The early morning was still; everything
quiet. I hunted tailing red fish with a
seven-weight rod on the flats just east
of Anna Maria Island on the west coast of
Florida. I thought to myself, the rod is a
little light for that particular area, I
had seen snook with mouths as large as
five-gallon buckets nail white bait in that
same spot a few days before. The summer
doldrums were winding down, it had cooled
off a few degrees and the salty, Gulf waters
left a perfume in the lazy, morning air.
I was alone in a thirteen and a half-foot
Boston Whaler skiff that I had converted into
a fairly comfortable flats boat, unless,
however, the waters became a little choppy,
and then the boat would loosen one's wisdom
Within minutes of letting the waters settle
from my traveled path, I cast a deer-hair
slider just past the turtle grass and outside
of a sand pocket. He was there and nailed the
hair-bug. A nice red was netted for supper.
Red fish have a slot size limit between eighteen
and twenty-seven inches and a one per person per
day bag limit, and I just wanted supper, so I
left the flats a little earlier than usual that
morning, besides I was hungry.
This was a ritual that had started some fifteen
years prior. The end of the summer; Labor Day
weekend, and snook season opening. Two weeks
of nothing but fishing day and night.
The Rod and Reel Pier was a stone's throw from
where I rented the same, small bungalow each
year, and the pier had a bacon, egg, tomato
and lettuce sandwich waiting for me.
Most of the tourists had left; the kids had
all gone back to school, and in the heat of
the day, nothing usually bit. Except when the
tide was coming in, and that usually meant
the bigger red fish in the thirty to thirty-six
inch range would soon arrive in schools of
hundreds and would cruise right out in front
of the pier. Some would even join the resident
snook to feed on the thousands of sardines and
pilchards that wadded up under the structure's
I probably knew more people on the island than
I was acquainted with where I lived on the
mainland. Some of them took their vacations
when I took mine just for the incredible snook
fishing around that area. Bobby was no exception.
Bobby lived in Bartow and was a dragline operator
for one of the phosphate mines in the Polk County
area. He was a relatively large man with bad knees,
and a colorful language to boot, and never seemed
to mind who was around when he went off on one of
his tirades. Other than that, he was funnier that
a barrel of monkeys, and thought I had some sort
of mystical powers that allowed me to conjure up
the big reds at any given time. I never told him
it was just knowing the time of the year and the
tidal conditions. That was kind of fun, though.
So, I let him keep thinking I was some sort of
One particular afternoon, Bobby was there when
I showed up for lunch. The tide was slack and
low and I took my time shootin' the breeze with
the pier owner and Larry Sweeten, the bait shop
Since all the kids were back in school, I thought
it strange that one boy was hanging around, maybe
skipping school, but had been at the pier when I
arrived. I sat in the shade of the roof's overhang
watching as the kid kept looking underneath, around
the pilings. I figured he was looking at the many
snook and mangrove snapper that hung there.
I had one of my medium class spinning rods with
me when this kid came up out of the blue and asked
if he could use it. Strange. He went on to tell
me a plastic bag had blown into the water and
it was hung up on one of the pilings. Then he
blurted out, "Sea turtles eat those things and
they die from it." Hmmm, smart kid. He appeared
to be around eleven or twelve, and I asked him
why he wasn't in school as I went to the bait
shop to ask Larry to use the long-handled gaff
to retrieve the bag from the water, instead of
my favorite Shimano rod. "My Dad dropped me off
while he went to town. We just moved here and I
wanted to stay at the pier while he was gone."
That made sense, and I thought it pretty cool
the kid would rather hang out near the water
than mess around in town. I handed the kid the
gaff and he gathered the plastic and tossed it
in the trash with a sort of grunt of disapproval
directed at whoever littered.
"Where you from, kid?" He went on to tell me
they had just moved here from Michigan and he
wanted to learn saltwater fishing. "You ever
caught a red fish?" The boy shook his head, no.
"Wait for a little while and we'll see what we
can do about that. When's your dad coming to
pick you up?"
"In a few hours, sir." Polite kid.
I brought the young man out in front of the pier
and introduced him to Bobby, and of course, Bobby
asked me when the reds would arrive. "Oh, in about
forty-five minutes, I reckon." Fish gods know
I spent the next half-hour catching three inch
pinfish from around the pilings and fish cleaning
station, the kid close to my side asking questions.
When the bigger fish move in, all of the pinfish
will hide, besides, the bait shop sells them for
a quarter apiece but I never get charged, because
I help stock the tank.
"Come on, it's time."
The rod is rigged with twenty-pound class line,
a shock leader of forty-pound line, a 3/0, Mustad
3407 hook, and a three-ounce pyramid weight to
keep the pinfish from drifting with the now,
Just like clock work. I tossed the spiny bait
a hundred feet out, let it settle to the sandy
bottom, then proceed to explain to my new fishing
buddy what, why, how and when, including a stern
warning to not drop my rod in the drink. The kid
was absorbing each word, and responding with his
usual, polite, "Yes sir."
The baitfish had only touched the bottom and the
4500 Bait-Runner's drag went nuts. "Okay, just
like I showed you; rip his lips off!" The kid
reared back on the rod, and the graphite rod bowed
as the red tore the line from the reel, Bob and I
coaching the kid the entire fight.
Larry showed up with a long-handled net to scoop
the thirty-two inch red from the water and get a
Polaroid shot of this grinning kid and the big,
bull red. "Can I keep him?" We went on to explain
the slot limits, and the reasons for those limits,
as the kid kissed the red on the nose and released
him back into emerald waters, listening with
intensity as we "high-fived" the new angler.
"Can I catch another one?"
Red fish suffered a near extinction several
years prior due to an over-harvesting, commercial
industry. Then named the "Florida Conservation
Association," we went to battle in our State's
capital to save the reds and to change their
status to game-fish, taking them away from
commercial sales. A long fight ensued and a
new law was passed in favor of the recreational
By then, the lunch crowd had showed up, and
we repeated the process, this time letting
the boy, with more instruction, cast the
next bait to probably hundreds of reds that
had turned the waters of the incoming tide a
brownish-bronze color. And, once again, the
scene repeated itself, only this time with
a crowd of observers cheering the kid on.
Another photo op, another release without
argument, and another pinfish went off the
eastern end of the pier...and again, and again,
The sixth fish was a twenty-seven inch, top
of the slot, red. "This one you can take home."
But to our surprise, the kid turned to us and
repeated the sermon he had received concerning
the plight of the reds. He turned to the water,
kissed the red and said, "Go make babies."
In the kid's possession was six Polaroid
pictures, each with a smile brighter than
the sun itself, and a larger than normal
red fish. I'm not sure who was more proud,
the kid or his coaches.
Within minutes after the last release, I heard
him yell, "Dad, I caught six, huge red fish!"
Dad had returned from his business trip and
was retrieving, or so he thought, the same
kid he had dropped off that morning on the
Rod and Reel Pier.
As the rest of us confirmed the story to his
dad, the kid was now lecturing his dad about
why he didn't keep one to take home. Our words
flowed from the child's mouth. The dad walked
over to me and asked what gear I was using,
and began to write down, on a small piece of
paper, what he would need. They both thanked
us and left as the kid was still showing off
his photos to Dad.
The next morning, I went to have a little
breakfast and there the two were, father
and son, sitting side by side out on the
eastern side of the pier, sporting two new
rods and reels, a new tackle box full of stuff,
and a kid teaching his old man how to catch a
red fish. I got a sandwich to go, and quietly
walked off the pier. The kid didn't need any
of my help, he was now the teacher.
See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary
Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much
of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area.
After moving a little closer to the coast, his
interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still
visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."
He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's
and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little
over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow
water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came
around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary
doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the
waters will ever be present.
Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater
patterns in the early '90's and has participated as
a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers
on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting
and tying instructor and stained glass artist,
creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.