Our Outdoors: Natural/Unnatural

SnowyEgret
A snowy egret visits the shade under the canopy of the author’s rented skiff, looking for a shrimp dinner from the bait tanks at Stump Pass Marina.

The first few spotted seatrout I picked off the grassy break were respectable for the Don Pedro Island area along the Intracoastal Waterway of Southwest Florida.  At an inch or two under the minimum limit for keeper-sized speckles, these fish provided fast action as the tide rose onto the large flat that ended in a stand of mangroves along the shore two hundred yards away.  My rental skiff turned with the inflowing water, and I moved to the back of the boat to get a better view of happenings over the blue, green and gold bottom where the sunlit depths transitioned over the verdant grass beds and up to the sand bars along the small channel where I was anchored just off the main waterway.

Sporadically, baitfish would break across the surface around the edges of the main sand bar and the school of four-inch fish would scatter out over the flat.  With each surfacing, a splash and slurp would follow behind the fleeing pod, and it was this secondary disturbance in the slightly rippled surface that caught my attention.  I pulled up anchor and tucked along a small cut between the main bar where the action was and the corner where I had been connecting with the smaller trout.  Letting out enough rope, and trimming up the motor to drift the back end of the skiff into the shallows, I followed the obvious edge of a ball of the silvery swirling bait and fired off a cast that reached beyond the school.

Almost instantly, there was that there-but-not-there feeling on the end of the line.  As I picked up the rod tip, it bowed slightly and I set the hook into nothing.  Skipping the small weight and fluorocarbon leader back to the boat, it was obvious I had been quickly picked off by whatever was feeding on the edge of the forage fish.  Spearing another shrimp on the number four hook, I sent it sailing through the air and splashing down with a kerplunk that scared the school of baitfish.  It didn’t spook whatever was behind them, and again my rod tip curled with the weight of a feeding predator.

I swept the rod back and it doubled over.  A gaping mouth came to the surface, shaking in protest and sending water in a wake behind it and a phalanx of frightened baitfish in front of it. 

Trout1
The author releases a 14-inch spotted seatrout back into the waters of the Intracoastal Waterway. 

The hooked fish dove and sprinted toward the boat and wobbled from side to side as my retrieve paced its run.  Nearing the skiff, it flashed a spotted green-and-silver side, a tell-tale sign that it was indeed a larger seatrout that had been feeding on the fish in the shallows.  After a pair of last second flips to avoid capture, I hand-landed the trout and taped it out at 17 inches, a sizeable jump from the smaller speckles that had dominated the morning outing.

A few more would come to hand, with most of them nearing the 15-inch mark, but none as big as the first feeding seatrout that I had found by following the schools of baitfish rising into the shallows with the incoming tide.  Even in new, or unfamiliar areas, forage and natural cues, like breaking baitfish or a rising channel edge still provide clues as to where bigger fish will be located.  Then again, sometimes it is the unnatural things that draw fish in as the rest of the day’s adventures would reveal.

Dropping the last of my shrimp off in a jury-rigged bait bucket, with a lid I secured in place using a roll of old, thick monofilament in the garage of our rental house, I hopped back in the boat and headed down the canal toward the main drag of the waterway.  Keeping with the no-

CanalSnook
A large snook patrols the shallows of a canal off the Intracoastal Waterway.

wake requirement, I used the 10-minute cruise to scout the docks and mangrove edges along the shallow artery of clear water.  Sheepshead and pinfish scattered like summer bluegills on northern waters, but what stoked my adrenaline were the large, slow-moving snook that lazily swam out of the way of the humming motor.  In my three trips to the area, these highly touted game fish had eluded me.

Upon my arrival at the dock, I traded small talk and my trout reports with the hands at Stump Pass Marina who tended to the return of my boat, before I finally asked them about what it would take to catch the huge snook that haunted the canal.

“Heh…luck,” laughed one of the men, before following up with “ladyfish is good too, catch one and cut it up; snook love cut ladyfish.”

With that advice in tow, I ran back to the island, and after dinner, set out with my family to watch the sunset while throwing a few casts into the surf.  The cloudless evening sky presented an almost ho-hum orange sunset in comparison to the previous night’s cloud bank that painted the horizon in a hundred different pastel shades of pink and purple.  The real excitement came when a small ladyfish hit my silver spoon, thrashing and jumping through the foam along the shoreline and was nearly through the final cresting wave when one final leap sent my spoon rattling through the air towards my legs and the fish freed back into the waters of the gulf.  Disheartened by the loss of the potential bait, I was beginning to think that the luck which the dockhand had mentioned would never be with me in my quest for the line-sided snook.

GreenlightX
The eerie green glow of a fish light draws in bait and other prey items for predators like snook. 

With night setting in, I walked out onto the back dock and stared at the green glowing saucers appearing around the canal.  Since our arrival, I was awestruck by the number of fish lights placed in the water around many of the docks just in back of our rental house. The lights are the same ones advertised at the back of each month’s Outdoor Life magazine and are “so effective they’re banned in five states,” including Minnesota. The eerie glow reminded me of scenes from the Stephen King miniseries The Tommyknockers. Like the characters in that movie, each night I was mesmerized by the glow, but even more so by the silhouettes of larger fish moving in and out of the edges of the unnatural circles of green light looking for the attracted prey.

As the last of the evening’s light faded in the western sky, I baited my hook with a shrimp and flung it out as far as my cast could reach, just beyond the green glow of the light positioned out from the neighbor’s dock, and off to the right of my own vantage point.  I tightened the line and twitched the tip a couple of times before a hard tap triggered an instinctive hookset.  The fishing rod arched, then shook violently and I scrambled to adjust the drag as the tension of the charging whatever-it-was on the other end streaked for the middle of the canal.  Able to let off some of the pressure, the drag squealed as line unwound from the spool stoking a flood of adrenaline the likes of which I have only experienced a few times on the water.  After several powerful, heart-pumping runs, I steered the fish toward the dock and the makeshift landing net, a pool skimmer which my mother-in-law brought down when she heard me yell “fish on!”

Turning on its side, the dark-backed fish reflected a bright silver with a long black stripe in the white light of my headlamp, and I made the positive identification that it was, in fact, my first snook.  Exhausted from the battle, it slid easily into the white mesh of the skimmer and I lifted it up onto the wood planking of the canal dock.  After a couple of pictures, I laid down on the dock with the fish in hand, and eased it back into the low tide water at the very end of my reach and watched as its walleye-like silver glowing eyes disappeared somewhere into the shadows between my hand and the green glow of the fish light.  If that first fight was my initiation into the excitement the species brings to those who target them exclusively, the linesider that followed a few casts later would be my complete and total indoctrination into the passion of snook fishing.

The largest shrimp in my bucket was inhaled with a leave-no-doubt kind of freight train take that rattled the two-piece travel rod so hard on the hookset that I expected to see shards of graphite fibers at the connection point when I looked down to adjust the drag.  The fish ran back and forth in front of the unearthly light, casting an oversized snook-shaped shadow on the

Snook1
The author with the largest of two snook caught and released while night fishing along the canal.

surface of the water, like some aquatic Batsignal, before beelining into the darkness, pulling yard after yard of superline from the spool.  It then cut back toward the neighbor’s dock and mangrove stand, and I knew I had to turn the fish or risk losing it to the tangled roots of the shoreline sanctuary.  I tightened the drag and steered the fish with all my might, which was met with great resistance, before I gained the slightest edge which angled the fish away from the structure.

I cranked hard on the reel to regain the line lost in the initial phases of the battle and found a little of that luck discussed earlier in the day when the fish ran toward me.  It darted in and out between the wood posts, but I was able to keep it from wrapping around the barnacle-covered pilings that supported my fishing efforts.  Feeling the battle tilt in my favor, I led the fish into the shallows and lowered the skimmer to the surface.  The bulk of the spent snook flopped into the oblong net, tail hanging seven inches out over the plastic rim.  With some effort, I hoisted it out of the water and onto the dock, before unhooking it and admiring the shimmering sides and long black line that split the fish into two silver halves.  Like the one before it, the bigger snook shook off the effects of the battle and meandered into the darkness after a successful release, eliciting a victory whoop from the depths of my belly that reverberated over the canal.

I’d get no other bites from the shadows that patrolled the edge of the glowing green light, though sometimes there would be three or four of them chasing each other and the unseen baitfish they would snap up near the surface.  After a few more shrimp offerings, I called it an evening and made note of the dozen or so other lights along the canal which undoubtedly provided similar, unnatural opportunities to connect with even more excitement…in our outdoors.

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