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Holy mackerel — that's a lot of fly casting
By Paul Bruun, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: February 20, 2013
Ignoring weather forecasts is occasionally necessary, but only in an emergency. Schools of hungry fish are such emergencies.
When February northeaster storms rile the Atlantic off middle Florida, rough seas prevent boats from reaching great sailfish and other offshore action. Happily, water temperatures stay cool, to the delight of schooling Spanish mackerel, baitfish and other followers. Wind and sea turbulence drive plankton inshore, which encourages the presence of bay anchovies.
Big schools of these tiny silver Caesar salad and pizza topping ingredients are locally known as glass minnows. Find glass minnows and the rest of the food chain arrives en masse.
Despite the predicted rain and variable gusty winds, Marcia Foosaner decided to take a chance and explore the beachline south of Stuart’s St. Lucie Inlet. “If it gets too rough we’ll sneak back into the Indian River,” she said. Specifically, she meant back to her fertile tidal grass flats “home,” where she’s regularly found, fly rod in hand, wading and guiding.
Last February, Capt. Marcia introduced Jean and me to the challenge of wading for pompano, a sturdy, delicious Florida native that few ever consistently land on a fly. In the process we met up with redfish, sheepshead, ladyfish, jack crevalle, spotted sea trout and snook. Other than millions of dollars worth of the latest sportfishing game boats idling past in channels fronting exclusive Sewall’s and Sailfish Point estates, we were alone.
This day began under light fog and southwest breezes, which were adequately blocked by a barrier island. Carefully navigating her 18-foot Action Craft, a backcountry skiff designed for shallow water but with enough freeboard to patrol the ocean in moderate seas, Marcia steered south toward a congregation of fishing craft on the horizon off Hobe Sound and Jupiter Island.
If central casting were to create a call for fishing boats, we were soon right in the middle of at least 80 applicants. This was the darn-dest mish-mash of commercial and private fishermen I’ve ever witnessed. The fleet began with small flats boats and miniature 13-foot Carolina Skiffs and soared to handsome 50-foot fishing cruisers, ancient diesel-stained commercial kingfish trolling boats and a vast number of inboard and outboard craft of all sizes.
My take was that this was a pretty well-behaved mob even though we were all targeting the same enormous school of Spanish mackerel, which stretched from depths of nine feet out to 25 feet. Several schools of hungry bottlenose dolphin joined the action, carefully threading their rolling-diving-feeding antics through the fleet with an underwater grace of aquatic ballerinas.
Since Florida instituted the inshore commercial fishing net ban in 1995, the overfishing of many species has lessened. But conflicts, illegal activity and a steady growth of borderline commercial techniques proliferate.
“Wait until you see the 14-foot cast nets these fellows are throwing on the inshore mackerel,” Marsha noted disdainfully. “I don’t know how any fishery has a chance around here.”
There were dozens of fishing styles, from netting to trolling, being practiced in this eclectic fleet. Our boat was the only one armed with fly rods. The reaction to our efforts was amusing to observe, especially when Marcia and Jean began pummeling the mackerel population with regularity. They easily out-landed anglers who were throwing spoons, jigs and all sorts of lure contraptions. When Jean and Marcia released their fish, they received savage stares.
The Spanish mackerel is a sleek fish with aerodynamics similar to a green and silver rifle bullet. It leads with a set of needle-like teeth that shred leaders, lures, flies, bait and fingers with equal authority. The intense boat presence, netting, fishing and dolphin pressure made the normal use of even the finest number 1 and 2 coffee wire leaders a nonproductive idea. So we stuck with Seaguar 25-pound test Red Label fluorocarbon, the stiffest invisible lightweight leader locally recommended. With a loop knot on a light colored number 1 or 2 Clouser Minnow pattern, we cast the fluorocarbon leader upcurrent on either a floating or intermediate fly line allowing the fly to sink to reach the mackerel window. At this point a group of two or three fish would begin slashing and chopping the fly into nothingness.
Spanish mackerel and their heftier cousins, cero and king mackerel, can all turn on the jets in an instant. Getting a fly, spoon or live bait away from them is impossible. But convincing shy, overworked Spanish to get a mouthful of fly hook sometimes requires persistence rather than speed.
On this particular day it seemed important to let the fly sink for a few counts before beginning a brisk striping motion. Next, add a sudden pause. Strikes would come during the pause as the fly began dropping or just as it resumed moving at a slower speed.
During a prolonged outboard engine warranty hassle that began last August, Marcia had emptied her boat of its usual necessities and was upset for leaving her “mackerel fly box” at home. That collection of well-used patterns would have proven helpful as the mackerel continued buzz-cutting our flies into disposables in two casts.
Marcia stayed extremely busy unhooking our fish and toweling down the boat from a continuous bath of blood and bait created by landing and releasing Spanish. Chewed glass minnow residue was flying everywhere. Some hulking cobia, jacks and the occasional kingfish all zoomed through this bait- and mackerel-rich zone. Occasionally, angry screams erupted from a commercial guy locked in a sudden tug-a-war with a bottlenose dolphin that chomped his cast net full of wriggling mackerel.
Nearly five hours of nonstop fly tossing from a bouncing skiff is great casting practice and improves everything from loop-knot tying to double-hauling in the wind, hook setting and fish fighting. The action was furious and not without a purpose. We slid a few mackerel into the cooler to be grilled later under lemon juice and butter, part of a nice dinner with Marcia’s patient husband, Aaron.
When the wind finally clocked around to the northeast, announcing the arrival of another weather front, the Action Craft moved back into the comfortable confines of the Indian River. There we enjoyed a relaxed lunch before we slipped into the water to finish the afternoon wading and casting Marcia’s Flats, as they are officially listed on the Home Port No. 51 St. Lucie River Chart.
Ignoring the weather forecast of high winds and an even greater chance of rain paid off handsomely this time.
Jackson Hole Ducks Unlimited’s annual fundraising banquet number 39 is scheduled for March 16 in the Snow King Sports and Events Center. Contact local chairwoman Jennifer Wolf to volunteer, donate and purchase tickets and corporate sponsorships. Jennifer can be reached at email@example.com or at 307-413-4439.