Southern Florida – January 19-28, 2017
I would love to return to many of the places I’ve visited but when selecting vacation destinations I tend to choose places I’ve never been before. This trip was an exception. I’d already fished in the Florida Keys and Everglades in 2011, which resulted in 22 new species to my lifelist. Yet with so many other fish species left to chase and the relative ease and low cost of getting to Florida I returned in January 2017…an enjoyable interruption of a northern Michigan winter. I knew I would catch a lot of familiar fish—species caught on previous adventures in Florida, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Belize—but I figured catching 15 to 20 new species was realistic and I set myself an optimistic goal of 25 new species for the trip…
Day 1 – January 19
My flight from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale touched down at around 4pm on January 19. I picked up my suitcase full of fishing gear at baggage claim—the haunting location where a shooter had killed five people less than two weeks earlier—and hopped a taxi to my Motel 6 room in Dania Beach. After checking in I quickly assembled and rigged up my fishing rods and packed a shoulder bag with tackle for the evening. My Canadian fishing friend George Brinkman, whom I first met in Peru (Peru Trip Blog), spends his winters in Florida and was out fishing on the Dania Beach Pier. I called his cell and let him know I was on my way. Having strategically selected a cheap hotel within walking distance, I was able to reach the pier on foot in about thirty minutes.
I picked up some snacks, drinks and bait at the pier shop and walked out to the end, where I found George in his khaki fishing shirt and hat, unhooking a Bandtail Puffer. He complained that the bite was slow except for those ubiquitous little puffers, but it would be a new species for me so I was excited to get started.
I added small pieces of squid to my weighted Sabiki rig and dropped it down near the bridge piling into the dark blue water. I felt the sinker hit the sandy bottom and immediately the light nibbles of fish attacking the bait. I missed the first few bites and had to add new bait a few times but soon reeled up my first species of the trip, my own Bandtail Puffer. My next fish put up a better fight—a small Redtail Parrotfish (a species I’d already caught in Belize).
The bite was slow, except for tiny fish. While we waited George dazzled me with stories of his adventures around the world—from fishing tigerfish and viewing iconic wildlife in Africa, to the multi-species angling paradise that is Mazatlán, Mexico, to chasing minnows and darters near his home in Ontario. As the sun set and sky darkened we began to catch more fish, including a mix of small Lane Snapper, Yellowtail Snapper, White Grunt, Tomtate and Sailors Choice. That Bandtail Puffer turned out to be my only new addition on Day 1.
We left the pier soon after nightfall and hopped in George’s car. We shared a delicious pizza at Antonio’s Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant and made a stop at Publix for breakfast food before going back to the hotel. We went to sleep early―the next day would be a full day of fishing.
Day 2 – January 20
It was still dark at 5am, but we quickly ate muffins and bananas in the hotel room before jumping in the car and driving up to Anglin’s Pier, which George said had a lot of different species that are not usually found at Dania Beach Pier. I was alarmed to realize we would not be stopping for coffee, but as it turned out I survived. The parking fee was exorbitant, but there was no avoiding it. I snapped a few photos of the pier from the beach and then we walked out and set up. Anglers were already fishing, or capturing bait for deep-sea fishing, and an army of pelicans and fish crows necessitated careful guarding of our bait supplies. The water was clear and the bottom a mosaic of reef structure and sand patches. With polarized sunglasses I could see fish everywhere, including some gaudy Rainbow Parrotfish that neither George nor I had ever caught.
My first few fish were Redtail Parrotfish and Scrawled Filefish, which swarmed near the surface. I also got a Stoplight Parrotfish that I was happy about because it was a larger, more colorful specimen and a definite upgrade from my old photos of the species. At the end of the pier I hooked into a scrappy fish near the bottom and pulled up my first new species of the day – a beautiful Porkfish.
George spotted a herd of cowfish and trunkfish, strangely-patterned and oddly-shaped fishes with an unusual hard shell. They have frustratingly small mouths and although they attacked my bait I struggled to hook one. They hung around in the same spot for a long time, though, and after much effort and patience I finally hooked and landed my first Scrawled Cowfish. There were probably other new species there to get, but I was distracted when a school of large fish moved in. I think they were Snook, and I tried casting lures and larger baits ahead of and then through the school but they showed no interest and soon they were gone. With a large chunk of bait still attached to a larger hook, I fished up one of the Needlefish that was schooling near the surface. I hoped it would be an Atlantic Needlefish, which would’ve been a new species, but it was a Houndfish.
By mid-morning the hot sun was becoming a bit oppressive, but we kept fishing. I moved to shallower water and dropped Sabiki rigs along the reef structures and the technique paid off with a pair of new species – Redband Parrotfish and Longfin Damselfish. I also caught a mix of wrasse species including Slippery Dick, Blackear Wrasse and Bluehead.
At around 1pm the fishing slowed and George wanted to take me to a few other spots. So we packed up and left the pier, grabbed some fast food, and tried fishing the Pompano Beach Inlet. There we found mostly Tomtate, but I got another new species – Cocoa Damselfish. At that spot, George also managed to catch the largest Scrawled Filefish I’ve ever seen.
After an hour we moved north again, this time to a canal in Silver Palm. George had gotten a tip from a friend that were Silver Jenny and Smallmouth Grunt at this location, and he had indeed gotten his own from this very spot. I quickly got a few Silver Jenny, which schooled near the boat launch, but the Smallmouth Grunt was a very difficult fish to find. I weeded through French Grunt, Porkfish, Sailors Choice, Yellowtail Snapper, Gray Snapper, and Lane Snapper before after two hours of targeted effort I pulled up a different looking fish that was the one I was after. George and I high-fived and hollered in celebration, and even some local anglers that were curiously watching my pursuit of this tiny fish cheered and congratulated me when I finally got one.
By that point it was dusk, so we fished another thirty minutes until dark. I caught a Blue Runner and saw some Spotted Eagle Ray cruising the clear shallows before we called it a night and headed to a nearby Denny’s for dinner. After that, we stopped at Publix to resupply. This time I bought a big jug of cold press coffee.
Day 3 – January 21
We started our third day at dawn on the Dania Beach Pier. One of my first fish was tiny, but a new species, the Downy Blenny. George and I caught lots of grunts, small snappers, parrotfish, Bandtail Puffer and wrasses but the new species were slow to come. I did get my first Ocean Surgeonfish. George caught a Spottail Pinfish that would have been a lifer for me but I couldn’t manage to catch my own.
In the heat of the mid-morning sun we decided to move on to new fishing spots. We stopped at Hertz so I could pick up my rental car since George would be heading back to Sebring later in the day and I would spend the next week fishing solo. But first he had some spots to show me where I could find some new micro species. I followed him to a freshwater pond in a park not far from Dania Beach. The target here was Inland Silverside, which I eventually caught on a size 26 hook and fleck of worm after getting a few Spotted Tilapia and Sheepshead Minnow on the same.
The second spot wasn’t far away―a boardwalk through some mangroves where we quickly located schools of Mangrove Gambusia. It took mere seconds to land and photograph my first. Mission accomplished. We hit the road again, grabbed some food at Burger King, and hit the highway west into the everglades. I followed George to a park along a freshwater canal and dipped my micro rig under the dock by a boat launch. A small fish attacked and I quickly pulled up what at first I dismissed as a Green Sunfish until I examined a little closer and realized I had caught the fish I was after – African Jewel Cichlid. I took photos and kept fishing a little longer and caught a few more of the small cichlids. When I pulled in a colorful male specimen I was ready for the next spot, just a few miles down the road, where George promised I would catch Seminole Killifish. The boat lunch was packed with people, but we found a quieter spot to fish and indeed caught several Seminole Killifish. I also caught a shiner that I hoped would be a new species, but after further review turned out to be a Coastal Shiner (which I’d previously caught in South Carolina).
By mid-afternoon George had to get home, but I stayed and casted spinners for a while in hopes of catching a Butterfly Peacock Bass. I caught plenty of fish on lures including feisty Dollar Sunfish, Warmouth and a few small Florida Largemouth Bass (a new subspecies for me, but I only count full species on my lifelist), but no peacocks. I wanted to save enough daylight to fish the Dania Beach Pier again in the evening so I headed back to the city.
When I arrived at Dania Beach Pier a couple hours before sunset I encountered a stiff south wind pushing waves up the coast and the bottom was no longer visible. At the end of the pier mackerel fisherman had some success, and I jealously watched as two big Spanish Mackerel were landed. Other anglers were aggressively jigging unbaited but heavily-weighted Sabiki rigs through the middle water column. To my surprise they had a lot of success catching Ballyhoo. I hunkered over my tackle bag to prevent the wind from blowing my stuff away and tied on a Sabiki rig and attached a 1-ounce pyramid weight to the bottom swivel. I tossed the rig into the school of Ballyhoo and emulated the technique of those around me. I struggled to get a bite, while others pulled in fish after fish. But I remained determined and finally felt a fish on when I lifted up. I pulled the small silvery fish up and over the railing. It was a hard-won victory for a cool looking species.
With Ballyhoo checked off I relaxed a bit and switched to a baited Sabiki rig on the bottom. My first fish was a tiny little brown damselfish that turned out to be a new one, the Dusky Damselfish―my eighth species on the day. I got a few small snapper and puffers before dark but the bite was relatively slow. In the dark, I pulled in an Atlantic Bumper. A would-be new species. But, examining the fish in the light of my flashlight I determined I could not in good faith count it as a legitimate catch and I remain confused about how I ended up with the fish in my hand. None of the six hooks on my Sabiki rig were in the fish’s mouth. However, the fish had swallowed a hook and there was a line coming out of its mouth, which my rig must have somehow snagged. I removed the hook, took pictures, and tossed the fish back into dark. I tried fishing a bit longer, hoping to legitimately catch an Atlantic Bumper, but I grew progressively colder and hungrier and when I snagged up and broke off I opted not to rig up again.
I decided to dine and grab a beer at the Quarterdeck Restaurant at the base of the pier. I ordered a mixed sushi plate and it was delicious and a rare treat. It’s hard to find good sushi in northern Michigan…
Day 4 – January 22
I fished the Dania Beach Pier again in the morning from daybreak to about ten so I could check out of my hotel room by eleven. It was another sunny morning and the wind had died off. I caught several big Porkfish and a mix of Slippery Dick, Doctorfish, and Bandtail Puffer near the deep end of the pier. I also got two Planehead Filefish, which was another new species! On the way out I tried a couple casts into the breaking surf and pulled out a couple of Slender Mojarra.
After checking out of my hotel and loading my stuff in the rental car I hit the highway with windows down and music blasting. A mid-January day in southern Florida is hard to beat. It took a couple hours to reach my next destination, a spot on the Tamiami Canal that I had actually fished before. I spotted an alligator lurking underwater near the shoreline so kept my distance as I casted a few lures for Peacock Bass, which I again failed to catch. I did get some cichlids, sunfish and Florida Largemouth Bass on nightcrawlers before moving on further west down the canal, which runs east-west between the Miami metro area and Naples.
I stopped at a few places briefly before spending some time fishing at a spot that was loaded with dozens of Florida Gar and various cichlids. I set up a camera and filmed some video as I caught an Oscar and small Florida Gar on a piece of sunfish cutbait. The Oscar were aggressive and I managed to catch about five at that spot before continuing west.
I stopped at Monroe station, a spot on the Tamiami Canal where my friends Ken and Ben had caught invasive Walking Catfish. I tried fishing the spot but didn’t see any sign of the catfish. I wasn’t surprised by that, as they are a nocturnal species. I decided I would return to the spot after dark and try for one and moved on to fish the canal paralleling Highway 29 near Copeland. There I found some giant Mayan Cichlid and Spotted Tilapia, which battled great on light tackle. I had caught both species, but was happy to upgrade my lifelist with larger specimens and better photographs for each. I also caught a Hardhead Catfish on a bottom-fished worm as the sun set over the marsh.
At dark, I returned to Monroe Station and set two lines baited with whole worms near a culvert opening. I left them and walked away to shine a different stretch of the canal with my flashlight and saw catfish scurrying from the light. I also observed cichlids hovering still along the stream margins. I might have been able to grab one with bare hands, but in alligator country I didn’t want to mess around too close to the water’s edge. After ten minutes I returned to check my lines, and the first one had a fish on! It was a Walking Catfish. With the combination of a flashlight held between my teeth and the LED light on my Olympus camera I was able to take acceptable night photographs of the slimy, scale-less fish. Easier said than done. I was fortunate to avoid getting pricked by its sharp dorsal or pectoral fin spines. Ben told me later he had gotten stuck by one and it stung pretty good.
I pulled in my second rod and found another Walking Catfish on the other end. This one I unhooked and returned to the water quickly. The mosquitoes were eating me up and, objective met, I fled to the car. I made the short drive to Everglade’s City and checked into my second-floor room at Captain’s Table Hotel. Then I walked the town and found a place to eat fish and chips, key lime pie, and watch the Patriots defeat the Steelers in an NFL playoff match-up. As Tom Brady would go on to complete his “revenge tour”, ultimately leading to another Super Bowl ring, I realized this trip was in a way my own revenge tour…a single-minded, laser-focus marathon pursuit of any fish species that had eluded me in all my previous fishing trips in Atlantic and Caribbean waters. And, so far, it was going well.
I enjoyed the rush of wind and starry sky overhead as I walked back to the hotel. Exhausted, I went to bed soon after reaching my room. But I was jolted awake at about 3am by a blast of thunder and lightning. The wind was roaring furiously now, and the room was alarmingly dark and quiet. No air conditioning, no lights…the power was out. It sounded like the palm trees outside could snap in half at any moment, and fronds were indeed breaking off and blowing away. I checked the weather on my clumsy flip phone and saw there was a tornado warning in effect for the area. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked, again and again. The hotel was only a few feet above sea level and there was nowhere to hide if a tornado hit. I somehow managed to fall back asleep. I later learned that local winds had reached about 70 mph and a rash of tornadoes had indeed touched down further north, from the Tampa Bay area all the way into southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.
Day 5 – January 23
It was still windy the next morning and the streets were littered with palm fronds. I left the hotel in the dark and grabbed a quick breakfast in Naples before continuing to Sanibel Island. When the sky lightened the clouds looked ominous but passed by the time I reached the Sanibel Island pier. The wind remained strong throughout the day, blowing steadily and frustratingly at 25-30 mph. I had originally planned on splitting a shark-fishing charter out of Tampa with George this day, but that had been called off due to the high wind.
The pier was short and the water shallow and turbid. Fortunately, the pier was on the sheltered side of Sanibel Island, but even so it was nearly unfishable in the wind. I can deal with the beating sun, with rain, with cold and snow and biting bugs. But the element that really drives me nuts fishing is a strong wind. Like a rude stranger, the wind unceasingly shoved at me, moved my belongings without invitation, and even tried to rip the shirt from my back whenever I bent over to rig up, bait a hook or pick up a rod. It blew my casts off target, then caught the line in a loop and dragged my bait out of place and into the shallows. It made it nearly impossible to detect a light bite, and it blew floating debris into my line, forcing me to check my rigs regularly.
Nevertheless, I caught a few fish on Sabiki rigs baited with squid and shrimp and attached to the largest pyramid sinkers I had. I tried fishing large chunks of cutbait for sharks and rays but had no action on the heavy gear. My catches at the Sanibel Island Pier included six Hardhead Catfish, three Lane Snapper and a Sand Perch. No new species. I had been hoping for Sheepshead and Gafftopsail Catfish in particular, but had no luck on that front.
After a few hours in that tortuous wind I packed it up and enjoyed a donut and coffee in the peaceful stillness of an indoor café. The other spot I wanted to try on Sanibel Island was the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where several culverts connect channels through the mangroves and fishing is allowed. I resupplied at a tackle shop and then headed to the refuge. It was a minimal $5 vehicle fee to enter and mangrove trees offered refuge from the relentless wind.
I saw some small snappers at the first spot, along with some micro fish that I thought could be something new. I tried for the micros and got one, but it turned out to be a bread-and-butter Eastern Mosquitofish. At spot number two along the wildlife drive I cast a soft-plastic lure and hooked into a small barracuda. I wasn’t using a wire leader and it bit through the line near shore. I also tried lures and soaked pieces of shrimp and squid in a deep hole at the outlet of a culvert. It looked like a promising spot, but all I managed to catch was a single Gray Snapper. The bird-watching, however, was excellent.
A bit further down the road I saw some needlefish, and I got one to hit an unweighted piece of shrimp skimmed along the surface. I reeled the fish in, hoping it would be an Atlantic Needlefish, but it was a Redfin Needlefish―another species I’d already caught. I noticed some small gobies, tiny Sheepshead and other micro-sized fish in the shallows near some oyster shells and spent quite a bit of time trying for them. I did manage my first Crested Goby, a jet-black and stocky male. I also caught some small mojarra, which from subtle characteristics and range maps I’ve determined must be Spotfin Mojarra―new species #2 on the day! I failed to get the juvenile Sheepshead to show interest in my bait and after a brief rain shower rolled through I decided to move to the next location.
It was late in the day when I got to the next spot and I snapped several photos of the mangrove scenery. This culvert also featured a nice, deep hole with lots of current and eddies. It looked like a great spot. Several other anglers were fishing there but I had plenty of room. After losing a few rigs to snags, I found some better spots to cast and started catching some really nice Gray Snapper. I hooked and lost several nice fish of which I’ll never know the identity, but it was definitely an enjoyable evening to be outside.
I stopped at Olive Garden in Naples on the way back to Everglades City for a big meal, including enough leftovers for breakfast (thanks Mom, for the gift card!). That night was calm and I had a good sleep.
Day 6 – January 24
It was light out, for a change, when I hit the road on my sixth day of the trip. Before leaving town I fished under the bridge just north of Everglades City and caught a few more Crested Goby, but nothing else. My next stop for the day was a roadside ditch in Homestead, where friends had given me coordinates to a spot with Black Acara and several tilapia species. I wound my way inefficiently through the suburbs of Miami, following large-scale paper maps, and after a few wrong turns finally found the spot. It was indeed an urban roadside ditch, complete with tires, plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups and other litter. But there were fish there too.
My first catch was small Blue Tilapia―my 375th all-time fish species. I ended up catching several of those and a few Mayan Cichlid and Bluegill, but no Black Acara. I tried another spot a few miles down the road, along a palm plantation, and saw Black Acara. However, they were spooky and wouldn’t bite. Eventually I decided to give up. My next destination was the Florida Keys, and with so many potential species awaiting me there I couldn’t afford any more time on this one species.
It took a few hours to pass through southeast Florida and along US Highway 1 through the Keys to reach the Channel 5 Bridge. George had advised budgeting at least one full day to this spot, as there were just so many species inhabiting the area. I spent the afternoon and evening there and fished until dark. In the aftermath of the recent winds, the water was unusually turbid and brown and full of floating seaweed that hung up on the lines constantly. It made for challenging fishing conditions but I caught several fish. However, they were all species I’d caught before―White Grunt, Porkfish, Bermuda Chub, Yellowtail Snapper, and Gray Snapper.
At nightfall I drove to Sugarloaf Key and set up my tent at the KAO. Surrounded by RVs, I was one of the few tent campers. I was thankful it was neither windy nor buggy. With my sleeping situation all set up, I drove into Key West for dinner and breakfast supplies before returning to camp to sleep.
Day 7 – January 25
I packed a lot of fishing in on January 25 and caught twelve fish species, but only one new addition to my lifelist. Despite the mild disappointment of not getting more than one new species it was a very fun day overall.
I kicked the day off at dawn at the north side of Scout Key, where there is a rectangular concrete seawall that can be walked out on to reach deeper water. It was a spot I fished in 2011, where I had landed several new species including Gag, Southern Puffer and three species of porgy. The water was up, and to reach the very end I had to wade through ankle-deep water. I took off my shoes and socks to keep them dry and carried my stuff across. The broken concrete and coral chunks made for painful footing and it was slow going with lots of grimacing.
I put my shoes back on when I reached the dry ground beyond. I started fishing a Sabiki and caught some Lane Snapper, Yellowtail Snapper and Grass Porgy, then rigged up a heavy rig with wire leader and attached some cutbait porgy. I tossed the big bait into the deeper channel and set the bait-clicker, then resumed fishing the Sabiki. Within minutes the tip of the heavy rod bounced and I heard the spool click as something took line. The rod continued to bounce and I picked it up. Sensing a big fish, I reeled to disengage the bait-clicker and set the hook into a powerful fish. It felt pretty big, maybe a shark. I could feel the rapid beating of the fish’s tail through the rod as it raced back and forth, yet unseen in the dark blue water. Then I could feel nothing but a solid, stuck weight. I must have caught up on rock. Fortunately, after yanking on the rod from a few different angles, the fish was back in open water and I was free to reel it in. I was honestly shocked when I saw the fish’s size. I was expecting something three or four feet long, but what I had was a modest Bar Jack of about 20 inches. Not a new species, but a personal best. I added fresh bait and cast the line back out. Minutes later I hooked up with and landed a second hard-fighting Bar Jack.
But then the bite slowed so I packed up. This time I walked back through the water in my shoes and socks. Walking back towards the car I noticed a school of Rainbow Parrotfish grazing on coral in the sheltered water. I tied a quick rig and tossed a lightly weighted line with a single hook baited with shrimp into their midst. The cast spooked them, so I left the bait there and waited for them to return. They did, but ended up grazing around my ignored bait. I did catch some mojarra and a Redfin Needlefish.
I returned to the KOA and walked the waterfront along the campground marina. This was a no fishing zone, but I saw a juvenile Nurse Shark cruising and schools of silvery baitfish that would have been new species. I grabbed some lunch and Gatorade at the camp store and then walked up to fish the bridge connecting Sugarloaf Key and Cudjoe Key.
The tide was low and the sun high, so I could see the bottom reef structure across the western end of the bridge. I pulled off my shoes and socks to let them dry in the direct sun and dropped a Sabiki rig baited with shrimp. I pulled in multiple fish per drop, mostly Pinfish and White Grunt. But on one lucky drop I was pleasantly surprised by a hard-fighting Blue Parrotfish that appeared from the shadow of the bridge piling to take a baited hook. I delicately hoisted the beautiful fish up and over the concrete bridge railing and snapped several photos before releasing it.
Anglers fishing deeper water in the channel east of where I was fishing later hooked into a Bonnethead. With the current of an outgoing tide and the imprecision of operating a bridge net that’s swinging in the wind it took them a while to land the energetic shark.
I continued using Sabiki rigs and landed a mix of grunts, Lane Snapper and Yellowtail Snapper in the deeper side of the channel. Sensing that additional species might be few and far between at that site and time, I decided to pack it up to allow time to fish the No Name Bridge in the evening. No Name was a spot I fished in 2011 and really enjoyed, and several of my fishing friends have had great luck with multiple species there. I fished there a couple hours until dark but failed to get any new species. I caught mostly Tomtate, and also some Porkfish, Pinfish, Bandtail Puffer, White Grunt, Sailors Choice and Yellowtail Snapper. I had shark lines out, baited with live or cut grunts, but had no action on the big rods.
After fishing I ate dinner at No Name Pub, an out-of-the-way venue worth finding, where the walls and ceiling are fully covered with layers of dollar bills left by patrons. I got the seafood basket (I have the strange habit of ordering calamari and shrimp after using raw and frequently rancid squid and shrimp as bait all day…not really realizing what I’ve done until the food arrives on my table) and when I finished eating I penned “lifelistfishing.com” on a bill and left it for the walls, where it would join the dollar I’d left about five years earlier.
Day 8 – January 26
I crawled out of my tent at daybreak and headed back to the No Name Bridge. The air was calm but the tide was ripping in between the bridge pilings. It didn’t take long to hook into something a bit heavier than the fish I was catching the previous evening. It turned out to be a juvenile Bonnethead―my first shark of the trip. Luckily the hook caught the lip because it took a basic light rig with no wire leader.
I dropped a baited Sabiki down and caught a few grunts and Pinfish for bait, then set up a couple shark rods. Having just landed a shark I was very hopeful I would get more shark action…perhaps my first Lemon Shark or Nurse Shark, but the big baits went untouched. I did continue to pull in fish after fish on the Sabiki, weeding through puffers and mixed grunts to catch two new lifers: Gray Triggerfish and, finally, my first Atlantic Needlefish.
By 11am the sun was beating down hot and I was getting hungry and with the slack tide the action had slowed. I grabbed pizza at No Name Pub before heading to Scout Key, where I could fish in the shade of the Bahia Honda Bridge.
The tides were heading back out and I could see lots of fish in the shallow water, in the current over a gravel substrate. In a way it almost felt like stream fishing. I started with micro hooks for what I think were Bay Anchovy but they didn’t bite. I did catch my second Scrawled Cowfish and various grunts, damselfishes, wrasses and Pinfish. I attached a small live Pinfish to a shark rod and heaved it out as far as I could into the deep blue water of the channel between the new and old bridges. Within a few minutes I got a strong hit on that rod, and set the hook into a strong fish. After a great battle I could see that I had hooked another nice jack. Upon hoisting it from the water onto the concrete I suspected this wasn’t a Bar Jack. The back was greenish-yellow and it lacked the black stripe of the Bar Jack. I took several pictures of the fish from different angles, and was later able to confirm that I had caught my first Yellow Jack!
I moved to the southern side of Scout Key to a place I’d spent a lot of time fishing back in 2011. The fish were plentiful, but just a mix of smallish species that I’d caught before. It was a hot day and I was beat, so I packed up the fishing gear in late afternoon and found a new place to grab a drink. At dusk, I pulled over to check out one final spot before heading back to camp and to my surprise found a Nurse Shark cruising the shallows. It got me excited enough to rig up and fish again. I spent an hour there but caught nothing but Yellowtail Snapper, Tomtate and Bluestriped Grunt. In the day’s last light I laid back and watched a curious white heron as I waited for a bite on the big rod, which never came.
That evening at the KOA I kicked back, had a couple drinks at the camp bar—where people were bowling with coconuts—and watched/played along to Jeopardy with some strangers.
Day 9 – January 27
My alarm went off in the dark and I quickly broke down the tent and threw my stuff in the car. My time at KOA was up and I was headed back to Dania Beach for the night. But first, I intended to fish the Channel 5 Bridge again. The fishing was so good there that I ended up fishing it for nearly 12 hours straight.
The water had cleared up since the day I arrived in the Keys, and the action was hot to start the morning. One of my first catches was a Gray Angelfish, which fought hard and was a larger fish than I expected. I ended up catching two of those beautiful fish. Between Porkfish and White Grunt I also pulled up a Midnight Parrotfish. This was an envied catch, and several of my friends (including George) have since gone back to the spot specifically to catch their own.
Later that morning I moved to the deeper end of the pier, where I caught lots of big White Grunt and Gray Snapper. When the tides went still the action slowed and I relaxed in the shade with a couple big baits out. I checked my lines after twenty minutes of inactivity. There was a lot of seaweed floating around, so I was used to the extra weight of weeds hung up on the line. But this time the extra weight was a Spotted Moray! This was a fish I was doubly pleased to add to my lifelist because it was a species I had hooked and narrowly lost in Belize a few years back.
Whereas the Spotted Moray didn’t provide any indication that I was getting a bite, my next fish did. I jumped up with the “zip” of the bait-clicker and saw the rod tip bounce. The fish pulled more line, a little at a time, and I picked up the rod and reeled half a crank. When I felt a heaviness build I pulled back and set the hook into what was obviously the biggest thing I’d hooked all week. It went on a powerful run, peeling line, and I saw a big swirl at the surface along with the tail fin of a shark. I couldn’t tell which species of shark it was until I got it in closer, but after a tug-of-war battle I saw it was another Bonnethead. When I wore the fish out, I put on my “cut-proof” gloves and struggled to heft the shark up, pulling in the 80# braided line hand-over-hand. If it had been any larger I would have been in trouble. But I was able to land the Bonnethead and snap a few photos before releasing it.
I cast the big bait to the same spot and a few minutes later got yet another good hit. I hooked into another nice fish, admittedly expecting another Bonnethead, but was shocked when I saw a big catfish leap from the water. It was a shorter fight and a smaller fish than the Bonnethead, but I was very pleased to pull up my first Gafftopsail Catfish!
During the evening hours I tried again along the shallower end of the pier. I could see schools of quick fish near the surface, and I tossed in some pieces of bait to keep them in the area. I removed the weight from my Sabiki and lowered it into the water, where I let it drift slowly down. Fish darted in and grabbed it, and the first one I hooked was a Blue Runner. I used it for shark bait and tossed out a big line while I resumed with the light rig. There were fish mixed in that school that were different from the energetic Blue Runner, and when I finally got one to bite I was excited to land a Leatherjack. My fifth new species of the day!
When the sun dipped behind the horizon I returned to the end of the pier one last time to try for sharks in the dark. In the last light of the day I landed a few White Grunt and a small Graysby. Then I packed up the small rod and laid back to look at the stars while I waited for something to grab my shark baits. I gave it about an hour but the line remained still. With a couple-hour drive to Dania Beach ahead I called it a day. As I walked the long pier back to the car I enjoyed the sea breeze, the starry sky, and the magical sound of huge Tarpon splashing all around in the dark.
Day 10 – January 28
Having arrived at the Dania Beach Motel 6 late the previous night, I relished sleeping in on my last full day in Florida. I returned my rental car at 10am and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at IHOP before walking to Dania Beach Pier for one final session of fishing.
I caught lots of fish but many familiar species. Folks next to me caught Black Margate, a potential new species for me, on live shrimp but I did not catch my own. I again caught a mix of grunts, wrasses, parrotfish, damselfish, mojarra, Bandtail Puffer, and Doctorfish. Late in the day I was rewarded with one last new species, a Smooth Trunkfish that I sight-fished from the shadow of one of the shallow pilings.
At sunset, exhausted from ten nonstop days of fishing and driving back and forth across southern Florida, I packed up my fishing equipment one last time. I returned to the Quarterdeck Restaurant for another sushi roll. This time I enjoyed a few beers and pulled out the yellow write-in-the-rain notebook I had used to keep tally of all my catches. To this point I had only a vague idea of my fishing stats for the trip. I did the math, sipping on celebratory IPAs, and compiled all the species into a list and added up the counts for each.
Even by my standards, I was surprised by the results:
- 76 fish species in 10 days
- 31 new species (boosting me to 386 lifetime species)
- 419 total fish caught in 78 hours of fishing.
It was a marathon week of fishing and I will be hard pressed to ever repeat or exceed numbers like that on a fishing trip. But, of course, I will try…