I feel like fishing is as much a social outlet as a recreational one. Since I was a kid fishing the local canal with the neighbor kids, most of my closest friends have been fisherman. As I go through life, I meet people with different degrees of knowledge about all types of fishing; from ice fishing for 10 inch perch in Lake Michigan to battling 900 pound blue marlin off of Grand Cayman. And for every type of fishing there is, there are countless techniques and methods that can be used for each. Fishing is a journey of learning. A good fisherman is always open to new techniques, picking up and choosing new tricks to add to their bag.
After years of fishing, most people have a favorite species or at least type of fishing to pursue. In the case of my good friend Jocko, it was swordfish first, followed by wahoo as a close second. Both are extremely labor and gear intensive and require serious commitment in order to achieve regular success. Broad-billed Atlantic swordfish can grow to over a thousand pounds. They are revered for their enormous fighting power and their super-tasty meat. They had been almost fished out and catches had become rare, until the long-line fishing ban helped bring them back to our waters. Jocko’s other favorite, wahoo, are among the fastest of all fish. They have long, torpedo shaped bodies, razor-sharp teeth and are capable of bursts of sixty miles per hour. They grow to be over one hundred pounds and are considered one of the best fish for sushi in the world.
While daytime sword fishing has become more popular, most people in South Florida fish for them after dark. It requires a boat that you feel comfortable going 15 to 30 miles out to contours of the ocean bottom, in the dead of night. To target swordfish, most anglers use large, high capacity conventional gear with at least 50 lb test monofilament line. Generally four rods are staggered at depths from fifty to three hundred a fifty feet down. Balloons or milk jugs with glow sticks in them are attached to the line and floated on the surface, in order for the angler to keep track of them. Typically the baits used are extra-large squid with glow sticks in them or live 8-12 inch blue runners. Lights or flashers are usually attached where the leader meets the swivel to attract baitfish, squid and swordfish in the black depths. Drift fishing in the dark in thousands of feet of water, with the stars blazing and satellites streaking by, can be amazing and humbling.
To high-speed troll for wahoo you need at least two heavy bent-butt rods with huge reels that have a thousand yards of at least 100 lb test line. A 20 to 36 ounce cigar weight with heavy steel cable and heavy-duty swivels on each end is then attached to the line, followed by forty feet of 300 lb test shock line with a heavy-duty swivel and a very large and heavy skirted lure. This is attached with steel cable leader and two massive, razor sharp, stainless-steel hooks. These lures are trolled between 50 and 100 hundred yards behind the boat at fifteen miles per hour. When you’re going that fast and a 40-70 pound wahoo smashes your lure, while swimming 50 miles per hour, you know you have a fish on!
Jocko has become an aficionado of fishing for both species. For years he would take his boat offshore, put in the time and return with swordfish. He got to where he consistently brought home as much swordfish as all of his friends and family could eat. He also became an expert at wahoo fishing. He’s taken countless trips over to the Bahamas in pursuit of them and has even won a tournament in Puerto Rico. While he had perfected his offshore fishing game, he had little or no experience fishing the back country. I was determined to change that.
It was September when I had a free day coming up on my calendar. I had been talking to Jocko about taking him to fish the backcountry for a while. He’s a great guy, fun to fish with and has a flexible schedule, so called and I invited him. He said he could get the day off, so we set up our plans and hung up the phone. One of my favorite spots is one that is very hard to get back to. If you don’t have a combination of high water and high tide, there’s a good chance that you won’t get there (and even less of a chance that you’ll return). I had been watching the water levels at my dock that week and it was looking like we might get a shot at it. I crossed my fingers and was rewarded that morning with high water. When Jocko showed up at my house, he was fully provisioned and ready to go. His big grin made it obvious that he was as stoked to get out there as I was.
It was a beautiful, clear morning with a light south-easterly breeze. My boat cut through the calm bay water like a hot knife through butter. I usually fish my way back into Flamingo and hop from spot to spot as I go, but the tides were right and I decided to push on through. My fish sense was telling me that the spot I had in mind was going to be hot. We ran the eighteen miles to our destination, sipping from our mugs of coffee in silent anticipation. A half mile short of our target, I came off of a plane, raised my engine and began to idle. There were so many signs of life around us! Large schools of mullet bolted on either side of our slow, steady advance. Occasionally, a big wake or a shark fin would ease away from or cut across our path. After a couple of minutes of idling forward, I cut the engine and raised it the rest of the way out of the water. It was dead silent.
I handed Jocko a rod and laid one on the poling platform for myself. I bent down, grabbed my push pole and climbed up next to my rod. I steadied myself, dug the push pole into the mud bottom and eased us forward. We were in about a foot of water and it was stirred up from the thousands of mullet that had passed through in the past few hours. The tannins from the decomposing vegetation in the little bay gave it a brownish hue. As I poled us along, small mushroom cloud puffs of mud would swirl up around us as redfish and other game fish would spook out of our way. The water around us was boiling with life and I was feeling my excitement beginning to build. It was starting to look like my fish sense was tuned in. The only question then was, “Are they biting?” We were about to find out.
We were making our way to the mouth of a small tributary and it was looking like we were at slack high tide. Jocko was casting a root beer colored Flappin’ Shad rigged to run weedless. I was throwing a gold spoon with a Gulp minnow grub attached. We were working our artificials a few hundred feet from the edge of the tributary mouth when Jocko hooked into a fish. The shallow water erupted and mud boiled up as the fish pulled and fought. When he got it to the boat, we saw that it was a small redfish. His first ever! We took a quick photo, released it and got back to easing along and casting. I hooked, fought and quietly released another redfish. Though I’ve caught hundreds, I’m still thrilled to catch them as they are one of my favorite species. Jocko caught and released a nice sized trout that took a couple of nice jumps just before we were in casting range of the creek.
We spotted a seven foot alligator lying in shallow water on the right side of the bank. He was sunning himself and gazing at a school of baitfish as they ambled by. Suddenly there was an enormous, frothy explosion as a crocodile charged the alligator and ran it off into the deeper water. We owed this National Geographic moment to a beast of a creature that was nearly ten feet long. He took the space that his cousin had just occupied and continued with his bait watching vigil. My dog Lola whined in eager anticipation, oblivious to the mortal danger that these reptiles posed to her. Jocko caught a lady fish and a redfish on consecutive casts as I poled us to within casting range of the creek. At the mouth of it, the depth fell from a mere twelve inches to about four feet. I noticed that the water was beginning to trickle out towards the bay. At this point we could see up the hundred yards or so of navigable water and what we saw was astounding. There were busts, crashes, splashes, and leaping fish everywhere! The creek was in the midst of a fish feeding frenzy.
My legs shook with excitement as I climbed down from the platform to the deck, stuck the pole deep into the mud and tied us up to it. At that moment, I looked down and saw a school of four inch mullet come up under the boat in an attempt to find shelter. It was a vain attempt, as a snook came blasting from under them, spraying bait in every direction and splashing me with water. I grabbed two rods which had lead jig heads on them. I put a 4” Gulp ripple mullet on each and handed one to Jocko. We each picked a side of the creek and took our first casts. Within seconds of my bait hitting the water, I hooked a three foot tarpon. It made a nice run, took a few jumps and then spit the hook out. Jocko had almost completely retrieved his bait when the water erupted on his side of the boat. The fish made a few runs and a jump before he had his first snook laid up next to us. He reached down, grabbed it out of the water, held it up for a photo and then released it.
We looked at the cacophony of splashes and busts around us and then at each other with huge smiles on our faces. We simultaneously exclaimed, “It’s on!” Cast after cast, we caught fish after fish, as I eased us farther and farther up the creek. The snook were hanging closer to the mangroves, while the tarpon seemed to be towards the center. I hooked and landed a nice-sized tarpon while Jocko fought a thirty inch snook that he was able to finagle out from deep in the mangrove roots. Things were happening so fast that we had to make a concerted to keep track of our catches. A few casts back towards the mouth landed us two more redfish. On one cast I even caught a goliath grouper! After hooking and losing a couple of tarpon, Jocko caught and landed his first one ever. Having never fished the backcountry before, he had just gotten a backcountry grand slam! (Catching a trout, redfish, snook and tarpon in one day). The action was non-stop to the point of being surreal. We caught snook after snook, after tarpon after snook, ranging from 18 to 36 inches. We were ecstatic! My dog Lola was beside herself, running to and fro and yipping with excitement.
After what seemed like an eternity of non-stop action, the bite slowly started to die down. We took a moment to catch our breaths and drink some cold water. We cut off and re-rig our worn and frayed leaders and retied them. We were bathing in the euphoria of possibly the best couple of hours of fishing that either of us had ever had in our lifetimes. After talking it through and lamenting the ones that got away, we came up with our tally. In one spot we had caught and landed twenty-two snook, four redfish, four tarpon, a half dozen trout, the same number of ladyfish and a goliath grouper! As we packed up in preparation to run to the next spot, I said, “I’m stoked that you got to see what the backcountry is all about and get your first grand slam, but I hope you realize that this was far from typical.” He assured me that he understood that. We spent the rest of the day enjoying the afterglow and fishing different spots. We eventually made our way home to enjoy some beers and celebrate our day. Not long after, Jocko bought a flats boat.