Five days on the flats

KEY LARGO, FLORIDA-A fast-moving flash a few feet from the boat announced the presence of a shark, perhaps 5 feet or more in length. The water depth was less than 5 feet, a perfect setting for the remarkable show that was just beginning to develop.

Suddenly, silently another shark darted quickly down the opposite side of the boat. Almost in unison two anglers, Mort Bank and Mark Braun, both from Bismarck, called out the presence of the toothy predators.

Then a third and smaller shark appeared. Then a fourth. Then the clicker from the reel on a heavy rod baited with barracuda meat began singing as line was pulled rapidly off the reel. Getting an accurate count of sharks now was impossible. They were moving much too quickly to track. Braun tussled against the heavy pulling of a black-tipped shark to remove the rod from a holder at the back of the boat.

“It’s a frenzy, a shark feeding frenzy,” said Bank while quickly baiting a second shark rod with barracuda meat.

There was no time, no reason, to hook up a bobber. Bank flipped the barracuda meat into the water about 15 feet from the boat. It was snapped up by a rapidly swimming shark as soon as it hit the water. Now two sharks were hooked.

I had my camera out, taking pictures, but I also had to help clear the boat of any obstacles that might interfere with a shark battle. Lures were covered in protective wraps to prevent accidental contact with sharp hooks. Rods were placed in covered rod lockers or in vertical holders. The cooler, tackle boxes and other items were moved out of the way so the fishermen could move around the boat without stumbling over equipment. At that point, the sharks were in control, not the fishermen.

After several minutes Braun announced that his shark was under control, but the fight would last much longer. Bank’s shark was the smaller of the two and presented a more manageable battle – if that is possible with fearsome predators. It took 20 to 30 minutes from the time of the first hook-up until the heavy leaders were cut just above the hooks and the sharks were released. Corrosive saltwater would make short work of the hardware.

“Now it’s your turn,” Braun told me as he reached for another chunk of barracuda meat.

Braun swung the bobber, hook and bait into the air and we watched as it settled onto the water. Conversation about the shark double had just begun when the clicker declared another shark was on the line.

I struggled for a moment to lift the rod out of the holder. When I did there was no feeling of a fish on the other end. Uh-oh! The shark was headed straight for me. I reeled quickly with the big bait caster and the tension returned to the line. The shark didn’t care much for that. I could feel his head thrashing from side to side as he came into view.

Good, I thought. He’s not too big to handle. A battle with a big shark can last two hours or more. This one was small enough, perhaps 4 feet long, and reluctantly came in within minutes. Braun cut the leader and the shark “triple” was complete.

Knowing the water was churned up with the presence of sharks that would drive off other gamefish, we decided to move to another location. When I reached for the rope and metal clasp that held our chum, an assortment of barracuda and Jack Cravalle caught earlier in the day, I discovered only a snap was attached to the boat cleat. While we were occupied with three sharks others made off with the carcasses we were using to attract them – hardware included. It was a vivid reminder of reel life on the flats.

The day had begun as most do in the Florida Keys, with near ideal weather. The temperature was 79 degrees and the wind less than 10 mph. The first goal was to catch some barracuda, or whatever would bite, and then use the fish for bait and chum for sharks later in the day.

Within sight of tall palm trees and the ever-present mangroves, catching barracuda on the famed flats was not difficult this day. The tide would not be going out for a few more hours. There were multiple follows, sightings and catches. Because of the shallow water, from 18 inches to 3 feet, top water lures were effective. So too were shallow running baits retrieved at high speed. With the exception of the occasional manatee, sea turtle or sting ray, nothing moves slowly in the ocean.

Best boat name today: Rust Bucket.

Day 2

The wind on day two was a mixture of east and southeast, typical for the Keys. The temperature was a perfect 81 degrees. The plan was to fish at one of the long bridges that connects the Keys. Fish sometimes take up ambush positions near the bridge in the hopes of surprising an unsuspecting meal swimming past. Other fish, such as large tarpon and Jack Cravalle, sometimes utilize the passageways between the pillars.

The action was slow for the first half hour. Then Bank set the hook on a fish that, by all appearance, was about to snap his fishing rod into small pieces. It was man against fish. Bank knew he had hooked into a grouper and had to keep that fish from diving back to the bottom where the line would become tangled in a bridge piling or cut by coral. It was no easy task.

Hooking into a grouper, even a 5-pounder, is like trying to pull a weight set out of deep mud. Grouper are powerful, powerful fish. A fisherman who hesitates against a grouper will lose far more often than not. Bank held tight, hoping that his 30-pound test line would be up to the task. Braun and I watched as Bank cranked and tugged on that grouper.

“Grouper, big grouper,” said Bank.

Indeed it was. As I first saw the head of the huge grouper come into view a couple feet below the surface, I also saw a flash of another fish passing quickly alongside the boat.

“Shark! Oh no! Come on grouper!” said Bank.

There is no hurrying when reeling in a grouper. They are far too strong to permit that.

Quick as a flash, the shark turned and rushed the grouper still hooked to Bank’s fishing line. Without so much as a jerk or a pull, the sharp teeth and wicked charge of the shark cut the big grouper in two. All that remained was the head of the grouper, a very large head that Bank lifted into the boat.

It was an amazing display of the ferocity of sharks. What appeared to be a black-tipped shark about 5 feet in length had carved that grouper in two in a millisecond. It couldn’t have been done with a sharp fillet knife in a strong hand. I reminded myself to use utmost caution each and every time when reaching into the water to grab a fish. You can never be sure when a shark is watching but you do know they frequent the waters of the Keys in good numbers. If an average shark can do that to a big grouper, imagine what it could do to a fisherman’s arm?

We fished a few more spots after leaving the bridge, but they were not very productive. For whatever reason, other than the excitement of the grouper and the shark, it was not a particularly productive day for catching fish. Nevertheless, another small grouper and mangrove snapper were hooked. A few barracuda were seen too.

The number of fish caught didn’t matter. The excitement at the bridge will never be forgotten, the weather was perfect, the scenery as beautiful as possible and we knew there were wind chill advisories issued for much of North Dakota.

Best boat name today: A Salt Weapon.

Day 3

Fishing the vast flats in the Florida Keys offers a unique variety of fishing opportunities. At Key Largo, a canal lined with spacious homes provides a passageway between the Atlantic Ocean side on the east and the Gulf of Mexico side to the west. On this day we chose to negotiate a waterway winding through tangled mangroves and fish east of Key Largo.

The waterway was well marked with marine markers and signage fixed atop metal posts that show the effects of saltwater corrosion. The posts are often occupied by cormorants or brown pelicans, some even had nesting material on top of them.

Conversation in the boat during the weave through the mangroves had just turned to the topic of rules and regulations of fishing and boating when a long, sleek boat with two neatly uniformed men at the helm came into view. The craft was clearly labeled “U.S. Coast Guard,” and it was not far from where a homemade boat that originated in Cuba had washed up against the shoreline. Even Super Bowl Sunday didn’t keep the Coast Guard from making an appearance, especially after witnessing the noticeable increase in boat traffic on Saturday.

As we continued to weave through the mangrove waterway, I kept thinking about the clash of climate between North Dakota and southern Florida. In North Dakota, we wear warm clothing to prevent any skin from being exposed to the cold. In southern Florida we wore long-sleeved shirts, gloves, hats and “buffs” that would completely cover our neck and face from the sun. Except for the difference in material, we might have looked the same pushing a snowblower in North Dakota as we did twirling a fishing rod in Florida.

One of the goals today was to catch a couple of fish to add to Bank’s wonderful and tasty seafood boil. Bank is a phenomenal fishing machine, but his cooking skills are equally impressive. Fresh fish is an important ingredient to seafood boil and we were all hoping to contribute to the pot. It didn’t quite work out that way.

We caught fish but they were undersized and returned to the sea. By early afternoon – and we had been on the water since 9 a.m. – we were beginning to think the seafood boil would have to be concocted without fresh fish. We saw several small sharks, a few tarpon, the largest stingray I’d ever seen and had numerous barracuda and other fish follow lures to the boat. Still, no keepers were in the cooler.

Bank, always busy on the water, came through with a catch of a fine yellowtail. Yellowtail are excellent eating. The seafood boil was saved. It later proved to be as excellent as the Super Bowl was bad.

Best boat name today: U. S. Coast Guard Customs & Immigration.

Day 4

Today we chose to fish the flats west of Key Largo. It was there, on a vast saltwater flat where the depth is almost uniformly 3 feet, that we found ourselves in the midst of large schools of speckled trout, ladyfish and Jack Cravalle.

For a time it seemed as though we had made the wrong choice of where to fish. The bay, or “sound” as it is known in the Keys, produced very few fish for the first hour or more. Then it changed dramatically.

Braun started the fish catching frenzy with a nice speckled trout that attacked an artificial shrimp. Bank boated a Jack Cravalle, a trout and several ladyfish. I managed a couple of trout. We didn’t keep track, but between fish kept and released we estimated the count to be about two dozen in about one hour.

I’d never seen a ladyfish. Bank had caught them before and enjoyed catching them this day. The long, slender fish with big eyes and well-forked tail jump out of the water immediately after being hooked. They leap multiple times during the fight, leading to the nickname of “little tarpon.” The ladyfish caught this day were 2 to 3 pounds, a decent average. They are a very bony fish that are used primarily for bait or ground into a fish meal. We kept some for shark bait.

Best boat name today: Strange Behavior.

Day 5

Today we returned to the same bridge where Bank’s grouper was bitten in two by a shark. This time we intended to fool a few more grouper while having a rod off the back of the boat devoted to sharks.

Bank hooked a small grouper – not the monster he had hoped to pull from behind the bridge pilings, but a very nice catch. Braun had a nice battle with an amberjack that engulfed an artificial shrimp. However, a thorough and methodical bit of rod work along both sides of the bridge piling failed to produce the big catch we had hoped for.

The effort was broken up for a moment by the sound of the clicker on the shark reel snapping rapidly. In unison, all three of us turned to see if the bobber was below the surface. It was not, and the sound from the clicker had ceased. A few tugs on the shark rod by Braun failed to get a reaction. He reeled in the line and found that a fish, presumably a shark, had stolen a chunk of barracuda meat being used for bait without getting hooked. Time to move anyway.

We opted to move to a sheltered, mangrove covered shoreline that was known to produce excellent catches in the past. It was muddy water due to the entrance of a small creek. Turbid water is an anomaly on the flats. The depth was 2 to 3 feet – too shallow for the shark presentation, so we concentrated on pitching both top-water and shallow running crankbaits.

The wind on this day was approaching 15 mph. That’s substantial on the ocean and on the flats. The shelter of the mangroves was welcome. The water was virtually calm and casting was easily accomplished in any direction without the worry of “wind knots” created on spinning reels spooled with braided line.

A keeper speckled trout inhaled a 5A freshwater Bomber stick bait I had tossed randomly. The trout measured 19 inches, well within the slot limit of 15 to 22 inches. Bank added a red snapper, another superb eating fish. Sadly, the time on the water came to a close and it was time to head back to the dock and begin preparations for returning home.

The final trip through the canal leading from west to east was punctuated by the friendly waves of bank fishermen and other locals sitting outside their homes. The iguana were out in force this day too, including a rather large one that seemed to be nodding his approval at our presence. The iguana often sun themselves along the concrete retaining walls that form the sides of the canal.

Best boat name today: Reel Chaos.