“Yeah, I’ll meet you down at the Van Wezel, big purple building on 10th. You can’t miss it. Let’s say – 730 tomorrow morning?”
As we drove out to the purple building placed on the edge of Sarasota Bay, my phone rang again.
“Hey, Eric. I’ve got live bait in the well, can’t just sit at the dock with that in the tank or they’ll be dead. Give me a call when you’re here and I’ll come in and grab you.”
We reach the dock and call Captain Jeremy Lee back. No answer. I call maybe 3 or 4 times before he picks up and pulls his 22 foot Pathfinder up next to the dock to grab us and begin the day.
“Sorry about that, guys. I was on the phone with my little daughter and I looked down and there was one of those fake water moccasin snakes in the boat staring up at me. I told her and she started screaming and going crazy. So if one of you gets bit today that’ll suck.”
We slide out through the undisturbed bay water, discussing our plan of attack for the day. It’s the end of tarpon season, but we decide to give it a shot – the chance of being able to jump a fish or two is far too enticing to pass up.
We slow down and turn towards the beach in a seemingly non-descript area along the gulf coast south of Sarasota Bay. Standing up, I turn as Jeremy scrolls along the shoreline on his GPS; “In May and June, we get to sit here and watch as the tarpon roll down this beach towards where we’re sitting right now. See that boulder down there?” He points to the screen. “If you look in the water, you can see all the fire coral around it. The fish love this area.”
Watching in silence for a few moments, we observe sporadic silvery rolls and tails indicating the presence of a few scattered tarpon before deciding to hook up a couple of pinfish and give it a shot.
Almost immediately, one cork is ripped under, my brother, Stephen, hesitates – allowing the circle hook to do its job – before feverously tightening the line and beginning his battle. As he continues to reel and the line remains draped over the water, we simultaneously realize that there is only a bruised ‘pinny’ still attached to the hook.
Lifting the bait back into the boat, we discover why the hook never set – as the tarpon hit, the circle hook rolled back into the pinfish, so the point was hidden and unable to connect with a lip.
Resetting the rods, Jeremy begins to discuss the tides and points out some key points on his digital chart while all eyes dart between the corks and the screen. “Right around 930 we’ll be coming out of the slack tide and the bay bite will pick up, should be good for several hours. We’ll see what happens here then head in so we can find some trout and jacks, maybe a bluefish or something.”
One cork disappears – this time the hook sets and we wait for the telltale tarpon acrobatics, but none come. Our hopes slowly sink as we realize whatever has taken the bait is not what we wanted. Stephen somehow ended up with the right rod in his hand again and fights a snook up and into the boat.
“You guys want a photo?”
Stephen agrees and I bring out my phone. He lifts the fish up and sticks it out as far as he can towards the camera.
“Don’t be a jackass”, Jeremy interjects “It’s a nice fish but you’re not fooling anyone with that crap trying to make it look bigger.”
Stephen slowly retreats and allows his arms to fall to a more normal position with a sly grin.
The tarpon can no longer be seen breaking the surface, so we decide to head in and try our luck with some sea trout as the tides begin to move.
After a successful hour or so at his first spot with maybe a dozen or so 12 to 18 inch trout, the decision is made to search for something to fix the thrill hangover from an unsuccessful morning searching for tarpon.
Jetting across the bay, we scan the water and sky as Jeremy opens it up and shows us how fast his boat can go, even with his three passengers. Coming to a stop, my cousin, Marc, asks about using birds to find fish down in Florida. “When we go out up in the northeast, it’s all about finding bird activity to find the fish.”
“Yeah it’s similar down here, but we have to find a pile of the terns and cormorants, and they can’t just be flying around in a general area – you gotta see them diving.” Jeremy, Marc and I stare ahead towards the shoreline, unaware of what was going on behind us, checking out our next presumed casting location.
“You mean like that?” Stephen points back over my shoulder. “Yep, like that, let’s go” Jeremy yells as we scramble to find our seats.
We pull alongside the main channel and observe the water begin to boil. Before Jeremy can even cut the engine, we are casting into the fray. Quickly, Stephen hooks up a fiery bluefish on a small soft-plastic jig and Marc has a jack crevalle that took his live bait. Feeling left out, I cast past the boils and closer to the channel dropoff.
After a few quick-wristed jigs something heavy slams my bait and proceeds to stay low in the water. Taking my time, I enjoy the light-tackle battle and rely on finesse to gradually bring the fish closer to the boat, looking for color as some indication of what might be on my line.
We see a flash of color and an exclamation from Jeremy, followed by laughter – “That’s a fat cat”
Turns out I has hooked a saltwater catfish, a gafftopsail cat, to be specific – definitely the first saltwater catfish of my life.
As the grey, whiskered fish tired and surrendered, Jeremy grabbed a hook-remover and the line, keeping his hands back from the fish.
“When I was a kid, one of these sent me to the E.R. I caught him from the beach and decided it was a good idea to step on its back to get it under control and remove the hook. Big mistake, I’ll never do that again.” He points to the huge spine sticking out of its dorsal fin. “These will make you puff up like a balloon. I went into the hospital with it sticking out of my foot.” He shakes his head and swipes the hook out of the fish’s mouth, allowing it to fall back into the bay in one swift motion.
We finished the day out pulling in the various mackerel and bluefish, and even a ladyfish between consistent trout.
As we found the dock and headed home after a morning on the water, Jeremy turned to me and commented that one of the nice parts of his job is that he gets to pick the clients he wants to work with again.
“Please give me a call next time you find yourself down here.”