T.J. Bettis has owned Orlando Outfitters for the past eight years. The shop is immaculate – almost an OCD approach to organization. It’s chock full of ready-made flies and all the materials to tie your own. Bettis started the business not as a entrepreneur, but as a fly fisherman himself. He picked up his first fly rod at age 12 in his hometown of Indiana.
“We had about 170 acres on our lot with ponds on it. A family friend one day brought a fly rod,” Bettis says. “My first fish was a bluegill on a popper. I fished with spinning reels throughout my life, but it’s not like fly fishing. It’s a challenge to be constantly moving and perfecting the cast. Fly fishing is an addiction that has to be managed.”
Bettis fishes all over Florida, he says he doesn’t have to go far – there are endless spots all around the central Florida area. Some of his favorite spots are in the Mosquito Lagoon and Banana River, near Kennedy Space Station where he chases redfish and black drum and seatrout. Exciting things can happen on the water on any given day — kind of like the day T.J. had a few unexpected visitors on the flats that weren’t bearing rods, but guns.
“Military helicopters, with guns hanging out the side, were hovering over our boat. They didn’t want us near that area,” Bettis says. “We were well within the No Motor Zone, but were closer to an island than the guys with guns wanted us. One of the guys in the helicopter was yelling and waving at us to get out of there, but that happens a lot out on the Cape. Some of them come out on airboats, some in helicopters.”
Another favorite spot of Bettis has been Sanibel Island on Florida’s West coast. That was where he caught the big one – a 38- to 40-inch snook. At first, it didn’t seem as if it was meant to be.
“We were on a three day trip and it was all over. We had packed up and I started to go out to my car,” he says. “Then, I saw two big snook, just sitting there. I had to go after them. I grabbed my rod and it was the ideal cast, right in front of him. It was the largest snook I ever caught.”
New experiences in fly fishing can happen through an entire lifetime. Bettis had a close encounter with another big one, this one wasn’t going to bite.
“We were way out by New Symrna Beach looking for mahi. In the distance, we started to see what looked like a pod of dolphins,” he says. “We couldn’t identify it, but it looked like a hammerhead. We threw a fly on it, just to see for fun. Nothing.”