There's no question in my mind why men choose to rise before dawn on a Sunday, pack a bulky rectangular box with impossibly colored plastic baubles, and gather together in groups of two or three to spend the day in a boat. I, too, have been affected by this phenomenon: I was a pony-tailed five-year-old when I first heard the call of an outboard motor.
As a kid, I spent most summer days in my grandfather's small aluminum skiff, fishing for bass, walleye, perch and muskie on Stanley Lake in Michigan. My earliest angling memories involve a Snoopy fishing pole, a bucket of minnows and grandpa's patient instruction. Years later (I won't say how many), I've left Snoopy and the lakes of Michigan behind for a Penn fishing rod and the waterways of Florida.
Though fishing has long been considered "men's work" (and the job of cooking the day's catch women's), the fact of the matter is that more women have recently discovered the satisfaction of reeling in a record catch. I've been told by several knowledgeable captains that women have a natural knack for catching fish because they are patient, they listen (and ask for direction), and because they typically handle the rod with a gentler touch. Much to the bruised ego of male significant others everywhere, this combination of factors often means more fish brought to the boat that they can't lay claim to.
Whether fisherman or fisherwoman, it's tough to top the swift hit of a Ten Thousand Islands snook at the end of your line... or a memorable day spent reeling up a red grouper off the coast of Destin... or the subtle chatter of a spinner bait as you cast toward a hefty bass on the state's largest lake.
ANGLING AROUND TEN THOUSAND ISLANDS
The sound of our 300-horsepower Yanmar inboard diesel engine cut through the quiet morning. I took in the view from beneath the shade of the 25-foot Morgan's blue bimini top. Swaying palms seemed to bid us farewell as we headed out of the docks at Rose Marina on the Marco River.
Capt. Shaun angled our vessel, Six Chuter II, toward a cluster of mangroves he knew to be prime snook territory. We anchored off of a red and white barnacle-encrusted marker buoy; Capt. Shaun threw a 12-foot cast net overboard and began to pull it back towards the boat. The first cast of the net brought us a nice variety of bigeye scad and thread herring - perfect sunrise snacks for some hungry snook, a few nice redfish, or even a pompano. It was time to fish!
"Cast right near the pilings and just let your bait drift," Capt. Shaun advised as we approached a battered wooden dock that extended out from a large island of mangroves. I followed his advice and then watched my hyperactive bait begin to swim in erratic patterns.
"Your bait is getting nervous," my trusty guide joked while keeping a careful watch on the water.
We were just south of Naples, in the backcountry waters of Marco Island, the largest and northernmost of the Ten Thousand Islands and an ideal haven for some of the state's most popular gamefish. Snook, tarpon, snapper, redfish, pompano and trout are found in abundance during the spring months while fishing along the shore and mangroves. Action in the Gulf of Mexico offshore of the Marco coastline isn't too shabby either, with wrecks and reefs offering up catches of cobia, permit, king mackerel, grouper and shark.
BAM! Within minutes an exuberant snook inhaled my peppy shiner and the line began to sing.
"Reel, reel, reel!" yelled Capt. Shaun as I wound furiously. His coaching proved successful: I brought the sleek fish to the boat and we admired the signature dark stripe that ran from tail to gills. Though this particular fish was just below the average five-to-eight-pound range, it sure put on a fantastic show, running with the line and leaping during its failed attempt to escape with a free breakfast. Before our four-hour trip was over we added two admirable mangrove snappers, each close to 14 inches, to our list of credits.
DESTIN'S OFFSHORE DIVERSITY
A warm breeze ruffled the folds of my lucky fishing shirt and the distinct scent of diesel permeated the air as our charter boat, New Florida Girl American Spirit, a 92-foot Yank, departed the harbor docks off Highway 98 in Destin just after 8 a.m. An eager she-angler can board a deep-sea party fishing boat here any day of the week, almost any day of the year. These larger group trips are a fun, yet affordable, way to reel in a variety of fish. While the gentle waves carried us closer to Capt. Jim's coordinates, a rather chatty flock of seagulls insisted on following along. Our 92-passenger fishing ferry arrived at the "secret" offshore destination just shy of 9 a.m. with a comfortable group of about 60 anglers.
Dazzling white sugar sand beaches and intriguing legends of record catches had brought me to the Emerald Coast in the picturesque panhandle of northwest Florida. Destin is home to the state's largest charter boat fleet, and has a reputation for being the "World's Luckiest Fishing Village." I was hoping the fish-filled waters would prove just as lucky for me.
"Look! Look!" a young couple yelled in unison as they pointed excitedly at the water. I leaned over the white metal railing to see what the commotion was all about: Three large jellyfish drifted slowly past the boat, their strange translucent bodies seemingly altering shape from one moment to the next.
Keith, one of the mates, came over to see the jellyfish for himself. "There was a six- or seven-year-old girl who brought up a fish with an octopus attached to it last week," he told us as he began to assist the group with our lines. "Since you're going to be fishing in 120 feet of water, near an underwater canyon, you might see a variety of interesting sea creatures," he added with a touch of drama - and humor - in his voice.
Keith disappeared around the side of the cabin and returned with a small white bucket of cut squid, which he placed near my feet - tantalizing morsels meant to tempt an array of deep-dwelling species. My arm felt the weight of the heavy-duty Penn fishing rod as I rigged two hooks (one above the other) with an "appetizing" piece of violet-hued calamari. Dreams of a 30-pound grouper began to cross my consciousness as I waited for a tug on my line.
I opened the bail and let my line drop down into the vast expanse of deep blue water. I found the heavy gear and 60-pound line made it challenging to feel the fish feeding on the bait; however, just a short time after our lines went down, I heard calls of "fish on!" from 'round the boat as one angler after another reeled in a catch. Snapper, grouper, grunts and triggerfish were hoisted up, unhooked, and tossed into gray baskets strategically placed behind us.
As the activity continued around me, I shuffled through my mental Rolodex of fishing trips I'd enjoyed with my grandfather and other captains over the years and considered the ultimate embarrassment: being "skunked" when, all around me, others found success. I felt my face beginning to flush when, finally, I felt a hit on my line. I swiftly jerked the tip of the rod up to keep the fish from going into any rocks and reeled as fast as my arm would let me. When the seemingly endless length of line eventually revealed the leader, Keith reappeared and announced to my party boat neighbors that I had caught an 11-inch Vermilion snapper. Before I knew it, I had hooked and landed two more triggerfish in the two-pound range before the boat began its scenic journey back to shore.
The trip back was boisterous, befitting a "party boat," full of vacationing families and couples. Kids boasted about the size of their catch while the adults swapped fish tales of their own. (I may have embellished the size of my triggerfish a little, but I did it in the interest of education. I thought the kids should know that telling tales about the size of your catch is a skill every fisherman must quickly learn.)
Back at the docks, Keith and the other mates diligently filleted and bagged each passenger's souvenir from the sea. A rumble in my stomach reminded me that it was well past lunchtime. I found my trigger and snapper filets and headed to a nearby restaurant where some friendly locals had assured me they'd cook them perfectly. The Catch-of-the-Day has never tasted so good.
BOUNTIFUL "BIG O" BASS
With plenty of saltwater fishing time logged, I yearned for crankbaits, worms and all things bass. Craving some topwater action inspired by my Stanley Lake days, I looked forward to my first freshwater excursion on Florida's largest and most famous lake, Lake Okeechobee, or "Lake O" as the locals affectionately refer to it.
Capt. Terry Garrels promptly greeted me at 5:45 the next morning in Clewiston, a small town near Lake O. He emphasized the importance of getting out on the lake early during the summer months.
"The bite turns off when the sun comes up and the breeze dies down," Capt. Terry explained while rigging my line with a bobber and lively freshwater shiner. He made the first cast and handed me the line.
Minutes later, my bobber disappeared from view.
"There he is, gal!" Capt. Terry shouted.
I readjusted my grasp on the rod and cranked the open-faced reel like crazy.
I may have been a tad over-enthusiastic. After missing our first hit of the morning, Capt. Terry advised me to slowly and gently reel the slack out of my line before attempting to set the hook. Lesson learned.
"When he starts to take the line, let him have it for a minute. He's not going anywhere, so you don't need to reel that fast," explained my new freshwater fishing mentor. I took his wise advice and went through an instant replay in my head before sending the next shiner into the water.
I was ready now and, just as the sun started to peek over a small corner of the 730-square-mile lake, my red-and-white bobber took another swift dive. I paused before initiating a slow wind. When I finally felt the weight of the chunky fish on the end of the line, I gave a good jerk toward the newly illuminated sky. The rather spry bass darted to one side of the boat and then to the other before I was able to land it.
"Got 'em!" I proclaimed with intense angler's pride. My first Lake Okeechobee largemouth of the day weighed in at a respectable 3.5 pounds.
Between us, Capt. Terry and I landed about five more fish, switching from live baits to artificial spinner baits, before we decided to call it a wrap a few hours later. As we packed up our gear, I noticed a 12-foot 'gator lying motionless in the weeds nearby with a toothy grin. I took the big fellow's presence as a sign that it was, in fact, time to leave.
"The sun is too hot, so the bite will really die down now," Capt. Terry reaffirmed. I nodded, Capt. Terry started the motor, and we sped back to land at near lightning speed, waving goodbye to the bass that now had to avoid being a 'gator's lunch rather than ours.
Some of the world's finest and most diverse fishing opportunities are found off Florida's warm and welcoming shores. From saltwater big game trophies like sailfish and dolphin to freshwater fighters such as bass or spotted sunfish, the Sunshine State's variety of angling experiences is incomparable. And for ladies who love the outdoors, it very well may be the preferred way to spend a vacation.
So, the next time you see a small, pony-tailed girl with a fishing rod in hand, take note. Someday, she just might be showing off her stand-up fish-fighting skills while doing battle with a 36-inch snook from the back of a 25-foot Morgan.
AQUA-BONDING WITH YOUR SOUL MATE
After many long years and a string of lost loves, Capt. Rob Modys found a true soul mate when he met his wife. The couple discovered that they shared an interest in boating, then decided to share their enthusiasm with other couples. How? They started a charter business, based in southwest Florida, that specializes in trips for couples.
According to Capt. Rob, an IGFA-certified guide, the charter's unique name has steadily increased his bookings. Partners who love being out on the water can enjoy fishing for for snook, redfish or tarpon while cruising aboard the 22-foot Skeeter Bay boat that departs from the Punta Rassa boat ramp near the Sanibel Causeway in Fort Myers. If fishing alone doesn't suit your paired fancy, Capt. Rob also offers nature and photography trips as well.
BOATING 101: BOAT SAFE, RENT SMART
With 4,308 total square miles of water in Florida, boating is not just a leisure activity; it's a way of life. If you plan to make the most of the state's wonderful waterways by exploring in a rental boat, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Check to be sure that there is a life jacket for every person in the boat. There should also be a fire extinguisher and a horn.
- Follow all posted speed limits.
- Keep at least 100 feet away from other boats and 200 feet from shore. This helps to ensure that you are safe from other boat operator's errors and away from any underwater obstacles that may not be obvious.
- Be sure that you are carrying appropriate documentation. You should always have your registration and your rental agreement in the boat with you.
- Purchase a map of the area if one is not supplied with your rental or bring along a GPS.
If you plan to take to the freshwater waves, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Web site features a map of freshwater boat ramps that are commission-owned.