(* – written upon returning from Florida in late November, 2012.)
The wish was that, upon returning from my trip to Florida, I’d be posting a glorious photograph in this space of myself, hoisting a silver and gold red fish with a fly rod in my teeth. The clear Florida waters would be glistening behind me, lapping against a white sand shore line of mangroves and palm trees. Not to be, it seems.
My time fishing was limited, but I expected as much, and that was fine. Fishing wasn’t the priority on this short vacation to Treasure Island, just south of Tampa Bay, FL. I was there to spend time with my brother, catch a show, and escape the creeping cold of my home waters, just for a moment. With those objectives accomplished, I was able to sneak away for a while with my fly rod. With so much water around me, the question was….where?
Internet research will take you so far. You can get the general idea of what to fish for, flies to use, leader lengths and the like. Specific information on where to fish is different. The internet hasn’t changed this aspect of the game – the local knowledge is still the best. Knowing this, I looked up local fly shops, and found Tampa Bay on the Fly, and pointed the rental car in it’s general direction.
Once the woman who lives in my phone guided me safely to the shop, I walked in to find owner Enver Hysni and a friend sitting at the fly tying table.
Tying is encouraged at Enver’s store, as was demonstrated by the heaps of hackle, marabou and hooks scattered all over the large table in the center of the shop. The guys greeted me warmly, asked me if I wanted a drink, and then asked just who the hell I was and what the hell was I doing there?
I explained that I had a fly rod and no idea what the hell to do with it, and where I was staying. Without a word, Enver grabbed a map and a pen, and a local fishing guidelines book, laid it all out on a glass display counter, and began marking it up with a pen. It turns out a stretch of park land, just 20 minutes south of my hotel, could be a good place to find cruising reds. I loaded up on local flies, some odds and ends I can’t get near my home, and a few leaders, lead eyes and a selection of other random flies I could put to use. When you encounter such friendly people who take the time to load you up on so much local knowledge, you find a way to pay them back as best you can. You buy stuff. It’s just good etiquette.
Fort Desoto Park lies at the south end of a slither of land that stretches through Mullet Key Bayou. Despite being home to a civil war era fort and beautiful mangrove lined lagoons, I was here to fish the grass beds of the south east beaches. After stringing up a rod and pulling on my waders, I crested the small rise that blocks the ocean view from the parking lot, and was immediately greeted with the acrobatics of Mullet Key’s namesake. Breaching and leaping mullet fish of significant size were jumping out of the water in all directions. Knowing these were not the best species to try to catch on the fly, I tied on one of Enver’s Redfish Wasp flies and waded in,
shuffling my feet for rays, as instructed.
I caught two fish that day. One was a small lady fish, the second a contender for the worlds smallest tarpon. I didn’t even photograph them, thinking bigger, more impressive fish would eventually materialize. Conditions were less than optimal. I was on a falling tide, and the water was churned up and cloudy. Sight fishing wasn’t an option unless I found tailing fish, but the only tails in the air I found belonged to the abundant mullet. I cast along grass beds, shorelines and sand bars, walked the beach, tried different flies, and came up empty for the rest of the day. It would be a lie to suggest that I didn’t mind my lack of good fishing, but there were several positives to all this. For one, this area is stunningly beautiful. The weather was warm and sunny and the white sand beaches were blinding against the backdrop of blue sky and mangroves and thick palms. I had a mile or so of isolated beach to myself, and I marveled at the sheer volume of birds, fish, lizards and other critters that roam the park grounds. In between futile casts, I took a lot of pictures, took in the landscape, and bathed in warm sun.
The following day, myself, my brother and a few friends woke up with the sun to take a charter boat out of John’s Pass. Today, we would catch many fish. In fact, we would simply loot the ocean without much effort.
After pounding out for over and hour in 4 to 6 foot seas, getting soaked in the early morning chill, our captain handed us those stubby little boat rods and baited them for us. All we had to do was flick a switch and watch the bait tumble down into over 65 feet of water. Then wait. If one of the five in my party did not hook a fish within five minutes, we would move – maybe as short a distance as 100 yards, and drop the lines again. When we encountered a school of red grouper or porgy, we would haul them in by the dozen.
Thank goodness I was on this boat with family, good people, and a nice guy for a Captain, or this would have been miserable. Being amongst friends was fun, and it was interesting to see some fish I’d never seen before, but this trip only confirmed my long-held suspicions about deep sea fishing; that all this bouncing around in a boat for several long hours of dipping a line in and reeling it up again just isn’t my cup of tea. To me, it feels like clubbing seals. It’s too easy, requires no effort unless your the captain, and provides me little -to-no satisfaction. And, as someone that doesn’t mind someone keeping an abundant fish to eat, but releases almost every fish I catch, I found the expediency of it all somewhat off-putting. Fish an inch or so too short to keep were tossed overboard like a Frisbee; pink, swollen swim bladders protruding from their mouths from being yanked from the depths too quickly. Thankfully, fish fit to keep were put to good use, as two of my friends on board were professional chefs employed to cook for a hundred or so people, all of whom will enjoy some variation of grouper for a month.
Ultimately, I’ve chalked the fishing end this trip down south up as a scouting expedition. I like the small town feel of Treasure Island, I know where to go to find fish next time. I know where to get a kayak, and a damn good Cuban sandwich and a beer when the sun sets. I know a good fly shop, and the guy who owns it, and with the exceptionally cheap bars, restaurants, air fare and hotels, I know I’ll be back – next time, only to fish. I’ll get that red fish photo yet…..