"OK, get ready. Big bull coming down the bar at 10 o'clock - 60 feet. Do you have him?" Capt. Baz Yelverton asked quietly from his perch atop the poling platform. I peered into the sparkling emerald water and spotted the giant redfish cruising steadily toward us like a shiny submarine. Stevie Wonder could have seen that target in the four-foot depth. I fired a cast slightly ahead and waited on the guide's instruction."Good, now short hops with the jig. He's on it, he's on it. He ate. Good, now stick him again, and enjoy the ride," Yelverton said with a hearty laugh as the drag on the small spinning reel whirled like a sewing machine. "That's what it's all about."
Once it realized it was hooked, the big red tried desperately to run for deeper water. After several determined bursts, however, I slowed the pace and, before long, had it doing big donuts around the 18-foot flats skiff. Suddenly, a large, dark shape zipped beneath the bow.
"Baz, shark!" I yelled as I started stomping my feet on the deck. Yelverton fired up the outboard, and the unwelcome predator took off. A few moments later, we boated a tired but grateful bull redfish.
"Whew, that was close," the native guide told me as we quickly measured, photographed and released the oversize drum. It was 40 inches long, with an estimated weight of 28 pounds. "Nicely done, Dave," said Yelverton. "That's the ultimate experience of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Casting to a big bull red, watching it eat and enjoying the fight against the backdrop of bluebird skies, crystal-clear water and sugar-sand beaches. When I get clients here for the first time, they can't believe how beautiful it is. It's like the Keys or the Bahamas. But you knew that already, didn't you?"
I did indeed. While training future aircrew at the nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola more than two decades earlier, I had explored the bays and coastal waters extensively. So when Yelverton invited me to check out his specialized craft of casting lures and flies at specific fish in the shallows, I jumped at the chance.
"The blues, mackerel and pompano all start showing up in early March, once the water warms into the mid- to upper 60-degree range," he said. "Our Spanish are getting huge. We're catching some well over 7 pounds. The early scout pompano are big too, up to 4 pounds. Starting in early April, the large schools of pompano show up, and they average a pound or two. Big jacks arrive about the same time. By the 15th of April, you can count on it. Do your taxes, and then go fishing."
During the spring, when the tem-peratures are moderate, Yelverton doesn't get on the water until midmorning. That delay allows the sun to get well overhead to maximize visibility. He starts his hunt in clean water versus the rare murky or stained conditions. Panhandle tidal movement is minimal, often two feet or less even on lunar tides. Pompano prefer incoming tides, Yelverton says. As the water flows over the bars, the fish wait, facing into the waves. The wave action along the surf line dislodges sand fleas, and the tiny mole crabs tumble over the drop to the waiting fish. That's why jigs or flies that hop or bounce along the bottom trigger strikes.
Although the majority of Yelverton's clients use fly gear, he also caters to light-tackle spin anglers. His favorite lures include gold Sidewinder spoons modified with a single J hook or Spro Magic Bus bucktail jigs in chartreuse and yellow.
"You really need to be able to cast a fly 50 feet to be in the game," he explained. "And for every 10 feet you can add to your cast, you double your odds of success. You should start fly-fishing only when you're ready to add frustration to your life," he added with a laugh.
I stuck with spin tackle during the two days spent with my amicable host and had an absolute blast fishing exclusively by sight. In addition to the 40-inch bull, I also released a 36-incher, added a couple more slot reds and tallied spunky pompano up to 3 pounds. Shots at wary 30-pound jacks failed to produce strikes. If we wanted, we could have spent hours chasing roving packs of bluefish. The ravenous pelagics eagerly attacked any jig or plug thrown in their path. All my fish were individually spotted before the cast.
"That's what is so cool about the Seashore in the springtime," Yelverton told me as we cruised back to the ramp. "We get good numbers of big bull reds, some true monster jacks and tons of pompano. The little tunny is one of the best light-tackle fish that swims. Plus you get style points for catching them all on single hooks with the barbs mashed down. If that's not enough, you're fishing in a stunningly beautiful spot - and because it's a national seashore, it'll be like this forever. It truly is a treasure." He'll get no argument from me.