Saturday, November 5, 2022

Salty Gators @ Steinhatchee, FL

    Unfortunately, I have not had the time since arriving at college to go fishing. Being at the University of Florida, I figured I would have at least some opportunities given the fact that locations all over the state are home to some of the best fishing in the world; Florida is not considered a fisherman's paradise for no reason. However, with schoolwork, internships, clubs, and other things taking up my time, along with my lack of a car, my opportunities to fish have been severely limited. Of course, I still missed fishing and being out on the water, and so I joined the Salty Gators club for saltwater fishing on campus as soon as I could. When I found out they were holding a fishing tournament at Steinhatchee on November 5th, I marked my calendar and circled the date.

    I got a ride from Gainesville to Steinhatchee, about an hour and a half drive, from Talon and Tor, two other members of the club who I hadn't met before. The ride was cool as we got to know each other, and we arrived at the marina before the captain's meeting in time for a great sunset. I had a really great feeling about Steinhatchee from the moment I'd arrived. It's a small fishing town on the so called "Nature Coast" of Florida, a place I had wanted to fish for a long time. I've seen fishing towns like this in places all over, including the keys, the Jersey shore, and the mountains of California, and each one always gives me some sort of cathartic feeling. It's interesting to think about the history of people, lives, and traditions that have come together through fishing there. I was excited for the day ahead of us. After hanging out and having fun with the club that night, we prepared on little sleep to head out early Saturday morning for the tournament.

    It was the first fishing tournament of which I've ever been a part. The entry fee was $25, and rewards were given to the longest lengths of combined Spotted Seatrout and Redfish. Have never caught a Spotted Seatrout and probably a Redfish (more on that later), I was mostly excited just to have the chance to target these fish in the first place. They are staple Florida inshore fish which happen to not be very common in Miami (Seatrout maybe, but their numbers have been declining in Biscayne Bay due to gradual seagrass loss). Being in the place to catch them with a chance to finally catch them made me happy enough.

I did a decent amount of research on the area before fishing. By that I mean I asked some more experienced fishermen in the club that knew the area better than me, the bait shop at Sea Hag Marina, and looked online to find the best baits and spots. I decided, along with Tor and Talon, that our gameplay would be to go south, fishing the flats on the way, all the way to the Pepperfish Keys. We weren't expecting many others in the group to make the run that far, and I had heard good things about the area in terms of Redfish, especially the first island there. Before we set out this morning, as the teams were being set up and preparing the boats, I quickly ran over to the bait store to pick up two dozen live shrimp (also due to some of the research I'd done). That would come in handy.

    Seeing the trademark nature coast and inshore Florida low grass and flats on the way out of Steinhatchee was a really great sight. Especially with the fog and sun coming out low over the horizon on the flats and marshes, you could get a feel of old Florida. The three of us were excited to head out and fish.

    Last time at this tournament, Tor and Talon apparently had a tough time. They participated in last year's Spring tournament, which is much bigger and includes many charter captains as well. They had only caught a few undersize Seatrout and a pinfish. Today, hopefully, would be different.

    Once we got past the 15 buoy, we made a left turn to start heading south. We kept running down until we found ourselves on a suitable flat, and the stopped at the first pothole we could find. For the rest of the day, when fishing the flats, we would be on the lookout for potholes and/or sandy spots in the seagrass where fish would be located. Seatrout and many other fish could be found on these types of spots. This one turned out to be productive, as we started getting hits on our artificials (swimbaits on jighheads) and live shrimp within minutes. Tor was the first one to hook up, with live shrimp under a bobber. He reeled it in, and we were on the board! It was a 13.5 in Spotted Seatrout. Not especially big, but it counted for the tournament, and was a great fish to catch. We could tell that it was going to be a great day, definitely better than their last time out.

    Talon was the next to catch a fish. While we at first thought it was another sea trout, it fought slightly differently and he pulled up a relatively surprising fish; a Black Sea Bass. As it would turn out, the flat was actually filled with Black Sea Bass, and we would find them all over. Tor then caught a slightly bigger Seatrout, the first on a swimbait. As I was fishing with my swimsuits, I felt some sharp, pesky bites. Sometimes I would reel in my lure to find that the plastic tail had been bitten right off. It was odd - and very annoying, but we kept on fishing until the bite died down. We then moved to another spot on the flat, looking for a deeper sandy hole.

    It didn't take me long at this spot to finally hook up with one of the Back Sea Bass that were stealing my soft plastics. Although not exactly what we were looking for, it was a new species for me. Talon gave me a type of lure with a long, pink tail that only required a steady retrieve, and it worked like a charm. Soon after, I hooked up on a Spotted Seatrout so close to the boat that I could see the bite. It put up a decent fight and I brought it in. 14.5 inches, the biggest of the day so far. Being such a staple of Florida inshore fisheries, it had always been on my bucket list - I had just never had the chance to catch one. Tor and Talon, however, being from the gulf coast, had caught them ever since they were little. It was an interesting juxtaposition of inshore fishing experience on our boat. That being said, I was really happy to have finally caught the speckled seatrout myself, a really cool species of fish. Next I caught another black sea bass before the bite started to die down, and we moved on to the next promising spot we could find on the flats. It was already a great day of fishing on the Nature Coast, and it was just getting started.

    The fog still covered the shoreline but dissipated slowly as the morning went on. It contributed to a really intriguing and mysterious feeling while fishing, but it was very welcome. Of course, one of the best parts if not the best part of fishing is simply being out on the water surrounded by nature. You are going in pursuit of the fish in their habitat - and in cases on a boat like this, you are by yourself and surrounded by untouched wilderness. As we were going to some spots on the flats, we could see stingrays, turtles, other fish and birds, sea stars, and more organisms going about their own lives in their own complex ecosystem. It served as a humbling reminder that we were a part of something greater out there.

    We stopped at another sandy deeper hole in the grass flat that looked like it could hold fish and casted out our lures. What we caught, however, was not what we expected. Talon pulled two fish out from the hole: both Southern Puffers! The thing about pufferfish is that they will eat just about anything you put in front of them. While I have lots of experience catching puffer fish, the Southern Puffer is a species you can't find as easily in Miami and I have never caught. It was yet another new species for me! After those fish, we decided to make a run down further south to Pepperfish Keys.

    I tend to half-jokingly tell people that I spend more time studying for fishing than I do for school. In some respects, it can definitely be true. Before heading out on a fishing trip, especially for a specific fish in a place you've never been to, it's always good to do whatever kind of research you can to find out the best ways to catch what you are looking for. Being from Miami, as much as I've heard about the fishery in NW Florida, I'd never been there before. In the day and night before as well as this morning, I asked around for info from locals and more experienced fishermen in the area about the best spots for Redfish. Some of these were fishermen in the UF club, some were other fishermen at the dock, and some were workers at the bait shop. The consensus I reached was that the Pepperfish Keys were a good place to catch them. It required about a half hour run south from our previous spot, but we were eager to put the research to the test and catch ourselves a Redfish.

    Upon arriving at the westernmost island of the Pepperfish Keys, we made our way into the cove near the mouth of a creek by some grass marsh. We saw lots of mullet swimming and jumping around and figured that we had a decent chance of catching one here. Any sign of life is always a good sign when fishing. I casted and retrieved a gold spoon while Tor and Talon casted out live shrimps under bobbers. Sure enough, after about 15 minutes, Tor's bobber, which was placed at a perfect place in the middle of mouth of the creek, sunk. He set the hook and carefully reeled the fish in to the side of the boat until we could see the trademark spot on its tail. A Redfish! I filmed and Talon helped land the fish into the boat. We were ecstatic, having caught the second species needed for the tournament, and the species we were looking for. The research paid off, and we found a solid spot for our target fish. The Redfish, or Red Drum, is a really beautiful sport fish and another staple of Florida inshore fishing that is also not commonly found in Miami. That being said, although I have no photos of it to go back to and confirm anything, I do remember that in one of my first fishing trips, on a dock in Biscayne Bay, I do remember reeling in what I immediately identified as a Red Drum. I had done a lot of research on fish identification at the time so I trust my then 8 year old self to have identified the fish correctly, although I did not know at the time exactly how uncommon they are in south Florida. Regardless, now I had photo evidence. We caught a Redfish. We measured its length (relatively short, but hey, we were happy to have caught one) and released the fish.
    After that we continued to fish the spot. Surprisingly, we caught two more species. I caught the next one on a Gold Spoon. It didn't;t fight extremely hard, but I knew it was definitely a fish. The fight was surprising when I pulled the fish into the boat, considering it was an eager Inshore Lizardfish that was almost as short as the spoon with which I'd caught it. Fish can be fascinating sometimes. Later, we prepared to leave the spot to make our way back north after waiting a while with no bites. It was the peak of high tide for much of the time that we were there after catching that Redfish, and we figured the rest of them were deeper into the creek. Unfortunately we didn't have enough time in the tournament to be able to stay for the outgoing tide, but we will keep that in mind for next time. However, before we left, Tor's bobber sunk again. He reeled the fish in before handing the rod to me to finish it off. I brought it to the side of the boat where we were able to see that it was a flounder, another new species for me. I flipped it out of the water and tried to get it in the boat, but unfortunately the hook came off and it fell back into the water. It was a catch, but the lack of a picture stung. Regardless, it was a cool fish to experience. Since I didn't have a picture it was sort of difficult to decide immediately, but after looking up pictures online and asking fishermen experienced in the area, I am pretty sure that it was a Gulf Flounder out of the three species of Flounder that can be caught in Florida.

    On our way up north, we checked out another spot for Redfish along the coast that I'd heard about, the Rocky Creek channel. We saw some Redfish on our way in, but didn't have the chance to stop and cast for them. The channel was filled with rocks, and at the spot we did stop at, although fishy-looking (in a good way), snagged lots of our hooks. We figured we must have gone too far into the channel, but as I mentioned, we were all still kinda new to the area. It is certainly another lesson for another day. We didn't catch another Redfish on the day, but we were very happy with the fact that we did catch one. Before heading in by 3 o'clock for the end of the tournament, we picked out one more hole on the flats to see if we could catch a bigger sea trout to increase our total. Talon killed it at this spot. He was the first on the board here with a seatrout, and shortly after a big black sea bass bit the spoon I was casting. As I was reeling it in, Talon hooked up with another sea trout, and we had a double hookup going. I brought my fish in, and Talon reeled his in, which turned out to be 15.5 inches, our biggest of the day! Talon finished us off with another sea trout, a black seabags, and a final sea trout before we decided to head back to the dock.

    The ride back was fun and very relaxing. We were all kinda tired from the late night before, the early morning today, and the full day of fishing in the hot Florida sun. But we were all very happy to be there in that beautiful place and satisfied with our catches. 6 species, 17 fish on the boat in total. It was all around a really great day and weekend with some new friends and new species in a new location I'd been wanting to visit and fish for a long time. Coming back in to the channel through the classic NW Florida marshes (while listening to Fresh Catch) was again a surreal experience as I'd seen and heard of the area for so long but had never actually gone. Now I had, and came home with some great catches - not bad for my first time. We didn't win the tournament; that was won by more experienced fishermen in the club. However, our total did finish among the highest of people that had never fished Steinhatchee before, and one of the only groups to have caught a Redfish. It was certainly something to be proud of. After wrapping up the tournament, we packed up and I hitched a ride with Tor and Talon for the 1.5 drive back to UF's campus. Until next time!