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Fish Tales

 

Spring Break Pt. 1 - The Keys

 

Looking forward to that big fishing vacation? Join Charlie Bernard as he begins his with a hot bite in the Keys flats ...


My Spring fishing trip started in the Florida Keys and ended in Cancun (my Cancun Sailfishing adventure is in another "Tall Tales" story). In fact, we wanted bonefish, permit, and tarpon for a Grand Slam on the flats as we did 2 years ago four, yes 4, times. We missed out on the permit due to unfavorable winds, so we concentrated on the other two.

We fished with Capt. Pat Bracher on the OVERTIME out of Cudjoe Key Marina, about 20 miles east of Key West. I've known Pat and Arch Bracher for 20 years. We met when Pat bounced a football off my 4X4 truck while I was surf fishing Hatteras for red drum, and we have been friends ever since. Arch Bracher runs the PELICAN. There's more about Arch and the PELICAN in the Cancun Sailfishing story.

We leave the dock at Cudjoe and run south, along the inside of the outermost Key (I can not mention the Key name or Pat will never take me out again!). We stop and pole up onto the flats. "Lets try for some bones and do tarpon later," he says, "the tide is not right for the big guys yet!" So we cast shrimp baited hooks and wait for the bite - these fish can smell a shrimp 200 yards away. So now we wait ...10 minutes. A bite, "REEL Marjory" is the cry, she reels the line tight, and shoot it's a bonnet head shark ... rebait and cast again. Twitch, twitch goes the rod tip, Marjory gently picks it up, the reel goes off, hooked up with a bonefish. Marjory has a fish leaving a roster tail behind it running for the deeper water. "No way", she says as the fish races for the boat. "CRANK FAST", yells Pat. Marjory is reeling for all she's worth. The fish shoots down the port side about 30 yards away, and she is still retrieving line from astern. "I lost him", she says. "Keep reeling, he's ahead of you", says Pat, as I scramble for the camera. "Oh, he's still on", says Marjory as she turns toward the fish. The battle continues, and finally the bonefish comes along side. A quick picture, and he is released. "Pretty work, Marjory", followed by a kiss; Pat says that was about a seven pounder.

At some point during the bone fishing, a spinner shark leaps from the water two or three times. This shark was about six feet long and spinning like a top. Nature in motion - absolutely beautiful. Later we were snorted at by a large sea turtle.

So we continue with intensity on the lines and rod tip. My rod twitches - I pick it up, the reel screams, I lift it up high and reel. "Bonefish on", as he runs for the channel. I stop him short and he turns back towards the boat, but veers to the right, running along the edge. "Watch out", says Pat, "he's going to gain line and then turn out and dive into the channel to cut you off!" I hold the rod high and reel for all Iim worth, and catch up before he runs again. Pat was right; he went straight for the edge of the reef. I stopped him just before the edge and got him boat side, then he decides he's not done yet and runs under the boat at the stern. Rod into the water as far as it would go, "watch the push pole", yells Pat. "I know - I screwed this up before", I reply. Under the anchorage push pole and around, "clean job, Charlie", says Pat. Another bonefish brought to the boat for a Kiss and Release. This was repeated six more times for a total of eight bonefish. Marjory wears the crown for the largest Bonefish estimated to be 8+ pounds. But enough of this - let's go for the big ones.

Now we are in the boat channel leading from the marina to the Caribbean, with lots of boat traffic going on. "Watch the oncoming boats and your float, and get it out of their way if necessary" says Pat. "OK", I respond. Here comes a boat, eyes are flashing between the float and the boat. The boat will clear, I look to the float and it's not there. I reel, the rod bends, I reel, the next thing I see is a 120-lb tarpon going airborne. "I'm outta here", thinks the tarpon racing down the channel for the open ocean. Marjory releases the boat from the anchorage (push pole), the boat spins, and the pressure is on. The tarpon is jumping his way to freedom, "Remember to bow, not pull back, when he jumps", says Pat. "I remember", I respond. "Well, you're not very good at it", he says. "I gotcha", sending a smile his way. About 40 minutes later, the fish is boatside, the line cut at the hook, and the big guy swims off healthy. That was the first day.

(A note from Marjory: This is the fish that had Charlie sitting down and straining. Pat said, "I had a 10 year old land one this big last week and he didn't have to sit down". Charlie popped to his feet and pressed on. This fish surged once more and Charlie is lying in the bow, clinging to the rod with an amazed look on his face. I tried to capture on film the moment that Pat grabbed for Charlie (or was it for the rod), but the picture doesn't do justice to the fray of arms, legs and pole I remember. I've never laughed so hard while fishing ...)

The second day the weather had kicked up even more with a cold front. Pat gave me an option. "Bonefish, permit, or tarpon ... what do you want to try?" I say, "Tarpon, what do you want to do Marjory?" "I like seeing you strain when Pat locks up the reel to full, she says. OK, it's off to the boat channel. We head out but the tide is not right. So I learn from Pat about rigging the pinfish bait, the leader, etc. The tide begins its run, the float goes under, REEL, Marjory jumps to release the push pole, I'm hooked up. "This one could be a bruiser", says Pat as the fish comes out of the water, "Yeah, he is", I say as Marjory gets a picture. The battle is on. The boat is dragged onto the flats, Pat pushes the drag up to FULL, and now I'm hurting the fish I think. Wrong, he's trying to hurt me. Another 40 minutes and he is boatside in excellent condition and released for another day.

The count was two large tarpons on day two. The last tarpon had a swimming mate that stayed in her shadow whenever she was in the water. That was one smart tarpon that paid no attention to the baits.

For day three, Marjory goes shopping, and Pat and I go back to the channel for tarpon. A few moments later we catch one that's as feisty as the first day's tarpon. The fish surges, pulling me off balance, and I land on the forward casting deck on my forearms, hanging on for dear life. I back off the drag a little to get back on my feet; the fish must have known this because she went airborne. Fortunately, the hook stayed in place. The usual catch scenario is as follows:

Two boats are racing down the channel. As we face to the stern, the one on the left is trying to overtake the one ahead. He finally sees us as we are pulling in our baits to avoid a cutoff, and falls in astern of the lead boat. Before the V wakes rock the OVERTIME, the float goes down. REEL, HOOKUP, DRAG SCREAMING; Pat releases the push-pole anchorage holding the boat in place. "This fish is bigger than the others", Pat says as he starts the motor. We get pulled by the tarpon down the channel; boat traffic cause us to motor toward the fish and try to get her onto the flat. "No luck - she's heading for sea."We continue to motor toward her. "Got the knot", I yell as Pat cuts the engine. "You're on your own, Charlie", says Pat. I push the drag up to Full, although I knew this one would punish me. This fish is still headed for sea, and drags an eighteen-foot Hughes flats boat for a mile. The channel turns west, and so does the fish. Oh @#$% - it's a smart one. Boats coming in stop to watch us. "Please don't break off, son", I said. The other boat's occupants are asking, "what do you have?" "Tarpon", said Pat. Meanwhile I'm really putting the pressure on. More incoming boats stop to watch, and repeat the question. "Are you sure it's a tarpon?" "Yes", came the reply. In the end, the tarpon came to boatside with pictures taken, and was released in excellent condition and deep water. "How big?", I asked Pat. "Only about 130 pounds", he responded. "How come we are three miles from our anchorage?", I ask. "Uh, that fish could have been bigger, but I like to see you sweat!" (Pat took a telling photo of me grimacing under the pressure of this last fish).

So over three days of fishing the OVERTIME we count eight bonefish and six tarpon. I'm going back next year!!!

Marjory took some incredible shots on the first two days. They include a shot of the first tarpon airborne and mouth flared so wide that you see air through the gill slits. Some of the flats shots of the tarpon in the water are amazingly clear (thanks to a polarizing filter).


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