Thursday, January 23, 2014

Florida's Forgotten Coast

Zeph said it best after the trip: "I think the Captains were as stunned by the effects of the weather as the fish were."

If you remember from my recent post, there were Polar-Vortex-related hiccups getting down to Florida for some wintertime R&R. We ended up spending three quarters of Day 1 in the airport, swapping fish fantasies and eating overpriced junk food while our flight got delayed further and further. But we made it to our destination in St. Augustine before midnight safe and sound.

A call to Capt. James Dumas of Drum Man Charters tipped us off to a DIY spot to get us started. Zeph, Tiff, and myself loaded up on small bluefish at a nearby inlet despite 25-knot winds and 35 degree air temps (hey, at least it was 50 degrees warmer than Chicago!). It had gotten down to 24 degrees the night before, which was the coldest the area had seen in 2 decades. At least little bluefish don't care.

Having wiped the trip skunk off early, we moved on to our main goal: redfish. To hedge our bets, we booked 2 half day trips with local guides--Capt. James Dumas of St Augustine and Capt John Botko of Jacksonville.  Over the phone, both guides seemed optimistic as fishing had been off the charts before the cold snap (when isn't that the case?) and suggested such a short snap wouldn't affect the fishing noticeably (why do guides do this to themselves?). 

First up was Capt. James, aka the "Drum Man." He showed a good instinct when we jumped on board and he told me my flies were too big. He handed me what looked like a bonefish slider with extra-small lead eyes to tie on. He had warned of high winds, but none of us were ready for the chill of being up on plane that day. We poled up tiny creek after tiny creek, which got us all in the mood for some winter reds. But the fish were strangely absent, and James seemed surprised at how low the water was. 

It took us half of the half-day to find fish. That doesn't mean they cooperated. With high winds there was a chop on the water even in the little creeks, which left us blind to the fish's movements until we were on already top of them. They spooked quickly. Often they snuck right past our noses and under our boat without us noticing. We kept blind casting around oyster bars and deeper holes, sometimes putting a fly several times through an area we'd later find was full of fish. No takers. We moved to a spot where another captain had been catching small reds on bait but was leaving a few for us. A few casts and a few fly changes later, we caught some redfish on fly and Tiff got her first couple reds ever on bait. 

Our time (and then some) was up but James felt bad about the fishing, so he stopped a flooding flat near an old bridge that he said would have some bluefish and possibly trout around. We didn't find more than one bluefish, but I think that's because this seatrout (my personal best) ate them all:

See that faint brown and white in her mouth? That'd be my fly.

Seatrout = yum. 

All in all it was a decent day, but it required a lot of work from Capt James and us anglerfolk to put some fish in the boat during the coldest weather of the 21st century.  James is a hardworking guide and a great guy to share the boat with. I recommend you give him a call if you check out the St. Auggie area. 

We did a little more DIY fishing in the meantime, but never hit the tides right for the kind of action we saw the first time out. At least it was getting warmer and the wind was laying down. I did manage this nice surprise:

The second guide trip saw Zeph and myself aboard the skiff of Capt. John Botko. Everyone that we told we were going with John had a positive response. The dude is kind of a local legend. He is known to have secret schools of double-digit-sized redfish that only he can find. Needless to say, our excitement was high. It was even higher when we arrived to see the conditions for the day:
John showed us fish all day long. We had no shortage of fish to cast at. But they weren't having it. They didn't want to play, at least not with our flies. It wasn't for our performance, either, at least according to John; at one point, John told Zeph, "I'm gonna start calling you 'Lefty' with the way you're laying line out." That's a hell of a compliment if I ever heard one. 

And Zeph did have his fly around some fish, including some very large ones for that area. But they didn't want the fake stuff. Feathers and fur weren't cutting it, at least not on the strip. To give us some faith, John had me throw a live minnow on a jig into the water where Zeph was casting. About 10 seconds later, I was tied into a 10lber.

We had blown all our shots at 100 big redfish before we realized they probably were so cold and lazy that they wanted the slowest, easiest, and most realistic meal. We swapped flies for mud minnow imitations and headed to a spot John said would have 5-10lb fish. Well, the size was a bit exaggerated, and we were headed into hour 6 of our 4-hour tour, but we found a few players.

We had accomplished our goal of redfish on flies, and amongst some of the tightest lockjaw these captains had ever seen. The weather was warming, and the nightmare of the Polar Vortex was a fading memory. It was time, however, that we return to the cold fishless winter of Chicago as our visit to this beautiful stretch of nature's nursery was over. I already miss Saint Augustine, a town that has so much charm and so many fish yet doesn't seem to get much press or many crowds. I could get used to this forgotten coast, and I hope to return another day... 

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