spirits of the kids lifted instantly. The kid’s energy level having been eroded by the quest for “big fish in the backwater” returned as we entered the Pass and handed them a baited rod.

Unfortunately, the pompano had vacated the premises but they had been replaced by tenacious mega ladyfish.

That last hour of the trip was filled with shouts, yelps and laughter as the kids caught dozens of ladyfish with a few bluefish in the mix; that is until their arms ached and they put down the rods. They were all smiles as we headed home.

“Maybe the big snook and redfish can wait a couple more years” rumbled the now smiling El Papa.

Think you can say the same for the tarpon and that other charter company.

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