Upon arrival, we saw schools and schools of Cownose Ray, and one lonely Spotted Eagle Ray. I had a little history with the Cownose Ray. In 2011, I accidentally snagged one in the butt in Maryland on my 9' salmon rod while fishing for Red Drum. Somehow, I was able to bring the ray back to shore with only a #8 hook, 15lb mono leader and 30lb braid mainline on a 4000 size spinning reel. However, I couldn't count the snagged fish. Even though there were a lot of spawning rays around that weekend, I failed to get any of them to bite.
So here I was staring at the tens and possibly hundreds of Cownose Ray swimming by the pier all night. We started sabiki fishing for some bait to toss out. Pinfish and Scaled Herring were there in huge number so we had fresh bait all the time. It's a bonus that I'm catching a new species while making bait.
Scaled Herring (Harengula jaguana) - Species #375
Apparently, Ben caught a Pilchard amongst the Scaled Herring. I remember checking every one of my "herring" and all of them looked the same. Maybe Ben found a small school somewhere.
I tossed out three rods for sharks. One of them with a live Pinfish, one of them with a live Herring and one of them with a dead pinfish. The dead bait on bottom ended up simply picked cleaned by crustaceans. We fished with mostly live baits.
Between Michael, Ben and I, we probably had 10 rods out fishing for "sharks"...but all of them were silent throughout the night from what I can remember. We were up until around 3-4am keeping rods baited and catching more live bait. At the end, all of us took a little nap until just before sunrise.
I think I woke up at 6am to check on the lines. Just as the sky was getting a bit of colour, my UglyStik Tiger and Saltist 40 combo took a rip! By the time I got to the rod and tightened the drag, the fish had already rocked me.
Michael took a similar hit not long after with a similar fate. Perhaps these were groupers?
We didn't have too much time to dwell on it. As the morning progressed, the pandemonium began. Remember how I mentioned that there were Cownose Ray passing by the pier all night and we didn't even get a rip? Morning was like a light switch. All of a sudden, the rays went on a feed and whoever had a bait sitting on bottom had a pretty good chance hooking up to a ray. At one point, there were double, triple and even quadruple headers. It was a fire drill alright!
Michael and I hooked up at the same time. My ray had the hook right inside the mouth but Michael's ray was hooked just below the head. Michael didn't count his ray at the time. This were our double rays.
Cownose Ray (Rhinoptera bonasus) - Species #376
After I caught my first ray, I was debating whether to cast my shark rods in again. I had all the rods reeled up since the rays would run parallel the pier upon being hooked. It was just a mess of rays that morning and I really didn't want to pull on them over and over again. I want to find new species and not hammer the same species all the time. Michael said he just wanted to pull on big fish so he kept at it. He was also looking for his first fair hooked ray. In fact, he had two other rays hooked just outside the mouth before finally getting a fair hooked ray on the fourth one.
I didn't take many pictures. I was too busy netting fish for people. Since we had the pier net, I volunteered to net the rays around me. If I don't net them, the rays were often brought up by a rope gaff. I simply didn't want to see people unnecessarily gaffing and releasing the rays. I think I netted over 10 rays for people that day...including 4 of Michael's and 2 of Ben's.
There was a sprinkling of other species caught by people fishing the sabiki, including Ben's Spanish Mackerel and a Florida Pompano caught by someone else down the pier. I really wanted to add Florida Pompano on my list, however, I was pestered by Pinfish, Scaled Herring and, later in the morning, Bluerunner and Jack Crevalle. Hooking up with 4 Bluerunner all attempting to swim in different directions was a lot of fun on the sabiki but it doesn't add to my species list. :(
By around noon, we were all exhausted. Ben and Ruoxi debated finding a motel to nap but settled for the rest area at the base of the pier afterwards. Ben wanted to fish the shallow areas for micros at the base of the pier so he didn't want to venture too far. Michael and I spent a little more time on the pier before joining Ben and Ruoxi at 2pm. By that time, we were all really hungry...so I filleted some fish and Ruoxi fried them up.
Fresh Spanish Mackerel...MMM!
We kept 4 Oscars from the day before. They were tasty! A little like a mix of Bluegill and Largemouth Bass.
Scenery was rather nice around the rest area.
After lunch, Michael and I took a nap while Ben attempted unsuccessfully to catch some micros by hook and line. He did netted some neat species with the pipefish being the coolest.
At around 4pm, we woke up and headed back to the pier. Our squid was pretty rotten by then so we grabbed a new block of frozen squid as well as a mullet to cut up for bait. We were told that mullet is really good shark bait.
Something magical happened once we started fishing again. Throughout the past week, it had been windy and rough wherever we fished. Suddenly, the wind died down at the same time that the tide slacked. The water was completely slick!
Perhaps it was the condition change. Michael hooked a Bonnethead Shark not long after we started fishing again. He caught two Atlantic Sharpnose Shark that evening! It was absolutely bizarre since we were fishing the same baits with similar 4oz shark rigs in the same area. While he found all the sharks, I was kept busy by the rays and skate. I was super jealous about Michael's Bonnethead. He is one of the luckiest guy I know and he can pull out a new species by chance when you work your ass off for days fishing the same way and not catch the same species. It has happened too many times in the past...and it certainly happened too many times on this trip!
I took a rip at 7pm and thought it was the right kind until a Clearnose Skate surfaced. It wasn't a shark, but at least it was a new species!
Clearnose Skate (Raja eglanteria) - Species #377
But the Cownose Ray would not leave me alone...even taking live Bluerunners to ruin my chance at a shark! They were pretty big rays though.
While chatting online, Ben and I met Ryan, a fellow species hunter who had just started his own quest in Florida. Ryan and his partner Meghan came down to fish with us for a bit that evening. He has never caught a Cownose Ray and we were really hoping he would get one during the evening hot bite...but the rays simply gravitated toward me. :(
There were a lot of little crabs swimming around and I tried to net some to use for bait. Bonnetheads love crabs...but the crabs were actually much too small for bait. During one of the net pulls, I noticed a piece of weed stuck on the netting. Upon close inspection, I discovered it was actually a small seahorse. It had grabbed hold of the netting by its tail. How cool is that! I don't know anyone who has caught a seahorse on hook and line. It would have been too cool if this was a hook and line catch. Having the privilege to hold a wild seahorse in hand was enough though. Technically, I should look up the identity of this species (since seahorse is a fish), but I'm not even remotely even familiar with the seahorse, pipefish and sea dragon family...so I need to do some digging later.
By around 10pm, Ben called it a night. Ben and Ruoxi have a long drive back to Illinois the next day. They were going to get a motel for the night. Michael and I left the rods out while we pack up but that was all she wrote for the night. Before Ryan and Meghan left, we chatted about fishing together again a couple of days later since Michael and I were still hanging out in the Tampa area.