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Saltwater fishing fury

Always an adventure when fishing saltwater species

Kim Fundingsland/MDN This barracuda was caught by Mort Bank, Bismarck, while fishing recently near Key Largo, Fla. It was one of several that he hooked that day, mostly on topwater presentations in shallow water.

KEY LARGO, FLORIDA – A large shark bursts through the water’s surface and spins violently through the air. An immense barracuda rips at a surface lure with its inch-long teeth. A crocodile takes a lure for a 300-yard journey just moments after a giant manatee noses against the boat.

Those are just a few of the experiences that make saltwater fishing irresistible for thrill seeking anglers. You never know how or when, but there’s a new adventure waiting to happen each time the boat slides away from the dock and fishermen check tide charts and weather forecasts.

The ocean can be both beautiful and unforgiving, even while inshore fishing on the shallow flats that is the home to hundreds of species of fish. The colors of the sea are a pleasing mix of blues and greens and grays. Graceful great white herons stand out along the shoreline against a backdrop of the dark green and strange appearing mangrove trees.

Friendly dolphins frolic and play. The graceful but moody tarpon sought after by countless trophy seeking fishermen, roll on the surface. Stingrays move like great undulating shadows along the bottom. Jellyfish that display astonishing patterns and colors float silently. Brown pelicans skim along just above the water level. Overhead frigate birds, like kites on a string, remain almost motionless in the air.

It is in that constant surrounding of remarkable scenes that would grace any art gallery that eager fishermen engage their quarry with rod and reel. The vastness of ocean water makes fishing lures that are too big for conventional tackle boxes look small and insignificant. They are smaller still when big fish attack them with speed unmatched by any freshwater species.

Kim Fundingsland/MDN Mort Bank, Bismarck, and Tim Jaensch, Baker City, Ore., display a toothy barracuda prior to releasing it back into the ocean. The sleek and speedy fish are known for their fighting qualities, which often includes spectacular jumps.

A newcomer to saltwater fishing recently made a fishing trip to the Florida Keys, hoping for an adventure similar to what he had heard others describe, or try to. Sometime you have to see for yourself. Even then the result is often disbelief.

Tim Jaensch of Baker City, Ore., a town of about 10,000 people and located two hours west of Boise, Idaho, joined Mort Bank of Bismarck for a few days of fishing on the flats. Bank is enshrined in the national freshwater fishing hall of fame and has long excelled at saltwater angling.

On this day he had already boated several barracuda when he dropped down the boat’s power pole to keep the craft in position while the anglers enjoyed lunch under the Florida sun. Always fishing, even during a lunch break, Bank made sure that two set-ups for shark fishing were in place before he pulled a previously prepared lunch from an on-board cooler.

Within a minute or two a large tailfin came out of the water in the midst of a big swirl around a grapefruit-sized bobber. The bobber disappeared under the surface, putting a rainbow bend in a stout fishing rod and causing the clicker on the reel to sing loudly.

Jaensch dropped his plate of lunch and pulled the fishing rod from its mount on the bow of the boat.

Kim Fundingsland/MDN A blacktip shark brought both anglers to the casting deck on the bow of the boat. Blacktips are common in the waters throughout the Florida Keys.

“Don’t set the hook,” reminded Bank. “That’s a circle hook and 150 pound line. He’ll hook himself!”

That’s exactly what happened. As Jaensch began to work the reel the shark responded by pulling out line. For a fisherman that moment is a feeling of being overmatched and helpless. Fish of that size and power can be chased by starting the outboard motor, but Bank determined the battle would soon go in Jaensch’s favor. It was a nurse shark, a species that grows quite large but lacks the speed and tenacity displayed by other sharks hunting in shallow water.

For Jaensch though, it was his sudden introduction to tangling with a big saltwater fish. After about twenty minutes of give and take and the outcome very much in doubt, the shark came into view. It was estimated to be an 8 footer. A few seconds later the shark ripped out another 75 yards of line. Sometime after the half hour mark Jaensch managed to battle the heavy fish alongside the boat once again.

Bank used a long tool designed to remove hooks from toothsome fish. After several attempts the hook came free. He and Jaensch watched as the big shark waved its long tail and spun away from the boat. What Jaensch didn’t know was that his experience of a lifetime was just the first of several on a very memorable fishing trip on the famed flats of the Florida Keys.

The following day, strong easterly winds meant fishing the Atlantic Ocean side of the Keys would be all but impossible, certainly not enjoyable. No problem. By passing through a half mile canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean side of the key with the Gulf of Mexico side, the wind was far less of a problem. No big waves to test an angler’s sea legs. It was nearly calm thanks to the protection of the ever-present mangrove trees.

Bank caught two Jack Cravalle, one quite large. Cravalle’s hunt in schools, often turning the top of the water into a froth as they chase baitfish to the surface. There are times when the powerful fighters absolutely crush lures and they always provide the angler with a testy tussle.

Shortly after Bank won his contest with a Jack Cravalle at the front of the boat, Jaensch was heard from at the back of the boat.

“Look! A manatee!” said Jaensch.

Indeed. A slow moving manatee, powered by its broad tale, had nosed up to the back of the boat. It had no fear, just a friendly visit from a massive animal seeking lettuce or something similar. Its back was marred by scars from being struck by outboard motors.

No sooner had that manatee determined that we had nothing to share and slowly moved away when a second, and much larger manatee, made a similar appearance and request. Several times it stuck its head out of the water, necessary to breath but also to accept any offering of food. Quite a sight.

As that manatee faded underneath the water Jaensch announced his lure had become snagged, but wasn’t quite sure about it. His first thought was that he inadvertently hooked into the first manatee, but his fishing line wasn’t moving. Then there was a massive boil on top of the water in the direction where he believed his line to be hung up. The line began to move.

There was a big bend in his fishing rod but none of the jerking motion than can be expected when hooking into a fish, just a steady pull and a constant loss of line off the reel. Perhaps 150 yards distant water boiled at the surface once again. Bank started the motor to follow in the direction of the line. More than half the line of the 300 yard capacity reel had already been stripped.

Shark? What kind? Odd behavior for a shark. Sea turtle? No. The surface swirl was much too large for that. But still the line kept moving as the boat followed. Then the movement stopped. The line had become wrapped around a cluster of submerged branches near a shoreline. But how?

After the fisherman broke a few branches to free the tangled line, there was another big swirl at the surface, this time about 75 yards behind the boat. Whatever was hooked and taking line had changed its course from south to north, which helped explain the tangled line around the branches. But what heck was it?

A clue was a large “crocodile crossing” sign on a nearby shore. The incident was in the same area where a saltwater crocodile was seen on the surface a year earlier. And the steady pull, with none of the familiar head shaking normally associated with hooking into a fish, meant that something very different was on the end of the line.

Then there was another huge and slow swirl on the surface and the lure came loose. Jaensch cranked in the line, leader and lure. No deep sea creature. No shark. No big fish. Whatever it was, crocodile or something else, it was never seen. Never photographed. Never previously experienced. Unforgettable.

The following day the weather was near perfect for fishing. Very little wind meant a return to the Atlantic Ocean side of the Keys where the blue and green hues and perfectly clear water make for a visual treat. Bank worked his mastery with a lure cadence he has perfected against saltwater species. On this day it was barracuda, plentiful and aggressive.

Bank caught several, too many to keep count. They are incredible fighters, spectacular jumpers and built for speed that will test the drag of any fishing reel. Jaensch caught his first barracuda. Then another. And another. His biggest cuda put on a dazzling display, leaping from the water before shaking itself free of Jaensch’s lure.

“I really wanted that one!” said Jaensch, knowing he would have to be content with seeing the big, toothy fish and not landing it.

A few casts later Jaensch hooked into another sleek and speedy cuda. Barracuda do not like coming close to boats and this one was no exception. Suddenly, though, the fish that was going away was coming back. As Jaensch rapidly cranked the reel the speeding barracuda came ripping past the boat with a five-foot-long blacktip shark in hot pursuit. The shark flared away. A few seconds later the barracuda was grabbed by the tail, exhausted and spent. It seemed content to be in the boat rather than becoming a meal for a shark.

The next day dawned with equally beautiful weather and favorable tide movement. There was no early morning rush to get on the water, just soon enough to take advantage of high tide which generally means more fish and fewer concerns about low water. The majority of flats fishing is done in three to five feet of water, half that at low tide.

Bank’s first fishing spot of the day was off a point that had a reputation for big fish and lots of them – barracuda, several kinds of sharks, graceful and challenging tarpon among them. A few casts resulted in a sizable barracuda making a sudden splash and turn near the boat. After that there was only a few follows, smaller fish that turned away from lures while still several yards from the boat.

Within an hour the decision was made to move on. Bank chose an area that had 10 to 15 foot water in the main channel dividing two points of land, and four to five feet of water along the treed shoreline.

While Bank began casting with a long and slender topwater lure, Jaensch tossed out a chunk of barracuda meat underneath a large bobber. Then he began casting a red and white sub-surface plug. A few minutes later he saw a tailfin come out of the water and the surface boil around the bobber.

“Shark!”, said Jaensch, but nothing happened as the wave ring from the swirl expanded and faded away.

Then the bobber went under, but only momentarily before it popped up to the surface. Jaensch didn’t even have time to pull the shark rod from its holder. He and Bank were watching intently. Nothing. Then the bobber took off like a bullet, the clicker on the reel was screaming and the rod bent nearly in half. Still, with all that pressure, Jaensch was able to free the rod from its resting place.

“It’s a spinner!”, exclaimed Bank as a huge shark leapt high into the air with the characteristic and mezmerizing spins that immediately identify a spinner shark.

Jaensch leaned back on the rod as the shark broke the surface again, even higher this time with more quick spins in flight than a human eye can possibly count. That a fish of that size, more than 100 pounds, can be that acrobatic and energized and put on a show that is indescribable is, at the very least, astounding.

A spinner shark on hook and line is like a 100-pound rock skipping across the water. You can’t control it. You can’t expect to catch it. Just enjoy the show, a blockbuster hit every time. Four, five, six times or more spinner sharks violently explode through the surface and roll through the air. One-hundred-fifty pound test fishing line has no chance. It is snapped like cheap sewing thread.

Jaensch reeled in what was left of the line that had been ripped off the reel. He had a look of complete disbelief on his face as if trying to determine if what he just saw really happened. It was another experience of a lifetime and one very difficult to put into words. Who would believe such a fish story anyway?

Spinner sharks steal center stage like no other fish in the ocean. They are an impossible act to follow, but other saltwater fish make a very strong impression too. A six-foot blacktip shark that interrupted Jaensch’s lunch provided a lengthy battle. At one point it made a jump about 150 yards from the boat. Grudgingly, eventually, it came to boatside and was released. It was the Atlantic’s version of “dinner and a movie.”

With the shark-interrupted lunch finished, casting lures of choice resumed. For a time it seemed all the fish had gone away. None were being caught. No follows. No lookers. Then everything changed.

A massive barracuda erupted on Bank’s surface lure. It came completely out of the water, flipped and made a vertical dive on Bank’s lure. It missed but its wicked sharp teeth cut his line with ease.

How big? 30 pounds? 40 pounds? More?

It was massive and aggressive. No doubt about that. But it was more. It was demonstration few people have the privilege of seeing and an illustration of why fishermen eagerly wait to return to saltwater, a place where the unknown surfaces and provides incredible, indescribable memories that last a lifetime.

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