Variety of fish gives surprise

MIAMI -- One of the most intriguing -- and addictive -- aspects of recreational fishing is the suspense over what kind of creature might deign to bite your hook. Although it's a completely useless exercise, many anglers have been known to take bets, midfight, on the identity of the fish.
One inshore fishing destination where this nonsensical but fun game can be played out day after day is Punta Gorda's Charlotte Harbor estuary. To paraphrase a line from the movie, "Forrest Gump," fishing here is a lot like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to catch.
I fished there recently on an unseasonably warm day cinched between cold fronts with captain Robin Branch of the King Fisher Charter Fleet.
Branch steered his 19-foot skiff out of Fishermen's Village across the harbor to the shallows between Turtle Bay and Bull Bay on the incoming tide. He anchored next to a 6-foot-deep hole surrounded by flats shallow enough for blue herons to walk.
Except for infrequently jumping mullet, there didn't seem to be much fish activity, I thought to myself.
As if reading my thoughts, Branch said, "Redfish move into these holes at low tide."
He baited two 10-pound spinning outfits with live shrimp, and we cast to the edge of the depression.
Catch and release
For a few minutes, nothing happened. But then we both got sharp strikes and reeled in two sheepshead -- one of them big enough to keep. We released them and recast our shrimp -- this time rewarded with a redfish doubleheader, one of them in the slot. After letting them go, we caught and released several more reds; two flounder; a small sea trout; two gag grouper and a couple of large pinfish. Branch lost a suspected gag grouper that broke his line in a segment of submerged debris.
With two-thirds of an inshore boat slam (redfish and trout), we decided to relocate to try for snook. Branch headed for residential docks on posh Boca Grande Island.
He anchored the skiff opposite the dock of a large canary-colored mansion and baited our spinning rods with the two large pins we had caught earlier. We both cast to the dock pilings and waited.
Suddenly, I felt a strong yank and the drag on my reel began to scream. Surely this had to be a very large snook -- except that it never jumped.
When I finally brought it close enough to the boat to identify, Branch and I noted with surprise that it was a large redfish -- probably in the 10-to-15-pound class. And there were four more of similar size hanging with it.
Branch quickly reeled in his bait, cast it in the midst of the milling reds and immediately hooked up. There began the universal angler dance of feints, dodges and sidesteps as we edged around the boat, trying to keep our fish from tangling with each other.
Bringing both fish aboard, we weighed them on a Boga Grip -- both 12 pounds -- and then let them go. Perhaps we'd get a snook on the next cast, but who was complaining?
Branch baited my hook with a small live croaker and put a large shrimp on his. We recast and hooked two more of the bull reds.
My fish broke off on a dock piling, but Branch boated his -- this time, a 15-pounder! But when he put it back into the water, a bottlenose dolphin that we had noticed lurking in the area earlier emerged from beneath the skiff and grabbed the red in its jaws like a dog with a prized bone.
Moving along
Not wishing to further reduce the local redfish population, we decided to look elsewhere for snook.
But first, we needed bait. Branch literally dropped the cast net on a school of small pilchards (known on the West Coast as whitebait), collecting enough to use as bait and chum.
We motored for 20 minutes to the residential canals of Punta Gorda Isles, where the incoming tide was still in full flow. Branch anchored up-current of the stern of a docked sailboat and directed me to cast a pilchard toward its rudder. I did, but it was swing-and-miss.
Branch scattered a handful of pilchards across the surface, cast one out and was rewarded with a small snook. Slam accomplished. But he kept casting, releasing three more -- one of them slot-sized -- and lost another large enough to straighten the hook.
As we headed back to Fishermen's Village, Branch said, in massive understatement, "A slam is really easy to come by here."
He paused, and then added, "But when you throw tarpon on top of that, that's when it gets real difficult."
We decided to leave the tarpon for another day.
Susan Cocking writes for the Miami Herald.
McClatchy Newspapers

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