Every time a fish bites a baited hook, the reality is that they may be digging their own grave. I have no qualms with keeping fish, especially since seafood is my favorite.
When given the opportunity to catch plentiful, good-eating fish, I’ve been known to shovel them into a bucket, take them home, and host a fish fry.
The Atlantic Spadefish is no different.
At least, it would be no different were it located in a place where I had access to cooking facilities. Since I didn’t on my first trip to Florida, I released every fish I caught — even those barely big enough to handle.
I named my first Atlantic Spadefish Doug and the second one Phil, and since you can’t eat fish you’ve named, they both swam free.
Spadefish are incredible fighters as a hole, and if you are lucky enough to tie into them on light tackle, consider yourself lucky.
I hooked into my on small bits of shrimp, but I’ve since caught them on shrimp, squid, bits of fish, artificial baits, and sabikis. They’re not even that slimy, so you won’t need your trusty hand trowel to wipe off afterwards.
It was something lighter in color with a big mouth.
It was a snook.
Snook are awesome. For years, they’ve been near the top of my target list, but they always seemed so unrealistic. Every video I’d seen involved a guy on an expensive boat very obviously out of my price range.
I figured I’d get one eventually, but when I cast my Rapala between two mangrove gnarls on the way back to the car, haggard from a morning of failed tarpon hookups, I was pleasantly surprised by a spunky little snook.
It jumped my Rapala at the bank, crushing it against the shore and providing a nice little change of pace for the repeated disappointment I’d been boiling in all morning.
Mine was only 20-some inches long, and give where I hooked it, the photo-ops were limited, but I managed to snap a quick #SpeciesQuest photo and let it go to let it grow.
Besides, it was a small consolation for the all of the tarpon I’d lost that day, and if
Ask any angler for a list of their 10 dream species, and Atlantic Tarpon will be on it.
Megalops atlanticus entered my dream species list the moment I first watched these silver slabs of muscle erupt from the water with enough headshake to cause whiplash, testing the anglers battling it to the very limits of their skill and hoping for a healthy dose of luck, to-boot.
Yes, tarpon were long a dream of mine.
The funny thing about dreams is how you react when they pass within striking distance.
I was in Florida this summer, and tarpon were just a few hours away. I had a rental car, and I had time to chase them, so I began looking into guided tarpon trips. This was really happening, and I was numb. Was I really about to catch a tarpon?
My dreams were crushed as quickly as they were revitalized. The least-expensive trips I could find were $400 for the day, and with a summer full of travel and fishing planned, I couldn’t afford to drop so much on a single day of fishing — not even for a dream species.
It seemed as though tarpon would remain just a dream.
As I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, dejected, I noticed a post from a trio of guys I’d gotten in contact with during my time in Orlando.
Pierce Sanders, Zain Khalid and Jessel Sanchez were a trio of friends who live to fish as much as I do. They’d put me on to a lot of fish, and I just happened to see a post featuring one of them fishing for juvenile tarpon on light tackle.
Sitting at the restaurant that night, I distinctly remember the food falling out of my mouth as I came to the realization that they’d done this from shore with bass gear. Then I realized that they might be willing to share their spot.
Lastly, I realized the woman at the table next to me was staring with a look of disgust.
I smiled. Not at her, but with anticipation.
My dream was alive once again.
It was a blur after that. The next day, I found myself in a car, driving up the Space Coast and into a salt marsh full of brackish canals, dirt roads and the rich promise of a tarpon.
The wet heat smothered me like a blanket the moment I stepped out of my car, causing me to gasp as mosquitoes began feasting almost immediately. The sun raged downward, and I wondered what I was getting myself into.
Filling my bag with tackle, a bottle of water and some bug spray, I began the long, surprisingly moist walk to the spot they’d recommended.
This place was unreal. I arrived to find several manatees just 2 feet away from a drainage pipe, apparently appreciating the flowing water in the summer heat. When the novelty wore off, I realized they were blocking me from fishing that side of the canal, so I begrudgingly switched sides.
Despite the heat, I found myself hopping spots frequently and trying a little of everything. I threw bait, spoons, swimbaits, jigs, spinners and even topwater, but nothing enticed the tarpon I knew had to be lurking beneath the churning cola-colored water.
Then, I tried a Rapala.
Almost immediately, I hooked a Ladyfish, a species related to the tarpon but much, much less glamorous.
I caught half a dozen Ladyfish before the gators got interested and moved closer to me. This was unnerving, but they were in the water, and I was on land, nestled between thick mangroves and standing above a number of drainage pipes. There was no room to maneuver, casting was a struggle and if I were to hook a big fish, I’d have a two-foot space to land one in. Still, the compact space made me feel safe from the gators.
When the first tarpon hit, my heart skipped a beat. Imagine fishing with a trout rod when a four-foot silver blur erupts on your lure from less than a rod’s length away. But wait. Imagine it hitting so hard and fast that it comes three feet out of the water when hooked. As you react and try to fight it, it jumps again, this time five feet out of the water and straight into a mangrove growing right next to you, thrashing as you try to grab the flailing 15- or 20-pound fish at eye level.
Five seconds have now elapsed, and you watch helplessly as the fish flails and flops just out of reach while a gator moves even closer in hopes of a free meal.
Then the hook comes free, the tarpon hits the water and you’re left reeling in more ways than one.
Repeat this a dozen times, with some variation taking place every time. Sometimes the fish jumps five or six times. Sometimes it runs and stops. Sometimes you’re so surprising you flinch like you’ve been hit in the face.
Every time, you lose the fish.
It wasn’t a dream, it was a nightmare.
I steadily landed Ladyfish in between tarpon hookups, but after this tarpon scenario repeated more times than I could believe, my dehydration became real. It was over 100 degrees out with more than 100 percent humidity, and I’d finished my water hours ago. Soaked with sweat, I made the trek back to the car for more water, stopping only to throw a few casts and catch a small Common Snook right up against the mangroves.
After returning with water, I no longer feared keeling over from dehydration, but I was terrified of not landing one of these tarpon. Fortunately, I only hooked and lost two before one finally stayed pinned. I carefully pulled it up into my tiny landing window on the shore and lipped it. It didn’t love being lipped, and it let me know by shredding my thumb with it’s sandpapery mouth.
I grabbed a few quick pictures to commemorate my dream and let it go.
I’d hooked 15 tarpon and landed just one, but that one, 2-foot fish was enough to make that dream a reality.
My seventh and final new species of the day made for a grand finale. This was my third-best day for new species, taking the Bronze to Croatia’s Gold and California’s Silver.
The final species was one of my top targets, the Bowfin. Along with tarpon and gar, few things were up so high on my list.
Though Bowfin aren’t considered trophies by most, they are aggressive toothy predators often compared to bass and snakehead, though I find them cooler than either of the other species.
I’d struck out several times, mainly because catfish and gar and bass kept getting in the way. When I finally did hook one, it was short-lived. Almost immediately, the beast broke me off in a submerged snag.
I tied again and hoped for the best.
I didn’t have to wait long. My rod doubled, and I reeled in my first Bowfin. It wasn’t huge and 20 inches long and just over three pounds, but I was stoked.
As I was taking the above picture, my other two rods doubled over.
Unfortunately, one of the fish broke off and the other just came free. I have a feeling one was more than twice the size of my little three-pounder, but I was just happy to add a new species.
Species: Coastal Shiner (Lepomis auritus) Location: Little Wekiva River, Florida Date: July 8, 2018
One of my favorite professors in college used to say “If you haven’t ____________, you haven’t lived.” He honestly had a lot of great catch phrases, but this was my favorite — especially as it relates to fishing.
If you haven’t waited chest-deep in the tannin-stained waters of a central Florida stream in pursuit of a tiny minnow species, gators be damned, you haven’t lived.
One caveat: if you have done this and continue to make this type of choices, you probably won’t live very long. But hey, at least you’ll be living both sides of the best line from Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
When I arrived at the river, the sunfish came faster than I expected, but that happens from time to time.
With one fish marked off so quickly, I had to figure out how to spend the rest of my time. Darters are shiners were both present, but the river was running really high.
Orlando had seen a lot of rain, and there was no way I could sight-fish darters in the dark waters when I couldn’t even see the bottom.
After catching all of the sunfish (yes, all of them) in that stretch of river, I grabbed micro gear and decided to look for greener pastures or at least clearer waters.
The shoreline flora was impenetrable, and I’d already spent a lot of time and energy finding this access point to the water, so I was SOL (that’s Spanish for “sun”, kids).
I did a quick check for gators, and, seeing none, jumped in.
My first thought was “I really hope I’m far enough from the city to be out of hypodermic needle range.”
My second thought was “No, I’m good. This is Florida. Nothing bad ever happens here.”
Used hypodermic needles are endemic to Florida, but they tend to occur in isolated pockets around the state, closer to population centers. In recent years, the range of the used hypodermic needle has contracted due to prescription opioids. Pills have out-competed the less convenient and infinitely less sanitary method for destroying brain cells and soiling perfectly good spoons.
So S/O to pills.
Fortunately, apart from some broken glass, the creekbed was fairly forgiving, and the sandy bottom actually felt good between my toes, so long as I didn’t think about all of the reclaimed water that was flowing over them.
I waded across with a fluid grace you would’ve been impressed by and began moving in the shallower water along the bank, searching diligently for water moving slowly enough to hold micros.
Gators must not like white meat because I survived long enough to find what I was looking for: happiness.
Well, sort of. I found a small school of shiners which made me happy.
The current was so fast that I struggled to keep the bait in their face in the middle of the water column, but I finally did it and caught a Coastal Shiner.
Wading back across the river and busting brush to the paved trail wasn’t great, but neither was my last colonoscopy, and I survived that.
If you’re not a Species Hunter, you probably laughed nervously as I told this story, wondering why some dumbass would risk his life for a tiny fish. If you are a Species Hunter, you’re nodding quietly to yourself as you look around to fistbump me only to realize this is a story, and I’m not actually there.
That’s okay. If you haven’t forgotten one of my stories was just a narrative while reading it on your phone or computer at least once, you haven’t lived.
#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard
Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #140 — Black Acara.
Species: Seminole Killifish (Fundulus seminolis) Location: Urban Park, Orlando, Florida Date: July 8, 2018
My first killifish would prove to be one of the largest found in North America, but in order to catch it, I had to do some legwork.
I was told they could be found all over Orlando, and though I ended up catching 15 across two locations on the first day I targeted them, I almost gave up the hunt just minutes in.
My first day in Florida yielded five new species, and I wasn’t about to waste hours chasing a species when there was still so much low-hanging fruit all around me.
I tried two footbridges at the park where the tiny, pike-like fish were supposed to dwell and pulled in a lot of Bluegill before I saw my target.
I’d never fished for killifish before — let alone seen one — so I didn’t know what to look for. Suddenly, a small group of snake-like fish that resembled tiny pike more than anything cruised up.
I was use a small jig tipped with worm because I was told Seminole Killifish didn’t require micro gear. The ferocious little beast that smacked my jig proved that in a hurry.
I quickly landed the fish, grabbed a photo, and put it in my photo tank.
It promptly jumped out and started wriggling toward the water. I had the photo tank is flooded grass, and it almost made it. Though my dexterity isn’t on par with my brothers, both of whom were Division I athletes, I’m still pretty dexterous. Not to brag, but all other things held equal, I’m more comfortable on land than a fish.
Bold claim, I know, but I can back it up. I’ll sign autographs later.
In short order, I landed six of the golden missiles, and I was hooked on killifish. They’re small but not micro, and any time I can avoid tiny, pre-snelled micro hooks that lodge in my skin and clothing seemingly at will, I’m okay with that.
Killfish are incredibly unique fish that can live in freshwater, saltwater, and brackish water with different tolerances depending on the species.
Apart from sculpins, they’re probably my favorite family of micros, and I look forward to catching all of them.
Species: Florida Gar (Lepisosteus platyrhincus) Location: Lake Fran Urban Wetlands, Orlando, FL Date: July 7, 2018
Gar are so cool, man.
These fish can gulp air, will take most lures as well as bait, flies, and topwaters. I once had a four-foot Longnose Gar hit a Whopper Plopper three times during the retrieve.
Not to mention, gar are more durable than trout, less pressured than bass, and have giant teeth. What’s not to love?
My first night in Florida, I tried for Bowfin and Florida Gar in vain. I spotted a few in the flooded grass as I walked with my headlamp cutting away the darkness, but they were skittish.
I returned the next day with Florida Gar atop my very long target list.
Since Florida, like most states other than Oregon, allows the use of live bait, I figured I’d try throwing on a small, live sunfish in hopes of enticing a massive Florida Bass. I’d already caught some small ones, but this was Florida. I needed a monster, and I hadn’t seen a single gar in daylight.
I tried sight-fishing my live Bluegill up against the bank to a nearby bass, opening the spool to let it run for what I thought was an inevitable take. I was standing a good 20 feet above the water, on a high bank that lined a canal connecting two sections of the flooded wetlands-turned-lake.
On my very first cast, I could feel my bait getting violated by a much larger fish, so I let it sit for just a moment, but not long enough to allow the fish to swallow — I didn’t want a gut-hooked fish, after all.
I closed the bail, tightened my line, and set the hook hard. Too hard, really.
I was using my the heaviest spinning rod I’d brought to Florida, a G. Loomis GL2 Salmon/Steelhead rod, and as I yanked on the link, a fish that was very much not a bass came flying out of the water, in a direct trajectory for my face, at easily 20 or 30 miles per hour.
I ducked under the toothy missile, just saving my beautiful face from becoming all garred up. Sorry, scarred up.
As the line reached full extension on the grassy bank behind me, the hook popped free and boomeranged the gar back at my ankles.
It landed inches away, sitting surprisingly calmly in the grass still soaked from the previous night’s rain.
All of this elapsed in about five seconds, and I was panting and shaking with fear as much as excitement from landing my first Florida Gar — unconventional though it was.
I grabbed a quick picture and let it go.
I swear the armor-plated fish gave me the ole side eye, as if to say “Are you sure you’re a real fisherman?” as it swam away.
Hooking into several more of them over the next few days using cutbait, Rapalas, and even a worm would prove to that high-flying gar that I did know what I was doing.
That is, as long as we don’t tell it that the final gar stole a worm intended for a Brown Hoplo and sliced my finger open when I tried to unhook it barehanded without the help of pliers.
The second-most popular baitfish in the Gulf of Mexico is just one letter away from the first (Pinfish). I’m speaking, of course, of the Pinfish.
I caught my one and only Pigfish fishing from a public pier in Pensacola minutes after night fell. There were mullet everywhere, as well as small species I still have yet to catch such as a few species of baitfish, Ballyhoo, and Atlantic Needlefish.
That was frustrating, but after being approached late at night by some guy in a sweatshirt who was very obviously holding a knife, it was the least of my worries.
I watched in horror as a he extended his arm, brandishing four inches of gleaming steel reflecting light from the pier lights.
I had some pliers in my bag. Oh! And some scissors. I could fight with that. Maybe I could throw some semi-rancid shrimp in his face, and then lunge with the knife?
He must have detected my bristling because he turned the blade back towards himself and asked “Hey man, is this yours?”
It wasn’t, and I told him so, visibly relieved as he walked away.
I continued fishing.
A few minutes later, another sketchy-but-not-that-sketchy-for-Florida guy came up to me. He was twitchy and awkward, obviously a tweaker.
He told me his car had broken down and asked if I had jumper cables he could borrow. I told him to wait a few minutes, and when he was a good 200 yards away, I went to the car and grabbed them, careful not to turn my back to a Floridian sketchmonger in the dark.
I gave him the cables, fully expecting them to be stolen.
Fifteen minutes later, he called out “Thanks man!” and left them on my hood.
I felt a little bad for thinking the worst of him, but then again, Florida has a reputation, and I’d be stupid not to take precautions.
So yeah. That’s how I caught my one and only Pigfish.