The gentle up-and-down motion of the gulf waters against our walk-on charter boat sitting a few miles off the coast played with the thick line of my borrowed saltwater setup. Between my brother and brother- in-law, I watched for the tap-tap-tap coming up from 100 feet below on the beefy monofilament, and from time to time glanced at theirs to see if I was missing anything. Shortly after the 75-minute cruise to our fishing spot had ended, I realized I was, as my line angled off to the right, under my brother’s pole on my very first drop down.
There were schools of swirling triggerfish below, which managed to tangle 10 or more lines along the side of our boat, including mine on the first bite of our first stop. Much like under the ice when a northern pike comes charging in, swims and dashes through all the deadstick or bobber setups, everyone was caught in the swirl of the gray, three-pound panfish hanging at the side of the boat, including me. Luckily, my rig was the first to reach the deckhand’s knife, and my re-tied offering was back in the water just before the captain blew the horn, our signal to head out and on to another wreck sunk decades before to sustain the gulf tourist fishery.
As triggerfish were out of season and becoming a bit of a nightmare for the three mates who spent most of their time untangling — or cutting and retying — a two-hook dropper setup on top of a one-pound chunk of lead, the captain made the call after all of the maddening action to head to another nearby artificial reef. There, through the blue waters, streaks of pink shot to the surface almost immediately, as a school of mingo snapper — what our party hoped to find from previous Thanksgiving week outings on the Florida panhandle — was pegged underneath us. Our cut squid and mackerel chunks were all it took to elicit takes down the telephone wire of fishing line, and we began to pattern the fish, with some guidance from the captain, by letting them impale themselves on the large circle hooks, and just reeling when we felt the tension after the taps, and avoiding the more ingrained hookset motion that comes with a lifetime of angling for walleye and bass in northern waters.
“People say that a lot to me, and I tell them ‘there’s not a single largemouth bass in this pond,'” he said with a laugh, “just reel, reel, reel,” and we did.
Along with Devin, a Tallahassee-based graphic designer tucked in at the back corner of the boat with us, the four of us began a blur of fish that filled our coolers, bringing sets of one- to two-pound mingos on board with the occasional white porgy mixed in. Watching Devin’s rod, and mimicking his early success with a brace of larger mingos, we refined our patterns, as he lay his weight directly on the bottom, and kept as semi-tight of a line as he could in the light rise-and-fall of the water. Whittling the baits down, we found the fish preferred the greasy blue-skinned mackerel almost 2-to-1, and it seemed as if the toughest, stringiest pieces of meat were the most attractive to the deep-schooling fish below, even well after the majority of the flesh had been picked free of the hook. The big fish held at the bottom of the school, and we brought them up in rapid succession.
Spending 45 minutes on the wreck, and success coming from around the boat, the horn honked to a collective groan from the three of us who had boated 40 fish, and kept 15 nice ones for what would be the true Thanksgiving feast for our family group of 12 people back on shore. It would be our lucky stop for the day, as wreck three produced no bites and a short stayover before the horn sounded. Our fourth station produced action, but no keepers, as triggerfish reappeared with red snapper, and my brother in law made short work identifying what was below, as both species appeared on his two-hook rig at the same time, making for an interesting retrieve.
At the sounding of the horn, my brother reeled in a nice red snapper that the deckhand released and we were headed back in to shore. While the waters and the fish were certainly different, the methods weren’t too far off from previous experiences back at home, and adjusting and fine-tuning — and maybe a little line-spying — to figure out the pattern paid off, once again serving as a reminder that adaptability and finding new ways, or remembering old ones, is key to catching fish no matter where we might find ourselves…in our outdoors.