KEY LARGO, Fla. - The ocean is teeming with surprises.
Even the most veteran saltwater fisherman never knows what challenges will be encountered when wetting a line in the pleasant and varied hues of submerged reefs or living coral, but it is a certainty that many will come with fearsome teeth and a very cantankerous attitude. All will come with speed and power that exceeds the accustomed limits and expectations of experienced freshwater anglers.
"For whatever reason, the fish seem to fight a hundred times harder, faster and jump higher than any freshwater fish ever could think about doing," said Mort Bank, Bismarck. "A 12-inch fish will make you look like a fool if you don't set the hook and keep the rod high and keep cranking. They'll take you down into the coral and you can kiss your X-Raps goodbye. They're history!"
Bank has fished the absolute best freshwater available for large predators like muskie and northern pike. He has set records for several freshwater catches. He was the first man inducted into the North Dakota Fishing Hall of Fame. His credentials on the water are unquestioned. He loves to fish and fishes often. The appeal of saltwater fishing, coupled with warm weather, led to his purchasing of a home in the Keys which he utilizes as a base for fishing several weeks each year.
"There's nothing to compare to saltwater fishing. I'm really into it big time," said Bank while seated under the shade of an orange tree not far from the water's edge. "You never know what the next fish is or how big it is going to be. You've got barracudas. You've got sharks, groupers, bonefish and permit. There's everything imaginable. I love light tackle and it doesn't get any better than coming down to the Keys. Where else can you catch 50-pound fish, 100-pound fish, 200-pound fish? Some are a thousand pounds or more."
While 1,000-pound fish are usually caught miles offshore and require specialized tackle, the seemingly endless flats and shallow reefs within sight of the Florida coast provide a myriad of opportunities for fishermen. It is there, in two to six feet of water, where colorful jellyfish drift, bait fish gather and predators abound. Casts often result in dozens of bait fish leaping from the water, fearing the presence of something bigger. When the timing is right, it is a boon for the fisherman.
A test of tackle
Fishing the reefs for a few hours can result in abundant sightings and catches of barracuda, several species of powerful grouper, coveted and tasty yellowtail and the odd appearing needlefish and ballyhoo. In all, more than 200 species of fish roam the waters off Key Largo. At one time or another, all will put an angler's skills and fishing tackle to the test.
"These fish will bend a normal hook. If you are not paying attention you can go through some tackle," said Bank. "Basically though, I just brought down some rods and reels from North Dakota. Depending on what I'm fishing for dictates the size line that I'm going to be using. I'm not using pool sticks for rods and I'm using the same reels that I'd be using in North Dakota."
No amount of explanation or preparation properly prepares a freshwater fisherman for his first battles with saltwater species. A 20- inch grouper will grab a lure at the boat and rip 30-pound test line off a reel with ease, even against a tightened drag that would turn a big northern pike or muskie. Barracuda will slam into a lure with lightning speed and then leap high out of the water far from where expected.
"They put up a spectacular fight," explained Bank. "You'll never see anything like it. You'll set the hook on a fish right in front of you and you see a fish jump 50 or 60 feet to your right or left. That's your fish, but people always turn to the other person in the boat and let them know they've got one too, a double. They don't. It's your fish that swims that far in a split second and then leaps out of the water. You just can't believe anything could swim that fast or jump that high. It's really something to see."
How does a person describe experiences that are so outside the expected or anticipated that words or phrases simply don't suffice? How do you explain small fish that grunt, fish that leap extraordinarily high or those that race bullet-like past the boat - the whole time in less than six feet of water?
"There's obviously a difference fishing here," noted Bank. "It's always fun. More world records have come from the Florida Keys than any place on the planet. You'll see dolphins, manatees and crabs. You get into the Everglades and it's gators and crocodiles. It is really endless as to what is happening down here. I love North Dakota, northern pike and bass and walleyes, but it just doesn't compare. There's so many fish and so many ways to fish for them."
Short-lipped crankbaits and top-water lures are remarkably efficient for attracting many species of saltwater fish. Steel leaders are a necessary precaution against toothy fish and jagged coral. Speckled trout, barracuda and lengthy lizard fish are among those who consistently investigate or attack surface lures. To anyone who fishes the flats or the ocean beyond, it becomes readily apparent that every fish is food for something larger and more aggressive. Is it any wonder that speed is bred into saltwater fishes?
In North Dakota, fishermen learn to read the prevailing wind, often targeting fish feeding on downwind shorelines or where the wind drives waves across a submerged point. When fishing the flats a fisherman must understand the movement of the tides in order to improve the chances for success.
"It's a whole different deal," said Bank. "The tide changes really trigger the fish and the feeding action. You have to pay a lot of attention to it, because when the tides comes in the baitfish come in and the bigger fish key on that. It makes a big difference to where you should be fishing."
Saltwater is very corrosive and can take a toll on fishing gear. If a fisherman neglects to rinse lures immediately after coming off the water, the hooks and other hardware will rust within hours. Rods and reels need to be cleaned and maintained. A few minutes of freshwater rinsing removes salt, keeps the rust at bay and fishing gear in good working order. Following reel manufacturer's maintenance suggestions is important too. It will save frustration and costly replacement.