Eyes on the Prize
Sometimes the small fish leave you with giant memories.
The late-afternoon charter boat bar tip was sketchy, a beer-scented report about dolphin or mahi-mahi last seen swimming near a weed line 20 miles offshore. With hot intelligence like this, one could well understand how Columbus must have felt each morning, climbing out of his musty bunk and wondering how close he was to land.
With only a morning to fish, we decided to do our own search, and headed toward a small reef a mile or so off the beach, just south of St. Lucie Inlet near Stuart, Florida. Four sets of eyeballs scanned the horizon for birds and dark patches of water, viable signs that threadfin herring were in the neighborhood. But the water was cloudy. And as I stood by in the cockpit behind the center console helm, holding a rod with a Sabiki rig at the ready to catch live bait, all I managed to hook were my earlobe and a finger while the breeze kept the feathered, gold hooks airborne. By the time I was unhooked, the decision was made to work the reef and see what we could do with squid, live shrimp, and a greasy block of frozen ground chum.
The water depth on the reef ranged from 8 to 12 feet and was perfect for light spinning tackle, small circle hooks, split shot, and strips of bait. The chum log did its job, and within a few minutes the rods started warping over with frisky pan-size grunts, and lane and mutton snappers. What the fish lacked in weight they made up for with attitude that kept us busy for an hour. Soon blue runners, almaco jacks, and a few small yellowtail snappers joined the party, and although we caught nothing large enough to keep and eat, the action was steady and fun, made even more so as we had this little piece of real estate to ourselves, or so we thought.
When the fish stopped biting, we switched over to live shrimp, worked the chum bag a bit to coax the fish closer, and waited for several more minutes for the activity to resume. Shortly, a fish barged into the slick, grabbed a shrimp, and ripped line from the reel like a lassoed torpedo. It broke off, though, and the line went limp.
Then a flurry started up again, and we were back in the action for the next 15 minutes, with gorgeous yellowtails, a small black grouper, more blue runners, and a modest school of balao, the upper lobe of their tails bright amber. One angler aboard whipped out the Sabiki rig again, but the bait were more curious than hungry and ignored us. As I was reeling in another grunt, my fish went berserk by the boat, and when I saw the brown shadow coming up behind it, I realized why. A bull shark had come to the reef, and it was dinner time. Showing no manners, the uninvited marauder inhaled the grunt like a potato chip, and as it turned away, we estimated its length to be about 7 feet. We didn’t have any tackle on the boat to catch sharks, so we pulled the chum bag out of the water for several minutes and hoped it would move on and leave us alone. Our bait supply was running low, and we didn’t have much time left to fish.
The bull shark must have recognized our plight too, but had other plans. Like a guest who can’t leave the party until all the beer is gone, the shark patiently waited back in the slick, out of sight, but patrolling and planning its next move. We tossed the chum bag in for its final soak and baited up for the last cast. I quickly had a grunt on the line and started reeling, but the shark came into the slick like a hockey star gliding in three directions at once. I could see the mouth of the shark open as it turned its head toward my fish, but was able to yank the grunt from its maw. We were done, reeled in our lines, and headed home, talking all the way about the eagerness of the shark. What we were unable to rack up size-wise with our grunts and snappers and other small fish was replaced with the eyewitness views of the aggressive shark. It was a fun morning.
Back at the dock, waiting to get pulled from the water and into the dry rack, the fellow with the dolphin tip the afternoon before came by and asked how we had done. We were still grinning about our episode with the shark, and he ruefully admitted that his trip looking for dolphin was a big goose egg. I can’t say how many fish the fellow passed over trying to find that weed line that he never did locate, but it’s hard not to agree that sometimes the better fishing may be closer than you think.
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.