December 27, 2015

2015 Florida Christmas (Day 9)

Our last day in Florida had finally arrived. We were initially scheduled to fish Dania Pier again, but since the pier had not yield very many interesting species, we decided to drive north to Titusville to give Michael and Bartek a chance at Sheepshead, Red Drum and Black Drum.

We were on the road by 7:30am and arrived in Titusville just before 11am after a short stop. We walked into Captain Hook's for some bait, and they had both live shrimp and fiddler crabs. I had scout out the pier beside A Max Brewer Memorial Parkway and got a confirmation that it was indeed a good place to catch Sheepshead, although it was unlikely we would find Red Drum and Black Drum. Instead the shop owner suggested the backwater creeks at Merritt Island if we wish to find the Drums.

Arriving at the pier, we found very windy condition. While Michael and Bartek fished fiddler crabs along the pylons with a simply split shot rig, I tried the sandy, grassy area to see if there were any Striped Burrfish around. I had read that Indian River Lagoon was a good place to find them. Unfortunately, in the murky water condition, not even Pinfish were biting.

After an hour of not getting a bit, I decided to try to find the Sheepshead since Michael and Bartek had even had a stolen fiddler crab yet. I knew that with the strong wind and current, the Sheepshead was likely staying close to the bottom. Their splitshot rig was simply not getting the bait deep enough to the fish. I also knew that Sheepshead generally avoid heavy current, so I started to look for the calmest areas to fish.

I tied on a carolina rig with 3/4oz egg sinker to help the fiddler crab get to bottom, but the 18" long leader should give the rig enough freedom to allow the Sheepshead to pick up the bait without feeling the sinker too quickly.

I found a nice eddy tight to the pylon, dropped down my fiddler crab and had it promptly stolen within a minute. Just as I was getting a new fiddler crab, Bartek and Michael suggested that we should fish a new spot. I simply told them they were giving up too easily.

I took Bartek with me and he finally felt the super light tap of a Sheepshead stealing the bait. Michael then came to join us and we were all feeding the Sheepshead for a while. Michael and Bartek were starting to get frustrated at these quick fish but I told them to persist on. Finally, Michael was just lifting his line and checking his bait when the rod bent and he landed his lifer Sheepshead. I decided to check out the wall by the base of the pier and caught a small Sheepshead on my second drop. I returned with another fiddler crab and yet again felt a tap, but this time the fish was much smaller. To my surprise, it was an Oyster Toadfish.

Michael needed an Oyster Toadfish and he tried for a while unsuccessfully. In the meantime, Bartek finally hooked and landed his first Sheepshead.

Someone on the pier landed a small Atlantic Stingray and I rigged up my heavy rod hoping to find my lifer. While I waited patiently for a good pull, Michael and Bartek both caught one more Sheepshead. By 3:30pm, we decided to pack up so we could fish the backwater creeks before the sun set.

We drove along a gravel road at Merritt Island, passing many cars and people along the way, until we found a spot that was not occupied. We didn't know if it was a good spot or not, but we wanted to start fishing quickly. Michael and Bartek sent out live shrimp on carolina rigs in the larger bay while I poked around the shallows behind them with the tanago rods. I only found Eastern Mosquitofish before I lost the tanago hook to the mangroves. I switched to the sabiki since I saw some small fish surfacing, but quickly lost the sabiki to the mangrove roots. Then I switched to a popper rig with live shrimp in the shallow mangrove areas and almost lost the popping cork as well. It was just not going well for me.

Finally, I gave up and joined Michael and Bartek to fish the main bay. I had a series of taps on frozen shrimp but failed to hook up. It was likely a crab stripping my bait.

Fishing was very slow until the sun was about to set. Suddenly, Bartek was hooked up and there was a decent fish on the line. After a couple of good runs, we got the fish close and it was a Black Drum. Bartek's lifer Black Drum was 17" long and a legal keeper and Bartek decided to take the fish home. Everyone got a bit more hopefully at this point, but Bartek jinxed our action by saying we are going to limit out. Never, ever count your fish before you catch them!

It was pretty quiet until dusk. Everyone had time to enjoy the sunset.

As we were contemplating whether to stay or go, Michael got excited when he landed a Hardhead Catfish. He was not sure whether it was a lifer or not. He had not update his life list or kept track of his catches Florida catches since 2013. I was pretty sure it was a lifer for him, since he had been trying to catch one on the previous two trip to Florida.

By this point, I simply wanted a catfish to pull on the rod. Finally, I felt a series of short taps on the line. I was giving the fish time to take the bait, expecting yet another Hardhead Catfish when the fish pulled out drag and made a strange run along the shoreline. At that point, I was expecting a small Red Drum when we saw something flat at the end of the time. We didn't know what it could be until it was in the net. It was an Atlantic Stingray!!!

Atlantic Stingray (Dasyatis sabina) - Species #484

I was completely in disbelief. I had been trying to find one of these every time I fished on the coast of Western Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia all the way to Belize. After years of trying, I finally caught one in a backwater creek when I simply wanted to catch a Hardhead Catfish for a tug on the line.

We were loosing light and the wind had died down. The mosquitoes started to swarm and Michael caught one more Hardhead Catfish before we couldn't stand the biting bug any more. Thus, we wrapped up our Florida adventure on a good note. Michael and Bartek caught two lifers each and even I was gifted a lifer I had long coveted.

What a great trip it was! We had a great group of life list anglers between Elijah, George, Michael and I. For the first time. The camaraderie between the group was strong. Even though Elijah and I live far apart and we rarely had the chance to fish together, he felt like a brother to me every time we meet. I enjoyed the opportunity to captain our own rental boat to fish the patch reefs and Florida Bay. Elijah was a great captain and having done it once with him, I now have more confidence to take a boat out on my own next time. Although the weather worked against us the entire trip, everyone managed to catch some really exciting new species even when the going was tough. And most of all, I had the opportunity again to spend time with my family over Christmas. Florida Christmas 2015 was a success by all aspect!

December 26, 2015

2015 Florida Christmas (Day 8)

I had originally planned to have lunch with my aunt, but Michael and Bartek had to be picked up by their 11am check out time. So I bid farewell to my aunt and cousin after breakfast.

Elijah had went ahead to lunch at Chipotle. He tasked us to get some live shrimp for his later plan, and we got a block of squid and some shrimp for our later plan.

After lunch, Elijah would part ways with us. He wanted to target Striped Mojarra and Crested Goby before his flight home, while Michael, Bartek and I headed further north to Boca Raton to try for Parrotfish. All parties must eventually end; and it was quite the party fishing with Elijah!

The water was much murkier and the current was much strong than we had experienced in the past at this inlet. The poor condition simply followed us everywhere.

It was a bit of a consolation that the usual annoying bait thieves were less numerous, allowing us to get a better chance to fish for the Parrotfish. Unfortunately, the Parrotfish were nowhere to be seen in the murky water. We only spotted two Yellowtail Parrotfish under a cloud of Sergeant Major - basically impossible to fish for them.

I cast my sabiki rig into the middle of the channel and caught some Wrasse and Grunt. Then I switched to the dropper loop and caught more Grunts. Still, I had hoped to pick up a new species in the blind.

Meanwhile, Bartek spotted a larger fish among the pylons under the platform and it turned out to be a Grey Angelfish. We started to notice a pattern to catching these Angelfish...murky green water!

One surprise were the numerous Smallmouth Grunt in the area. I had never seen so many of them in one place. Michael and Bartek didn't know they were catch them until I pointed them out much later in the evening. This species was basically everywhere at this location!

Fishing was quite poor for species diversity. We had thoughts of moving but I wanted stay until night time since I had never fished here in the dark. We decided to move toward to a set of pylons by the bridge to see if we could find something interesting there. I had caught Parrotfish by the pylons in the past.

Bartek joined me later and said he saw two Spotted Eagle Ray. I had seen them in the past feeding on fish scraps, but they had refused my bait in the past...even when my bait was placed among the fish scraps.

I did eventually find a Redtail Parrotfish by the bridge. Then Bartek caught his second Grey Angelfish, followed by one on my line not long later. Michael was simply flanked out by us and he was starting to get frustrated.

By night fall, we were running out of bait. Bartek and Michael volunteered to make a run to get dinner and bait while I continued to fish. They did not miss out much during their break from fishing, since all I found were Grunts and more Grunts.

When Michael resumed fishing. He immediately caught an Irish Mojarra. I did not know they can be found far into the inlet, and I had been fishing in the same location for quite a while. I tried for a while to find my own Irish Mojarra, but it appeared the fish had moved off. I was simply catching more and more Grunts.

Bartek was having fun with some of the larger Grunts that started to bite. Michael was following a fellow angler's advice and throwing a swimbait around for Snook. I went back to the pylons by the bridge to find nothing but more Grunts. After exhausting the bait I had on hand, it was close to 9:30pm and I was ready to leave. I was walking back to pack up when I passed by Michael and he had some shrimp available. I told Michael that I have never seen as many Smallmouth Grunts in one place before, but he wasn't sure what they looked like. I put some shrimp on the dropper loop rig and caught a Smallmouth Grunt by the dock. I was just showing Michael that they could be caught in the main channel as well when there was a larger fish on the line. Oh wow! It was an Irish Mojarra!!!

Irish Mojarra (Diapterus auratus) - Species #483

I had tried to catch one in the surf zone at Dania Pier, but none were found. Elijah said someone did catch one from the pier, but they were sure no as numerous as we had seen at Anglin's Pier. Finally, when I had least expected to find one, it popped up at a surprising location. It was a great end to a day when I was expecting to go lifer-less once again.

December 24, 2015

2015 Florida Christmas (Day 6)

The wind had been blowing onshore for the past week in Fort Lauderdale. Although winter is not the best time for Florida Pompano, there is still a chance there may be some around. We decided to start the day early in hope to fish daybreak for these fish.

Elijah said he would be a little late this morning, so we stopped for breakfast, then got some bait, and met both George and Elijah at the parking lot of Dania Pier. Anglin's Pier was closed due to a dispute so this gave us an opportunity to explore another pier.

Parking and admission was much cheaper than Anglin's, however, the pier was set in an area with less reef. There could be a different mix of species. George and I started in the surf zone just as the sun rose. After an hour without much of a bit except for small Jack Crevalle, we decided to join the rest of the group out at the end of the pier.

On one of my first drop with the dropper loop rig, I caught a large Blackear Wrasse. As with other species I've caught in the past, finding the first specimen (in April) was most difficult. Once the species is no longer a lifer, it becomes incredibly easy to catch.

Elijah was fishing on the other corner of the pier and constantly hooked up with some hard running fish. I joined him for a while and hooked into many Grey Triggerfish.

I also caught a Black Margate, lots of Bermuda and Yellow Sea Chubs, some Sergeant Major and Slippery Dick. A Redtail Parrotfish was the only Parrotfish for me at the pier, and most of us did not fare any better for them. There was a couple of Grey Angelfish feeding on the chum bag, but they are too line shy to be caught.

By 10am, our parking fee (and the chum bag) ran out. Without any significant species catch, we decided to move to another location where I had see many interesting Parrotfish and Angelfish before. George had to get back to Sebring as his daughter was arrive for Christmas, so we bid farewell and part ways.

Upon arrival at our new location, there were indeed some Parrtofish around. I spotted a few Redtail Parrotfish, a Rainbow Parrotfish, a couple of Yellowtail Parrotfish and even saw a Blue Parrotfish in a spear fisherman's catch.

However, our arrival seemed to attracted other anglers to our spot and soon we were surrounded by people. Perhaps all the activity created too much commotion. The Parrotfish simply disappeared.

Bartek had yet to catch a Scrawled Filefish. I put the rod down and guided him to one without too much effort.

I fished the sabiki rig later and saw two small Striped Parrotfish circle my bait, but the other fish such as Sergeant Major, Slippery Dick, Grunt species and Pinfish were too fast on the bait. Eventually the Striped Parrotfish simply moved on and I didn't see them again.

Michael and Bartek were off somewhere else fishing and Michael returned to announced he found a Lionfish. I had wanted to catch a Lionfish ever since I heard story from Richard about seeing them close to shore in Roatan. They are usually found in deeper water, and the inability to see them presents a difficulty to catch them on hook and line. They usually sit tight to structure as they ambush their prey. Using their long pectoral spines, they slowly corral their prey until it is within reach, upon which the Lionfish would open their mouth to vacuum in the prey. They mostly target small fish and shrimp, greatly preferring live prey over dead prey items.

I had already knew all of this. However, all our bait were frozen bait. At the time, I was rigged with only a splitshot and 2 small hooked to fish frozen sand fleas. Initially, I simply want to find the fish to observe its behaviour. Based on Michael's description, I was finally able to see the fish moving about slowly by the seawall. I could see the fish slowly moving closer and closer to deeper water. I didn't want to waste time to change bait and risk losing a shot at the fish while it is still shallow. So I tossed the sand flea toward it. Michael then arrived after he baited up again. The Lionfish was flanked by my sand flea on its left, and Michael's bait on its right.

I could see the fish swim over, with pectoral fins spread out, to inspect my bait and then lost interest. It then went over to Michael's bait and did the same. Back and forth, the Lionfish refused our bait over and over again. I suspected that it could smell and see out offering, but the still presentation was not triggering a bit.

Recalling the Lionfish preference for live bait, I started to jiggle the sand flea. The sand flea jumped and vibrated, and soon the Lionfish returned to my bait. As it inched closer and closer, I kept a steady jig-pause cadence. I could tell the Lionfish was trying to trap my bait, turning its body side to side to sweep its pectoral fins around the sand flea. Finally, I saw the jaw flashed open. I didn't feel the hit, but trusted my visual that the Lionfish had sucked in the sand flea. When I lifted the rod, felt weight, and saw the Lionfish's head angled upward, I knew I had it.

The Lionfish didn't fight impressive at all. It wiggled it tail trying to dig down, but my rod was much too stiff for the fish to fight back. Knowing I only had 8lb fluorocarbon leader and two small #14 hooks, there is a real chance I could lose this fish, especially since the fish appeared to be skin hooked. I called for the net and steadily walked back toward the group. Elijah was ready with the net and without much drama, the fish was raised!

Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans) - Species #481!

I was not expecting to catch this species from shore on this trip. It was yet another species that I had caught by complete surprise while not targeting them. Can you sense the theme of this trip yet?

In fact, I started to not care about targeting any species for the rest of this trip. It was quite different from my usual approach on a lifer hunting trip.

With nothing much else around, I got bored and I started to challenge myself to load up all six hooks on the sabiki rig. It was actually a much more difficult feat than most assume, as a hooked fish could wiggle off the hook. The top 2 hooks were the most difficult since fish usually would not swim too far off bottom to take the bait.

At last, I finally caught all six fish on the same sabiki rig.

Finally, the group decided to return to Dania Pier to see if the late afternoon bite would spark something interesting.

I only had a couple of hours to fish before I had to leave. I was scheduled to arrive at my uncle's house by 6:30pm at the latest. We were picking through much of the same species when something else came up that I didn't Ocean Surgeonfish!

Ocean Surgeonfish (Acanthurus bahianus) - Species #482

This species looks very similar to the Doctorfish. Ocean Surgeonfish lacked the vertical dark bars of the Doctorfish. In addition, Ocean Surgeonfish has a slightly more lunate tail with a white to light blue margin on the caudal fin. They often school with Doctorfish. To the untrained eye (like mine in the past), it is easy to overlook them. I wonder how often I had caught them in the past.

By 5pm, we had to pack up and called it a day. I was completely satisfied with two unexpected and very cool species for the day.

After dropping off Michael and Bartek at their hotel, where we were swarmed by sand flies since it was located near the mangroves, I was off to spend the next some time with family for Christmas.

December 23, 2015

2015 Florida Christmas (Day 5)

We got up to an early start hoping to get out to the patch reefs just as the sun rose. The swell dropped a bit to about 4' and the wind settled at a constant 15kt. George decided to fish at Channel 5 instead so there were only 4 of us on the boat today.

We motored through the lumpy sea and was doing quite well. However, we took one bad wave on the way out that bounced the anchor off the anchor mount. I saw the anchor dropped in and the chain quickly disappeared off the bow. I sprang to my feet and signaled Elijah to stop. Diving forward, I grabbed the rope just before the last couple of links of the chain fell over. With the anchor bouncing close to the side of the boat, I had to get it up before it damaged the boat. Every time the boat took a wave, the anchor pulled against my light body weight just a little more. I was afraid of getting yanked off balanced and slipping overboard, so I called for Michael to grab my belt. I simply could not pull the anchor up with only one hand holding the rope while the other hand gripped tightly to the bow rail.

Michael had one hand on the rail and one hand on my belt. I asked Bartek to get a hold of Michael so he can get a better grip of me. Once I'm well secured, I was able to free my other hand to pull the anchor up. I tried to secure the anchor into the mount, only to realize that the mount was bent. I asked Michael to hold the anchor onto the mount while I move back to inform Elijah.

I asked Elijah to point the boat away from the shallows at a slow speed. I grabbed a couple of zip ties and tried to secure the anchor to the mount, but the zip ties were too short. I passed the zip ties back to Bartek and he connected two zip ties together to make a larger tie. After furnishing three zip ties to the mount, the anchor looked secured enough that we were able to get underway again.

I was really glad that everyone worked effectively as a team in a split second. I may have barked out a few orders and I would apologize for the bluntness of my instructions. However, except for getting soaking wet from the waves, everyone was kept safe and the boat was not damaged. I would say that was a job well done!

We finally arrived at the patch reef and the anchor was set. Since Bartek was already a little seasick from our previous ordeal, he was not felling well at all. Being a trooper, he fished regardless of his discomfort. During one of the first few drops, one of Bartek's fish was chopped in half. There was either a Barracuda or a Shark around. I dropped down a chunk of Jack Crevalle but it was completely ignored.

A few usual suspects show up until I landed a small Graysby to keep things interesting.

A while later, Michael was rocked but a fish. Not too long later, I felt a tap on my dropper loop rig. The fish immediately dug for bottom. I knew I had to get the fish up as quickly as possible or risk getting rocked. Despite putting more and more drag onto my Shimano Baitrunner 4500, the fish continued to pull out a bit of line. At the end, I simply cup the spool and pumped the rod. Finally, I felt the fish giving up and the Red Grouper came to the surface.

We debated whether the fish was over the legal 20" minimum length. We had no ruler on the boat and it was flirting too close to the limit, so I decided to release it in the end. It was probably an inch above 20", but I simply didn't want to risk taking a fish too close to the limit. It was the biggest Red Grouper I've caught to date and it made me happy enough.

After an hour of fishing, it appeared we had exhausted all the fish on this patch reef. We contemplated setting up on another patch, but Bartek was beyond terribly sick by this time. For his sake, we decided to head for Florida Bay yet again.

This time, we looked up a couple of wrecks and reefs to fish. Our first spot was already occupied but our second location was available. It was just a patch of seagrass on a slightly higher hump. Once we sent out the chum, we hooked many of the usual suspect yet again.

This Sand Perch was especially colourful.

Our anchor was not holding on the sandy bottom and we were being pulled off the mark. We decided to fish another shallow bank.

Upon arrival, we knew it would be difficult and even dangerous to fish on this bank as it became shallow very quickly. The sandy bottom around the bank was not holding our anchor so we had to abandon it after 30 min.

While we were drifting off the bank, I kept fishing the sabiki and hooked into a Bluerunner, and then a Grass Porgy.

We had to return the boat by 4:30pm and it was now 1pm. We only had a bit of time left to fish. We decided to head back to Vaca Cut and fish the channel. On the way back, we passed an unmarked shallow bank where a boat was already fishing on the upcurrent side. As we passed slowly on the downcurrent side of the bank, Bartek spotted something swam away from the boat. That was all it took for Elijah to stop and set anchor. Within seconds, both Elijah and Bartek were hooked up with small Great Barracuda. Michael got into the same until one fateful cast he hooked into a Cero Mackerel, a lifer that Elijah had highly coveted on this trip. Cero Mackerel usually feed on the patch reef and they were not as common on the grass flats. It was the one and only Cero Mackerel in the area.

Our chum slick attracted a number of Ballyhoo and a few were snagged on the Gotcha. All of a sudden, we saw Ballyhoo scattered just in front of the other boat. They were being chased by a 4-5 foot shark. I had been soaking a chunk of Jack Crevalle for a while without any action, so I switched to a live Ballyhoo. However, the shark did not come around. That was the closest I've come to a shark on this trip.

Soon, it was time to leave. Michael tried desperately to catch a Ballyhoo but he was not successful. On the way back to the marina, we stopped to top up the boat. At the gas station, we dump out a bunch of old bait and attracted a number of fish to the area. Elijah could not resist catching a few of the large Sergeant Major. He also chased some Needlefish for a while, hoping for one of the Atlantic Needlefish, but only a Redfin Needlefish was willing to bite.

Back in the marina, we cleaned the boat, rinsed our gear and loaded up the car. Luckily, we were not charged for the damaged anchor mount.

We had time to fish Channel 5 a bit before we ran out of daylight. Unfortunately, we didn't find any new lifer within the limited time. By 6pm, we were all hungry and tied. After searching for a while, we settled at Smuggler's Cove for a decent meal.

The ahi poke at Smuggler's Cove was fantastic, but the mahimahi ceviche was quite disappointing. During our meal, the dock light at the marina turned on. I commented that Atlantic Lookdown or Atlantic Moonfish may visit these light. As if on schedule, we saw a couple of Atlantic Lookdown zooming in the light an hour later.

We were quite amazed that the Lookdown were swimming upside down along the surface as they feed. I've never seen anything like it before. Elijah quickly went to grab his rod and it took only a few tries before he was taking picture of his lifer Atlantic Lookdown. Bartek had a turn as well and caught his lifer with a bit more trouble.

When Bartek's Lookdown ripped the little grub off the jighead, our game was done. However, there happened to be a strip of green seaweed left on our ceviche plate...just the right size and shape to imitate a plastic strip. Go figure...we were trying to use seaweed to imitate a plastic strip that was intended to imitate something alive and tasty. I carefully hooked the seaweed onto the jig and left a portion of it hanging. With any slight twitch, the seaweed would dance as if it was a kicking minnow.

As a Lookdown approached the light, I tossed the jig beyond the fish and danced the jig just below the surface. The Lookdown quickly turned and aggressively chased the jig. After a few missed hits, the fish finally took the jig well into its mouth, but I missed the hookset as the jig bounced off its bony jaw. We couldn't get another fish to hit the jig again, but it was super cool to fool a fish on a piece of poke seaweed!

We bid farewell to the Keys and arrived at our hotel in Miami 3 hours later. George had arrived much earlier hoping to check in, but the hotel had very strict rule and the reception would not let George check in since the reservation was under my name.

We went to bed shortly since we were all tired. We had an early start planned for the next day.

December 22, 2015

2015 Florida Christmas (Day 4)

Waking up at 5am after only sleeping for 3 hours the previous night...yeah, it was rough. I almost didn't want to get out of bed. But Elijah and I had plans for some predawn fishing.

We arrived at Duck Key to find really strong current. However, the area was a bit more sheltered from the wind and it wasn't as bad as we expected. Elijah poked around the eddies behind the pylons and eventually caught his lifer Porkfish.

I searched around the rock at the base of the bridge but found only grunts and Sergeant Major.

It was almost time to pick up the boat, so we wrapped up the fishing. Elijah and I went back to Marathon to get some breakfast and a couple of chum blocks, before we arrived at the marina.

Michael, Bartek and George were already sorting out the gear they plan to take. With 5 people on the 24ft boat, there isn't much room and we could only take a couple of rods and one tackle bag.

After some safety and operation instructions, we loaded up the boat. We thought George had brought 15lbs of shrimp for bait, but he must have taken the wrong bag and there was barely 3lbs. So Elijah and I had to search for a bait shop. Luckily, there was one just around the corner and we got 10 blocks of squid, another chum block and about 3 dozen of live shrimp.

All appeared good to go until we found out the bait well was not working. Our live shrimp were soon struggling to stay live.

But in any case, we started to pull out of the marina. Elijah assigned us roles based on our experience. I was 2nd captain, Michael was first mate, and Bartek was deckhand. George, being the most senior on our boat, was our paid customer for the day. :)

Once out of the marina, it got real lumpy very quickly. The 4-5 foot swells came in a southeast direction so we were heading up seas on the way out and we were bounced around quite a bit. Finally, we arrived at a set of coordinates marking shallow patch reefs. We were in about 27 feet of water and there were some fish marked. We were not allowed to anchor intentionally on the reef, so we tried to set anchor in the sandy patches and hopefully drift back to the reef. Our chum block was used to draw the fish out of the reef to the boat.

Well, that was the plan anyways. The current and swells were too strong for our anchor to hold, so we drifted over the reef instead. We did a couple of drifts, caught a few Grunts and small Yellowtail Snappers before Bartek got seriously seasick, and Michael was feeling a bit off too. Elijah and I had hoped to stay on the patch reef and try fishing for King Mackerel or other reef fish. But for the greater good, we decided to head for the sheltered water of Florida Bay.

Elijah and I were looking for the channel marker to Vaca Cut when we drifted a little too shallow and we felt the prop grinding on the sandy bottom. Thank God it was just sand bottom...but we immediately learned first hand how quickly the bottom can come up in the Keys. Only a minute of looking at the GPS charts and not paying attention to the sonar and the boat drifted right into dangerous waters.

After righting out course, we navigated through Vaca Cut under a strong current. The current was pushing boats around as they passed under the bridge supporting the Overseas Highway, can caution must be taken was there was little room for error between the tight bridge pylons.

Once out of the channel, we glided over the shallow flats of Florida Bay. We were looking for a seagrass bed in about 11 feet of water. We had no coordinates to follow, but merely decided to drive around and look on the sonar. Once we found something with potential, we tried to set anchor. Although we were protected from the swells, the strong 15kt wind was enough to drag our boat off anchor. In the end, we decided to simply drift slowly over the flats using the anchor to slow our drift.

We all started fishing with sabiki or dropper loop baited with squid. On one of the first few drops, Elijah caught a Sharksucker which I look on with envy. Everyone was catching Sand Perch, Pinfish, Lane Snapper, Yellowtail Snapper and White Grunt, but there wasn't anything really interesting. Bartek and George did pull up two Grass Porgy. At the time, we thought they were Knobbed Porgy.

Elijah started casting a Gotcha plug around and soon hooked into a Spanish Mackerel. Bartek and Michael then started casting the Gotcha as well. Bartek had a follow but he cannot get the fish to commit at boatside. Elijah showed his mastery with lure fishing and landed another Spanish Mackerel before they moved on.

Elijah, Bartek and George wanted to catch Leatherjacket. Our chum slick attracted a few of them to our boat and Elijah caught one on the Gotcha. It took Bartek a while to catch one of the sabiki, and yet even longer for George. But eventually, all three got their lifers.

George and I were fishing with dropper loop rig when he hooked into something big. It was digging the bottom pretty well and soon we saw a nice Red Grouper surfaced. There was a Sharksucker following this fish and I got excited. However, I didn't want to toss in my line until the Red Grouper was landed. We guesstimated the Red Grouper to be 18-19" long, just shy of legal. Once the Grouper was released, I quickly tossed in my rig but the Remora refused it and went to bit on George's rig. Just my kind of luck...

Soon, our chum block was done and it was getting toward 4pm. We decided to return to the marina before it got too late. We were not familiar with the area and it would be foolish trying to navigate in dying light. On the way back to Vaca Cut, we veered just a bit off the channel marker and found bottom again. Thankful for a second time, we only hit a sandy area. But it was yet another reminder that the Florida Keys are not the place to be careless when boating.

Once back in the marina, we unload the gear quickly. George pointed out the schools of Hardhead Silverside in the shallows. Although there was a No-Fishing sign on the dock, I was too tempted and the tanago rod quickly came to hand. I had to wait a bit to fish since the rental boat employees were at the dock to see if we had any issues.

My previous experience with Hardhead Silverside suggested that they were very difficult to tempt a bite, and even more difficult to hook. Strangely, my first drop with a tiny bit of shrimp resulted in a hooked Hardhead Silverside! It took absolute zero effort!

Hardhead Silverside (Atherinomorus stipes) - Species #480

Somehow, I avoided a lifer-less day. I wasn't expecting to find any Hardhead Silverside at all, and definitely did not plan on targeting any on this trip. It sure felt great in the end since everyone found at least one lifer today. :)

After we were packed and ready to go, we decided to go to Robbie's for dinner. As usual, Robbie's did not disappoint. The seafood platter was very satisfying!

Everyone was too tired to even contemplate fishing the bridges tonight. We were all in bed and lights out before 10pm.

December 21, 2015

2015 Florida Christmas (Day 3)

I woke up around 6am just to see a faint hint of light. Taking advantage of predawn condition, I tried to fish at the base of the bridge where Ben has caught a Squirrelfish in the past. The strong tidal current proved too difficult to fish effectively among the rocks and I quickly lost a sabiki rig. I did catch a couple of French Grunts and a Sergeant Major.

Too lazy to tie on a new rig, I fished the dropper loop in the eddies behind the bridge pylons. There were a few grunts caught but nothing big. Michael and Bartek were waking up and they were sending out baits on their big rods.

As the sun was rising, Bartek saw some larger fish breezing through. Then there were fish chasing bait and breaking the surface about 100 yards out. Michael cast out his dropper loop with squid and started to retrieve quickly along the surface, where he was promptly hammered but a hard running fish. The fish ran him down the pier and I waited until he had some control on the fish before walking out with the pier net. When the fish finally came to colour, it was a 15-20lb Jack Crevalle. I was lowering the pier net when the hook was pulled out.

Bartek and Michael were now furiously casting for these Jacks. While I left them to their obsession, I pulled in numerous Porkfish and Yellowtail Snapper from the pylons. I was really focused on fishing the dropper loop for Parrotfish and Trunkfish, but there was an endless supply of everything else including this large and beautiful Puddingwife Wrasse.

Not long later, I heard Michael's excitement and saw his rod bent. Something picked up his live Pinfish on the big rod and it was giving him heck. Finally, the fish came to colour and it was yet another Jack Crevalle. This one was a little smaller and we estimated it around 10lbs. We decided to keep the fish and cut it up for shark bait.

If only we had been fishing at Long Key, where retrospectively reports said there were lots of annoying Blacktip Shark. All I wanted was one Blacktip Shark...but there were none at Channel 5 bridge. I had chunks of Jack Crevalle soaking for most of the day and the bait were either eaten by crabs or left untouched.

Our live shrimps are starting to weaken despite a running bubbler and a water change. The tide was about to change and this was a good time to fish for snappers, so I tied on a jighead and drifted live shrimps under the bridge. There were a couple of subtle hits that might have been small snappers, but then other fish began to strip the shrimps multiple times.

I decided to fish the dropper loop to see what might be killing the shrimps so quickly. On the first drop, I landed a Scrawled Filefish. On the next drop, I finally found one of my targets!

Spotted Trunkfish (Lactophrys bicaudalis) - Species #478

Ben found a number of Spotted Trunkfish on this pier last year, but we had not encountered them on our two previous trips. I was expecting to catch them on the sabiki rig since the ones that were caught by Ben were fairly small. It took me by complete surprise that this fish took a #8 hook. Once I caught one, I caught two others later on this day.

As the tide slacked, more and more reef fish came out to play. I hooked into a rather large Yellow Sea Chub that was probably 15" long. These bigger Sea Chub put up a decent drag pulling run. When I hooked another drag puller, I was hoping it would be a new species of Parrotfish. It was only a Blue Parrotfish but a welcomed catch any day. They pull so hard!

Just before the incoming tide began in earnest, I felt a strong thump and set into another strong fish. I was expecting another Sea Chub or Parrotfish, but then a plate sized fish came into view. My knees were now shaking and I called for the net.

"It's an Angelfish!" I shouted.

Bartek hurriedly sort out the lines on the pier net and I guided him on how to use it. The current was relatively slow so the net hung more or less straight down. After a couple of tries, I finally guided the fish into the net and it was mine!!!

Grey Angelfish (Pomacanthus arcuatus) - Species #479!!!

For a size reference...

If I didn't catch another lifer for the rest of the trip, I would have been happy enough. This was a species that I had been waiting for a while. I had a Grey Angelfish going for my bait in April but a Rainbow Parrotfish came in and chased it away. That was as close as I came to catching one when we saw them every day at Anglin's Pier. Mark caught one on that trip so I knew it was possible. It was just a matter of time.

Strangely, I was not expecting to catch a Grey Angelfish from the Keys. I knew they were around, but without any chum to attract them into the area, and the combination of murky green water and strong wind, I didn't think they would be active. I had planned to put in work for them at Anglin's Pier, but with the pier closed at the moment, I had all but accepted the fact that I may not get a shot at them on this trip. It was yet another lifer that jumped on my line when I cared the least.

George arrived not long after the tide had fully changed. Despite fishing hard and in around the same location, we could not find anymore Parrotfish or Angelfish. The odd Sea Chub, Scrawled Filefish and rare Trunkfish kept things interesting, but they were then replaced by Porkfish, Puddingwife Wrasse, Slippery Dick and very small Yellowtail Snappers for the rest of the afternoon.

Elijah was scheduled to meet with us at around 2pm, but he decided to check out a couple of locations on his way to the Keys. He managed to catch Hornet Tilapia, Jaguar Guapote and Peacock Bass but missed out on Pike Killifish and Black Acara. He didn't arrive until well past 5pm as the sun was about to set. With less than ideal conditions, nothing much was happening. Elijah went ahead to check into the hotel while we packed up.

After a quick dinner of conch fritters and conch chowder at Herbies, we returned to the hotel to discuss the next day's game plan. Elijah wanted to wake up early to fish one of the bridges before we pick up the rental boat. The wind was still blowing at 15kts with 4-5' seas. Getting out to the Marathon Humps was completely out of question and even the patch reefs would be a challenge. At the end, we decided to push for the patch reefs with Florida Bay as a back up plan.

December 20, 2015

2015 Florida Christmas (Day 2)

I only had one short night with my cousin. At 6am, I left their home to pick up Michael and Bartek. We hoped to arrive in the Florida Keys by afternoon to get Bartek properly initiated to the Keys.

Proper initiation, in my style, involved spending one night fishing and sleeping on a bridge pier. The wind had been blowing constantly from the southeast at no less than 15kts. In fact, we experienced even strong 20-25kt gusts during the day. Spending a night on an exposed bridge would not be very comfortable; but I had scouted a few protected areas on the lee side of a few bridges where we may receive some protection.

We arrived in Marathon by 2pm. Marathon is always a good place to grab lunch and some supplies for the upcoming night, but we lingered a bit too long and wasted some precious fishing time. I had wanted to check out some shallow areas for Longnose Killifish. However, with limited day light remaining, I once again put the interest of the group ahead of my own lifer hunting goal. Instead, we grabbed some live shrimp and a couple of live crabs and headed straight for No Name Key.

There was construction on the bridge connecting Big Pine Key to No Name Key. We were unable to park the car on the bridge to drop off gear. It took a while to get all our equipment to our fishing spot. I was eager to set up a couple of rods, one with a live Pinfish and the other with a live crab, to target Bonnethead Shark and other smaller shark species. Meanwhile, Michael and Bartek were fishing Gotcha plugs unsuccessfully for Barracuda.

I fished the sabiki and the dropper loop hoping to find something new. However, only the usual suspect showed up, including Pinfish, Lane Snapper, Yellowtail Snapper, Mangrove Snapper, White Grunt, Sailors Choice Grunt, Bluestriped Grunt and the odd Jack Crevalle. I did have an unstoppable fish hooked on the dropper loop rig. It pulled my line under the bridge and ran. With my 9' steelhead rod at full bend and the drag set fairly tight, it continued to steadily pull line. With only 1/3 of my spool left, I had to palm the spool to stop the fish if I were to preserve the braided line on the spool. Luckily, the hook pulled out in the end and I retrieved all the line and my dropper loop rig. I suspected it was a big stingray that was snagged as it swam over my rig.

By night fall, our big rods remained silent. The ever common Southern Stingray, Nurse Shark and other shark species were absent, probably due to the windy and cool condition. We decided to call it a day shortly after dusk.

Following dinner in Marathon, we headed east toward a few protected spots where we planned to spend the night. Unfortunately, our late arrival meant all the locations were already preoccupied by other anglers. There were simply no room to accommodate 3 additional anglers.

We decided to fall back to our most familiar location. Arriving at Channel 5 bridge just before 11pm, we walked out to the pier without any gear to see if it was too windy to overnight here. The wind was bad, and I almost had me deciding to move, when our headlamp illuminated numerous eyes holding just under the surface of the water.

There were numerous Tarpon staging under the bridge arches! These fish would roll once in a while, seemingly feeding in the outgoing current. We spotted a few shrimps and crabs drifting in shallower water and suspected that these were the prey items the Tarpon were after on this night.

Running back to the car, we each grabbed one heavy outfit, the bucket of live shrimp and the pier net. The wind was too strong to fish a free lined shrimp - even a few split shots or a 1oz egg sinker would not be able to keep the line under control.

I had caught Tarpon before and I wasn't too interested in wrestling with them. Thus, I kept the bottom rig that was already on my rod with the intention to fish for Bonnethead Shark. The rig consisted of a 4oz pyramid sinker sliding on the mainline, a 180lb barrel swivel and 40lb mono leader tied to a 6/0 live bait hook. I bait a live shrimp and fished the rig on bottom, but the current and wind was much too strong to keep the rig still on the bottom.

Unable to fish the rig properly on bottom, I dangled the shrimp just under the surface to play with the Tarpon. It wasn't a conventional rig to use for Tarpon, but the 4oz sinker kept the line fairly straight and the 3' long leader allowed the live shrimp to swim somewhat naturally just below the surface. Within 15 minutes, I felt a hit and the fish pulled the shrimp down and back under the bridge. I had to set the hook quickly and pull back to prevent the fish from retreating too far below the arch. Unfortunately, the hook couldn't find any tissue to penetrate and the hook pulled out.

I put on a new shrimp and dangled the bait for another 30 minutes. Moving from arch to arch chasing the Tarpon that moved about, I felt another hit. This time, the fish had already ran out and away from the bridge. By the time I set the hook, the fish exploded out of the water some 30 yards away from the bridge and threw the hook.

As the tide progressed, the current became stronger and faster. Soon, the Tarpon ceased feeding. I was just about to stop fishing the live shrimp when I felt another hit. This time, my hook set properly and a smaller fish was struggling on the end of the line. As I fling the fish over the rail, I thought it was a Toadfish. Luckily, I didn't grab the fish hastily; otherwise, I would be presented with a painful surprise.

I was pretty disheartened that, after 2 days of fishing, I had to forgo a couple of lifer opportunity and caught zero lifer thus far. Just as I had all but given up hope, I was gifted with a most awesome lifer! It made absolutely no sense how I was able to catch this fish while drifting a live shrimp just under the surface, since these fish spent almost all their life on the bottom. Sometimes, you simply get lucky and the manner in which the fish was caught defied all logic. When I didn't care about catching a lifer anymore, a lifer appeared on my line. This fish was certainly a special gift from the fish gods.

Spotted Scorpionfish (Scorpaena plumieri) - Species #477

You can barely see the black patch on the inside of the pectoral fin that was decorated with white spots, the characteristic identification feature of this species.

With a new lifer caught, I was almost ready to settle in for the night. I fished a bit more until 3am and finally slumped in my camping chair for some shut eyes.

December 19, 2015

2015 Florida Christmas (Day 1)

Back in fall, Elijah informed me that he planned to spend Christmas in Florida. He was planning a mostly solo trip. With family in Florida, it didn't take much convincing to get me involved. Soon, we had a concrete plan for a lifer hunting trip in the Keys and Fort Lauderdale area.

I invited Michael and Bartek along for the ride. Most of Bartek's fishing experiences involved freshwater situation. Having fished for only a few years, he was still very much mesmerized by the big, strong and fabled gamefish. This would be his first real taste of a lifer hunting trip, although his desire to catch gamefish often swayed our lifer hunting decisions.

After a day and a half of solid driving, we reached Lake City, FL on the night of Dec 18. It appeared as the northern weather had followed us south. We woke up at 6am on Dec 19 to 36F - very cold even by northern Florida standard.

We had planned to explore the Santa Fe River this morning. However, the cold front is likely to severely decrease fish feeding activity, regardless if fish were taking refuge in the springs or not. I had to make a executive solution - either fish through tough fishing conditions for an improbable Suwanee Bass and other micro lifers, or fish further south in Tampa in search of better fishing action for the group.

This kind of decision would be the signature of this trip. Having caught 103 new species from Florida, it was increasingly difficult to find new lifers from the state. However, with two fellow anglers who are more inclined to merely catching fish, especially predatory fish, over chasing some difficult and often obscure species, I often put the interest of the group over my own desire. As such, my expectation for any significant lifer success was kept extremely low.

Ryan was scheduled to meet us in High Springs to fish the Santa Fe. However, after consulting with him on the phone, we decided to change plan to Apollo Beach. I was hoping to find Bonnethead Shark and juvenile Blacktip Shark. However, we changed plan again and settled on Sunshine Skyway pier. The uncertainty of Apollo Beach simply wasn't all that attractive for everyone.

Ryan had already arrived when we saw him fully set up at 11am. He was busy catching Pinfish for bait. Having fished Skyway pier before, I know that species diversity would be quite low. I sent out a live pinfish on a heavy rod in hope for sharks while fishing the sabiki or dropper loop for smaller species.

Pinfish, grunt species and the occasional Lane Snapper kept us busy enough. While making bait, I did find a Silver Jenny. Although I caught this species on my last trip to Florida, I had hoped to catch another one for an opportunity to take some better pictures for the life list entry.

After collecting about 2 dozen Pinfish, I grew tired of doing the same thing over and over again. Putting a chunk of shrimp on the dropper loop rig, I probed the pylons in hopes to find a snapper or perhaps a small grouper.

Pinfish continued to harass my bait and easily stripped them off the #8 baitholder hook. Finally, I felt a different bite and hooked into something a bit stronger and more determined. The fish tried to wrapped me around two pylons, but I took a different angle and pulled the fish out before it went too deep into the structure.

When the black and white striped fish surfaced, it looked to be a legal size Sheepshead. I called for the pier net and Ryan helped me to land the fish.

Unfortunately, it was 0.5" shy of legal size. Otherwise, I would donate it to Ryan's dinner.

By 1pm, Ryan had to return home to prepare for a Christmas party. Michael, Bartek and I didn't find anything else different. By 2pm, we decided to call it a trip so we can visit Bass Pro Shops in Orlando.

Unfortunately, we were delayed for over 2 hours on I-4 due to a serious fatal accident resulting in 1 dead and 7 injured. We didn't get to Orlando until 7pm. We spent as little time as possible, but still didn't leave until 8pm. After dropping off Michael and Bartek at their hotel, I finally arrived at my cousin's house at 9pm.

My cousin, Tom, had graciously prepared dinner and saved me a hearty portion. I had dinner while he started to build a diamond wrap for his new rod, and my two new nieces sat beside me hoping for a taste of the food. After dinner, I watched the twins play on the couch and got to know their personality a bit. Ainsley was a fearless social butterfly and Arden was a cautious observer waiting to speak her mind. Later, their mom, Annie, took a few pictures of us - big sister Ava held Arden and I held Ainsley.