Last week I described three ways travellers can get out on the ocean to have a saltwater fishing experience. This week, I’m dialing in on the most affordable method, and for a Midwesterner, perhaps the most unique.
“Can we bring our own gear,” I asked? I was inquiring about a morning fishing trip on what is called a head boat or party boat, in most places. In Ft. Lauderdale, at Fisherman’s Headquarters, they are called drift boats.
Regardless of the name, they are operated similarly, anywhere I’ve been, from Florida to California. For a modest fee, modest being relative to what the cost of going out on a boat by one’s self or with just a small group would cost, eager “deep sea” anglers plunk down their money and venture forth with a dozen, perhaps two or three dozen — depending on the size of the boat — fellow fish seekers to crank strange and mysterious fish out of the ocean.
I asked about bringing my own tackle mostly because the rods and reels on the boats are normally oversized, and well used. Occasionally, (as in once a month or perhaps once a year) some lucky party-boater will hook into a truly unlucky big fish — perhaps a sailfish or swordfish in Ft. Lauderdale; perhaps some other denison of the deep elsewhere — and it takes big, sturdy tackle to subdue the beast. For everyone of those, there are probably ten thousand, what we in the Midwest would call, panfish boated.
Still, the boat owners pass out rods and reels worthy of catching a wicked tuna. If they didn’t, they’d never get that once a year sailfish photo to post on their Facebook page. Many of the customers show up, having seen the marketing photos, and expect to be handed a giant-sized rod and reel. Anticipation is one of the joys of fishing and they latch onto those broomstick like rods clamped to huge reels filled with 40, 60 or 80 pound line, believing they are going to catch that fish of a lifetime. I hope they do!
I’ve caught those fish of a lifetimes already, and have been on head boats often enough to realize a better goal is to catch enough fish for dinner. Doing that is going to be much more possible by scaling down and using lighter gear, more suited to what’s likely to be caught rather than what is possible to catch. My partner and I showed up with medium spinning rods loaded with 20 pound line, some fluorocarbon leader material and appropriately sized hooks.
Other than being downsized, we employed the same simple hook, line and sinker terminal tackle, we fished using the same bait and technique as the other customers but with far different results. The reefs down below were covered with hungry fish. Getting bites was no issue. Getting firm hook-ups was difficult (for most) and hooking a keeper, even tougher.
Yellowtail snapper were the most abundant fish that morning, but they need to be 12 inches long to legally keep. A few were, most weren’t. About half the fish we pulled up were yellowtail.
The other half of our catch was a wild assortment of other reef fish. We caught several strawberry groupers — season closed. We pulled in a few clown wrasse, a protected species and some blue runners which are reportedly not particularly good to eat. These were all released. I caught one exceptionally long skinny fish called a sand eel. It was very tasty at dinner that night.
The most unusual catch for me was a remora, the fish often seen hitchhiking rides on sharks and other predator fish. My fishing partner angled up a moray eel.
The number of fish caught on any fishing trip isn’t the only way to measure success. That’s a good thing since most of our fellow anglers that morning caught very few keeper fish, a few caught nothing at all.
One young fisherman caught a sand shark (which looks like a miniature thresher) about three feet long, measured from its snout to the tip of its extra long tail. The fish of a lifetime, for him!
For the rest, they’d paid fifty bucks each for the chance to catch that fish of a lifetime, for an on-the-water view of Ft. Lauderdale’s famed beaches, along with harbor tugs, million dollar yachts docked near multi-million dollar homes. We shared the ocean with ships from around the world, exotic birds and strange sea creatures. Some ended up with fish for dinner, but that was only a side benefit. I don’t think any of us walked away completely disappointed.