SWS Blog: Dock Buzz

When everything comes together...

Plan of Attack

I love it when a plan comes together. A week ago, I had run out to an offshore shoal to see if the water clarity had improved. It had, and although the visibility was excellent, the anticipated trout were obviously elsewhere. I prospected with plastic grubs and jerk baits for awhile, releasing dozens of blue runners and a four-foot-long houndfish before getting hot and bored. Anchoring over a big sandbar, I jumped in to cool off.

I had just climbed back aboard when two brown bombers glided across the white sand bottom. It took less than 20 seconds to grab the cobia rod and fire off an intercept cast, but the trophy fish never turned. I immediately started planning for a return engagement the following weekend.

The forecast was spot on as I put the boat on plane and pointed it south. An outgoing tide and calm seas would help disperse the four blocks of frozen chum and draw in those big cobia. At least, that was the plan.


Enroute, I stopped to make a few casts around each channel marker. Nobody home. On the last one, all by its lonesome in 15 feet of water, a resounding thump on my second cast brought a zooming pair of cobia to the surface, one with the chartreuse bucktail jig and big curly-tailed grub firmly embedded in its jaw. After a brief but spunky battle, the 10-pounder was released. On to the shoal and the chum.

By the second block, the remoras and blue runners were eagerly slurping down the floating bits of thawing gurry. Medium spinning outfit at the ready, I waited in anticipation. Suddenly, a pod of four ling swam out of the depths and into the slick. I cast and set the hook as the lead fish swirled to eat. Another brief fight, another successful release.

Over the next two hours I fed two more cobia but missed the hook set as my remaining blocks slowly melted. The big girls apparently didn’t get my memo. An inquisitive slob of a bull shark did make me question my new swimming hole, however. With the tide waning and the chum gone, I started back to the dock.


But my track would take me right back by the lone marker. Might as well check it out. Cut the engine, drift into range and wham, a powerful strike as I started my retrieve. Another pair, another slugfest with the larger of the two. When it finally tired and I hoisted it aboard, a quick measurement confirmed it was a keeper at 15 pounds. Although the idea of fresh grilled cobia steak made me pause, I slid the tired cobia back over the gunnel. There’s always next weekend and my revised plan for more chum and a bigger prize.


Bad Luck

I consider myself a lucky person. My good fortune has allowed me to work in the sport fishing industry for almost two decades. I’m on my third passport, having nearly circumnavigated the globe. And I’ve managed to catch some nice fish along the way, including all the necessary species to earn membership in the exclusive IGFA Royal Billfish Slam Club. Sure, some trips were better than others. But I always found enough cooperative fish to file a story. Until now, that is.


I’m winging home from Boston, Massachusetts. Boston is a great city. It’s vibrant and has a long seafaring history. Beantown is also very fishy, which is why our magazine got its start there. That is, it’s usually very fishy.

From mid-summer until late fall, bluefin tuna ranging from small footballs up to Volkswagens with fins congregate on the nearby bank a short run from Boston Harbor. Since bluefin were on my short list of unconquered game fish, I happily accepted Bosun Marine’s ( generous offer to put me on a few aboard their dealer demo boat, a tricked out Rampage 45 Convertible ( The extended forecast called for warm sunny conditions with seas running a foot or less. Perfect.

In the pre-dawn darkness we made final preparations to get underway. My guides included Steve Chase, Bosun’s sales manager and his teenage son Mike, my old buddy from Edgewater Power Boats, Capt. Roger Taylor, and Bostonian ringer Everett Mitchell. Unfortunately, the perfect forecast had deteriorated into a small craft advisory with winds whipping hard out of the Northeast. We took off undeterred and after clearing the harbor settled into a comfortable pace of 28 knots to the bank. Four to six-footers greeted us on arrival.


A pod of spouting whales was the signal to set the spread. Squid lure spreader bars on the ‘riggers and a pink bird stinger down the center served as enticement. And they worked, only for the wrong targets. A zealous bluefish jumped on the bird and a shark apparently liked the starboard squid smorgasbord enough to chomp through the leader. Our companion boat, a 41 Rampage, was only fooling bluefish, too. Tired and frustrated, we finally called it quits on the tuna hunt.

The lingering cold front called for a switch. The next morning we jumped on a new Edgewater 268 Center Console ( to chase striped bass instead. We timed the tide for max water flow, picked up a dozen giant frisky bunkers and slow-trolled them around known rockfish lairs. George’s Island-nada. Ram’s Head Flats-nothing. Perfect drifts along the Brewsters produced zip. A couple times the pogies got more agitated than Al Gore at a petroleum convention. But the bass left them untouched. Or maybe they bolted to the Big Apple for the Red Sox series I’m not sure which.

My New England luck hasn’t soured me on Boston. The bite was good before my arrival and will be again. So I’ll gladly take my capable hosts up on their offer of redemption at some point. But when I do, I’m packing a four-leaf clover, rabbit’s foot and my lucky visor. Just in case.


Name Game

My wife and I have a good-natured debate whenever we buy paint at the home-improvement store. I question how they decide the esoteric names for colors that border on primary. She, on the other hand, assures me that taupe really is a different shade than tan. At that point I usually shut up and wander over to the power tool aisles.

Car manufacturers have teams who brainstorm months before coming up with monikers for the latest model. The finalists are tested and re-tested before focus groups, I’m sure. But if that’s the case, they must also spend a lot of time hanging at the zoo or on African safari junkets. How else do you explain Impala or Thunderbird? The Probe? Let’s not even go there.
Boat company names make a little more sense, thank goodness. For example, many are named after their founders like Fountain, Grady-White or Stamas. Others borrow geographically, such as Boston Whaler or Edgewater. Some capture an exotic locale or lifestyle. Cabo, Maverick and Scout fall into this category. 
Fish species make popular company names. Mako and Yellowfin are two prime examples. Permit and Wahoo both went fins-up, however. Survival of the fittest, aquatic version. Dorado is still hanging around, but Mahi-Mahi just doesn’t quite cut it. Too trendy or regional, I suppose. Besides, having a boat confused with Flipper is definitely bad karma.
Environmental tie-ins are big these days and so are boat names reflecting the green movement. Off the top of my head, I can quickly count more than a dozen current or past brands with Sea or Ocean as part of their title. Craft and Sport are a couple other popular compound labels.
I really don’t expect to see Wet & Wild Performance Boats or Submariner Yachts hitting the showroom floors anytime soon. That marketing ploy might be a little difficult to peddle in today’s economy. And I don’t imagine Sailcats or Killifish will be splashing, either. They lack that all-important ring quality for some odd reason.
But I’m not going to be shocked to open my email and find a press release announcing the launch of Crème Brulee Craft or Midship Blue Boats. Especially if my wife is part of the latest research focus group.


Faux Bait

I’m a lure guy. Oh, I’ve soaked my share of bait in the past. Live shrimp for trout, redfish and sheepshead. Bull minnows for flounder. Snook, stripers and snapper have all seen a wiggling menu from me. I lost count of the number of skirted ballyhoo skipping behind transoms offshore.

I do appreciate the mastery it takes to collect frisky live baits. Throwing a 12-foot cast net so it opens like an Army Ranger parachute is an art form. Rigging a ‘hoo or mullet to swim naturally is also a highly refined skill. Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to top the real thing, especially when the fish are timid.

But I’d still rather throw “arties.” Time spent casting is more productive than chumming up a well full of white bait. Besides, once you get ’em on board, live baits leave a bigger mess than a political convention. But yes, they do really work, unlike cable TV commentators.

On assignment, I always defer to the host guide or captain’s preference, whether it’s bait or lures. But left to my own, I’m tying on artificials every time. My go-to redfish lure is a Capt. Mikes gold/pink spoon. I’ll cast my arm off for the chance at one explosive surface strike on a Chug Bug. A white bucktail jig is tough to beat. For me, the challenge is fooling with fakery. The hunt and capture of a single quality fish is more rewarding than just racking up numbers.

Which brings me to a dilemma: Are scented lures true artificials or bait masquerading in shrink-wrap? DOA Lures kicked things off by injecting ground-up aquaculture shrimp into its fake scampi. The tremendous success of that experiment opened the floodgates. A plethora of companies soon followed with their own versions designed to mimic the real thing. Bass Assassin, Cotee, FoodSource, Panther Martin, Venom and Yum all now offer scented lures. But the leader in quasi crustaceans, minnows and worms, at least by the number of end cap displays at tackle outlets, is Berkley Gulp!

Gulp!, which evolved from freshwater PowerBaits, is available in various flavors from shrimp to squid. You can buy it in package form, juice buckets and now spray. Some Gulp! trivia: The actual ingredients are more closely guarded than the Coca-Cola formula, and they were field-tested at the Florida State University Marine Lab near Carrabelle. (Rumors of embalming properties for Coach Bobby Bowden have not been confirmed, however.)

Gulp! catches fish, there’s no question about it. It’s made a lot of money for redfish pros across the South. Suspend a Gulp! New Penny shrimp under a popping cork and you’re guaranteed a trout. Like McDonalds, Gulp! has also served 10 billion pinfish and lizardfish. The packaging alone triggered a $2.00 per barrel spike in wholesale oil prices. Left forgotten under a cushion and it’ll turn harder than the Hope diamond, unlike that wayward real sardine hiding behind the standpipe after two weeks.

But are Gulp! or any of these other scent-baits really lures or are they faux bait. Who gives a backcast? It’s a moot point to everyone but purists like me. You know, the guys with slime-less fish boxes and sore casting elbows.


No Agenda

Whenever I tell a new acquaintance what I do for a living, they always respond the same. First they ask me to repeat my answer because they don’t believe anyone actually gets paid to fish and test boats as their occupation. The next question is do I need an assistant. Buddies volunteer to carry my bags, camera box and rod case. One even offered to wear a dress and call me Honey if I took him along on one trip (graciously declined). I am extremely fortunate to be in this profession. But trust me, it’s not always smooth sailing. There are downsides. Really.

Besides the travel grind (think flying in cattle-cars-with-wings is fun?), outdoor journalists do suffer. Accompanying the top guides and charter captains in the world tends to spoil a person a bit. And “research” that keeps us focused taking notes, shooting photos and deciphering the where-to and how-to makes the big picture a little fuzzy at times. When that happens, there’s only one cure-an outing without an agenda. No targeted species, no game plan, and no assignment. Just fishing for the fun of it. I got a healthy dose during our recent editorial retreat in the Florida Keys.
After a productive morning meeting, my colleague Ben Holtzclaw and I met our guide, Frankie Ortiz (305.453.7328) at the Lorelei Restaurant in Islamorada. When Frankie told us baby tarpon and snook were chewing, we quickly agreed to his suggestion. A short while later found us anchored outside a bridge channel with cars and motorcycles zipping by on US 1. Armed with light-tackle spin outfits and live pilchards, we welcomed any and all comers.

Ben got the action started with a feisty jack that was promptly Ginzu-ed by a resident ‘cuda pushing 30 pounds. I spoon-fed the remaining carcass and had Mr. Razorblade on-for about 10 seconds. His appetite sated, he then left us alone.

For the next hour, we had a non-stop blast catching snook and more jacks. A somewhat rare upper-slot redfish and uncooperative tarpon joined the fray. When the tide waned, we shifted to another span a few miles south.

Ben continued the smorgasbord with gag grouper and mangrove snapper. I tallied a baby tarpon and broke off another. Monster snook lurking around the fenders kept us busy retying hooks. All the while Frankie, our happy-go-lucky host, maintained a constant patter of encouragement and infectious laughter. If Keys guides have a reputation for being high-pressure, you wouldn’t know it by this native Conch.

Our last stop only produced one fish, but it was a beauty. Thirty-five pounds of silver spunk on eight-pound test will re-charge anyone’s battery. When I finally coaxed the tarpon to the skiff after several long minutes, I was again reminded why this sport is so much fun. Pure fishing will do that, every single time.

–POSTED BY CAPT. DAVE LEAR on 10/01/2008

Corn Liquor

Watching the recent presidential debates, I heard both candidates talk about America’s need to wean off foreign oil. T. Boone Pickens and I agree that’s a good platform. We should be doing everything possible to develop green, alternative energy sources like solar, wind and thermal. But if a straw vote were held today among boaters, ethanol would earn a raspberry so loud the Smucker boys would fall off their bikes. This stuff is like corn liquor-it sounds good, but it’ll sure give your fuel system a nasty hangover if you’re not careful.

I did a quick survey this week of friends around the coast. From hurricane-ravaged Houston to Brunswick, Charleston and Virginia Beach, all confirmed that E10 fuel, or gas with a 10-percent ethanol additive derived mainly from corn, was now common in their areas. Each had also recently experienced problems with ethanol gas themselves or knew someone who had. The Midwest and California have been pumping E10 for years. Northeast anglers suffered through a learning curve the past three seasons. Now, the rest of us are finding out just how troublesome this “solution” can be.
 E10 gasoline is problematic for two reasons: It acts like a solvent and it has a tendency to retain water. As a solvent, it can deteriorate older hoses, seals and fiberglass tanks. It scours varnish off the sides of aluminum tanks. The resulting crud eventually clogs injectors and forces expensive repairs. Newer outboards are designed to run on E-10 gas. But to keep them purring smoothly, install a 10-micron fuel/water separator filter. Then, replace it every 100 hours or so.
 E10 gas also has a nasty habit of phase separating into water. It starts breaking down within 60 to 90 days. E10 can hold up to four teaspoons of water suspended per gallon. But any more and the heavier water settles to the bottom of the tank where it’s picked up by the sender. Condensation caused by fluctuating temperatures inside the tank adds still more moisture. And water in gas engines doesn’t mix very well.
Fortunately, filters siphon some of that water out of the gas. Additives like STA-BIL and others help retard the separation. Topping off the tank, especially when the boat is idle for long periods, limits the amount of vented air and reduces condensation.

But there’s another way to avoid hassles with corn liquor gas. To paraphrase the infamous Chicago voting slogan, use it early and use it often. Go fishing. Relieve stress. Forget about the financial crisis, at least for a day. That and pray the next president actually keeps a campaign promise to help develop something besides ethanol to power our boat engines.

–POSTED BY CAPT. DAVE LEAR on 10/10/2008

Dream Machine

There is no shortage of inventors in the sport-fishing industry. A quick look at lures bears that out. From Lauri Rapala to the guys making custom swim baits in their garage, all manner of jigs, plugs and spoons have been hatched in the never-ending quest to catch more fish.

Ditto for marine accessories. Have you ever stopped to count how many different gadgets there are to align the tow vehicle and boat trailer? It’s in the jillions last time I checked. Same with anchors, filet knives and leader dispensers. They’re cranking out so many new roto-mold kayaks the trademark office is working overtime.
It’s pretty obvious the widget industry is strong. And American ingenuity being what it is, I doubt it’ll slow down regardless of what the rest of the economy is doing. But if that’s the case, how long will it take before some enterprising individual invents the dream machine? Come on, you know which one. The Rite-Co. Pocket Forecaster that delivers perfect weather on demand.
Let yourself daydream just a moment. Imagine a Saturday tuna trip when the National Hurricane Center really does mean the latest Cat 3 storm will dissipate in the Gulf. Speculate, if you will, winds ever so light and variable that they are just gentle enough to keep the no-seeums at bay as you happily plug a tidal creek. Dare to wonder about how many stripers you’d catch when a falling barometer turns on without turning the bay into a washboard. Or the concept of spending that trip insurance money on a custom rod instead of as a hedge against the St. Thomas vacation you’ve been planning for 8 months.
I know I’d gladly pony up big bucks to buy an accessory like that, if one was available. And I’d be money ahead doing so. Wait a minute. Didn’t I read something about Rite-Co. stock going public? I gotta call my broker.

Pull the Lever

It’s that time again, Florida. Election Day 2008 is fast approaching. And hopefully this go-around we won’t have flashbacks of election officials squinting at hanging chads. Or legal beagles posturing on the Capitol steps. It won’t matter if Katherine Harris’ lipstick doesn’t match her handbag. Sarah Palin is the one making a fashion statement this cycle.

No, next week the stakes are much higher. Floridians get the opportunity to make a difference once again. Like they did in 1994 with the historic “Net Ban” and four years later when marine fisheries management was given constitutional authority, voters in the Sunshine State will be asked to decide next Tuesday on another amendment to the state constitution. It too will have far-reaching ramifications for all of us who love fishing and boating.

Amendment 6 simply states that working waterfronts be appraised and taxed based on actual use rather than the “highest and best use” under existing tax codes. Working waterfronts would include the following:

  • Marinas and docks open to the public for access and recreational use
  • Public vessel launches in navigable waterways
  • Water-dependent marine manufacturing facilities
  • Marine vessel construction and repair facilities
  • Commercial fishing operations

“Currently in the state of Florida, a small marina with public access is taxed as having the same revenue potential as a multi-unit waterfront condominium development,” says Margaret Podlich, the BoatU.S. vice president for government affairs. “It’s only a matter of time before a marina, fishing operation or other water-dependent business succumbs to the crushing tax burden. It’s simply bad math that doesn’t add up for boaters, water-dependent businesses, or anyone interested in preserving the state’s maritime heritage and dwindling waterfront access.”

Florida’s marine industry contributes $18 billion to the state’s economy and provides 220,000 jobs. The amendment was introduced by the bi-partisan Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. It is supported by a large coalition of organizations including the Boat Owners Association of the United States (BoatU.S.), the Marine Industries of South Florida and the Marine Industries Association of Florida.

To read more about Amendment 6, go to And don’t forget to vote next Tuesday.


Hooked on ‘Tronics

I took a simple approach when my exploration of the Florida coast began nearly 25 years ago. My 17-footer had a handheld radio for safety, but I relied on trial and error to find productive fishing spots. It’s not that I dismissed the value of accurate positioning and depth recordings. Rather, I simply enjoyed figuring out the best places to go based on a fold-up chart, the tides and my own intuition.

As my local knowledge grew, so did my success rate. Eventually, however, the desire to chase king mackerel and snare snapper offshore triggered shopping sprees. The first new accessory was a Humminbird depth sounder. Next came a Loran receiver. As the Air Force shot GPS satellites into orbit at a regular pace, I upgraded boats and with each acquisition came the latest GPS plotter/sounder combination.

But when I moved to Tallahassee and new waters in the early ’90s, a curious thing happened. I reverted back to my minimalist roots. Even though my digital aid was at my fingertips, I only referred to it occasionally. Charts, careful idling among the rocks and hundreds of hours exploring the maze of tidal creeks and grass flats added key information to my own gray matter database.

A thick curtain of fog one day forced a change. When I couldn’t see beyond the bow after the soup rolled in unexpectedly, I relied on my Lowrance chart plotter and Navionics e-chart to navigate back to the river and the marina. Afterwards, I started loading uncharted rock piles into the unit’s memory. My favorite tarpon spots were next, followed by winter trout holes. Before too long, my e-chart looked like small pox there were so many waypoints.

My dependency became obvious about a month ago when the unit’s display distorted and then went blank. I pulled it and sent it off for repair. But on the couple trips sans-‘trons, my normal routine was totally off. I kept glancing down at the black hole in the helm to check for a depth or temperature reading that wasn’t there. I had to resort to visual references to mark the depressions holding fish. Despite considerable will power, I realized I was hopelessly addicted to electronics.

I’m better now, thank you very much. Lowrance sent me a replacement unit. All my waypoints are safe and sound. Bright color charts once again show me the way to better fishing. My mind is at ease.

“Hello, my name is Dave and I’m addicted to marine electronics. I freely admit rocks get up and move around in the middle of the night. That, and my memory ain’t what it used to be.”

Florida Amendment #6 Passes

The proposed waterfront amendment to Florida’s constitution was overwhelmingly approved November 4. The Assessment of Working Waterfront Property Based on Current Use Amendment received nearly 5 million yes votes, or a 70.6-percent approval rating. The proposal was designed to protect marinas, boat ramps and commercial marine operations from over-taxation. For background information, refer to Dock Buzz, Pull the Lever.


Weird Stuff

Even with a pair of good polarized sunglasses, the water can play tricks with your eyes. A subtle flashing fin, the frothy explosion on the horizon or a ghosting shape just below the surface can all make you wonder. But every so often, at just the right instant, you’re able to focus clearly and zoom in. And when you do, you still can’t quite believe what you see.

A few weeks ago a buddy and I were making our last casts before calling it quits. In the distance we spotted several large brown shapes swimming towards us. We thought it was a pod of manatee at first. But as the wing tips pierced the surface, we realized it was a squadron of large cownose rays swimming along in formation. As they passed by and we started idling towards deeper water, we encountered an entire air force of silent, graceful rays gliding along. There were easily 100 or more, with wings stretching four feet across. It was an eerily beautiful sight.

I have been totally amazed by dozens of 200+ pound yellowfin tuna free-jumping off Puerto Vallarta one day. I watched a sailfish bill a floating Coke can near Puerto Aventuras on another trip. Coming across dolphins and sea turtles doing the wild thing has a certain voyeuristic weirdness. Looking eyeball to eyeball with a 40-pound barracuda launching skyward can almost trigger other bodily functions besides a twitch.

Tarpon and an imitator were the source of two of the strangest scenes I’ve experienced on the water. I was fishing the flats one day with two clients and we had enjoyed steady shots at single fish swimming down a sandy channel. When I spied another one and instructed my angler to get ready, we waited as the fish swam into casting range. Something was amiss, though. This “tarpon” was moving way too slow.  As it meandered by in 3 ½ feet of water, we stared in disbelief. That 40-pound kingfish was either lost, sick or both.

There was only one witness to my other strange tarpon encounter. As we sat staked off on the far side of a huge sand flat, two tarpon, a 100-pounder and a dink sidekick, swam on to the sand. Within seconds, a 250-pound bull shark approached on an intercept course. I thought we were going to see a blood bath for sure. Suddenly, the bigger tarpon kicked in the afterburners and rammed headfirst into the shark’s side. The shark shuddered for a second and then hightailed it to parts unknown. The tarpon swam on like nothing incredible ever happened.  And I’ve never witnessed anything like it since.

Seeing the unexpected on the water only enhances the overall experience. Each odd occurrence is forever burned into my memory bank. But if I ever see another bald, fat tourist at the helm wearing nothing but a black Speedo and gold chain, it’ll be too soon.


Loss of a Giant

Another giant has left us. Alfred Glassell, Jr. died late last month at the age of 95, leaving behind an angling legacy that may never be matched. Consider this resume:

A World War II Army veteran and petroleum industry pioneer, Glassell was credited as the first angler to boat a black marlin weighing more than 1,000 pounds by IGFA rules. His catch was bettered a few days later, but Glassell responded by landing another 1,090-pounder within the month.
 On August 4, 1953, the Louisiana native raised the bar to the highest pinnacle yet. Fishing in the bait-rich waters off Cabo Blanco, Peru, his capture of a 1,560-pound black marlin set the species all-tackle world record that has withstood all challengers for 55 years. Footage of his fights was used in the movie version of Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, starring Spencer Tracy.
In 1956, Glassell was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Today a replica of his record fish hangs in the Smithsonian. Glassell was also an avid tuna fisherman and competed for the U.S. team at the International Tuna Cup Matches in Nova Scotia, Canada. He captained the team that took second place in 1952.

But this amateur oceanographer gave back to the sport as well. He organized scientific expeditions around the world aboard his vessel Argosy for Yale University and the University of Miami. He was serving as an IGFA trustee at the time of his death and was inducted into the IGFA Hall of Fame in 2001.

I never met Mr. Glassell, to my regret. I would have loved to sit down with him and listen to his tales of monster fish and epic battles. By all accounts he was one class act and a helluva stick. So tonight, when I step away from the computer and the rod racks in the corner of my office, I’ll be tipping a glass of wine in his honor. Here’s to another giant. Tight lines and big fishes, sir! May you rest in peace.


Boat Owner Blues

I have an unusual relationship with my boat. Most times my feelings for her are pure, unabashed love. We’ve spent many blissful hours together, quietly sharing a flat or hidden inside a tidal creek. She’s beautiful. But she’s not just a trophy she’s practical, too. Her casting deck is bigger than the federal deficit. She’ll pole in 9 inches of water to sneak up on tailing redfish. She’s brought me home safely through nasty storms and ugly seas. Her name is Fin-Esse and she’s a 20-foot Bayshore skiff that was custom-built in North Carolina. Therein lies the rub.

Dr. Phil surely has a clinical term for a nautical love-hate relationship. As I mentioned, the majority of my feelings are total infatuation. But on rare occasions I’m ready to dump my boat faster than a Big Three CEO can unload a corporate jet. Coincidentally, these mood swings happen whenever a repair is necessary. And trust me, most repairs on custom systems are tricky, time-consuming and usually expensive. The latest episode occurred over something as trivial as replacing the leaking steering pump.

I approached the task with an open mind and plenty of patience. Until I tried to disconnect the steel mounting bracket inside the teak helm pod, that is. When I couldn’t loosen the bolts despite my best Houdini impersonation, I turned to the experts. The builder (who’s become a great friend) and his former shop foreman offered helpful suggestions over the phone. Finally, after an eternity of partial turns on the wrench and bloody knuckles, the pump was free. Only it was a different part than the one ordered as a replacement. Another lost fishing weekend.

With the right pump in hand, I was ready for Round 2 the next Saturday. Knowing what to expect, the reassembly went somewhat easier. Until it came time to attach the remote fill hose, that is. More skinned knuckles and several curse words later, those hard-to-reach hose clamps were finally tight. Time to purge the system. When there was more daylight, that is.

Back to the boat shed one more time. Air is bled from the hydraulic lines and tools are put away. No leaks, no leftover parts, everything checks out so it’s off to the ramp for a test run. Fin-Esse responds to the slightest touch of the wheel without feedback, without sass.

Aaaah yes, life is good. I’m head over heels in love again. Until the next time she betrays me, that is.


Peach State Reds

During flood tides along Georgia’s coast, redfish are often found tailing way inside the marsh grass. It’s certainly appropriate then, that a grassroots effort is now underway to make the popular species a game fish in the Peach State. Mike Duckworth is spearheading the initiative, along with a handful of professional guides.

“I’m a sport angler and I’m seeing more and more shenanigans on the water,” Duckworth explains. “Guys are cast-netting reds or bow fishing for them when they get up in the flooded grass. There’s not a huge commercial market, but you do find them in seafood markets all along the coast. A lot of landings go unreported, too. So several of us decided to do something about it. We kicked off a petition drive to make reds a game fish in Georgia.”

Duckworth, who is a web designer by trade, launched and enlisted guides like Greg Hildreth and Scott Owens to help spread the word. In just a couple weeks, the site has generated more than 400 petition signatures. The goal is to collect 1,000 by the end of the year. Duckworth hopes that will trigger the introduction of a game fish bill in the Georgia General Assembly next session.

“About 65 percent of the signees so far are Georgia residents, so that’s very encouraging,” Duckworth says. “The higher the percentage, the better. But we’ll take anybody’s support. This is an all-volunteer effort. Everybody is working together for a common cause.”

Georgia has large tracts of prime redfish habitat, despite its relatively short coastline. It also has a complicated system of marine resource management shared between the General Assembly and the Department of Natural Resources. Georgia is the only southeastern state besides Mississippi that hasn’t bestowed game fish status on reds.

“Officially the department is neutral since this is viewed as a socio-economic issue,” says Spud Woodward, DNR’s assistant director of marine fisheries. “But there are definite conservation benefits to restricting harvest to hook and line only. The idea of game fish status has been kicked around for at least a decade with little traction. Now, however, these common property resources are being viewed in a different light.”

As a veteran of Florida’s own redfish wars, I can still recall the sea of anglers crowding the Capitol back in 1988. That day I presented the governor and Cabinet with a big stack of petitions urging them to make reds a game fish. We won that hard-fought battle and eventually the war. Given time, I’m sure our comrades to the north will be triumphant, as well.

To get involved, visit



It’s sunny and 74 degrees outside, hardly winter weather even by north Florida standards. Still, scurrying shoppers and the ringing Salvation Army bell confirm that the holiday season is here. As another year winds down, my thoughts turn to the proceeding 11 1/2 months. 2008 has been very unusual, indeed.

The long political campaign is finally over, thank goodness. Our president-elect will have his work cut out for him as he tries to unite the country. I wish him luck.
I’m also hoping his new environmental team will renew efforts to conserve our natural resources, in particular marine fish. President Bush did a great thing by declaring redfish and striped bass game fish in federal waters. But too many other species remain in serious shape. I don’t know if Mr. Obama fished when he lived in Hawaii. If he didn’t he missed a great opportunity. If he did, then he’ll know what a great sport it is and why healthy stocks are good on so many levels.
No single fish stands out for me from this past year, although tussles with tarpon and snook earned happy smiles. On second thought, that 10-pound seatrout landed by David McCleaf in Ft. Pierce this summer was definitely memorable. Capt. Ed Zyak and I witnessed that magnificent catch. “Gators” like that show what can happen when gill nets are banned, size limits are raised and Mother Nature is given a chance.  
It’s always great to be on the water. Regardless of how many fish are caught, I never grow tired of scenes like an iridescent sunrise, a flock of pelicans gliding in formation or dolphin flipping mullet into the air. Fish are a bonus.
Still, nothing can replace an explosive surface strike on a top-water plug. Or the whine of a drag as line dumps off the reel. And the way the heart pounds whenever a tail pierces the water’s slick, calm surface. It’s all good. 
This will be my last blog for a while. I’m taking some time off, to fish, of course. I sincerely hope each of you will be able to spend quality time with family and friends as well. After I get off the water on New Year’s Day I’ll be eating a big bowl of Hoppin’ John. Southerners believe black-eyed peas and rice brings luck. That’s something anglers can never get too much of.
 Until next time, tight lines and big fishes!


Cabin Fever

Winter is tough on saltwater anglers. Granted, there are a few species to target when it’s cold and miserable. Cod in New England, North Carolina stripers or yellowfin tuna off the Midnight Lumps come immediately to mind. Sheepshead and sea bass also offer a respite for certain regions.

Here in my home waters of northwest Florida redfish and seatrout are the primary focus when Old Man Winter is at his worst. During bluebird days between fronts we manage to slip out occasionally. Still, it’s hard to cast when you’re wearing four layers and harder still to coax a bite when the water temperatures are in the low 50s.

There are alternatives to actually being on the water, however. They may not be quite as satisfying as a tug on the line, but hey, it beats watching the junior varsity Hula Bowl or re-runs of CSI: Paducah. So here are a few suggestions on how to beat the winter doldrums and survive until spring.

Hone Your Skills
Seminars like the SWS National Series hosted by George Poveromo are an excellent way to glean new tips from local pros. Not only do you learn how to catch more fish, but also where, when and why. There are still three venues left in Virginia Beach, Biloxi and Boston on this year’s annual tour. Check out for more details.

Ready Your Ride
If it’s not wrapped tighter than a mummy in plastic wrap, now is the perfect time to get the boat ready for the season. Fix the little stuff you put off when the bite was on fire. Check the trailer and repack the wheel bearings. Apply a protective coat of wax to the hull. Tune up the engine. If you don’t do these chores personally, have your local service center take care of everything now, while they’re slow. You’ll be ahead of the crowd when the weather gets right.

Tune Up Your Tackle
Like the boat, spend down time servicing reels, re-spooling line and inspecting rods. Go through the tackle box and replace those rusty hooks and split rings. Re-tie, re-rig and replenish. If you’re low on gear, go shopping. That always makes me feel better. At least until my wife gets the credit card bill, that is.

Go South
Thank goodness the Polar Express doesn’t do the tropics. But the fishing is prime in places like Ascension Bay, Zane Grey Reef, Los Sueños, Ixtapa and Deep Water Cay. Call the travel agent, grab the rods and go. The snow blower will still be sitting in the garage whenever you get back.

Cross Your Fingers
Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog saw his shadow so don’t put away the long johns just yet. Or you can break out the old Ouija board and pray for an early spring.


Gears, Gadgets and Gear

Back from warm and sunny Miami Beach, where the International Boat Show just wrapped up. This boating/fishing extravaganza is one of the premier events where new boats, engines, electronics and gear are introduced and this year was no exception. We’ve got a gallery on the site specifically for the boat launches. But here’s a brief sampling of the new gear to help you boat safe and catch more fish this season.

Offshore enthusiasts will be able to race to the canyons pod-style. Cummins MerCruiser Diesel expanded the Zeus propulsion system to include the QSM11-liter engines with 715 ponies at the ready. This power plant, along with other Zeus engines, will soon be available in triple or quad configurations, the company also announced.

There were plenty of outboard press conferences as well. Honda teased us by unveiling a prototype BF60 fuel-injected four-stroke. Actual specs were kept under wraps until later this summer, but if the sleek cowling and hydrodynamic gear case is any indication, expect this “silver bullet” to have plenty of kick. Yamaha focused on the Jon boat/tender segment by introducing 25-horsepower four-stroke, while Suzuki kicked off the 2010 model year with the next generation direct fuel-injected 60-hp four-stroke. Both offer the performance and fuel-efficiency these Japanese manufacturers have been delivering in recent years.

Evinrude used the show stage to introduce a new electronic control system for its E-TEC V6 outboards. The ICON System is engineered for up to five engines and offers handy features like RPM Tune and PowerSync for better control.
Marine electronics are changing faster than a microsecond these days. Two of the latest innovations debuted last week, including the line-up of broadband radar units from Navico (Simrad, Northstar and Lowrance). This new technology gives the operator 24 miles of high-resolution imagery, including the cone immediately surrounding your vessel. It’s fast, compact and safe to operate. Small boat owners, I hear you cheering!
SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger is yet another compact safety device making a splash. Only now boaters can use it for non-emergency assistance 24/7. In a partnership with BoatU.S., the SPOT Assist will help connect boaters to tow operators when their engines won’t start or they run out of fuel. The new service will be available later this spring.
Sperry showcased its new Anti Shock & Vibration shoes by taking members of the press out for a ride through Government Cut. Washboard wakes were no match for the revolutionary ASV design, which reduces shock by up to 40 percent. The ASV Collection hits stores this spring. Expect picket lines by chiropractors when they do.
Game fish won’t be happy about the Deep Glow underwater lights, either. The submersible green and blue lights produce 10,000 lumens of bright illumination, attracting bait and ultimately predators. Docks and seawalls turning on “the glow” are reporting plenty of bent rods and happy smiles.
The power of juice is also making it easier to set out a spread. The TigerShark LineRigger from Tigress is the first electronic outrigger holder for top mount riggers. They are designed for either hard or soft tops with deployment as simple as pushing a button on the console.
Finally, in the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that category, Hook huggers are foam “de-hooking” devices. Available in five sizes, the triangle-shaped foam stars slide over the shank to keep treble hooks from fouling on anything and everything when not in use.
The economy may be slow, but innovative products were certainly robust at Miami this year.


March Madness

My plan to hunt tailing reds this past weekend was again spoiled by weather. The Arctic Express that dumped snow from Alabama to New York brought winds clocking 35 knots to northwest Florida. It was so strong it made the MGM Studio lion look like a kitten. Time for boat maintenance instead. Getting everything done beforehand will earn good karma for the rest of the season. That’s what I’m counting on, anyway.

First project on the checklist was replacing the old, discolored caulk around my fuel tank. The scraper I bought at Ace Hardware did the trick after a slice or three with the trusty box cutter. One band-aid later and white goo was filling the seam faster than Congress can spend billions. A little liquid detergent, a couple rags and my deck was all pearly white again. Cross that one off the list.

Next up was changing the gear case oil in my outboard. But first I had to break the fill plug loose from its death grip in the skeg. I was wondering where to buy dynamite when the allen wrench budged ever so slightly thanks to gentle love taps from the hammer. I unscrewed it the rest of the way and cracked the top plug to start the flow. Big mistake.

With the cold temperature, the old oil was thick and gooey. Still, even that viscosity was no match for the howling winds. As I tried to keep the drain pan positioned to catch the flow, the stream did a U-turn around the skeg and blew into my face. I felt like a circus clown trying to catch the flying droplets. Several splattered across my clothes and ground tarp, compounding the mess.

Frantically I shifted the pan first one direction and then another. The wind was spinning faster than Linda Blair’s head in The Exorcist. Somehow I managed to keep from spilling the contents without soaking my sleeves in 90-weight. After what seemed like an eternity, the flow ebbed so my numb arms could rest. I refilled the gear case with fresh oil and cleaned up the mess before muttering a few choice words under my breath. No, truthfully I shouted into the wind. There was no way anyone could hear my tirade in that gale.

Fortunately that chore won’t be necessary again for many months. But the next time it is, I’ll make sure to schedule it during dead calm conditions. Either that or wear a hazmat suit.


Ling Fling

The azaleas and dogwoods are in full bloom along the central Gulf coast and that means one thing-cobia fever is an epidemic once again.

The early warning signs start once the last nacho crumbs are cleared from Super Bowl parties. That’s when someone whips out a calendar and predicts the exact date when the first cobia of the season will meet the gaff along the Redneck Riviera. For the un-initiated, that’s the stretch of emerald green water from Mexico Beach, Florida, west to Gulf Shores, Alabama. At least two fish were boated last week around Destin and the news has spread faster than a California wildfire.

You see, cobia fishing here is not just a contact sport; it’s an uncontrollable obsession. It’s bred into our genes like a Jimmy Buffett song. Grown men get misty-eyed describing their first trip. Jobs have been lost and marriages shattered over the hunt for these brown bombers. But the season only lasts a couple months, so you set priorities.

Known by several monikers (cobia, ling, crab crunchers), these migrating fish mosey inshore, typically east to west, along the shallow troughs off the beach. A prevailing southeast wind keeps them in close. Sight-casting is the name of the game in these crystalline waters, making keen eyes and polarized sunglasses a must. Being up high to peer down into the water is a definite advantage, too. That’s why all manner of craft ranging from 16-foot johnboats up to 60-foot convertibles sport towers of every description. Most are polished welded aluminum, but during the run it’s not unusual to see some made of PVC pipe or steel plumbing conduit. Or stepladders lashed to consoles, either. With manly amounts of duct tape, of course. OSHA safety inspections and seat belts are optional. The battle cry, “Hey Bubba, watch this!” is often heard echoing over the sand dunes.

Purists use long spinning rods to cast ling jigs at their cruising targets. These big bucktails come in more Day-Glo colors than the Merry Pranksters. Stick with chartreuse early and pink or orange later in the season, and you’ll be in good stead. Bait options include live eels or pinfish. Ever try to throw a writhing ball of slime at a moving target? ‘Taint easy, but we all love a challenge, right?

Cobia are not the smartest fish in the animal kingdom. In fact, they’re slow and curious to a fault. They often swim behind rays and turtles, making them easier to spot. But they won’t eat automatically and once hooked, they fight hard and even jump occasionally.

Do they have the same cache as the acrobatic tarpon? No. They don’t have the stamina of tuna or the popularity of striped bass, either. But cobia do offer Southern anglers the chance for warm sun on their faces, the thrill of the hunt and a long-awaited steady pull on the line. And that’s a rite of passage many of us crave every spring.


Avoidable Tragedies

We’ve all had days when the weather scuttled the best-laid plans to go fishing. And chances are most of us have been out when conditions worsened due to approaching storms. Fortunately we made it back to the dock safe and sound. Others were not so lucky.

Last Friday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued its report on the boating accident that claimed the lives of three men off Tampa earlier this month. NFL linebacker Marquis Cooper, NFL defensive lineman Corey Smith and former college football player William Bleakley succumbed to hypothermia after Cooper’s 21-foot center console capsized in heavy seas, throwing all passengers into the water. A fourth man, Nick Schuyler, was rescued clinging to the overturned vessel.

According to the FWC report, the men were anchored approximately 35 miles offshore as seas and winds increased to more than 6 feet high and 25 miles per hour. When they attempted to return to port, the stuck anchor wouldn’t budge. So they tied the line to a transom cleat and tried to use the outboard engine to pull the anchor loose. The boat swamped and then capsized. Efforts to right it and signal for help failed. And now three families are grieving their loss.

Tragedy struck again this past Saturday when Hunter Miller, an experienced angler, apparently drowned off Panama City Beach. According to the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper, Miller and his fishing partner Archie White ran through the pass late Saturday afternoon into the Gulf of Mexico and headed east aboard Miller’s “open construction” 21-foot boat. At the time a passing cold front was producing wind gusts up to 30 miles per hour, resulting in very rough seas and a small craft warning.

The men planned to beach on the shore to fish for pompano. They were running about 100 yards off Shell Island when a wave hit and capsized the boat. Both men went into the water. White was able to swim ashore and alert authorities. Miller’s body was later recovered. Tragically, another family is making funeral arrangements this morning.

When I bought my first boat in Pensacola 24 years ago my brother-in-law told me something I’ve never forgotten.

“You don’t have to be afraid of the Gulf,” he said at the time. “But you damn sure better respect it.”

Good advice, indeed.


Endurance Test

It’s not enough we have to contend with inaccurate weather forecasts. Especially coming from a cyborg voice that makes ESPN announcer Joe Morgan sound glib. Anglers deal with challenges every time they hit the water. Many originate with the animal kingdom.

Goliath grouper in the witness protection program are so thick on southern reefs it’s tough to land anything worth keeping. These Volkswagens with fins slurp down trophy filets like they’re popsicles on the 4th of July.

Same goes for Flipper. Tourons (tourist morons) have illegally fed dolphins so much that they follow boats from spot to spot like a pack of mangy dogs. Try releasing an undersized snapper and it gets the beach ball treatment before ending up as a taco.

I’ve had close encounters with sharks and once even came eyeball to eyeball with a big gator while wading a creek. My preference now is to fish INSIDE the boat, thank you very much. So I’ll put up with a lot fauna flack generally speaking, except for the buzzing, humming variety. Bugs still really bug me out.

Twice a year across the Sunshine State, we’re forced to watch an airborne stag film of sorts as “love bugs” take wing. Although these coupled insects don’t bite, engine exhaust acts as an aphrodisiac. Trucks and boats get peppered black on runs to and from the ramp. Even worse, the acid in their smashed little bodies eats away at paint.

Carpenter bees dive-bomb me all summer long out on the flats. I get heart palpitations as they salivate over the teak on my custom skiff. Ever try to spot a tarpon, give casting instructions, swat bees and stay atop on the poling platform in stiff sea breeze, all at the same time? It might be the next big act to hit American Idol.

Mosquitoes can be pains in the butt, literally. Yellow flies extract chunks the size of Raleigh whenever they bite. But the true scourge of the coastal zone is sand gnats, AKA no-see-ums, AKA teeth with wings. How can such a pip-squeak of a critter bite so hard? Bear traps don’t have that much torque.

Maybe the unusually cold winter caused dormant eggs to hatch in plague-like proportions. It could be another sign of the Apocalypse. Whatever the reason, no-see-ums are out with a vengeance this year. Clouds of the little buggers fly around like Predator drones, searching for anything and everything to zap. They carried a small child off the fuel dock the other day. We couldn’t do anything but swat and take cover. On my next trip, I nearly loped my ear off with a filet knife when they swooped down in attack formation at the cleaning table.

In desperation I’ve ordered a 55-gallon drum of Skin So Soft. No-see-ums apparently drown in that slick, greasy stuff. Or maybe it’s the fragrance that they find repulsive. Either way it’s worth a try. Right now my concoction of fish slime, Gulp! juice, ethanol additive, stale beer, SPF 40 sunscreen, funky boat shoes and BO just isn’t working.

Light Stalker

One of the best aspects of my job is that it lets me regularly fish new places. There’s something special about virgin waters. I pore over SWS back issues and web reports for background research. I triple pack rods, lures and gear to cover any contingency. When the time finally comes to get on the water, it’s pure sensory overload. The opportunity to learn different techniques and pick a guide’s brain has proven invaluable time and again.

With this in mind, I gladly accepted the invitation to attend Coastal Conservation Association’s recent media summit in Rockport, Texas. As a long-time member, I knew CCA would put on an informative event. Plus the chance to explore the middle Texas Gulf coast for the first time was too enticing to resist. The summit was held at the top-notch Redfish Lodge on Copano Bay. (

Between insightful presentations on the state of U. S fisheries and the feds’ poor mismanagement of such, the lodge guides put us on nice trout and drum despite challenging conditions. In turn, I peppered them with questions about the area, seasons and the Lone Star State’s infatuation with trophy “specs.”

An unexpected surprise, however, came at night. When the winds finally died at dusk, we took advantage of the dock in the back marsh and the stretch of illuminated beach out front. The submerged luminescent green lights off the dock were the best attractors. Reds and specs cruised in and out of the shadows picking off bait. Some favored the submerged amber lights, too, just not as much. Big white stadium spots illuminating the beach drew popping shrimp, screeching gulls and hungry trout for 100 yards.

Catching “light” fish isn’t a gimme, though. Stomping around the dock puts ’em off; so does loud, long-winded conversations. A stealthy presentation is the key. Small flies that match the forage are quickly slurped down. Gulp! lures, DOA shrimp in glow patterns and noisy topwater plugs can be effective, too. Casting just beyond the light into the shadows typically draws the most strikes. And one more thing–cormorant crap and pelican poop stinks regardless of the moon phase.

Yep, Redfish Lodge is definitely on the short list for return engagements. It’s a great spot with a great staff. But on my next visit, I’m packing a spelunker’s headband and the No-Doze. The light stalker action there is just too fun to miss by sleeping.