Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Matlacha Redfish Story

From this month's Nautical Mile newspaper:
We were skating across the surface of Matlacha Pass, heading north on a windless, flat calm January morning. It should have been an effortless trip towards Charlotte Harbor and over to Pine Island Sound, but it wasn’t. Instead of taking in the normally beautiful scenery that surrounds us on this run my eyes were glued to the screen of my little dash mounted GPS because there simply was no scenery.

A quick moving cold front dropped the air temperature into the mid-50s the night before, creating an unusually dense fog and making the familiar channel markers of the Pass impossible to follow. It was also the bottom of a very low winter tide and straying outside the channel would mean an instant grounding. Running through dense fog is still very unnerving to me due to my Keys and Caribbean fishing background, two locales where fog is exceptionally rare, so I said a quick prayer to the satellite gods beaming their signals down to my Garmin 440 and held the throttle steady at 25 mph.

Perched on the cooler in front of me was my good friend Capt. Mike Bartlett, up visiting me from Key West. The further I pushed into the solid wall of fog the more grateful I was for his presence. Mike and I have known each other for over a decade and he’s hands-down one of the best flats guides in all of Florida. Having Mike on my boat felt as reassuring as having Lindbergh in the co-pilot’s seat. Even though Matlacha wasn’t his home waters his trained set of eyes boosted my confidence that I wouldn’t plow us into an oncoming shrimp trawler.

We were heading to the west side of Pine Island and the huge grass flat which stretches from Big Jim Creek to the Pineland Marina. All the ingredients were there that morning for several hours of tailing redfish and braving the fog and low water was a necessary evil in order to get to Ground Zero.

I especially wanted Mike to see this. We’d guided together for years down in Key West and even after I left the island he continued to put me on quality fish every time I returned for a visit. Now it was my turn. He’d been up here before but this time I really owed Mike a good trip. He was eager to bend his new Sage fly rod on a big tailing red and more importantly I wanted to show him that the flats in my current backyard of Pine Island were every bit as productive as those in the Keys. I just had to get us there in one piece.

We made it to the northern entrance of Jug Creek and I slowed down for the shortcut that took us at idle speed past the Four Winds Marina and into Back Bay. The fog continued to thicken and the water kept getting shallower. Five minutes later, when we entered Little Bokeelia Bay and I goosed the throttle forward to get back on plane, I quickly knew I was in trouble. I normally shoot right across the shallow water there but this time something important was missing: the water.

My Beavertail skiff only needs six inches to float and I was suddenly in no more than five. I hit the bottom doing only 20 mph so it wasn’t a really bad impact. Mike and I were both pitched forward but at least we stayed in the boat. I’d been through this cut well over a hundred times and had a fully functioning GPS but I still managed to miss the narrow channel and ground the skiff beautifully.

Thank God I had Mike onboard and not a paying customer. I could easily take his sarcastic “Ever drive a boat before?” comments without feeling like a total idiot or getting the slightest urge to punch him in the face. He’d witnessed my stupidity before and had done the same thing a time or two himself down in the Keys. The worst part was the jeers from the passing crab boat as I stood in the thick mud and slowly pushed my skiff back toward the channel.

A few minutes later we were back on plane, weaving our way out of Little Bokeelia Bay and into Pine Island Sound. The fog was still wrapped around us like a wet blanket and there was no hint of a blue sky coming anytime soon. Fortunately we wouldn’t need the sunlight that morning. The water in the Sound was still dead calm and the tide just started flooding. I swung the bow back to the east for a few minutes until I was shallow enough to feel the Yamaha bump the bottom once again. This time I killed the engine before the hull made contact with the grass bed.

Thanks to the fog the silence was immediate. Mike and I could only see a hundred yards in any direction but that was all we needed. Within less than a minute the tails started to break the surface. They were mostly singles at first but occasionally a smaller school of half a dozen would appear. Soon there were orange triangles waving in the air everywhere we looked.

After a nerve wracking half hour run and a muddy and embarrassing grounding, I’d found the mother lode of Pine Island redfish that I’d promised my buddy from Key West.

“Oh wow!” was the first thing Mike said as he stepped onto the bow and started to cast his fly.