Saturday, October 16, 2010

Fishing the Forgotten Coast

We’d been planning this trip for years. Season after season, either the logistics couldn’t be arranged or our attention was grabbed instead by offshore adventures. But, last week, everything finally came together as I joined three of my best fishing buddies for a four-day fishing extravaganza in northwest Florida.

The trip began on Wednesday as Joe and I headed south out of Murfreesboro. As we cruised down I-65 in Joe’s truck, we were literally surrounded with an impressive amount of tackle, including fishing kayaks, multiple rods and reels, sand-spikes and gear bags. Almost 10 hours later, we rolled into Cape San Blas with big intentions and high hopes for big redfish, speckled trout, pompano, Spanish mackerel and flounder.

The Cape is decidedly “Old Florida,” with a scattering of beach houses instead of high-rises, no golf courses, no jets-ski rentals and very few amenities (our first meal on the Cape was a couple of PBnJ’s, courtesy of the only gas station on the peninsula). In fact, if you want to eat anything here, you have three choices – 1. Bring it in with you. 2. Drive to Port St. Joe’s to get it. 3. Catch it, kill it and grill it.

We were also “blessed” by the lack of cell service, as we effectively left the real world for our little fishing panacea on the Forgotten Coast. By midnight, Fred and Steve had made it down to join us, unloading a veritable Bass Pro Shops' selection of surf-fishing gear … and some welcomed groceries they’d commandeered from a Piggly-Wiggly in Port St. Joe. We were now ready.

I woke up way too early on Thursday morning, but that was simply due to the smell of bacon, eggs and coffee that Fred and Steve had admirably prepared in advance of a full-days worth of fishing. Thanks to the early breakfast, our surf-fishing efforts were ahead of schedule and we had lines out in the “new” Stump Hole by 8 a.m. An unusually tame tide (new moon) made for little ebb and flow, resulting in relatively-poor fishing, but we still had a big time catching a variety of sharks, a bluefish or two, a mogan ladyfish and several catfish. Those species weren’t exactly on the wish list, but they made for productive opening day, as we fished in nearly perfect beach weather for the better part of eight hours.

Since we returned to our rented beach house with no fresh catch for dinner, we headed east to the famous Indian Pass Raw Bar, and devoured the trademark raw oysters, stuffed shrimp and gumbo, closing the day out on a good – if not a little exhausting – first day. A couple of ice cold beers from the serve-yourself cooler helped us to unwind and, at least for me, forget about my sunburned feet.

Friday promised big things, as we rented a boat for a fishing cruise in St. Joe Bay. Unfortunately, we arrived at the dock to find our boat out-of-commission and no other rentals available. Undeterred, we rented some kayaks to go with the two I brought (we rented from Happy Ours Kayak and Canoe Outpost, a fantastically-friendly operation run by Cape locals Dan and Debbie; I cannot recommend this place enough – it’s a quaint, but infinitely-interesting experience; as you drive up to their house on the bay, you'll pass roosters, several varieties of chickens, a donkey and a horse … before being greeted by Debbie or Dan, either of whom you’ll swear you’ve known for several years ... and if/when you go, make sure to ask Dan about the cool popper lures he’s making), and spent the early afternoon paddling our way into the bay to scour the potholes for keeper speckled trout.

This was an absolute blast, as we paddled through crystal-clear, knee-deep water en route to the fishing grounds. We observed dozens of horseshoe crabs, baby stingrays, mullet and the occasional shark as we made our way to the large, greenish-tinted holes in the grass which Debbie promised would hold speckled trout.

It took some work – and some tide – to get the trout to cooperate, but they eventually did, and we enjoyed some truly fantastic bay fishing. While I couldn’t fool many fish with the fly-rod, a spinning rod armed with a jig and a Gulp® shrimp proved to match the hatch quite nicely. We each caught double-digits of trout, keeping only a few and releasing the rest to the fertile bay waters. Along the way, we also caught a motley selection of pinfish, pigfish, lizard fish and sea robins. A few hours later, as the tide continued to flood the flats, we left the fish biting in order to beat the sun to the horizon and to head home with a healthy catch of tasty trout for supper. Good times.

Saturday morning, we switched gears once again and headed inland to some stellar, private bass lakes near the Florida/Georgia border. The lakes and the property in which they’re situated are owned by Fred’s family, who went above-and-beyond to make sure our brief stay on the farm was a memorable one.

Over the next day-and-a-half, we fished two lakes – a deep-and-clear 20-acre one, and a shallower 14-acre pond which was lined with lily-pads – in hopes of landing a trophy largemouth. Despite the reports of resident alligators, we stayed with the kayaks and managed to fool a host of good bass. A big highlight was catching some chunky largemouth on top-water baits deep within the vegetation.

After waking early on Sunday morning and putting in three good hours on the water, we all heard the distant call of responsibility, and we stowed away our fishing gear, tightened the straps on the kayaks and headed northwest to our respective homes.

Fred, Steve, Joe and I have shared some very memorable fishing moments through the years, but this four-day event has left a very vivid mark on our angling careers. The stories I’ve shared about this trip are just the highlights – there are certainly many more that could be told (lost and broken rods, a steady diet of crappy food, watching the Auburn game in a double-wide, … it goes on), but as the saying goes, “What happens on the road, stays on the road.”