I first “met” Ryan Crutchfield on Instagram before I’d even started species hunting. Our social circles overlapped, and I found myself following a guy on Instagram who posted some out of the ordinary fish pictures.
Sure, the tarpon, snook, redfish, and bass pics I expected from a Florida-based account were awesome, but so were the fish he posted that I wasn’t as familiar with.
Knowing Ryan was nearby, I had to fish with him. After all, he’d provided me with several locations that panned out in Orlando.
Besides, after fishing Orlando hard for a week, I moved over to Tampa to try and notch some saltwater species. I mean, it was Florida, after all.
I spent the first night alone, but that’s the norm. Coincidentally, I also fished alone that first night, landing one new species in the White Grunt, as well as a number of unsolicited Hardhead Catfish.
But apart from seeing other people catch small sharks — why can I never catch sharks? — it was sort of a misadventure in the dark.
Misadventure in the Dark sounds like the title of your sex tape. Sorry. That was inappropriate, but I’m just happy Brooklyn Nine-Nine got renewed for a seventh season, and the signature catchphrase is arguably better than “That’s what she said.”
Regardless, Ryan agreed to meet me mid-morning to do some fishing with a window of free time he had.
Between his bait and mine, we had shrimp, squid, and half a dozen artificials. The cocktail assortment of bait proved to be the ticket, and we quickly started catching fish.
The new species came almost immediately: a Spottail Pinfish. It was going to be a good morning; I could feel it.
Species: White Grunt (Haemulon plumierii) Location: Tampa, Florida Date: July 13, 2018
I spent two solid days at ICAST with Fishbrain. From meeting Roland Martin and April Vokey to sitting next to Scott Martin during breakfast, I couldn’t have been happier. It as about as much fun as you can have while not fishing.
Nonetheless, spending two whole days in Florida without catching a new species was killing me. Sure, it was awesome to get so much face time with my heroes and introduce a few new friends to microfishing, species hunting, even watch some nice Florida bass caught on the fly, I was itching for something new.
I arrived in Tampa late, and by the time I made it to my first stop, it was dark.
As I walked up, I saw a small shark caught and was optimistic.
Alas, all I would catch that night were the ever-present Hardhead Catfish and a single new species, the White Grunt.
This White Grunt is a fish and not to be confused with the sound Caucasian men make when espousing manliness during a football game or at a barbecue.
It was no shark, but it was a new species, and it was welcomed.
Species: Golden Shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas) Location: Orlando, Florida Date: July 10, 2018
A school of Golden Shiners pestered me for almost an hour at the Lake Fran Urban Wetlands. I knew what they were, and I knew I’d never caught one, but for the life of me, I just couldn’t get one to bite.
They were holding far out from shore, and I didn’t want to soak my boots or go to the car for a longer rod, so I spent a fruitless hour trying to get one to bite. To make matters worse, they were holding just under the surface, wouldn’t touch anything more than two inches below the surface.
Add to that my lack of floats, and my confidence sunk faster than my micro rig.
After trying a pond I was told was full of them and fighting off Bluegill and turtles for the better part of an hour with no Golden Shiners to show for it, I returned to the spot from the day before.
Though it was slow-going, it proved the right idea. Eventually, my bread chumming paid off, and I got a Golden Shiner, then a few more.
All the commotion even attracted the attention of the tiniest little predator around, a certain topminnow species that I desperately wanted to catch…
I remember reading about Walking Catfish in one of the dozen or so outdoor magazines I subscribed to growing up. Yes, I spent virtually all of my disposable income in junior high and high school on magazines, but that’s beside the point.
At the time, Walking Catfish were relatively isolated and just beginning to march across much of their current range in Florida. Magazines painted them to be some vicious monster that would decimate fisheries on a large scale.
Some 15-20 years later, we know that was overblown. Like most invasives, they do cause harm to the environment because the niche they carve out displaces some other (usually native) species, but in the case of Walking Catfish, they haven’t radially changed the Florida scumsucker hierarchy. Lawyers still rule, followed slightly by Channel Catfish, Flatheads (where present), and then Brown Bullheads, Walking Catfish, and Brown Hoplo. The latter is another invasive and one “easy” species I failed to capture on my first trip to Orlando, but I’m not bitter.
Brown Bullhead, a Florida native, are so widely established across the country that even though they may have lost some territory to the Walking Catfish, they are doing just fine.
As for my Walking Catfish, I caught it in a disgusting swill hole at a park. It was flush with Eastern Mosquitofish, Bowfin, and Walking Catfish. I finally added this species while soaking half a nightcrawler on a No. 8 hook.
The fight was forgettable, and though at the time it was a vacant world record, I knew that was short-lived, so I made like a ball and bounced. The record of six-plus pounds has since been recorded, reaffirming my decision to leave when I did.
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.