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!