Sunday, November 30, 2014

Frenzy (Part 4)



Fred bolted down the beach into the dark, chasing an orange glowstick attached to his surf rod, which was attached to a big shark which was in mid-attempt of dragging the entire rig to Cuba. The rod had been violently yanked from its PVC spike, dragged through the sand and was now rapidly making its way through the knee-deep water of the first gut. Fred never broke stride and dove — Pete Rose-style — into the waves, which were briefly illuminated by the trippy colors of the neon orange glowstick and the fluorescent blue hue of Fred’s headlamp. 

Joe and I watched the scene from a few paces away, laughing uncontrollably. It was around 9 p.m., and we were the only souls on the beach. We had been there since just before sunset. The bulk of the day had been spent chasing black and red drum on Apalachicola Bay with Capt. Dwayne, but after arriving back at the house, we quickly hit the sand and got the surf rods out. At dark, we switched out our pompano rigs for shark leaders and big circle hooks. I cut up a ladyfish we had caught just before sundown, and we deployed chunks of fresh bait among six rods, each placed insanely close to the water’s edge (as we soon learned) and adorned with a variation of aforementioned glow-sticks Fred had purchased the day before. 

After a quick swim in the black water, Fred emerged, completely soaked and holding a doubled-over surf rod while his Daiwa reel spit salt water and angrily screamed against an angrier foe which worked hard to empty the spool of its contents. 

Fred, with his rod-stealing blacktip.

Fred’s freestyle in shark-infested waters would’ve made for a great story on its own (side-note: this was not the first time something like this has happened to Fred), but the evening proved to be epic for other reasons. In addition to retrieving his rod, Fred beached the chunky, five-foot, black-tip shark responsible for the near theft. More importantly, this event started a run of successive bites that was unprecedented in our fishing adventures. Rod after rod would hit the sand within the next hour, as seemingly dozens of sharks cruised the shallow waters in front of us. Casted baits would last only moments in the surf before being gobbled up by toothy fish, sending us scrambling to grab valuable fishing gear before it was dredged in sand and doused in saltwater. It was a strange symphony. The incoming tide provided the percussion — a steady hiss and boom with an occasional polyrhythmic crash — and amidst the wash, we soloed, trading fours under the stage-light glow of the half-moon, our reels’ drags screaming in off-beat blue notes, our runs punctuated with randomly placed whoops of reactionary joy.

Yes, the headlamp is pink. Gotta problem with it?

Our lines were stretched. Knots were tested. Each enjoyed success and endured failure. I don’t remember how many sharks we actually landed. It probably wasn’t many. Those which did make it to the beach were quickly photographed and released. We had tackle and ability to handle the four-and-five footers, but we were under-gunned for many of the fish cruising the shallow waters in front of us. The larger sharks would explode into amazing runs would nearly drain our reels of braid before leaders broke, lines snapped and hooks were bitten in two (Fred had a 7/0 circle hook snapped in half). Eventually, we ran out of bait, ending our evening as the fish were still biting, and sending us limping back to the beach house with sore shoulders, frayed lines and gigantic smiles on our faces. 

The next evening — our last night on the beach — we sat side-by-side in respective beach chairs, several yards from the water’s edge. We fished with only three rods — one per person, placed in sand spikes directly in front of us and within an easy arm’s reach of our seated positions. At least, we had learned from our mistakes. 

It's Joe ... I swear. 
The sharks showed up around the usual time, but the bite, while OK, was nothing compared to the previous night’s. Our energy was fading, too. It had been a long but good day, and we just wanted to catch one more fish before heading back to the house to clean up and prepare for the drive home the next day. A massive cold front was on its way. To the northwest, we could see it approach, as blackness devoured the stars and a storm boiled over into the Gulf. Around 10 p.m., after a long period of exhausted silence among our crew, I said, “Ten more minutes.” The moon danced in and out of the clouds, spotlighting us one minute and drenching us in blackness the next. 

As the moon peaked out, Joe spotted something in the surf. 

“What is that?!” He pointed towards where the water met the sand just a few yards in front of us. A big dorsal fin, exposed above the black water, and cruising less than 10 feet off the beach. We sprang from our chairs and turned our head lamps on the big shark — a tiger, close to 10 feet long — which menaced almost the exact location in which Fred had involuntary swam the night before. Indifferently, the shark slowly turned southward and disappeared into the ink black water. 

“Holy crap.” 
“That was almost 10 feet long.” 
“I hope you hook it, Joe.” 
“Fred, wanna go swimming again?” 

Electrified by what we had seen, we sat back down in our chairs and waited for one of our rods to go off — each of us secretly hoping it would be one of the other guy’s. Ten more minutes. No bites. Ten more minutes. Our yawns were growing more frequent and the encroaching rain clouds had us wondering if we had waited too long to pack up and head inside. Eventually, reason overcame obsession and we gathered up our gear for the last time and headed back to the house. 

Overnight, the cold front came. The winds howled out of the north and the fronds from the front yard palm tree rattled against the window above my bed. When we awoke, the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees and we wore multiple layers of clothing as we packed our respective vehicles. Fred, Joe and I shook hands in the driveway, and in the wintry wind and cold, we reflected on another excellent trip, exchanged well wishes in the months ahead, and discussed plans for tuna trips to Louisiana, trout fishing in Arkansas, and bass-fishing excursions in northern Florida. Such is tradition. 

It's good to have friends, but it’s better to have friends who fish. 

Until the next adventure ...

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Be careful what you fish for; you just might catch it (Part 3)

About to be put to the test.
Wednesday. As night arrived after a full day of surf-fishing for pompano and whiting, we left out a couple of rods a piece, stuck in rod-holders right next to the water’s edge, and strewn across a 50-yard stretch of beach. They were each baited with chunk of freshly-cut bait, impaled on a 7/0 circle hook, snelled to a section of heavy mono and anchored to the bottom with a 3 oz pyramid sinker. We were hoping for bull reds. That’s not what we got. 

Bluefish arrived first, right at last light. They provided some decent sport — and excellent bait — but tended to swallow the circle hook and fray the hell out of the leader. So, we adjusted by opting for heavier mono and nylon-coated wire. Then, bigger critters arrived. 

And that's all she wrote.
I was the first to beach a shark. A healthy, fat, four-foot-plus blacktip that pulled drag and decided to head east down the beach, which was unfortunate because my rod was on the western end of our spread. In a way, you could say we all caught that first shark, and after the fish was unhooked and released, all of us participated in the untangling, cutting and retying our lines. 

Emboldened but not enlightened (figuratively and literally; my headlamp’s battery was dying), I tied up another leader — this time with 80-pound mono — and crimped on another circle hook. I placed the hook through the belly and near the tail of a live whiting, which I suspected would result in a tantalizing offering to a big red or shark. I was wrong. After just a few minutes of waiting, the rod doubled and a heavy fish steadily peeled line from my reel. Losing an alarming amount of braid, I dialed up the drag to hopefully slow the beast. It did nothing, as the fish continued its march toward Cape San Blas. I followed it down the beach, as Fred followed to provide assistance should I be able to land whatever I had hooked. Twenty minutes passed, and the battle was at a standstill. I had regained a bunch of line and continued to walk down the sand at night, my rod-tip down and pulling hard to the left, drag locked down and hoping to turn the fish around. It wasn’t fighting like a big red, nor did it offer the electric runs that blacktip sharks provide. This was different. Like I had hooked a dump truck. 

Rigging up under the dim light of a headlamp in need of a new battery.
Suddenly, the truck stopped and pulled up on the emergency brake. I knew then that I had hooked a very large stingray. The big fish hugged the bottom, used it’s wings like a suction cup, and there was little I could do to move the fish. In the dark, by myself (Fred gave up 10 minutes before in order to go back to base camp), and a half-a-mile from my buddies, I decided that I’d had enough fun, and didn’t really want to mess with beaching a ray this big. I made sure the drag was tight, reeled up any excess, pointed my rod-tip at the stationary creature, turned my back on the Gulf and walked straight back towards the beach houses behind me. The line snapped and I reeled in the resulting slack. Thankfully, the line broke at the crimped connection, which hopefully meant the circle hook was soon to fall from the fish’s mouth. I’m sure the ray swam away no worse for the wear. I suspect it never even realized it was hooked. 

As I made the slow walk back in my buddies, my shadow haphazardly danced in the sand a few feet in front of me, and the waxing crescent moon fell low to the western horizon. Well down the beach, Joe and Fred were re-baiting rods, their activity betrayed by the twinkling lights of their headlamps. 

Every fish story needs a fish picture. Here's Chalky Joe with a tasty chalky.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Big Ugly (Part 2)

“Fellas, it’s gonna be a rough day,” Capt. Dwayne said. He held his hands up on either side of his head, palms facing us, and moved them toward us on the words “rough” and “day.” It was Halloween morning. Early. Dark. The wind was zipping out of the northwest at 15 mph. We were standing on the uneven wooden dock at Allen's Bay Charters in Apalachicola, Fla. The brisk and steady breeze bent the nearby spartina grass and blew the sweet-and-briny smell of the marsh out through the creek mouth and into the unseen bay. 

“It’s gonna be rough. Winds are supposed to be 5 to 15 mph … but you can usually add those two numbers together.” 
“Well, is it worth going?”
Capt. Dwayne rubbed the back of his neck, “I know we can catch fish, but … “ 

It was 7:30 a.m. ET, the sun had not yet come up and the wind made a cool morning colder. We were layered up, in sweatshirts and pullovers. Our captain was in shorts and wore a short-sleeved fishing shirt. Fred, Joe and I stared at each other, contemplating the ominous greeting we received from our guide. 

“Would tomorrow be better?” Fred asked Capt. Dwayne. 
“Maybe. It’s up to ya’ll.” 

Yeah, I don't know.
While Fred and I have enjoyed 15 or so offshore adventures over the years, Joe’s seafaring days ended after trip No. 3, when he decided paying $600 to throw up for 30 straight hours was not money or time well spent. I've been fortunate to not be regularly afflicted by seasickness, although I do know the helpless feeling of overwhelming nausea brought on by the motion of the ocean. Before leaving on an overnight bottom-fishing trip several years ago, Fred and I and 10 other fishermen arrived at the dock in Destin Harbor one morning to be given a similar warning by our captain. He told us it would be rough, but it was our choice if we wanted to go. We opted to give it a shot. It was a regrettable decision, as the sea was angry that day, my friends, and the relentless churn of conflicting swells caused a majority of us to abandon fishing in order to grip the railing and regurgitate breakfast. The 36-hour charter ended after 12. Amongst the survivors, the experience is seldom retold; when it is rehashed, it is simply referred to as "that one trip." That one trip instantly sprang to mind when Capt. Dwayne greeted us.

“If you think tomorrow would be better, we could come back Friday. Guys, what do you think?” Fred looked at Joe.
Joe weighed options quickly, and answered as I had thought (and hoped) he would.
“We got up early and we’re here. I say we fish. I’m not getting up and doing this again tomorrow.” 
Bring it on. 

Keep your rod tip down, Dan.
We boarded a 24-foot, center-console bay boat and Capt. Dwayne fired up the outboard. We cruised a short distance to the creek mouth and throttled down into the expanse of Apalachicola Bay. In front of us, an agitated chop danced across an immense lake of gray water as darker gray skies loomed above and spit rain that bounced off our faces and caused us to grab rain jackets. After a short run, we anchored up on a nondescript spot in the middle of the bay. Capt. Dwayne baited medium-heavy spinning rods with pieces of shrimp and offered precise instruction. 

“Cast anywhere.” 

It was awesome. The simple set-up — main line to a short stretch of bite tippet to an offset octopus hook — and the very willing fish made for a great start to the day. We soon boated several white and speckled trout, along with a few hardhead and gafftopsail catfish. About 20 fish in, I felt a quick tap-tap and set the hook. The rod doubled and the reel squealed as line left the spool. 

“That ain’t no trout,” Capt. Dwayne said matter-of-factly as he dug into a small blue-and-white cooler for a fresh bait. 

Joe's black drum.
The fight was a tug-o-war, and after a few minutes (including a harrowing segment as the fish burrowed under the boat, and forced me to bury the top section of the rod in the bay and carefully navigate around the outboard), a giant black drum rolled on the surface and revealed its mottled gray flank and enormous noggin. A short time later, Capt. Dwayne scooped up the fish — which barely fit in his net — and flopped it into the bottom of the boat. Photo ops ensued, and eventually, the big ugly was safely returned to the bay. 

Fred has a delicate complexion. The black drum does not.
As the day unfolded, the rain and clouds departed and the sun drenched us in warmth, causing us to shed jackets and pullovers. The wind kept blowing, and the rough day we dreaded proved to be both manageable and incredibly fun. We caught redfish, big sail cats, black sea bass, trout, pigfish and all three of us boated oversized black drum. Capt. Dwayne was great to fish with: patient, skilled and totally focused on putting us on fish. Joe never got close to puking, all three of us really enjoyed the time on the water, and we drove back to the beach house with a cooler full of fillets and a few more fish stories to our repertoire. 

It was a great day of fishing ... but it wasn't over yet. 

I highly recommend fishing with Capt. Dwayne Allen. He's fun to fish with, easy-going, highly informative and, best of all, very patient. It's low pressure, high fun fishing. Please reach out to him via the Book Me a Charter website

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Back to the Island (Part 1)

Watchin' the tide roll away.
The last leg of the trip is always the longest. You leave Alabama and enter Florida, and it seems like an expanse of saltwater should appear within minutes. It doesn’t. 

After passing a small, unintentionally-retro gas station in Sumatra, Fla., I drove down a two-lane county road through an endless forest in fading sunlight which flickered and fluttered through the vertically-striped backdrop of thousands of pine trees. Hours later, it seemed, the road appeared to empty into nothingness. The pine trees were replaced by spanish moss and live oaks and the road ended abruptly at the edge of Apalachicola Bay. I turned right onto Highway 98 and rolled down my window, and my truck was filled with the briny aroma of low tide. It smelled of salt, seaweed and oyster liquor. In the pale peach remnants of a lazy Monday afternoon, I shared the road with no one. Only a great horned owl perched atop a dead oak made note of my approach to the St. George Island bridge. 

The drive down had been a long one. I left middle Tennessee at 8 a.m., and made great time, aside from a questionable decision to exit the interstate in Prattville, Ala. I had stopped there in order to visit a Bass Pro Shops, where I spent unnecessary money on unneeded fishing stuff before stopping at Publix to load the truck with groceries for the week ahead. The nearly two-hour, hook-line-and-lunchmeat stop obliterated my ETA, but Joe persevered in my absence by fishing by himself on the beach all day. He had caught a few whiting and bluefish, and when I finally made my way down to the sand just after dark, Joe had fresh bait waiting for me. Now, that's a friend. I put a chunk of bluefish on each rod, blind-casted into the gentle tide and dropped the rod butts into PVC sand spikes. Then, I popped open a cold one and melted into my beach chair, exhausted. 

Joe, watching for dolphins. Or thinking about work. Eh, probably watching for dolphins.
While we were able to catch up on things that evening, Joe and I didn’t catch anything, but, hell, it didn’t matter. The trip down was behind me, and I’d begin anew in the morning.
By 9 a.m., four surf-rods, baited with Fish-bites of varying colors and flavors, were secured in spikes amid a deserted fall beach, and each rod tip gently nodded with the rhythmic pulse of the incoming swells. Just offshore — and I mean just offshore — an armada of shrimp trawlers cruised the sandbars. Every 50 yards or so along the beach, foot-long jellyfish, generally round and bell-shaped, and looking like a light fixture made of frosted glass, washed up with the steadily flowing tide. Later in the week, we’d learn the trawlers were actually targeting the jellies (called “cannonballs”), as the Asian demand for the goopy critters provide the shrimpers a lucrative alternative to scoopin’ up bugs. 

Fred and a lady he met on the beach. She was pretty but had a big mouth and smelled funny.
We caught a few, mostly whiting, and Fred arrived in the mid-afternoon, providing us with additional bait-and-tackle and substantial personality. The sun set on seven rods which anxiously waited pompano or redfish but, on this day, only realized whiting, ladyfish and bluefish. As night arrived, so did a sliver of a crescent moon and an endless ocean of stars. The three of us fished until we ran out of bait, and returned to the rented beach house with a cooler of keeper whiting to clean, not knowing of the monsters that awaited us in the days ahead.