MURDER IN THE MANGROVES!
With the gentlest plop, the little silver bait fish landed just inches away from the tangled mass of barnacle encrusted mangrove roots. For a few seconds it lay motionless just below the surface, then slowly it started to swim following a line running parallel to the dense root system, trailing the light monofilament line behind it.
As I watch the baitfish work the scene was all peace and tranquillity with near perfect silence, only an occasional call from an alarmed red wing blackbird or the splash from some distant feeding fish, broke that silence. It was barely mid-morning yet already the temperature in this part of south-west Florida was in the high twenties, with the certain promise of much higher to come. Relief in the form of icy air conditioning and a frosted glass of foaming beer were a good six hours off, yet at that time I wouldn’t have wished to have been anywhere else in the world.
Suddenly the bait fish started to swim erratically, desperately trying to swim away from the mangroves and into the limited sanctuary afforded by deeper water. Straining through my Polaroid’s I could see no cause for such obvious alarm in that shallow clear water then suddenly that little fish was gone, snatched in a violent explosion of spray.
In an instant the line snapped taught and several yards were ripped from the spool as the fish tried to return to its secure lair amidst the tangle of roots. Applying as much pressure as I dared on the 10lb test line, desperately I tried to turn its head and draw it back towards deeper, snag free water and for a few tense seconds it looked as though the fish would win the battle though gradually and with mere few inches to spare, I gained the upper hand.
Sensing this reversal in fortune the hooked fish changed tactics and exploded out of the water in the first of several gill rattling jumps, its head shaking frantically from side to side as it tried to free itself from the hook. When this failed it surged away in another attempt at getting amongst the mangrove roots, then changed tack and swam more or less straight at me. It was tense and thoroughly exhilarating, light line fishing at its very best, and when Bob finally reached out and netted my fish it was ‘high five’s’ all round…well, I was in America!
The fish a snook of about 7lb in weight, was barely what would be classed as an average size for the species. Snook are widely regarded as one of Florida’s elite band of flats and back country game fish, which include the likes of bonefish, tarpon, permit, redfish and speckled trout. This wasn’t my first snook of the trip, neither was it my biggest, but it was the first fish of a two day trip with Capt. Bob Hartwell, and my first fishing trip to the spectacular back country fishing in the 10, 000 Islands region of the Everglades National Park.
My day with Capt. Bob had begun at Cedar Bay Marina, Marco Island. It was still dark as we tentatively crept out through the narrow navigation channel, before heading north towards Gordon Pass south of downtown Naples to catch bait. The use of live bait forms a major part of much American sports fishing and while live fish, crab and shrimp can be readily bought at pretty much any of the many tackle and bait shops, general stores and even petrol stations throughout the region, most captains prefer to net their own fresh on the day.
We arrived at the large outer channel marker, offshore of Gordon’s Pass, and about 100 yards from the towering buoy Bob throttled back and dug his cast net out of the bow locker. With me at helm he instructed me to gently edge us forward, and when we were a few yards off the buoy he threw the net with well practiced action.
The weighted net sank through the depths, the connecting line running through Bob’s fingers, and after maybe twenty seconds he told me to gently run us astern as he started to retrieve the net, using the line to close the purse strings around the nets perimeter. As Bob heaved the now heavily burdened net over the gunnels, the first rays of morning sun light illuminated its contents; dozens upon dozens of bright silver little fish. Two throws later and both of ‘Daily Habit’s’ aerated live wells were full of shimmering snook snacks!
After turning south back towards Marco Island we headed inland into the complex network of mangrove islands, channels and secluded back waters which form the 10, 000 Islands, a wildlife haven that thankfully is still free from almost all traces of human interference. Mangrove systems are found throughout the tropics, and are one of the richest marine habitats on earth, and its a sure bet that wherever you find healthy mangroves you’ll also find game fish.
The warm, nutrient enriched shallow, protected water found around the labyrinth of raised mangrove roots serves as the ideal nurturing ground for many species of fish including the juveniles of some of the most popular species of sport fish, along with the shellfish and crustacea that form the foundation blocks for an entire food chain. The deep water channels which invariably dissect the mangroves serve as ideal access routes for larger fish who may come and go with the tides, or in many cases may be resident.
As soon as we reached the first area Bob had chosen for us to fish he switched to using the bow mounted electric trolling motor. Using this silent running form of propulsion he was able to keep us perfectly within casting range of the root systems. We were using light spinning rods, with the end rig consisting of nothing more than a single short shanked live bait hook tied on the end of a 12in shock tippet of 60lb test clear monofilament line, which was itself tied directly to the main reel line.
The baitfish was lightly hooked through the nose, then cast as close as possible to the leading edge of the mangrove roots. When fishing for snook it is essential to get the bait as tight as possible to the leading edge of the tangle of roots, or better still directly beneath any over hanging branches or piles of dead wood. Snook live in the tightest of tight cover and feed mostly at night, and when fishing during bright daylight it can be vital to more or less bounce the bait on their nose in order to induce a strike.
The water was only slightly tinged with colour and being so shallow I thought I could clearly see every detail on the bottom, yet time after time I was amazed when up to half a dozen snook appeared from absolutely nowhere and voraciously competed with each other to eat my bait.
In one or two favourite locations Bob lowered the anchor and we systematically worked our baits throughout the area. A trick which he used with great success on several occasions if the fishing things was slow was to shower the area with a handful of bait fish. The effect of this simple technique was dramatic with the confused fish soon getting mopped up by hungry snook, which could then be induced into taking our baits.
And it wasn’t just snook that found those freshly netted baitfish so appertising. We caught several sizable jack crevalle along with plenty of snapper. At one inviting looking spot I tossed my bait into a deep hole lying beneath the shaded of an over-hanging mangrove. The bait was eaten instantly and at first I was convinced I had hooked a large snook. Staying deep that fish tested my tackle to its limit and it was several minutes before we got our first glimpse of it and saw it was not a snook, but a jewfish. Jewfish, now called goliath grouper, are protected throughout Florida and while I was pleased at having caught one, at a little under 10 I was humbled by the fact that in jewfish stakes my fish ranked barely larger than small fry; this species grows to well over 500lb.