A school of jack crevalles had spotted the bait and made a mad rush, with more than a dozen fish slashing and jumping in an attempt to grab it.
My brother tossed his bait into the frenzy, and a moment later, we were both yelling, “fish on!”
I love fishing in Michigan, but earlier this winter, I had a chance to visit my brother, Derek, who’s fortunate enough to spend the cold-weather months in the Florida Keys.
We spent two days on the water around Big Pine Key, which offers up some of the most incredible saltwater fishing available.
We caught fish I’d never heard of, and several that were on my bucket list.
If you love to fish, hitting the hundreds of miles of shallow-water flats around the Florida Keys should certainly be on your bucket list.
My visit to the Keys was scheduled to start on Friday, Feb. 8. Incredibly, local schools were in session that day (the first time in a while, if I recall correctly), but I still had a dicey drive to the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids.
“Just make it onto the plane, and it’ll all be good,” was the line I kept telling myself.
I was wrong.
Oh, I made it onto the plane just fine. We boarded, were de-iced, and headed out onto the runway, where we sat for several minutes. Then we started taxiing around for several more minutes. It was difficult to tell what was going on because of the suds from the de-icing agent on the windows, but soon I could make out the gate coming back into view.
That can’t be good.
The pilot informed us that the visibility was down to under a quarter of a mile, and since we hadn’t made our takeoff window, the plane would need to be de-iced again. But that process wouldn’t begin until the radar showed a window of improved visibility.
We ended up sitting on the runway for two hours – just long enough to blow every possible connection I might be able to make from our destination in Charlotte to my final landing place in Key West.
We eventually made it to Charlotte, where I was forced to spend the night. Fortunately, a high school friend lives nearby, so we spent a fun evening catching up on old times.
The next morning, I was back at the airport, and after a short flight, I landed amid the swaying palm trees and ocean breezes of Key West.
Derek and his wife, Janell, met me at the airport, and since the wind was howling, we decided to stay on dry land for the day and spent several hours biking around Key West. We pedaled along the ocean, watching boats and sea birds skim across the water’s surface as military plans zoomed overhead. We checked out haunts frequented by Ernest Hemingway, cruised around Mallory Square and cruised down Duval Street. We ate an amazing lunch on the outdoor patio at Bien, a take-out café that specializes in Cuban and Caribbean fare, watching the island’s gypsy chickens wander between tables.
It was a wonderful introduction to life in the Keys, but the real reason for my trip was to get on the water, and that night, we did just that.
On the water
Not wanting to entirely “waste” my first day in the keys, we headed out at dark for one of the dozens of bridges in the area. These are hot spots for tarpon, which sit at the top of my fishing bucket list. The ideal way to catch tarpon is to sight fish them in shallow water.
Derek — who spends nearly every day prowling the flats — hadn’t been seeing many tarpon yet this year, so bridges are another great place to target these prized sportfish. They tend to linger around bridges as the tide comes in and out, feeding on the bait fish that the tide carries their way.
The tide was ripping at full force this night, and in the pitch black, with the wind howling, it was a daunting and fairly spooky scenario.
Once we got anchored in place, we began casting large hair jigs into the pitch dark surrounding the boat.
We chatted about this and that while ripping our baits through the current, when suddenly, the rod was nearly ripped out of my hands.
My heartrate redlined and the fish at the other end made my drag — set absurdly tight — sang. But in 30 seconds, it was over — the fish was gone.
I learned later that’s pretty typical for tarpon. They’re exceedingly difficult to land in ideal conditions, and these conditions were far from ideal.
The next morning, we headed out again in Derek’s flats boat – 18 feet long, sleek and light, the little Hewes Redfisher can cruise into perilously shallow water in search of fish.
Our first stop, however, was in a deeper channel, where the normally azure water had turned the color of chocolate milk. I learned that this is called a “mullet mud,” where thousands of mullet (a preferred meal for everything from tarpon to sharks) were digging for food at the bottom, churning up the sediment and basically putting an ‘X’ on the map for fishermen.
We set up over the mullet mud – which measured maybe 100 yards long by 20 yards wide – and tossed out a few lines baited with pinfish.
As we did, a huge tarpon came to the surface and rolled right next to the boat, teasing us mercilessly before heading back down into the depths.
It wasn’t long before we had a fish on. It wasn’t a tarpon, but instead a small blacktip shark, which put up quite a battle before we pulled in into the boat for a quick photo.
The tarpon weren’t willing to play, so we made the rounds to several other spots, either throwing live bait, hair jigs, twister tails or topwater plugs.
We found schools of spotted seatrout, Atlantic mackerel, redfish, small jacks, barracudas, along with several lady fish, mangrove snapper and blue runners.
The next morning we were back at it, this time heading farther north toward the Gulf of Mexico. Since the tarpon still weren’t showing up, we decided to target larger jacks.
We fished deeper channels between the flats, throwing topwater baits with a single treble hook dangling off the end. The water was choppy, and there’s not much finess in this type of fishing — just cast it out as far as you can and rip it back in, creating as much commotion on the surface as possible.
It’s hard to describe the fury that ensues when a school of jacks zooms in and attacks your bait. They smash it, oftentimes knocking it into the air, where another jack launches out of the water in pursuit.
When a school attacked one of our baits, the other one would quickly cast into the mix. We each hooked up on some smaller fish, which fight like a smallmouth bass on steroids — an absolute blast on fairly light spinning tackle.
Then we hit the jackpot — a school of larger jacks appeared and in a moment we were both hooked up.
The next 30 minutes were a Chinese fire drill – the two of us scrambling around the boat from bow to stern and back again, often ducking under the other’s line in the process.
At one point, as I scrambled up and over the seat into the back of the boat, Derek casually mentioned, “By the way, you don’t want to fall in here.”
“Because, this is where the man-eaters roam,” he said, referring to the fact that this particular spot is popular for huge hammerhead and bull sharks.
It turns out many of the fish hooked in this area never make it to the boat — instead becoming a meal for the big sharks that are known to roam the waters.
I was secretly hoping to see one of these giant sharks as the battle with the jacks came to an end, but instead, we landed the fish, took a quick photo and put them back in the water.
I love catching smallmouth bass out of Grand Traverse Bay, or hooking into a big brown trout during a float trip down the Manistee River.
But catching these jacks — which couldn’t have weighed more than 15 pounds but fought like a runaway freight train — took fishing to a whole new level.
My trip ended without crossing a tarpon off my bucket list, which I guess is a good thing — it gives me an excuse to book a return trip next winter.