Sunday, October 5, 2008

Florida Fish Tales - All True - You Just Can't Make Up Stuff Like This

When I was down in West Palm Beach last week I got to go fishing 3 times. Not bad in 5 days considering how few times I go when I am at home. The first day out was a nice one, picture perfect as you can see from the pic of my Uncle Ken fishing off of Juno Pier. The sun was shining, well peeking out from behind those magnificent clouds anyhow, the temps were probably in the mid to high seventies, a light breeze was blowing, the surfers were acting as chum in the water. Did I mention it was picture perfect, well maybe it was just a wee bit less than that, and if you look closely at the picture you may notice why. Haven't guessed it yet - okay I'll tell - in the pic there was no fish on his line, in fact none on mine so I had time to snap away, and very few brought to the pier by anyone at all. My uncle did catch one small bluefish, barely a keeper, and I guess that was pretty good considering we had the wrong kind of bait. Yet even those with the right bait were only catching a few now and then. Still it was a nice day.

On Tuesday we went out again, this time for fresh water fish at my insistence. I even bought a 3 day non-resident license at the same cost of a yearly resident license - $17.00. They want another $17.00 for a non-resident saltwater license, imagine that. Luckily since our first trip had been off of the pier at Juno, I did not require a saltwater license. The freshwater fishing experience was also picture perfect even though the day was overcast and the weatherman promised heavy rains. My uncle, his grandson Kyler, and I figured if it rained we could always head to Juno Pier and fish from underneath the areas with pavilions. A nice touch for a fishing pier. As it turned out we headed to Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Our first stop was a pond recommended by the ranger who collected our park entry fee. He told us that this pond in particular had some big ones. We fished there for about 2 hours or so, and we caught a decent number of fish - a few each - but all were small sunfish. We moved on at the insistence of Kyler who just did not want to wait for a big one to swim by. We drove down to the other end of the park looking for fishing holes. At the far en we came to the gift shop and canoe rental set on the Loxahatchee River (this is where Brendan and I had fished back in the summer of 2005, also where we saw a good number of alligators). With those clouds obviously so full of rain we decided against renting a canoe. We milled around a bit, then headed back a short distance to a pond we had passed while driving to the canoe rental area.

It was a small dark watered pond. Lots of peat or something else was staining the water a brownish color. probably not poet since the water was not too acidic for plant life. Whatever, we decided to fish in this forbidding looking water hole. Almost as soon as our baits hit the water (night crawlers from Walmart) we all had bites. Once again it was sunfish on all lines. These were bigger and more feisty than were the ones at the first spot, though still on the small side. I also caught a Peacock Bass which looked more like it belonged in an aquarium with other exotic species than it belonged in a pond in Florida. After about a half hour or so, young Kyler got into a discussion with uncle Ken about the best bait to be using. Uncle Ken insisted that the night crawlers were the best, Kyler insisted that some frozen shrimp we had would be best. To prove a point, Kyler baited his hook with a shrimp and cast out about a whole 5 feet from shore. Now if you had an eye that was quick enough, or maybe a camera with a high speed shutter you may have noticed the glass smooth surface of the pond was broken by ripples just before Kyler's bait hit the water. You see, just as his bait was about to hit the still surface of the pond, a largemouth bass affirmed Kyler's knowledge about which bait was best as it jumped out of the water to meet his bait in mid air just above the pond's surface. I don't know how he did it, but Kyler set the hook and then manhandled that big boy to shore despite the drag on his light spinning outfit brrrr'ing away.

That was the fish of the day for sure. As a mater of fact, soon after he caught that it started to rain and we decided to head off to call it a day and go get some lunch. Now you might be thinking that the bass would have made a fine lunch, and so had we. The thing was we threw it back hopefully so Kyler can catch it again on another day. We did not necessarily want to throw it back. Had I caught it I would have regardless of its size after some pics, but Kyler understandably wanted to keep this one. Thing was I did not have the fishing regs and seemed to recall it needed to be 18 inches long to be a keeper. This one was 15 inches, or a tad more, in length. So I called the office of the park. The jerk there actually reprimanded me for not having the fishing regulations, and told me how it was my duty to have them. Well since Walmart did not have any when I bought my license, I also went to K-Mart and guess what - they did not have any either. They told me the State sent them loads of saltwater fishing regs, but almost no freshwater regs and they were all out. So I asked the guy who's fault was that! I also asked him how it was that the admin office of a state park was so lax as to not have the regs available - he shut up. I then asked for the number to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission - he did not have that either, can you imagine - government buffoonery at its best - or so you would think - but it gets better (or should I say worse). I went to the car, and I dug out the saltwater regs. I then called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission number on the regs. It was the saltwater division, and that was just how the lady answered the phone. I asked for the number for the freshwater division or if she could connect me to them. She just flatly said: "No". I asked if she knew the size limit on largemouth bass, and again I received the curt answer: "No". So finally I asked if anyone there could help me and she in a nasty tone said: "NO". In a last ditch effort, I explained our situation, and explained that the young lad who caught the fish was hoping his best to keep it. She then softened up a bit, and said give me a minute. I heard her say something to someone else, immediately heard paper rustling, then heard pages turning, then heard her say she was looking it up for me. What happened to NO and NO and NO? I remained silent. In a half a minute she told me that the size limit statewide for largemouth bass was 18 inches if caught by a minor (youth as she put it), and 24 inches if caught by an adult. I thanked her for looking even though I wanted to call her something that rhymes with witch. So on her say so as to size limits, we let the bass go, and each of us were a little sad to see it swim away (happy too that it could still swim away after being out of the pond for a few minutes).

Oh yeah, remember the guy at the park office, the one who tried to chastise me for not having the fishing regulations with me. Well we stopped to show him the picture of the fish as we left the park. He was amazed when we told him where we had caught it. He said that pond has been bone dry a few months back and that there were definitely no fish in it. Once again - government buffoonery shining through. He just could not understand how we caught a bass like that there, nor did he look all that much like he believed me when I told him we caught several sunfish and something else that looked like a colorful mini-tilapia (that was the Peacock Bass). Of course when I described the oddball fish, he also had no idea what it could have been, I had to look it up online letter in the day. Lest you think I am telling a fish tale, you too can take a look at the pic.

Once we got home, my uncle, being the skeptic of skeptics, checked the regs online off of the site of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Co mission. He was pretty upset once he did. The minimum size limit was 14 inches - Kyler had caught a keeper and we had thrown it back. The limits I had seen the night before of 18 inches up to 25 inches were for Lake Okeechobee, where I had at first planned to fish. The limits told to me over the phone by the representative of lady at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Shame on her, there was nothing we could find that even closely resembled the so called regulations she quoted us abut a "youth" limit and "adult" limit - she won the government buffoon award of the day. Oh well, at least we have the picture, and Kyler can always dream of catching the same one again.

Enough of Tuesday's trip. On Wednesday uncle Ken and I headed about 60 miles north of West Palm Beach to Fort Pierce. Once there we boarded the Captain Lew, a party (or open) boat. I had done some online checking before I left NY and saw that every boat in WPB only went out for 4 hours at a cost of about $40 - $45 for each person. This boat on the other hand went out from 0830 to 1630, a full 8 hours, and only cost about $50 per fare. They also had a $2 off coupon online, and a senior fare that my uncle could use. I made a reservation. When we got there we saw a freshly paned boat, with a crew of 2, Captain Lew and his mate Mark. There was a small crowd of fishermen and fisherwomen, about 20 to 25 including us. Just before boarding, Mark took everyones' gear and stowed it aboard so we would not have to climb aboard while toting it. Then Capt. Lew read us the rules, a nice touch to avoid any problems aboard. As we boarded, the line of went through the cabin where Capt. Lew collected the fares. He remembered me by name, from my emails, when I paid. Another nice touch (by the way he promptly and courteously answered my several emails to him). One other nice thing, both the captain and mate had great manners. It was going to be a nice trip even if we did not catch any fish.

Well it took about an hour and a half to reach the fishing grounds. I could not see land in any direction. My guess was we were 10 to 20 miles out. The day was sunny, promising to hit the mid to high eighties, there was just a hint of a breeze, the water was as calm as the surface of a small lake on a calm day, and the water and skies were blue. On the way out I got a chance to talk to Mark, and to a few of the other fisherpeople. The captain was busy getting us there, but I got to speak to him once we arrived. Not much of a surprise, but at least a few folks aboard - including Captain Lew - were originally from NY. Captain Lew even went to college just a few miles from my home, and he was born in Brooklyn as was I. One of the fares, I think his name was Mike, was originally from Brooklyn, moved to Long Island, then moved to Florida 40 years or so ago. We had a good long talk, and he was a fine and interesting gentleman. We wished each other luck, and then went fishing.

As soon as uncle ken's rig hit bottom, he hooked a fish. Same for me a second or two later. Same for just about everyone aboard. We reeled them in, I got mine on the deck before uncle Ken who was using a lighter pole, and I had a nice double header of keeper Sea bass. Mmm delicious. After that we caught some Yellowtail and Lane Snapper, and a lot of Grunts. According to the captain the Grunts were only worthy of being cut up for bait. So we caught a bunch of them, as did everyone else, and we used em for bait once the squid ran out (that was my only negative complaint about the whole day aboard the Captain Lew - they did not supply enough bait, and actually ran out of the cut squid they had been giving out forcing everyone who did not bring bait to use cut up grunt). Well after about an hours or so of steady fish on action, it sought of petered out a bit. Still we were getting fish, but only Grunts ow and then. I turned to uncle Ken and wondered out loud if the captain would move around a lot, or if we would stay put. Apparently the captain was in the wheel house right over my head when I said that, and within a second he was on the loud speaker saying reel em up, we were about to move to another spot. I guess he had heard me; but if he had or had not, he was moving to another spot to look for more and better fish, and that is a sign of a good party boat captain.

In all we hit a few more spots, 4 or 5 I suppose. We never hit as good a spot as had been the first, but we did catch fish, at least anyone who kept on a bottom rig did so. Uncle Ken changed to a rig designed for bigger but scarcer fish, and he caught fewer than me, and alas no big ones. The Grunts were king wherever else we fished. In all I reeled in 68 fish, and raised a lot of skeptical eyebrows from those who asked me how I had done. Truth is I was pulling in Grunts even when most of the others were not, but most had changed to the rigs meant for the bigger fish. We also caught some small (under the size limit) Sea Bass, Yellow Tail and Vermilion. My uncle also caught an ugly little critter - a Toad Fish that Captain Lew called a Shell Crusher, and one look at its jaws would let you know why he gave it that name. I also had a colorful little sand perch - also a throw back. Out of 68 fish that I caught, and my guess would be 30 or more that my uncle caught, we had a total of only 12 keepers. Of those 2 were Trigger Fish, 4 were Sea Bass, 4 were Yellow Tail, and 2 were Lane Snapper. Other folks caught red snapper, Mutton Snapper, a single Cobia (a throwback at 31 inches), moray eels, grouper (also throwbacks at a pretty large size), scorpion fish, and some others.

All too soon it was 1500 (3PM) and time to head back to the dock. The fish were weighed and the pool fish selected, sadly not one of ours. By the way, the woman with the actual largest fish did not win the pool, she had elected not to enter. That is why I always put up the few bucks to get into the pool. The ride back was more for snoozing than it was for talking, and I got in more than a few minutes f keeping the other fares amused with my musical snoring. Once back at the dock, the mate and the captain got to filleting fish. It is amazing how 12 good looking fish can be reduced to a pile of disappointingly small fillets in a matter of minutes; but I will admit we had a few to 5 pounds of fillets. After that it was off to home to fry some fish, well that is of course after tipping the mate. Being I was on vacation I was somewhat generous and I threw a nice tip his way for my uncle and me. I have to say, he was the best mate, and Captain Lew the best captain, that I have met on a party boat in a long time. What a nice day it was, made even nicer by these two gentlemen.

After an hour or so, we reached uncle Ken's place. We cleaned up and uncle Ken got to fish frying. He did a pretty good job too with just some salt, pepper, garlic powder and oil. Those fish were ever so delicious and Uncle Ken, Aunt Glenese and I had a small feast on about 1/3 of the fillets; saving the rest for another day.

In closing let me say that if you ever are down near Fort Pierce, and if you want to go fishing, I highly recommend the Captain Lew. A nice boat, a nicer crew, and a good time is to be had. As for the fishing, I suppose it depends, but my bet is you will catch fish. As for me, I had only one regret in three days of fishing, and that was that my son and best fishing buddy Brendan was not there with me. You can bet, if we ever get to Fort Pierce together, both of us will be going fishing with Captain Lew.

All the best,
Glenn B