Early Spring throughout the Keys and South Florida can be challenging to fish, but particularly this year. Water temperatures were unusually high, attributed to the warmest February ever recorded from Palm Beach County southward. But as quickly as the seasons appeared to be changing, several minor cold fronts swept cleanly through, holding the wintering white pelicans in Everglades National Park, and also delaying the exodus of thousands of migrating ducks from Florida Bay. Two very decisive markers that Winter is not quite finished affecting our climate in the lower latitudes.
Seasonal success on the water is most assuredly a matter of correctly playing the hand that mother nature has dealt for the conditions of each day. Following are some examples of flexibility, and the Mirage 18 HPX adapting to those demands effortlessly.
John and Adam Gressa negotiated a stiff Northeast breeze and ran to some more placid water near Clive Key and found an acre of discolored water in a grassy basin. They used bright green 1/4 ounce jigs to catch a variety of light tackle targets, most notably 18 speckled trout with several of these tasty specks in the 3-4 pound range. Setting their sights on larger game, the pair netted a few dozen medium live mullet, and dropped them downstairs into the milky and dangerous abyss of Conchie Channel. They had 10 heavy bites from sharks while using 25lb. spin, 110 pound single stranded coffee-colored wire and 9/0 circle hooks. John and Adam landed 5 sinister bulls, and a biting and snapping lemon. They also took a long and thick 130 pound tarpon to cap off their action.
Mike and Thomas DiChiaro, from Scituate, Rhode Island snuck in an hour of early season pre-dawn tarpon, and were rewarded with 5 crushing bites using live crabs on 15 pound test spin. Thomas led 2 fish to boatside, contenders of 90 and 100 pounds. The 100 pounder nearly flew into the skiff on its second furious leap, beautifully framed by the spotlight in the darkness of the early morning. The DiChiaro’s also headed for the Park after first light, and again, using fresh dead mullet on the bottom, had 11 bites, and cranked up 3 angry bull sharks, a sleek blacktip, and a downright evil 7 foot lemon.
Father and son Chris and Soren Gates, from Fairfield Conneticut, were pinned to the greater Islamorada area by a frontal episode, but still found abundant activity. They also started the morning in the blackness with small live crabs and each caught their first tarpons. They put away fish of 100, 110, and 120 pounds on 17 pound test spin. Soren also added on his first bonefish, and took an additional silver bullet as well. The Gates’ used some dead mullet in the vicinity of Tea Table channel to pick off a 17 pound jack crevalle, 55 pound high leaping spinner shark, a 60 pound nurse, and then had a slow and steady bite from an unknown animal that turned out to be a show-stopping, 17 foot plus primitive massive sawfish, estimated at over 1000 pounds!!
Recently, my wife Marcy and I took a short boat ride after netting some needed mullet. A pre-frontal Southwest breeze was building, as another cold air mass was headed our way. We staked out on an oceanside point near lower Matecumbe, to eat lunch and spy on any fish cruising by. Almost immediately, 2 permit, one large and one small, bounced off of the stern with the classic “toilet flush” swirls of alarmed fish. I pitched a very long Hail Mary shot with a live crab, attempting to intercept the scurrying white-lipped mitt’s. Surprisingly, they both stopped and circled wildly, the line tapped, and then came tight! The hooked fish raced for the openness of the Atlantic, and Marcy cranked us up, and then throttled to nearly half-plane, just to keep up, and then try to gain back line. Against the grain of the waves, both fish headwaked on the surface, and remained tightly side by side. We still could not tell which one had eaten, but assumed the percentages were (as usual) on the side of the smaller one. The fight took the pair over a respectable blacktip, and he rose up with the normal shark-like curiosity and the permits frantically parted ways. We were pleased to see the line following the longer and wider fish!
February water was still relatively chilly, and this plump and silvery disc was twice as strong and resourceful as he could be in the warmer Summer water. Only after 25 tough minutes did we get our photo opp, as i grabbed the tail of our trophy and then quickly released it.
Father and son team Kent and Danny Weber from Lakeville Minnesota were in Islamorada for yet another frontal event. With a strong outgoing full moon tide, and chilly, non-tropical North winds of over 20 knots, the pre-dawn obscurity appeared anything but tarpon productive. However, dozens of seagulls, on the prowl by moonlight, were gently dipping away at dense numbers of helpless, floating donor shrimp. And in spite of the cold, scattered silver kings were audibly blasting away at the provided buffet. The Webers showed up for a perfect 4 for 4 morning, with large live shrimp matching the hatch, fished on 17 pound test spinners, 60 pound fluorocarbon leaders, medium 1/8 ounce round split shot sinkers, and 5/0 Owner SSW hooks. They fought fish all morning long before sunrise, just barely able to keep a bait in the water more than a few moments. Kent and Danny landed fish of 70, 80, 110, and 130 pounds, also each claiming their very first tarpons!! When action slowed, winds slightly diminished, and enabled the move comfortably across the backcountry to the vicinity of Rocky Channel.
Using 20 pound spinners and freshly netted, unfortunate mullet sunk to the bottom, they had excellent sharkage action, with 11 landed out of 18 bites, 7 feisty lemons up to 125 pounds, and 4 assertive bulls up to 5 feet in length.
Their next day began with Southeast winds at 10 mph. The previous day’s shrimp event was history, but 2 out of 4 tarpon were fought to boatside and released, fish of 110 and 125 pounds that sucked in crabs. The next move was for quantity, back into the Gulf of Mexico to 12 feet of water near Blue Bank, to anchor and chum while casting 1/2 ounce yellow jigs on light, single-stranded dark wire on 10 pound test spin. Outgoing water traveling with the 10 knot wind extended the scent corridor quickly to attract the targeted species. In just 3 hours, 155 fish with 8 species were battled to the boat. In the impressive body count were: mangrove and lane snappers, a handful of bluefish to 5 pounds, and an amazing Spanish Mackerel tally of 120, up to 6 pounds!
George Markelson from Islamorada fished the nearly slick calm aftermath of a clean frontal passage, and headed straight for the Gulf to anchor up and chum. He landed the expected array of gamesters, including keeper mangrove and lane snappers, pesty and slimy gafftopsail cats, ladies, large throbbing blue runners, jack crevalle, bluefish, trout, blacktip shark, atlantic sharpnose shark, and 37 Spanish Mackerel. This action was all prior to 10 a.m.! The tide halted, and Markelson took advantage of the glassy calm and moved over 20 miles to a series of patch reefs on the oceanside of Grassy Key.
Once anchored and chumming in only 25 feet of water, George was instantly rewarded with another, slightly different cast of light tackle characters. Using live shrimp and 10 pound test bonefish-style equipment, he cranked up colorful striped grunts to 2 pounds, succulent yellowtail snappers up to 2 and 1/2 pounds, and both red and black groupers. At one interval, a handful of small groups of lesser amberjacks moved in to aggressively take over the area. Markelson landed 10 of these banded-eyed scrappers, even taking 3 on an 8 weight flyrod, great fighters up to 6 pounds. Then the “other” mackerels, the ceros, moved in at full force. He took 18 sizzling ceros, with 5 over 10 pounds, including a monster weighing over 14 pounds. These sleek pelagics ran out at high speed 75-100 yards of line, worthy opponents on light spin. And of the mackerels, including Spanish and king, the cero is certainly the very best eating of the trio. Making for absolute true “cero tolerance.” At day’s end, George had banged out 18 species!
– by Capt. Mark Krowka