Thursday, May 5, 2011

Florida- Day One on the Flats

Marty casting like a champ with Cordell at the helm
Cordell was concerned about the tides. Marty, Tim and I arrived in Miami right at the full moon and the tides were going to be big. We would be hitting the launch site at low tide in the morning.  Cordell wasn’t sure what the full moon would bring for fishing- it could be really good or it could be really bad. Either way, the three of us were really excited to get out of the dismal Vermont winter we had left and get out for some tropical fishing.

I was a bit out of sorts that morning. I had forgotten the compression sleeves I bought to help protect my arms. I had some good sun block but I had visions of casting lobster arms for the rest of the week. I didn’t get a lot of sleep either because I was too wound up. I was hoping to get shots at bonefish and barracuda but my primary target was sharks. I have wanted a shark on the end of a fly rod for years now. The fight is supposed to be amazing and let’s face it: you are catching a shark on a fly rod!
Sunrise from the launch site- Marty S. photo

Glassy waters on Biscayne Bay

We got to the launch site to a beautiful pink and lilac sunrise starting. There was virtually no wind and the water was glass. Things were looking good. We got everything set up in the canoes and set out. Yes, I said canoes. Cordell does all his fishing on Biscayne Bay standing up in an Indian River Canoe. I guide on Lake Champlain standing up in a Bear Creek Big Duck with pontoons on the side and we had brought that boat down with us. We were now on the salt in canoes chasing bonefish, reds, barracuda and, hopefully, sharks. Life was good.

The water was beautiful. Cordell commented that it was a rare days that the Bay gets so calm. He had Marty in the front of his canoe and I had Tim in the front of mine. We followed Cordell- he was poling and I was paddling. And I could not keep up. Cordell has the timing of the pole down pat. He moves his boat effortlessly over the shallows while scanning the water for fish. I have to admit that it was very impressive to watch him move that boat. It didn’t take long for fish to appear.

We were spooking small ‘cuda, snapper and needlefish on a regular basis. Now and then schools of bait would jump too. Then we started seeing tails. We had bones! Cordell had Marty casting we could see from a distance as we closed in on them. As we got near we saw the nervous water and a big school of bones swam between the boats. Two or three dozen bonefish moved through on a mission. That rippling will always be seared into my memory.  They moved so fast that no one had a chance to get a shot off. We kept moving south watching for more fish.
Tim hooked up! Note the ball of seaweed on the line.
Tim looking pleased!

Tim and I passed a mangrove point as the light improved. There were clouds filtering the sun but it was bright enough to see well and the wind had not picked up. As I scanned the water looking for fish just like I do at home, I spotted several little black triangles popping up and down out of the water. Bones! We had bones not 50 feet away to our left. I alerted Tim and abruptly turned the canoe and moved him toward the fish. His first cast didn’t produce, but the second was a different story. Tim remembered to strip strike and did it well and had a fast moving fish on the end of his line. The reel was spinning as the bone tried to head to the safety of the depths.
Gorgeous fish Tim!

It made a good run but never quite made it to the backing. As the bone took off initially it managed to get a clump of seaweed stuck on the line. I was a bit concerned about that since we didn’t know how big this fish was. I had complete confidence in the 3X Orvis Mirage Fluorocarbon tippet but I knew it would be good to get rid of the weeds. The fish never got into the backing but it didn’t matter to Tim who was grinning like a fool. He had caught his first bonefish! I felt pretty good myself for recognizing the signs and putting him onto the fish too.

We got some great pictures and released the bone. I barely remember taking the shot of the fish as it swam off, but the resulting picture really tells the story of Tim’s first bonefish ever. If you look closely at the middle of the shot you can see the ghost of the flats swimming by Tim’s shadow with his arms raised above his head in triumph. Cordell picked that picture out immediately as the best shot of the day and the one that really tells the story best.

Bonefish release
Tim and I switched up a couple of times as we tried to catch up to Cordell. He was at least a mile ahead of us. We went past a bunch of bonnethead sharks and I marked the location. Those were a fish on my catch list. When we got to Cordell and Marty they had just been working some redfish. Biscayne Bay is not known for its reds but Cordell has found some and some bruisers at that.  We went back through the area and good a good look at the school- a couple of dozen fish ranging from “little” 30 inch fish to ones that were well over 40. No one wanted to play with us either.
Capt Dan the shark hunter!

Marty told us on the way down to here they had a good shot at a permit. Cordell had spotted the tail from quite a distance away and had quickly poled Marty to its location. It had been a big one and Marty had been fortunate enough to get 3 shots at it before it took off.

On the way back toward the launch site I rigged up my 8 wt for the bonnetheads. These small relatives of hammerheads are crustacean specialists and aren’t often targeted with flies. I had been doing my research and found out that a simple crawfish colored rabbit strip fly with lead eyes was the ticket. I put on a heavier leader of 1X Mirage without a bite tippet: the teeth of this small shark weren’t likely to cut the leader. Tim was on deck at this point and we found some fish to hunt.
The photo of the photo- Marty S photo

It didn’t take long for Tim to find a playmate. The bonnethead swatted the fly and took off fast. It went to the backing in no time. The shark never went airborne but it did make a great show of itself. I watched the fly line head out of the guides and then some backing. Tim put some line back onto the reel and then it made another good run. Definitely a fish worth tossing a fly at!
When we got the fish close to the canoe, I jumped over the side to make it a lot easier to land. Once it got close I got my Boga-grip on its lower jaw. These guys do have teeth but they are pretty easy to handle. The teeth are well under the fish and unless you do something really stupid they will have a tough time getting a grip on you. After posing for some shots we let the shark go.
Not a big shark, but it still has teeth!
 It was my turn now! There were still plenty of bonnetheads around this cove. I tried for a while and all I managed to do was foul hook two. I wasn’t too happy about that and after an hour or so of trying we gave up and started toward where Cordell and Marty went to.

On the way toward them we were seeing scattered bonefish here and there and I had a couple of good shots but I wasn’t ready for them. I had put down the 8wt and picked up my 10wt Pike Saber and was on the lookout for bigger sharks. I had the right gear- an Orvis Mirage reel, the Saber, a Rio Outbound Tropical Intermediate Tip line and 300 yards of gel-spun backing. I had built a special leader too: 30“ of 25 lb mono, then 30” of 50 lb fluoro (to prevent the skin of the shark from rubbing against the leader and abrading it during the fight) and then 18” of 61lb Ultra Wire. I had a bright orange shark fly tied on too. We had seen some larger sharks earlier in the day and I was ready for them.
On the lookout for sharks

We were getting pretty close to the other boat when I looked to my left. There were three fish swimming toward us. Round faces and black sickle tails- PERMIT! Tim and I got a good look at them before they did what permit do- scatter faster than the blink of an eye. It was cool to see nonetheless.

Marty and Cordell were yelling at us that they had been seeing a lot of sharks. Cordell said that they had a group of bulls and blacktips around the boat. He was actually touching them with his push pole. Marty agreed and said that they were big enough that he didn’t want to fall in. I thought “Now I am in business”.

That group of sharks never appeared and the tide was starting to head out. Pretty amazing to watch that volume of water start leaving the flats. We had a couple of decent shots at some smaller sharks but they showed no interest. Then a good fish appeared. It was a pretty good sized black tip- 6 foot or so. About the biggest I wanted to get into.

I cast at it at an oblique angle leading it on. I stripped it past the fish and WHOOSH! It turned fast and jumped at the fly and missed it. Then it spun around again and smashed at the fly again… and missed it. Then it just lost interest and swam away. It was very cool to see that much power and speed in a fish. I can still see it clearly in my head: a perfect combination of force and grace focused with such intensity on my fly.

With the tide going out Tim poled me around trying to find more sharks but it wasn’t to be. We saw some large barracuda that I could not interest. There was a big sea turtle kicking around too. Bonefish would occasionally show up and disappear just as quickly. All in all it was very cool to watch. We finally ended up trying to catch some snapper along a boat channel- getting a lot to follow but none to commit.

We took the boats out of the water. It was Day One of Bonefish Boot Camp. There were more to come. Time for some Cuban food and regrouping for tomorrow's raid on the flats.


  1. About time you got around to this ... nice read Drew.