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No bad day fishing

But not always as planned

Although saltwater is known for producing very large fish, there is a wide variety of species beneath the surface. Here Mort Bank, Bismarck, holds a slender needlefish that chased his topwater presentation. Needlefish are a common forage for many saltwater predators. Kim Fundingsland/MDN

KEY LARGO, FLORIDA – Some days are better than others but, try as it might sometimes, there’s really no such thing as a bad day on the water with a fishing rod in hand and an outboard motor behind you.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wonderful days fishing. That includes fishing in northern Canada to the Florida Keys and several points in between. At times I’ve caught a lot of fish. At times the fishing was not the best. But not one time can I recall having a disappointing day fishing. Sure, some days were better than others, even a few days others would think were downright lousy. I just don’t share that view. Ever.

My recent five-day fishing trip to the Florida Keys turned out to be a mixture of good moments and, perhaps, a few not so good. At least some fishermen would view it that way. My take is that any fishing trip is an adventure to have fun. Sudden storms, fish that got away, lines tangled are all part of what can happen. The only thing that really causes me some concerning moments is major motor problems and rude boaters. All of that aside, what follows is a recap of events from five days of fishing.

Day One

We were greeted by overcast skies as we prepared the boat for a day on the water. My fishing partners were host and Hall of Fame angler Mort Bank and Mark Braun, both from Bismarck. George was there too, a great white heron who has a great curiosity for all things fishing. Actually, he takes a very close look to see if there’s any fresh cut bait to his liking.

Following a spectacular sunrise heavy fog rolled in near Key Largo, Florida, earlier this week, causing a delay for fishermen and recreational boaters. The fog proved to be an omen for things to come. Kim Fundingsland/MDN

All three of us wore rainjackets when we left the dock. Not because it was raining but because the light shells offered some protection from the cool of the morning, which, on this day, was about 68 degrees.

My biggest concern was that I had left my protective fishing gloves at the dock. Sunscreen would have to do. We went underneath a bridge and through an area marked “Manatee Crossing,” then stopped to make our first casts of the trip.

It didn’t take but a few minutes to hook into a Jack Cravalle. In fact, a double. Twice. Then another was added to make five. Bass anglers take notice. I caught mine on a KVD 3-5 foot diving squarebill. A universal lure for sure!

With ample shark bait and chum in the boat, we motored off for a second bridge where many memories of big fish have been made. However, we knew the tidal current was against us. That was something that would prove to be prevalent for the entire week. Not much could be done about it. We twirled topwater lures, carefully working each bridge pylon in the hopes on finding an active grouper or barracuda or more Jack Cravalle, but to no avail.

Our next move was to an area where speckled sea trout had been caught in the past. We switched from bait casting gear to spinning reels and light lures. The result was a single, small trout. During this time we had taken off rain gear and put it back on several times as rain clouds kept coming and going. Nothing very heavy, just sprinkles.

Kim Fundingsland/MDN This electric motor came apart shortly after a heavy fog lifted. Then a fishing rod was broken into four pieces and a reel quit working, making it “one of those days” for a trio of fishermen.

A couple of other spots that we tried proved non-productive, the afternoon was getting late and we decided to head back to the dock. As it came into view we could see two workers had finished the job of replacing the decking on the dock and were picking up their tools. So, we climbed out of the boat onto a brand new deck. Nice!

Day Two

Despite a forecast of light wind the water was calm as we pulled away from the dock. A few casts into our first chosen spot Bank hooked into a needlefish. It wasn’t exactly what we had intended but you never can tell what you’ll catch in saltwater. That slender fish hit a topwater lure nearly its equal in size.

We moved to another bay, or sound as it is called in the Keys. The water was perfectly calm, marked with a gorgeous mixture of green and blue hues. A flock of sea ducks rose off the water in front of us and flew quickly, low across the water. As I soaked in the incredible scenery I wondered what thrill would happen in the hours ahead.

While listening to the hum of the motor my thoughts turned to previous encounters in the same area, unforgettable moments that seemed to come out of nowhere, like a giant stingray bursting through the surface of the ocean and flying briefly in a desperate effort to avoid becoming a meal for a hungry shark.

A post in the distance marked the opening to Deliverance Creek, a narrow passageway through the mangrove trees to another vast sound. Several types of herons, even a kingfisher, moved ahead of us from one bend to another. We kept close watch on the overhanging branches, never knowing where we might encounter a python known to live in the area. A partial rainbow graced the sky, disappearing into dark and ominous clouds. A white pelican lit by sunshine appeared brilliant in front of the dark backdrop. Fortunately, the clouds and rain were moving away from us.

We made our first casts in three to four feet of water. Fishing open water in December is wonderful!

A bonnet head shark, then a lemon shark, moved past the boat. The rhythmic pop-pop-pop of Bank’s surface lure was the only sound breaking the perfect calm of the day. As we worked close to a mangrove shoreline hundreds of small mangrove snappers could be seen swimming in clear, shallow water. They kept close to the protective cover of the mangrove roots, not wanting to venture out where they would be easy prey for larger predators.

Bank enticed one of the larger snappers to strike his Shadow Rap. It was destined for our evening supper. The sun emerged as clouds broke apart, causing us to shed our rain gear and enjoy a very pleasant day on the water.

Following a terrific lunch on the water, spinach salad and Cuban chicken, I began throwing an X-Rap Long Cast, red and white in color with a rattle. Braun said what we had all hoped to hear – Tarpon! We watched intently where the big fish were breaking the water about 100 yards away. They turned out to be playful dolphins that added much to the enjoyment of our day.

Again, we were fighting the odds by fishing for many hours at low tide with virtually no current. The fish, barracuda and snook among them, gave us a few looks but were indifferent to our presentations. It was time to head back, eat some summer, play some cards and get some sleep.

Day Three

As we arose on this morning we were again greeted by George the heron, peering through the large glass door to the patio deck. He was looking, begging, for a tasty handout. He got one too, the remainder of the mangrove snapper that we had for supper the previous night.

Today our destination was some proven barracuda and shark spots that had come through for us on numerous occasions. The temperature was warm and the forecast called for a high of 82 degrees. Again it was calm. So calm you could see coconuts floating on the water at long distance.

Our first casts were made against a shoreline decorated with old hurricane debris, tangles of fishing nets, deck chairs and who knows what else. Sad. I had a huge barracuda follow a saltwater X-Rap. So close but no bite! A monster of a fish too.

Several puffer fish followed our lures, turning away close to the boat. They were easy to see in the clear water. Puffers, I think, are among the oddest creatures in the sea. Two sea turtles, two different kinds, or colors anyway, poked their heads above the water. More fishing fun. Bank caught another oddity, a lizzard fish that we kept for George.

Our next move was offshore several miles, something we would not have done except for the calm conditions. I’m not sure how far out we went but the shoreline was very small in the distance. On the way we stopped at a floating mass of weeds, under which fish like Mahi Mahi and cobia are known to frequent.

I made several casts with a surface plug and had a large cobia cross underneath it. At least I think it was. I’ve never caught one but recognized the two-tone coloring and sleek profile. All three of us began casting in and around the weed mat but no more fish were seen. Time to move again.

Bank slowed the boat in an incredible beautiful spot, over a colorful coral reef. All of us had a few follows which were easy to see in the clear water. I had two very big fish chase my lure, neither which grabbed it. Thrilling stuff!

Suddenly a large shark attacked the bait on our shark rod. That fish slashed and grabbed and ran with the bait, the large bobber being pulled under. Almost as quickly the bobber popped back to the surface and all was silent. The bend was out of the shark rod, still moored in its holder. The entire affair lasted only seconds but we all got a good look at what must have been at least an eight foot shark.

The boat ride back in was pleasant on the calm sea as we wondered what might happen the following day.

Day Four

George was waiting for us again, up early for sure. The weather was sunny, calm and beautiful. Today we hoped to catch some speckled sea trout, a superb eating fish that is very sporty too. I couldn’t help but think that fishing on this day wasn’t even necessary. The beauty of the day was extraordinary.

The tale of the day went to Braun. He hooked a small lure into the tail of a blacktip shark. Fortunately, the shark wasn’t a large one. Unfortunately, it was too large to do battle with a spinning rod intended for trout. Shark 1. Braun 0.

An interesting event occurred when Bank caught a Jack Cravalle on spinning tackle. The fish took him around the boat four times when it suddenly reversed directions. The reason why was that a shark was giving chase. Both fish came near the surface in murky water. As the shark sank out of sight I made the quickest grab of a fish ever, successfully lifting the Jack Cravalle into the boat – more stupid than brave. I am still counting my fingers to see if they are all there.

Day Five –

Final Day

Perhaps the prettiest sunrise I’ve ever seen graced our morning view on this day. Bank had researched the tide charts and all three of us were eagerly anticipating another trip to a long bridge in the hopes of encountering big fish. Then rolled in the thickest fog imaginable. Unreal.

We motored away from the dock and down a canal between rows of spacious homes. A boat coming our direction had a bright fog light on the front, something we hadn’t seen before but a confirmation that conditions at the other end of the canal weren’t good. As we passed the last home and entered the vast sound in front of us, at least what we knew to be in front of us, visibility was down to nothing. The fog was thick. Bank drove the boat at 2-3 miles an hour, navigating by Lowrance only.

I was in the bow, using the flashlight app on my phone as a sort of warning light to any other vessels that might be on the water. We knew we couldn’t see any, or anything else for that matter. There was an occasional crab trap buoy the came into view a few feet from the boat. Other than that, only fog and silence. Scary stuff. Our day was in doubt, certainly it would be delay for quite some time.

While we were carefully motoring at idle speed a much large boat emerged from the fog a few yards away. It too had a person on the bow watching for other boats or obstacles and moving slowly. Thank goodness.

As it turned out, the fog was the least of our troubles on this day. It took more than an hour, but the sun eventually won out. However, the fog delayed our trip to the bridge where we had hoped to take advantage of high tide.

When we finally arrived at the bridge Bank took his usual position at the front of the boat where he operated the electric motor to position us for precision casting. Then, after only a few minutes, the handle broke off the motor, taking the top of the motor with it and putting it out of commission. To top that off, Braun had a fish rod break in four places.

We couldn’t help but laugh it off, even if we really wanted to do otherwise. In short, we got the message. It just wanted to be our day. A return to the dock, many miles away, was the only choice. We were able to go to a back-up electric motor and get in a few more hours of fishing. Bank caught a few speckled trout to save the day.

A shark made a personal appearance, ripping and rolling after chomping down on the chum stringer. He tugged so hard the boat moved sideways!

Minutes later two dolphins cruised past the boat, which I took to be a wave goodbye. It was a fitting ending to a week on the water.

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