Friday, November 02, 2012

The Big One That Got Away

everglades national park fishing florida bay
Heaven for any Florida back country angler.  Frank Key near Flamingo.

Last month, I made a pilgrimage back to Everglades National Park where I first got hooked on fishing.  It had been a over a decade since I experienced the pristine and uncluttered environment of Florida Bay west of the Florida Keys, where I used to pore over navigation charts while Sir Fish A Lot steered our flats boat. I recognized the keys, channels and mazes of mangroves immediately, as if they were long lost friends.  I breathed a sigh of relief. I was home.

I met my guide, Captain Ted Wilson, just before dawn at Bud N' Mary's Marina in Islamorada.  I knew I was in good hands as he has been fishing and exploring the same body of water for 19 years and guiding professionally for 17.  He knows this vast expanse of skinny waters intimately.  And it's no ordinary body of water -- cradled by the Atlantic to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west, Florida Bay is a unique ecosystem, with fresh water flowing in from the north.

After about twenty minutes cruising west, we stopped close to a mangrove with good current to cast net some bait.  And then I was reminded why I love fishing the area so much; it's not just about the fish, but also about witnessing nature first-hand, away from the high-energy distractions of urban Miami.

Man-o-war birds, cormorants and pelicans were gathered around their nests, waking up to the sun's gentle morning light.

Cast Netting for Live Bait florida bay captain ted wilson
Cast netting for pilchards in Florida Bay early in the morning.

florida keys birds nesting rookery mangrove
Scattered throughout Florida Bay and the park, these mangroves support much wildlife.

As we approached the Flamingo area of the park, we also passed by Frank Key where we tried to net more bait -- my guide actually gave me a mini-lesson in handling a boat! -- but the water was too shallow. We did spook some large sting rays that we could see clearly over the thick grass beds.

In 2005, Hurricane Wilma denuded the west side of the key and wiped out nesting areas for Roseate Spoonbills, so boat traffic and fishing is prohibited around the periphery of the key from November to April.

Near Flamingo, we looked for diving sea terns -- a sign that ladyfish might also be feeding -- so we deployed light tackle. Captain Wilson and I had fun casting for ladyfish although we did manage to pull up a few slimy, grunting catfish.  He told me about another client from Louisiana who would dehook them with his own hands, even though their spiny dorsal fins can prick skin, resulting in painful injury.

With a rod in my hand, all was aligned in the universe -- that moment when you know you're doing exactly what you love and your heart is in it completely.  That's what fishing does for me; it forces me to be in the present. I was beginning to connect with my tackle. I was beginning to bond with nature.  I was warming up unconsciously for what I never imagined would be in store for me this day.

After Captain Wilson was satisfied with amount of bait in the live well, we headed further west to East Cape Sable, which is closer to the Gulf of Mexico.  Here we saw dozens of majestic loggerhead turtles with sandy Cape Sable beach as a stunning backdrop.

Location Coordinates in Florida Bay
Even though we were out in the middle of nowhere, I managed to get my iPhone  to work.

We saw some tarpon rolling, so Captain Wilson quickly prepared the tackle. Using 30# conventional gear, we hooked a live ladyfish across the nose on a 7/0 Owner hook and then drifted it back behind a float with 10 feet of 100-pound monofilament for leader.  Within minutes, the much anticipated screech of the line told me I had hooked a tarpon.

Captain Wilson reminded me to "bow to the king," leaving some slack in the line when the fish jumped.  I'll admit I was a little nervous, although my guide was an excellent teacher. But with an estimated 80 pound tarpon at the end of my line, the heart started racing!  The silver king is a formidable fish and alas, after about five minutes, it spit the hook out on a jump.

We kept trying for tarpon but sharks were eating up the ladyfish bait and cutting the monofilament leader, so Captain Wilson put out an additional rod with steel leader and an ounce of lead with half a ladyfish on the bottom.

I had told Captain Wilson that I had always wanted to catch a big one and boy, I should be careful what I wish for.  I hooked two fish, the first was most likely a Black Tip or Bull Shark that managed to shear through the metal leader within minutes.

And then arrived my come to Jesus moment.

Another screech on the line, a rod in my hand and what felt like a Mac truck speeding away from the boat. What the hell was I thinking? Could I physically handle this challenge?  How would I muster up the strength? It didn't take long for my right bicep and left forearm muscles to start burning. I'm no tiny girl, but whatever was on the end of that line was decidedly bigger than me and that's over 200 pounds.

At one point, Captain Wilson put a rod holder belt on me and I remembered what Betty Bauman of Ladies, Let's Go Fishing taught me about reeling in big fish -- squat, tuck your tailbone in and don't muscle it.  But I was really struggling and doubting myself at this point. Captain Wilson coached me again and reminded me to not work the reel so hard. I let the fish run and then reeled in the line, but it was never easy. I had connected with a creature to be respected, monstrous in size.

Half an hour into this fight, when I had the fish so close to the boat, when my stamina was all but gone, it simply spit the hook and let go. We never saw it.

Not photographing my fish is the best conservation policy.  But here's what a sawfish looks like; the species has long rostrum.  Photo by p medved via Flickr.

Exhausted yet exhilarated, I wasn't sure what to feel.  It was frustrating, to be sure, but it was also a fair fight between woman and beautiful beast.  And even if I never spotted the amazing creature, I had done something I didn't know I was capable of doing, something I had never done before.  I may have "lost" the fish, but I "found" me.

What was on the end of that line? Captain Wilson made an educated guess. Based on the fish's behavior it was most likely a colossal sawfish of about 400 pounds.  We were targeting shark but sawfish do roam these waters.  Sawfish are a protected species and I was relieved that the fish let go without a hook.

Captain Wilson asked me if I wanted to try again but I was beat and wanted to switch to light tackle, so we headed over to Snake Bight, where the tide was low.  Roseate spoonbills were feeding in the shallow water.  A common mirage effect on the flats makes the birds look like towering giants from a distance.  Without much wind, the dead silence of the Everglades magnifies the high-pitched squeal of an osprey or the honk of a heron.  These are sounds I love.

We poled to the mangroves and cast for snook, using 7-foot spinning outfits loaded with 15# braided line, 3 feet of 30-pound flourocarbon for leader and 2/0 Owner hooks with live pilchards.  We caught and released several juvenile snook, which was a good indication that snook populations were bouncing back after the winter freeze two years ago that killed so many fish.

Captain Ted Wilson Poling the Boat in Snake Bight at Everglades National Park
Poling in the shallow waters of Snake Bight.

Captain Ted Wilson with a Juvenile Snook in Everglades National Park
It's good to see snook populations on the rise.  All fish were released safely using a dehooker.

On the way back to the marina, I reflected on how I had just spent half a day in one of my most favorite places in the world, the Everglades, my heart soothed by this contact with nature.  Even though fishing happens on the water, it's a very grounding experience. I was immensely grateful for the physical battle that taught me spiritually to trust my own strength and determination. The fish is a great and humbling teacher.

Flats Fishing Buff Fashion
Fishing fashion isn't particularly sexy but it's good to get back to port with minimal sun and wind damage to the skin.


Fishing is in Captain Ted Wilson's blood -- he has been doing it since he was a kid. He grew up in Florida and moved to the Florida Keys after graduating from the University of Florida.  This fishing guide lives in Islamorada with his wife and five-year old daughter. The little one is already learning to be a great angler and participates in kids' tournaments.  In fact, a week after my own trip, she won Championship Angler in her age group for the Keys Kids Fishing Derby.

Find Captain Ted Wilson online for additional information about fishing and nature tours.


Learn more about Sawfish protection and tagging studies at Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. If you do catch and release one, report it for scientific research.

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