It’s my opinion that the people who get the most out of fishing are the ones who love being outside in nature and on the water so much, that pursuing and catching fish is just a bonus. It’s also my assertion that for some reason, they usually catch the most fish. It’s as if the fish gods pick up on that good, positive energy and reward it with a hot bite! I’m fortunate enough to meet lots of these types of people in the course of my guiding, and quite a few of them have become regular clients and friends. Kenn from New Jersey is one of these people. He is as enthusiastic a fisherman as could be, and lots of fun to fish with. Whether it’s catching smallmouth bass in a little no-motor lake back home, or battling a hundred pound tarpon in Islamorada, he has, “Fishing Fever”, and it’s contagious.
Kenn was scheduled to fish for two, back to back days with me. We had some good weather coming, but that morning was windy and cool. I’d have described it as “doable, but not great”. The tail end of a winter cold front was passing through and the ride out was a rough adventure. We stuck to the lee side of flats and islands, as we bounced and weaved a path farther and farther back into the heart of the Everglades backcountry. We made our way into one of my favorite areas and I stopped the boat. I trimmed up the motor and jumped up on the platform. After some poling the edges of a flat and hunting for a while, we found some nice, laid up snook. Kenn caught and released a few beauties. He was stoked and his face showed it!
I maneuvered us into some deeper water, stowed our gear, started the engine, and jumped us up on a plane. The cool wind felt good on our sun-drenched faces as we snaked through some barely perceptible, shallow channels. We headed west as we sliced through the waters of Florida Bay. Eventually, I cut the engine and stopped in an spot that I had been seeing redfish routinely in the days prior. Kenn grabbed a spinning rod and jumped up on the bow, as I climbed up on the rear platform, with my push pole in my hand.
The wind was at my back as I began poling, but I noticed that it had calmed down quite a bit. That helped my ability to see and it didn’t take long to sight some beautiful, copper colored redfish, foraging on the bottom of the flats in front of us. As we eased forward, I also noticed the tell-tale mud puffs of some reds that had spooked from the sight of the boat, as they flicked their triangle tails, and pushed out away from us. Over the next couple of hours, Kenn caught a half dozen impressive redfish, a couple of beautiful snook, and a handful of monster trout. All of the fish were released healthy, although we did have a close call when a lemon shark almost caught one of our snook.
It had gotten more and more calm as we fished. We were not far from western edge of Florida Bay, and as I gazed out into the Gulf, I could see that the water had become glass calm and mirror-like in the distance. We had stowed our gear for our next move and we were ready to go. I started the engine and said, “Well Kenn, we’ve definitely found them on the flats. We’ve got some time left. How do you feel about running out to the Gulf to see what we can get into?” Kenn’s enthusiastic replay was, “Let’s do it!”. With that, I slammed the throttle forward, the engine roared, and off we went. Into the blue yonder!
As we headed west, we were both scanning the surface of the water in front of us, looking for telltale signs of fish. We looked for anything to indicate their presence; tails, fins, wakes, splashes, or bait being chased. Suddenly, I noticed something floating in the water. It wasn’t moving in the current, it wasn’t the right shape to be a crab pot and I was at a loss for what it could be. As we got closer, I saw that it was a brand-new life vest. Next to it was a new boat bumper. They had been tied with a new rope and it looked to me that it had been in the water only a very short time, hours instead of days. Ten feet away was an odd looking, also brand-new, white and orange buoy. I couldn’t imagine what the purpose of this was or why it was out here. I thought maybe it was part of one of the many scientific studies that go on around Everglades National Park. The water was especially murky, due to the strong tide, so visibility towards the bottom was nearly nonexistent. I turned on my sonar and circled the area a couple of times, but didn’t see anything of interest on the screen.
I was intrigued, but we had to keep moving. I marked the spot on my gps, aimed the bow west, and continued on our quest for fish. Every few miles or so, we’d stop the boat, kill the engine and scan the surrounding water for fish. After a while, we’d take off and continue our search again. We did that for a few times before on one of our stops, we both noticed something gleaming about seventy yards in front of us. As we looked closer, we could see little flashing fins on the surface. At this point we were in about fifteen feet of water, so I put my trolling motor down and started easing us forward.
We quickly realized that what we were looking at was a the crescent shaped tails of a gorgeous school of permit. There had to be at least three or four dozen of them, milling around and floating in groups. I put a live shrimp on a jig head and handed a spinning combo to Kenn. When we got close enough, Kenn put a great cast, right into the heart of the group. There was a big commotion, and I was convinced that the permit had spooked from the sound of the bait hitting the water. I was wrong. “One of them picked it up!”, Kenn whispered, with obvious excitement. “Come tight on it!”, was my reply. He lifted the rod tip, the reel screamed and the fish raced ahead. I could feel the magnificent creature as it began turning and then literally dragging the boat behind it. It was a heck of a rush and we were both totally pumped!
After fifteen minutes of lightning runs, the permit tired out and we had it up to the side of the boat. It was a beautiful, healthy, twenty pound fish and Kenn’s arms and shoulders were throbbing from the fight. We took some photos, revived the fish and watched it dart back out in search of its friends and family. We were tempted to look for more fish, but it was getting late and we had a very long ride back to Tavernier. We cracked celebratory beers, I turned the boat east and headed home, with the sun on our backs. It had been a great day on the water!
That evening before bed, I was winding down and scrolling Instagram, when I came across a crazy post on Everglades National Park’s page. Apparently, a four passenger plane had crash-landed in the water, a mile off of the tip of Florida (commonly referred to as The Cape). Thankfully, everyone survived the crash. As luck would have it, some campers on the beach had seen it go down and had rushed out in their small boat to rescue them. They were able to pick up the pilot and passengers as the plane sank. The campers alerted the Park Service and Coast Guard, and they came out and retrieved the stunned and extremely lucky survivors. “Wow!”, I thought to myself. “That plane has got to be what those markers were on. That’s pretty wild!”
We met at my boat later than usual the following morning, so that we could try to be in the Gulf when it was predicted to be calm seas again. I showed Kenn the post about the plane crash. He was as amazed as I had been and also glad everyone on board was okay. The ride out was a lot more enjoyable and direct than the bumpy trek the morning before. When we finally got out to the Gulf and saw the makeshift markers, we had a new appreciation for what they were. As I idled up to them, we saw that the water was clearer, the tide was slack and they were floating lazily on the surface. We peered overboard, and low and behold, there was the plane! It was a bit mind boggling to think that it had fallen out of the sky twenty four hours earlier! We shook our heads in amazement, as I steered the boat west and hit the throttle.
It took a lot longer to find the fish and we traveled quite a few miles further out than the day before. What finally caught our eye were some massive splashes on the horizon. Our adrenalin was pumping as I raced us towards the scene. As we got closer, I could see the mirror flash of monster tarpon as they leaped through the air and crashed into pods of bait. When we got closer to the spectacle, I killed the engine and dropped my trolling motor into the water. By the time we got up to them, the explosions had mostly subsided. Now they were only happening on occasion, but they were replaced by quite a few behemoth tarpon, rolling and frolicking in the slick water.
I pulled out a heavy spinning combo with a huge swim-bait that I had rigged for this exact scenario, and handed it to Kenn. He began casting and retrieving the bulky lure at different speeds and tempos, as I slowly maneuvered the boat through the school of fish. On one cast he let the bait fall through the water column for a bit longer before starting to reel. He was rewarded by a huge jolt as a tarpon slashed at his bait. “I got a hit!”, he exclaimed, as he brought the lure up and out of the water for another cast. He began letting it sink for a while before he started retrieving for his next few casts and was rewarded with a tremendous hit, followed by an explosion of whitewater! Moments later, a hundred pound tarpon catapulted eight feet into the air! As soon as it’s massive body landed, the line began smoking off of Kenn’s reel at an alarming rate. The fish was on the move! I ran to the helm, turned the key, and started after it. We needed to catch up to the rocketing fish before it spooled every bit of line off of the reel!
Kenn battled the fish for over an hour and we followed it for several miles, as it darted, leaped and ripped it’s way through the water. Apparently, the school of tarpon had corralled a bunch of bait again, and they were back to exploding on them a mile or so off of our stern. I finally got a hold of Kenn’s leader and the catch was official! We were glad a moment later when the monster fish finally shook the swim bait out of its mouth and swam off. After a happy high-five, Kenn slumped into the front seat and grabbed a Gatorade. Sensing that he had had enough of the tarpon, I decided to set off looking for another school of permit, like we had found the day before.
We searched for a long time, with a lot of stopping and going. We were about to turn back and try something else, when we finally sighted a school of fish. As we eased up and casted into them, we realized that this school was a lot “happier” and less nervous that the one the day before. We took turns casting to and catching quite a few permit each, and it was a blast! After we had had our fill, we decided to leave them be and let them do their thing. At this point, I realized that it was getting late, we were almost out of sight of land and we had a lot longer ride home than we had the day before. After all, I’ve never been a fan of having to navigate in the Everglades after dark.
We stowed our gear and I started the long trek home. When we finally got to the Cape, I noticed on the gps that we were about to pass right near the site of the plane wreck. I gazed ahead and low and behold, there were the make-shift markers, straining in the strong current. At this point we were racing daylight, so I didn’t bother to slow down or ponder the scene. But as I blew by them and gazed down, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Two beautiful cobia, were floating up on top of the airplane, just as relaxed and happy as could be! Cobia love to hang around structure, and apparently it hadn’t taken them long to find this one!
I immediately took the boat out of gear, grabbed a spinning rod, got a small crab out of the livewell, hooked it and pitched it to the cobia. Within seconds, both fish raced towards the bait like hungry dogs at dinner time! The line came tight and one was on! I handed the rod to Kenn and screamed, “Don’t let it run into the buoy line! It’s gonna try to get into it!” I jumped to the helm, put the boat in gear and began to slowly drag the fish away the from the plane wreck. Ken fought it with everything he had, as it struggled to get back towards the wreck. When it looked like we might get the fish clear, I glanced over my shoulder and noticed that the sun was getting low on the horizon. “We’re running out of daylight.”, I thought with some alarm.
I grabbed the small gaff that I sometimes bring during cobia season, and got it ready. “We need to get this guy in the boat!”, I told Kenn with some urgency. The fish circled the boat again and again. Cobia are known to reek havoc when brought on board boats, especially when you haven’t taken the time to wear them down first. Time wasn’t a luxury we had, so I cleared the stern/rear of the floor and readied myself. On the next pass, I stroked the fish with the gaff and heaved it over the gunnel. I jammed it face-first into the corner and fell on top of it. It gyrated and tried to wiggle free, but I put all of my weight on it and held it firmly in place until it stopped struggling. I stood and held it up. It was Kenn’s first cobia and he was pumped!
I was excited as well, but my concern about getting home before it was pitch black was beginning to weigh on me. I had Kenn take a quick photo of the fish, laid it on the deck, stowed the fishing rod and gaff and headed east at full throttle. The ride home was an especially rewarding one. The sky was reflected beautifully on the surface of the water and it was so calm and surreal that it could have been ice instead of liquid. About halfway home, Kenn was sitting on the cooler facing me with a cold beer in his hand, when he tapped my arm and pointed behind me. I glanced back in time to see the last gleam of the winter sun as it kissed the horizon goodnight, and slipped below the earth. As I contemplated the last two days on the water, I felt like the luckiest guy on earth. At that moment, I may well have been, and you’d have had had a hard time convincing me otherwise.