Author's note: Tropical Storm Isaac, which would later achieve hurricane status, forced an early end to what was hoped to be a one-week fishing trip to the Florida Keys. The catches referred to in the following story occurred during just two days on the water.
KEY LARGO, Fla. - It requires words as big as the ocean to properly describe the thrill of fishing the famed flats of the Florida Keys. Even then, descriptions of the saltwater angling action prove woefully inadequate.
The feel of a fish ripping out line against a reel's strong drag, spectacular leaps from blue ocean water and a fish's complete disdain for being brought to the boat must be experienced to be totally understood. Ocean fish represent pure power. Even the smaller species in the ocean deliver an unequal share of punishment to a stunned fisherman.
Any saltwater fish is a good fish, particularly on fishing tackle not unlike what you'd find a largemouth bass or northern pike fisherman using in North Dakota. A medium heavy rod with 15- to 30-pound test line is not uncommon for "inshore" fishing. While that equipment is more than capable for some saltwater species, other fish will quickly test the best equipment and take fishermen to the limit. It is what makes saltwater fishing so challenging.
Mort Bank, Bismarck, recently had the experience of hooking into a huge barracuda while fishing the flats of the Florida Keys. The fish hit with a rush and awesome power, then surged toward deep water.
"Big fish! Big fish! Look out!" said Bank as he quickly moved from the back of the boat to the bow in an effort the lessen the distance between fishing rod and fish. "Get on the motor and follow him!"
Redfish are known both for their fine eating qualities and fighting abilities. Mark Braun, Bismarck, caught this fine redfish on a crankbait Aug. 24. The clouds in the background indicated the leading edge of what would become Hurricane Isaac.
Mort Bank, Bismarck, caught this big barracuda in shallow water off the northern Florida Keys on Aug. 23. The cuda made an immediate run for deep water, requiring the boat to follow the fish as a precaution against running out of fishing line.
A natural born predator, barracuda combine sharp teeth with a fearsome appearance. They can tear up fishing lures with a single strike. Mort Bank, Bismarck, caught this big barracuda in shallow water off the northern Florida Keys on Aug. 23.
A large bird unique to the Florida Keys is actually a subspecies of the Great Blue Heron that frequents North Dakota. At one time the tall bird shown here was known as the Great White Heron, but is now recognized as a white morph of the Great Blue Heron. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the pure white subspecies occurs only in coastal southern Florida.
The 24-volt trolling motor at the bow was used at top speed to pull the boat in the direction of the line cutting quickly through the blue water. Bank kept tension on the rod, hoping to keep the still unseen fish from tossing the lure or biting through leader or line. After a few minutes' chase in 90-degree water, the fishing line began moving from left to right across the bow. Either the fish was tiring or it had a spectacular stunt upcoming.
The fish did its best to stay down. Speculation that it was a big barracuda was confirmed a minute or so later when the toothy predator finally came into view in the clear water. Its length was difficult to comprehend. By any measure, it was obvious it was a monster of a fish. When it finally tired and came alongside the boat, Bank was able to grasp it and lift it from the water. It was very impressive!
Barracuda are fearsome predators. Regardless of the size of the barracuda or the prey, they are known to attack suddenly and viciously. It is what they do and how they compete in the constant battle for survival in an ocean filled with a countless variety of fish. Barracuda are perfectly made for their environment. They are extremely fast and sleek, yet very solid, and pack a mouth full of large and sharp teeth made for grasping and ripping prey. Every barracuda on hook and line, no matter what size, provides a memorable experience.
No scale or measuring tape was used on Bank's fish. It was photographed and returned to the ocean as soon as possible. While the exact weight and length of the impressive barracuda remains unknown, it certainly ranks among Bank's top fish pulled from saltwater.
Barracuda are sometimes referred to with the fitting title of "Tiger of the Sea." They have been known to attack virtually anything from scuba divers and snorkelers to fish as big as themselves. Newly hatched barracuda begin feeding on small fish immediately. There are reports of some barracuda reaching 6 feet in length and weighing nearly 80 pounds. No wonder that they provide a magnificent rush for fishermen willing to accept their challenge.
Rooting out redfish
Mark Braun, Bismarck, was fortunate enough to land a couple of highly coveted redfish while fishing the flats Aug. 24. Redfish are known both as a very good fighting fish and as excellent table fare. Braun's fish certainly provided both.
His first redfish jolted his fishing rod and immediately began taking out line. The fish stayed near the bottom as much as possible. It was on the line for several minutes before it began to tire and finally came into view. When the redfish saw the boat it became energized once again, making a loop around the boat in a final effort to avoid capture. Eventually Braun was able to land the fish. A second redfish followed at a separate location about an hour later.
Later that evening Bank, a very accomplished chef, made a stuffed redfish with shrimp dinner that was incredibly tasty and proved to be a fitting end for a remarkable day on the water.
Sharks on the prowl
Sharks, some of them with a fin exposed while swimming in as little as 2 feet of water, were seen on several occasions from the relative safety of the flats boat. One of the sharks passed within a few feet of the boat. Attempts to get the sharks to commit to topwater lures were generally ignored, although one shark did show momentary interest before turning away and disappearing.
The presence of sharks is a reminder of how vigilant a saltwater fisherman must be before reaching into the water to land a fish. An angler can never really be certain when a shark is within striking distance. Awareness and caution are good attributes for any saltwater angler.
Popping corks for trout
A popular fishing technique employed by some fishermen in the shallow flats, particularly when targeting the tasty speckled trout, involves "popping" corks. A popping cork is a large float, similar to a bobber, with a hefty wire running completely through the cork. The ends of the wire are formed into loops. The fishing line is either tied or snapped onto the top loop. A monofilament lead is tied securely to the bottom loop. A plain jig is tied to the opposite end of the lead. Bait, such as Gulp shrimp, is threaded onto the jig.
The presentation is then cast out and the cork is repeatedly "popped," or jerked, at intervals decided upon by the fisherman. The popping serves two purposes - the noise attracts fish and imparts action to the jig. The combination can be very effective on trout feeding in shallow water.