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.