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Monday, 10 June 2019

Florida 2019


Another chance to test my knowledge or lack of against the coastal fish of southwest Florida! Its no secret that I’m a regular visitor in North America. I was in fact born in Ohio and still hold a dual nationality. During the early 1990's I visited the gulf coast of Florida and forgive the pun I’ve been hooked ever since!

The previous couple of trips had been tough with the red tide (a deadly algae bloom) being present on both occasions, especially last September when tens of thousands of fish died, as well as dolphins, turtles and manatees. The devastation was evident not only visually but also from the smell created by ammonia which was extremely unpleasant and capable of making you feel quite unwell, especially if you had breathing problems i.e. asthma. It goes without saying that local businesses suffered as tourists stayed away from the beaches and of course it was heart-breaking to see the sheer quantities of marine life that perished. Thankfully the red tide started to dissipate at the end of 2018 and at present all remains clear.

As usual I filled half of a large suitcase with my tackle. Mostly this consisted of my arsenal of lures: You never know what you might need! My main setup was my new 4-piece Benkei BIS-664ML rated 1/8-3/8oz. This was paired with my 3000 Shimano Rarenium CI4 and spooled with 20lb 4 strand Dangan braid plus the new 20lb Dangan fluorocarbon. Having arrived at our apartment around teatime I was able to purchase a saltwater rod licence and prepare everything I needed for the imminent assault the next morning. As normal I woke around 4am (5hr time diff-would be 9am at home). My plan was to concentrate on surface fishing whilst it was still dark. The first morning full of hope and anticipation I entered the water around 5.15am which gave me roughly 1hr and 15mins till sun up. Sadly, day one was a blank, although I did have a few nice takes.
Little happened for the first 3 days with only a few small Snook, Redfish, Ladyfish and Barracuda making an appearance. The most notable encounter was being hooked up to a juvenile Tarpon of maybe 10lbs. Enter Day 4! By this time, I was setting the alarm for 5am and being in the water by 5.40am something I did every day bar one (blame it on too much sun). Second cast along the side of the mangroves and bang, hooked up. It felt good but could have been my adrenaline and my willing a large fish to be on the other end. When you are in around 3ft of water there really isn’t anywhere other than away for the fish to go. We battled for maybe 5 mins before I was able to land him and luckily, I was still close to the mangrove tunnel I had entered the water through so was able to wade back and take a very poor picture in the dark! Ok it was the first time I had used my mini tripod to take a selfie and for some reason I had the camera set to audio control! A grown man shouting “cheese” at a mobile phone in the pitch dark!! None of this mattered as I knew this was my new PB Snook and later I was able to confirm 31 inches. This session also threw up another Snook in the low 20s and a couple of reasonable Redfish.
PB Snook of 31"
After returning back to the apartment for breakfast we ventured up to another of my favourite fishing venues which is way up the Manatee river in brackish water so anything was possible. We’ve been hiring kayaks from Ray’s Canoe Hideaway for the past 15 years and I actually became obsessed by a particular area after catching a juvenile Tarpon back in 2011. Generally, these visits had been underwhelming in terms of fish caught, but both my wife and I love the scenery and wildlife that you can see. My method was flipping / pitching as tight to the mangroves, willows and structure as I could, using a slow sinking hard lure which I could allow to drop into the zone and then start cranking which would hopefully induce a take. The Benkei was so easy to use coupled with an 8g lure and reminded me of my Tubular tip Solpara AJI rod which had been so successful at the end of the 2018/2019 coarse season. It wasn’t long before I had hooked up with a decent Snook, manoeuvring the fish away from a submerged fallen tree before landing it: another in the mid 20s. This was followed up by a Long-nosed Garfish of around 5lbs. Having never actually landed one I was pleased to add another species to the list. Fish on!!
Before I knew it, line was peeling off my reel and at this point all I could do was hold on and hope. The Benkei’s through action helped to absorb the lunges and runs which continued. I knew this was a beast of a fish but it still hadn’t surfaced. Then after recovering some of the line it surfaced…. a big, big Long-nosed Gar. Between myself and my lovely wife I was able to manoeuvre my kayak to a small area of beach and play the fish from the bank. It took around 20 minutes all told and once landed I was able to measure it at 50 inches. PB number 2! The rest of the session continued to be productive with another smaller Gar, Snook and Snapper. I also dropped another juvenile Tarpon and a decent Largemouth Bass.
A quick pose with the impressive Long-Nose Garfish

Along side my trusty Benkei, a beast of a fish on light gear.

We arrived back at the apartment mid afternoon and with 2 PBs I was feeling pretty chipper. Like many apartment complexes in Florida the grounds have lakes which have Bass, Bluegill and Grass Carp. I decided to test the Zoner Mini Pencil surface lures, again paired up with the versatile Benkei. As soon as I began retrieving the Zoner I was impressed by how tight you could make it “walk the dog”. It wasn’t long before I’d landed a largemouth Bass. Whilst stalking the lakes which had very low water levels, I spotted a Grass Carp feeding on some weed. Fifteen years ago, I spent a lot of time focusing on the Carp and thoroughly enjoyed catching them to around 20lbs but my enthusiasm waned once I submerged myself in the world of lure fishing. That said I still keep a few carp hooks handy in case the occasion arises. I hastily headed back to the apartment, changed over to a basic freeline rig (just a hook), grabbed a bread roll and swiftly returned to the area with the feeding carp. Luckily it was still active and I was able to throw a few free offerings in to see its reaction. It didn’t take long for the first piece of bread to be taken and that was the green light. Moments after my hooked savoury offering landed on the water there was a large swirl and the line which was snaked across the water began to tighten. Fish on! And there it was as simple as that a 10-minute battle with the Benkei coping comfortably. I didn’t have scales but I’m confident the weight was somewhere between 25lb and 30lb. Whatever it was it was PB number 3!!
Look at the size of that tail! A beautiful Grass Carp.
The vacation continued to turn up good sized Snook either wading the flats in the dark or fishing the backwaters on kayak during the day. I also managed to drop Tarpon number 3 but decided not to beat myself up about it!
On our last weekend and again way up the Manatee river, I was lucky enough to land another PB: this time a freshwater Catfish of around 15lb. It battled well initially but wasn’t able to sustain its energy levels. 
A mid-double Channel Catfish.
The same session also saw another 25-inch Snook and a river Largemouth landed which I was pleased to see. At this point I admit that for once I felt happy with the quantity and general quality of the fish landed. If there was one slight itch that hadn’t been fully scratched it was a decent Redfish (excluding Tarpon). 
Another fine 25" Snook
I was now sadly on my last morning but still motivated by events from the past couple of weeks. As usual I entered the water at around 5.40am. The tide was low and there were rafts of weed strewn in patches across the bay. It was hard to find a clean pathway for a decent retrieve. As the session drew to a close with the sun’s appearance imminent, I realised I had waded into a feeding school of Redfish. I changed over to the baby Z-claw hoping this would encourage a take as they seemed very shy to take off the top. Bang! Fish on!! Instant adrenaline pumping action as the fish screamed off and, in the process, scaring all the other fish that were feeding nearby! I confirmed very quickly that I was battling my target species as it performed numerous runs ending with some pretty heavy head shakes. Again, I was able to manoeuvre it into a gap in the mangroves where I could unhook and photograph it. The huge feeling of satisfaction as I measured him at 30 inches and with such broad back and shoulders, I was confident he would have been a double. Now sadly he wasn’t quite my PB but nevertheless a cracking fish on light gear!
A cracking Redfish
And there we have it! The Benkei performed well beyond expectations. Its action perfect for target fishing with small lures and clearly that doesn’t mean small fish! Whilst crisp when casting, the rod is able to soak up runs with its parabolic through action during the fight. Working a light surface lure like the Zoner mini pencil it was effortless both in terms of fatigue and action. There’s no question that it will be the first item in my case on future holidays!
Also its important to mention that both the Dangan 4 strand braid and the Fluorocarbon were faultless which is no small effort when you realise that almost every fish caught was equipped with either big teeth, abrasive gums or sharp gill plates, not to mention the fact that 5 of the fish combined had an estimated weight of over 100lb. All in all, an extremely satisfying trip which was sprinkled with every ingredient an angler needs……including luck!!
Now back in good old blighty and with the Bass season along the south coast well underway and the river season just weeks away I’m hoping my good fortune will continue…….2019 PB Bass? Fingers crossed!
The countdown till the next trip begins.


Mike




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