Fish America: Florida

Some states are fishier than others, and Florida is about as piscatorial of a peninsula as you'll find anywhere. Inland, the Sunshine State offers some of the nation's best largemouth bass fishing, and its coast is surrounded by saltwater species ranging from trout to tarpon. The thing is, I can't seem to leave Florida. There's just so much to catch.
My first stop in Florida was Apollo Beach, where Robert Day and his wife Laura were kind enough to house, feed and fish me for two days. Energy bars and Red Bulls don't taste as good after Key Lime pie, but the road is a place of ups and downs. Here, Robert shows off a nice sea trout caught in Tampa Bay. It fell for a DOA soft-plastic shrimp imitation.
But if you seeing only salt in Florida, you're missing half the equation. Florida offers some of the best freshwater fishing of any state in the union. To experience it, I got to fish with one of the best freshwater fishermen in the country, Preston Clark. Clark is one of the country's top pro anglers, he's placed in the top 20 in the Bassmaster Classic twice, he's set records, he's won almost 300,000 dollars. When Preston tells you how his wife encouraged him to go pro, and how they took their last dollar to Pittsburgh in 2005 to so that he could take a shot at making it in the Bass big leagues, you suddenly realize that this guy is a better person than he is a fisherman.
And that's saying something, because I never appreciated how much subtlety and finesse there was to catching big bass until I fished with him. The object of the day is flipping these Carolina-rigged soft-plastic crawdads into thick hydrilla on Orange Lake just north of Ocala, Florida. The lake holds a good amount of this thick vegetation in the summertime, making it a prime place to target bass when the temperatures are up.
And the temperatures are way up. It's one of those days where you can feel yourself sweating out the water right after you drink it. Every hour or so Preston and I just run the boat around to cool off before getting back at it. Or, "turning on the air conditioning" as he calls it.
I've never been formally introduced to flipping, and it takes me a while to get the hang of it. I manage to miss a few fish, but before long Preston wrenches this enormous largemouth from the weeds. He estimated the fish to weigh in excess of 10 pounds. I'd never seen a largemouth this big up close before. I'm from upstate New York, where a 5-pound bass is big, an 8-pound bass is huge, and the only way to get a 10-pound bass is by giving a fisherman that's caught an 8-pounder a few beers and the benefit of the doubt. But this thing was real, and it was a sight to behold up close. It didn't take long to see how Preston won all his tournament money. While I was dropping fish, this guy was sticking slobs. He would catch two fish that he estimated weighed more than 10 pounds on the day. To watch him catch fish I was missing, or couldn't even get to bite, was fascinating and frustrating at the same time.
I drop a few fish for the rest of the day, and Preston boats a few more. He admits that the bite is slower than it typically is, likely because of the heat and increased boat traffic over the weekend. Better than the fishing, for me, were the stories of what it's like on the Pro tournament trail. There are tails of hijinks, impromptu bragging-rights tournaments, and did you know there are Pro Angler groupies? I console myself that I'm at least being out-fished by one of the best guys in the business.
I also learn that pickerel, down here, are called jacks. I've referred to them as a four-letter word, but never Jack. The stories of the tour make it worth it to fish with Preston alone. But he'll also give you a crack at double-digit sized bass. I know I had my shots and missed them, and once I improve my flipping I'll be back. If you're in the Orlando area and want to catch enormous bass, visit www.prestonclarkinc.com
I can't leave Florida without a largemouth. So, with a little help from some friends, I get in touch with Mike Hardin. Mike spent enough days working that he can now spend his days chasing fish. He lives in Plant City, Florida but trailers his Tracker to wherever the bass are biting. Mike is a passionate freshwater fisherman and has the photo evidence of numerous big bass from around the Sunshine State to prove it.
For our outing we settle on Crooked Lake in Lake Wales, Florida. The plan is to hit the lake at sunrise and hope to take advantage of a topwater bite. It proves to be a beautiful and still Florida morning, and we've beaten the heat out onto the water, at least.
Chugging little Rebel Pop-Rs across the surface after first light proves successful. With the heat as bad as it's been in Florida, this is one of the prime times to take advantage of these fish feeding in the summer months. It may not have come easily, and it may not set any records, but I'm all smiles with my first Florida largemouth, which punched the lure on top like a middleweight going for a knockout.
Mike's kind enough to have me back to his house in Plant City, where he shows me a vintage map of the lake we fished. The man knows bass.
With some freshwater fishing under my belt, I head toward the coast. I've always wanted to fish Boca Grande, and Paul Blalock, pictured here with his son Parker, is kind enough to make that happen. My timing is off, as Boca is the tarpon capital of the world in the spring. Boca Grande pass might just be the epicenter of the tarpon universe in June, but by August these fish are scattered. Paul still makes every effort to find some fish for me, and his son Parker is the best 12-year-old boat handler I've ever met.
First, we gather some white bait, or pilchards for the morning. Paul is an expert at throwing this enormous cast net.
Within a few throws we've got our share of these: redfish snack-sized white bait.
Wind, weather and heat make the fishing difficult. I would suggest coming to Boca Grande if it's one of the last things you ever do, but I'd suggest coming in June. However, when you can't beat 'em, eat 'em. We head for a fish lunch at Cabbage Key, a restaurant on an island of the same name, reachable only by boat.
Besides being rumored to be the place where Jimmy Buffet penned a few tunes, the restaurant has an interesting tradition. Guests write their name on a dollar bill, and tape it up on the wall or ceiling. And when the place is full, and it was pretty full when we got there, the money is taken down and given to a charity. Guests start filling up the bare walls and it doesn't take long.
Here, a family prepares to put their George Washington to good use. Not a bad way to spend a buck. You can spend the rest of your money on the Mahi sandwich at Cabbage Key, which is delicious.
I didn't give up when after first largemouth swing-and-miss, so I'm not about to let Boca beat me. I take a day to regroup, and it's back on the water with guide Ryan Rowan. If you need to find a fish around Boca, it's a tough time of month and the weather's not cooperating, Ryan's as good a bet as you'll find. The guy has been guiding here for more than a decade and knows every inch of the water.
Ryan and I run out in the dark to get on the water at first light and jig up some ladyfish for bait. These leaping silver fish are common in Florida, and just about anything will eat a chunk of one. We're using little Nylure Jigs, made by Bomber, and the ladyfish are hitting on every cast. It's not long before we've got a full livewell and we're turning them into bait.
We rig up the ladyfish chunks on a circle hook, using braided line and fluorocarbon leader.
The fishing is no less difficult a few days later, with high winds and an approaching low-pressure front making the fish seemingly skittish. But nevertheless I winch this snook from the mangrove roots on a ladyfish chunk. The leaping fish are a prize Florida game fish, strong fighters and acrobats to boot. I've caught more colds than I have snook and this is by far my largest. This fish, for me, made the day.
With the high water and air temperatures, we are careful to take our time and release the snook in good health. Freezing temperatures lead to a large kill of snook this past winter, and the population needs all the help it can get bouncing back.
Not long after we land the snook, I hook up a smaller redfish, again tucked back in the mangroves. These beautiful fish have always fascinated me, and it's a dream of mine to catch a big bull red. This little guy is a lot of fun too, though, and adds to the trip.
I did encounter one first on this trip. We fished next to Doug Creek, whose son is pictured here holding a snook. Doug pitched as a reliever in the major leagues for seven seasons. Of course, the baseball nut side of me takes over, and I forget my ladyfish chunk as I yell questions across the water about the bigs. Creek pitched to Barry Bonds twice, it turns out, and popped him up both times. In the 2002 season Creek struck out 56 batters in 55 innings, I discovered from a little research. Is that like landing 7 of 10 hooked tarpon? I don't know, but baseball has always been a close second to fishing for me, and wetting a line next to a guy that pitched to Barry Bonds makes the day that much more memorable. Doug's son is also a heck of a fisherman.
All in all, the second time's the charm for Boca Grande, which seems to be a theme in Florida. The snook salvaged the day, the redfish was some icing on the cake, and fishing with Captain Ryan was a blast. August can be tough time of year in the salt down here, but I guess if there's a lesson to be learned, it's not to give up.
If you can handle the heat, there are fish to be found in Florida in the summer. But no matter what time of year you head down, look into these fishing with these knowledgeable guides. Freshwater, Orlando Area: Preston Clark Boca Grande: Ryan Rowan