I must have looked as stiff as Michelangelo's statue of David. A swirl in the water had caught the corner of my eye, freezing all movement. Although a bit more clad than David, my skimpy wading outfit of shorts, T-shirt and diving booties worked well enough to quietly scour this Oceanside flat off Key Largo for bonefish.
The next swirl exposed what I hoped to see: the long tailfin of a bonefish breaking the surface. When the fish moved closer, I performed a roll cast that quietly dropped a Crazy Charlie fly right in its path. The hungry bonefish pounced, then took off as line evaporated off my reel. I finally worked the bonefish close enough to remove the fly and let the gamester catch its breath before releasing it.
That catch did it. Upon returning home to Tampa, I felt no shame at all in bragging to the kids that something really cool happened: Dad just completed the fabled Backcountry Slam.
"You mean you ate a breakfast special?" asked my eight-year-old daughter, looking at me quizzically. I explained that a Backcountry Slam represents an accomplishment that cannot be duplicated in any other state in the nation: Catching in the same year a bonefish, snook, tarpon, trout and redfish - great combatants, all.
While a Backcountry Slam is certainly a noted achievement, it's a high-odds happenstance if you visit just five Florida fishing destinations. And, due to the variety of species swimming along both coastlines of the Sunshine State, there's an excellent chance you'll do it in fewer than that. A smaller "slam" also commonly referred to as "backcountry" is catching a tarpon, trout and redfish.
My Slam culminated when I bagged that bonefish, but it all started with a snook trip. So now it's time to hit the reverse button and tell you how I got it done - and how you can do it just as easily.
SHOOK BY A SNOOK
The essence of backcountry fishing cannot be topped in the serene, remote waters of Southwest Florida. From Naples to Everglades City and down to the southernmost point of Florida's mainland, this quiet, peaceful wilderness seeps into your soul. There's a sort of exhilaration as one admires surroundings that weren't all that different 100 years ago.
While notching a bonefish or tarpon toward the Backcountry Slam can be dicey, the prospects for adding a snook to the list are excellent. My favorite setting for this objective is Lostmans River, a stream studded with oyster bars that melds the Everglades with the Gulf of Mexico. Other excellent rivers in that region include Rogers and Harney, with action at the mouths, island points and deep ledges abutting mangrove trees.
Everglades City and Chokoloskee make for excellent jumping-off spots for a sunrise arrival at the river mouths that lie to the south. Another great target: the deeper troughs that parallel beaches, such as those found around Naples and Marco Island. Once a snook lair is located, these hungry marauders usually aren't inhibited by table manners. That means you'll likely score with cut bait, top-water plugs, jigs and diving lures. But cast a live mullet into the fray and any self-respecting snook will turn it into an entrée with considerable vengeance.
In my snook quest for a Backcountry Slam, I anchored at the mouth of Lostmans River on an outgoing tide near a prominent oyster bar. Casting up current, I worked a silver Rat-L-Trap lure along the bar until I felt the oh-so-powerful resistance of a serious fish. A big snook burst through the surface, splashing water every which way.
I enjoyed the snook's air show, did my best to keep the rod tip high to avoid the line being cut by an oyster shell, and called myself unfriendly names when it happened anyway. I quickly tied on a black and red MirrOlure, tossed it near the last landing spot, and darned if another snook didn't nail it just as savagely. This time the fishing line remained in one piece, and I pumped my fist in the air like I just sank the winning putt in the Masters after releasing a spunky 12-pounder.
Second stop, second species achieved in my quest for a Backcountry Slam. I set the crosshairs on the next of the five combatants: tarpon, the silver king of game fish.
HOMOSASSA, HERE I COME
Combine the southern beauty of oak trees draped in Spanish moss, the flavor of old Florida and a legacy for outstanding tarpon fishing, and you have Homosassa.
It is in these hallowed waters where the modern era's greatest flats anglers congregated each spring and summer starting in the late 1970s in pursuit of the fabled 200-pound tarpon on fly - a feat finally realized in 2001 after many other world records were set.
Nothing quite prepares you for the bullish strength of a tarpon and its athletic, body-bending jumps. More fish are lost than caught after that first leap, so if you get past this point consider yourself very skilled or fortunate. If you don't have the stamina to battle a big bruiser, take aim on smaller tarpon in the 50-pound class as that size will still represent a considerable challenge but will be much more likely to subdue.
The early morning chill felt invigorating that first day as I chugged down the Homosassa River and out of the mouth into the four-foot shallows that lie southward. Standing atop his skiff's poling platform on that sunny day, my guide spotted the dark shadows of tarpon against the sandy bottom as they swam toward us. He advised to cast about 10 feet ahead of the lead fish's swim path, let the fly sink a bit and begin a slow, steady retrieve. The fly instead came to rest about 15 feet short, but fortunately the big fish maintained its heading. Its huge eyes glimpsed the large streamer fly and it bolted forward to beat his comrades to the treat.
The ensuing clash convinced me that my old heart was still going strong. It would be a personal-best catch, a goliath in the 150-pound class, but the mighty fish proved anything but cooperative. First it ran dead away, then back again, to the left, rear, right, and I played that fish while dancing and prancing around the boat like a monkey on a hotplate.
At last the tarpon threw in the towel. The guide took the mighty beast by the mouth using two gloved hands, disengaged the fly, rocked the tarpon to and fro for several minutes, and the silver king glided away before fully reviving and gaining speed. Although that tarpon and I dueled for nearly 30 minutes, in the end no damage was done on either side of the line. And I was now more than half the way to my Backcountry Slam.
INDIAN RIVER GIVER
Ever fished from the tranquility of a kayak and hooked a beast that weighed almost as much as your boat? Neither had I until a memorable day just west of Cocoa Beach in Indian River Lagoon.
As unfamiliar as I am with kayaking - and frankly being fonder of outboard motor propulsion - I nonetheless quickly recognized the favorable nuances of a much quieter profile and access to areas too shallow for regular boats.
In fact, I got close to so many fish that despite the short visibility and casting height of just a few feet above sea level, I felt like a part of the estuarine environment instead of a mere visitor. Whereas fish would often bolt as the shadow and noise of a skiff approached, they considered my vessel nothing more than a large floating branch.
Such advantages served me well, for that day turned out to be all that I needed to add redfish to my Backcountry Slam goal. Only one was in the 40-pound super class often encountered here, which for about 15 minutes towed me around. Unfortunately, the hook eventually pulled and the red never made it to boat side. But by day's end, I subdued nine redfish ranging from five to 15 pounds, plus a couple of black drum.
With great optimism I booked several days of trout fishing in Panama City, feeling quite confident of catching at least one of those spotted scrappers.
Darn good thing that I didn't take 'em for granted. It wasn't until the final day that I managed to bag a feisty seatrout, and even then it occurred only about an hour before dusk.
The fun thing about trout is that you can catch them in large numbers and in many places. They like congregating over soft sediment where schools of mullet typically kick up the bottom to expose edibles such as bay shrimps, small crustaceans and sea worms.
I finally located a big school of seatrout in a grassy bay just north of Panama City. Sure enough, a large muddy area gave away the presence of a mullet school, and swarms of spotted wonders darted in and out of the melee.
Moving within casting range of the fish, I delivered a juicy shrimp right in its path - which proved irresistible. I worked the deep-running lure slowly across the thick, green grass on the bottom, letting the plunking sound attract attention as it hopped along the sediment. After nabbing the first one (a two-pounder), I caught trout on nearly every cast until they finally got annoyed and jetted off to unknown parts. Moments later, a small tarpon made a pass at my offering but I couldn't get it to bite.
Keep in mind that trout have soft mouths. Ergo, you don't have to set the hook very hard. Also, when you feel a hit but the fish isn't hooked up, let the lure drop so the trout thinks it killed it - more often than not it will return to claim its victim.
BON VOYAGE BONES
Getting a bonefish to complete the Slam is arguably the most challenging of the five species. These skittish fish can be maddeningly tough to catch because you must stalk them with the stealth of a panther and cast with the precision of a dive-bombing pelican. Create the slightest noise or move the bait or lure unnaturally, and the last thing you'll see is the tail of the bonefish waving bye-bye.
The best bet is to choose a rising tide at one of the many ocean or bay flats off Islamorada in the Florida Keys. A live shrimp with the hook threaded through the tail will seldom be turned down. Flies and small lures that imitate shrimp or crabs work well, too. When a bonefish is spotted, move within casting distance and put your offering "on the table" - within sight or smell but not so close it scares it off. Doing this in concert with your guide is the crux of successful bonefishing.
When the bonefish takes the bait and your line tightens, start winding until the hook is set. Then, hold the rod tip high as the fish makes those blitzing, lightning-like runs to deter cutoffs. Pump-and-wind line when the bonefish isn't running away from you. While some outings might result in half a dozen releases, allot several full days to target bonefish to overcome those trips when you come back with only a suntan.
I caught my bonefish for the Backcountry Slam wading; I used to live in The Keys and knew that flat well. But, as with all areas unfamiliar to you, the wise angler hires a guide who knows the waters and best conditions. Guides can relate all those factors to your skill level so you have the highest possible chance of encountering bonefish and registering a release.
I released all catches during my Backcountry Slam pursuit. Take along a de-hooking tool to handle the hook removal with the fish held horizontally in the water. If you sling a fish aboard the boat onto the deck or even using a landing net, it can cause internal injuries and remove the natural protective slime from their scales. I also recommend single-hook lures rather than plugs with treble hooks to reduce damage to the mouth and gills, or you can remove extra hooks from multi-hook lures.
In addition to catches and releases of the targeted Backcountry Slam fish, I caught mackerel, permit, barracuda, pompano, black drum, sheepshead, bluefish, flounder, snappers, jacks and many other species. I enjoyed a splendid mix of local cuisines and interesting eateries. And I came to appreciate more than ever Florida's awesome sport-fishing variety, its wonderful cornucopia of animal life, and the characters I encountered who give each area its unique flavor.
Yes indeed, all that adds up to a lot more than just a breakfast special.
BY THE BOOK
Florida's Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission studies each species and enacts regulations to ensure the health of the resources. The legal limits for a Backcountry Slam are summarized as follows:
• Bonefish are catch and release only. May be caught using hook and line gear only.
• Redfish cannot be less than 18 inches or more than 27, and one may be kept per day.
• Spotted seatrout cannot be less than 15 inches or more than 20; Four per day in South region, six per day in the Northeast and five per day in the Northwest regions.
• Snook cannot be less than 28 inches or more than 32-33; you can keep fish based on where caught if it's not a closed season and you possess a snook stamp. The bag limit is one fish per day in all regions.
• Tarpon allows two keepers per day with no size limit, but a $50 tarpon tag is required for each.
Snook, redfish and seatrout have different regulations based on which part of the state you're in. Unless you qualify for an exemption, you'll need a saltwater fishing license as well.