KEY LARGO, Fla. At long distance it appeared that a shark was attacking its prey. As the boat moved to lessen the distance from the splashy display, tenseness turned to glee when three bottlenose dolphins rose out of the shallow water, eyed the boat and continued to thrash and roll and play.
Moments later, as one dolphin rose on its tail and stood nearly vertical in the water with another circling below, a third swam under the boat in an obviously playful dash in less than five feet of water. The scene was repeated several times in the following 30 minutes as the boat and dolphins shared the same water. It was an unforgettable display of large, friendly fish frolicking nearly within arm's reach. For a North Dakota angler on his introductory trip to saltwater fishing, it was a scene believed possible only on choreographed television shows utilizing trained dolphins.
As amazing a sight as the dolphin dance proved to be, it was only one of several memorable moments encountered hourly in both the vast saltwater flats for which the Florida Keys are famous and the endless sea farther offshore. Even peering off the dock in the evening, where the occasional stingray would investigate a possible shore lunch, provided a myriad of new experiences.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - With other saltwater flats fishermen looking on, Kelli Fundingsland, Minot, expresses surprise at one of the real oddities of nature – a grunt. The small fish emits grunts repeatedly when taken from the water.
Protected mangrove trees, those of tightly tangled trunks and twisted branches, line the natural canals that lead from one
protected sound to another, eventually leading to the Atlantic Ocean in one direction or Gulf of Mexico waters in the other. While unknown numbers and species of fish swim underneath, a variety of birds are visible atop the mangroves or wading through shallow water at low tide. The most prominent are the stately great white herons and the curved-bill ibis. Somewhat less common is the great blue heron, a summer visitor to North Dakota that easily makes the adjustment to saltwater.
The fishing, good as it can be, could easily become an afterthought in such surroundings. However, for a fisherman from the north not acquainted with saltwater, it didn't take but a few minutes on the water to understand why saltwater fishermen so love their endeavor. Most notably, a saltwater angler can target a certain fish but he can never know what fish is targeting him.
Fishing for speckled trout for dinner will inevitably lead to the incidental catching of lizard fish, the unexplainable grunts or the ever-present barracuda. Casts routinely result in dozens of bait fish leaping from the water, a testament to the constant battle to avoid predators faced by all but the largest of saltwater fish. Sharks and toothy barracuda cruise nearly all waters in the Keys.
There's the incredibly strong grouper, feisty yellowtail and the odd-appearing needlefish and ballyhoo to identify just a few. It is not uncommon for the saltwater angler to catch several different species of fish within a few hours time. Each catch represents a new challenge, a new test for tackle and a test of the angler's skills.
Equipment used for distant offshore species like marlin and sailfish is necessarily stout. Reels fastened to tree-like fishing poles may contain a thousand feet of line or more. My fishing was primarily done in the shallow flats and above ocean reefs, usually in three to six feet of water. Occasional casts would be directed towards deeper water at the outside of reefs, but most fish were caught in shallow, clear water.
The reels I brought to the Keys were a reliable Pflueger President spinning reel and an Abu Garcia baitcaster the Revo SX. Rods were six-and-one-half footers such as those commonly used in North Dakota for walleyes, smallmouth bass or northern pike. Leaders were necessary. All casting was done with artificial lures shallow diving crankbaits or top water teasers. Rapala X-Raps, four to six inches in length, were effective if properly retrieved in shallow water.
Top water lures, such as Heddon's popular Zara Spook, were particularly effective on a wide variety of species from barracuda to speckled trout. As I soon learned, if something moves in the ocean, something will strike it.
As for the preferred colors of lures, it is my observation that iridescent blues and greens work very well. Slim profile baits seemed to have a distinct advantage over chubby or deep-chested lures such as Bomber bass baits or Rapala's Clackin' Rap. Speed of retrieve plays a big part in enticing fish too. For most species, barracuda in particular, an angler cannot crank a lure through the water fast enough. Barracuda are prolific followers and become more energized as baits speed in front of them.
Joy of fishing
I caught a barracuda on an X-Rap. It struck just as I began the retrieve and leaped out of the water to my left. A split second later I watched a barracuda leap out of the water far to my right. Thinking it was a double, I turned to fellow fisherman Mort Bank of Bismarck who laughed and knowingly said, "It's your fish."
What a sight that was! A barracuda leaping high out of the water on multiple runs, all with blazing speed that is hard to comprehend even when witnessed. A few casts prior to hooking that fish I had another barracuda crush a Doctor spoon, sending it flying one direction while the fish went the other. It was easy to understand the joy of saltwater fishing.
I've still got a 50-inch muskie and 30-pound northern pike on my bucket list. Toss in an 8-pound largemouth, too, but I'm going to need a deeper bucket. I'm already formulating some saltwater fishing goals. I should have known better.
A day after packing away sunscreen and departing sunny Florida I was walking on the ice at Lake Darling. Some years spring can't come soon enough.