Low 63, high 82
I recently put the boat on the lift in my backyard canal. I have been trailer in for so long, I can't remember the last time I had used the lift; at least 6 months or more. This time of year, when the harbor and Gulf waters cool, we get a lot more fish up the canals seeking warmth.
The water temperature was 62* when I launched Saturday morning at 8AM in a misty fog. After a long week of mind wrenching work at my desk, I needed some escape. The only live bait I brought was a single blue crab from my trap. I wanted to give my artificial baits a good workout today. I used only the electric motor to quitetly drift the ebb tide and trolled a lure that's worked well in the past. I used the auto-pilot feature on my trolling motor to steer the boat so I could stand on the bow and cast a top-water lure at the docks along my route. Twenty minutes into the trip, the trolling lure was hooked up.
In tidal waters, when you go out fishing alone in the canals, there's always a risk of drifting into someone's dock or boat while you are focused on bringing your fish in. That's not a problem now that I have the Powerpole shallow water anchor system. When the rod goes off I shift the boat to neutral, or in this case click off the Minn Kota, and push a button on a key fob around my neck. (There's another button at the helm but the key fob allows me to deploy the Powerpole from anywhere on board). The Powerpole uses hydraulics to push an anchor pin into the sea floor and secure the boat in depths up to 8', which is a lot of the backwaters in a Southwest Florida. It takes about 5 seconds for the entire process to occur.
My first fish was a juvenile snook, about 15" long; safely released and I was back underway. About twenty minutes later the trolling line went off again. This time I landed a nice 12" mangrove snapper. They only have to be 10" to keep so he went on ice. I've never thought of snapper as a fish to troll for so this was a nice surprise. About 4 of these would make a nice meal.
After the fog burned off I switched my casting lure from a top water plug to a gold spoon. Hopes were high as I slowly cruised the mangrove lined channel leading to Alligator Bay, near the Port Charlotte Beach Complex, but again my casts were met with no strikes. Entering the open waters of Charlotte Harbor, the trolling plug again jumped off. Throttle, neutral; Powerpole down; fish on! A nice speckled trout, measuring 18", would mean I was eating well that night. I called my wife and told her I had dinner covered.
I saw a friend, Glen, coming across the harbor and waved him over. He doesn't usually fish weekends but with the rains over the past week, he wanted to get out. He said he spent a few hours up the canals at the end of Midway but had struck out. He was headed for home at slack tide.
I spent the couple of hours trolling areas of the Peace River between the Beach Complex, Bayshore Pier and the US41 bridge. No strikes were made but it was nice to silently cruise the area. By noon I had run the trolling motor batteries down to about 25% so I fired up my outboard for the first time all day and cruised around under power scanning the sonar beneath the bridges. Not much action there.
By 1PM the tide would be slowing flooding the backwater creeks so I headed for the Myakka Cutoff. The Harbor was glass flat. Even if I wasn't fishing it would be a wonderful day out here. The water depth in the Cutoff ranges from a few inches to three feet. It takes some time to learn where you run in there, especially during the winter extreme low tides. Flats boats like my little Mako are right at home.
I headed for a creek that I hadn't yet tried; one Glen told me about a few weeks ago. The approach to this creek was so skinny I had to leave the trolling motor cradled, raise the outboard completely and push-pole my way across a flat of 6". I set up at the mouth of the creek and quartered out that blue crab I'd brought along. While I let the crab soak under the mangrove trees I stayed active by casting lures in the opposite direction. I gave it two hours, both at the mouth and just inside but this creek wasn't going to produce today. At 3:45 I pulled up to head in. The incoming tide had brought sufficient water for me to use the trolling motor to cross the flat and I was able to fire up the Merc 115 by 4PM. I ran 32 knots across the smooth Harbor to the entrance to my canal channel. I couldn't resist trolling that lucky plug on the incoming tide. That was a good decision.
As soon as I made the turn from the Countryman to the Pellam Waterways, BAM! Biggest strike of the day. Neutral...Powerpole down, Snook on! With 15 pound braid and a 20 pound leader, I knew I'd have to play this right. Snook fight by not just pulling hard on your line and trying to wrap your line around dock pilings, they jump out of the water and contort their body to use their razor sharp gill plates to cut your leader line. 20 pound florocarbon could fair like butter to a hot knife here. He made several runs for the many dock pilings but I kept him out. He made several aerial leaps but I used the rod to drive him back down and keep the line tight. The action drew the attention of 4 different homeowners who stopped their yard or boat work to watch the fight. I don't mind being the center of attention, so long as I don't get beat. After a fun five minutes I wore him out and persuaded him to the side of the boat. Two of the spectators started shouting to see the fish and offered to take a picture. I pulled prize out of the water and measured it out at 27". If I'd pinched his tail, he would have been 28. That's the minimum size for snook keepers but unfortunately the season doesn't open again until March 1. This was February 1. One guy told me the season opened today but I knew that was for the Atlantic waters only. I took a quick photo of my own, then posed for the neighbor before putting my catch back into the water. I knew he was tired from the fight so I held onto his tail for a few minutes to give him an opportunity to get revived and re-oxygenated. Another neighbor hollered out, "Hey, let me fillet that thing before you release it." I wish. I whispered to the fish, "Let's meet back here in four weeks, okay?" He didn't even look back as he swam away.
It's hard to believe I've been fishing these waters for more than 6 years and I still have yet to taste what I'm told is the most delicious white meat fillet in this part of the world. For 3 years the snook was under a protective catch and release only order, after the freeze of 2010. I caught them but I always released them. When the season opened last September I never had occasion to catch a slot sized keeper. The Gulf fishing rules mandate, in order to harvest snook, the fish must be between 28-32". The narrow slot is a further measure to protect one of Florida's most important game fish. Perhaps by making them so hard to come by only adds to their legend but I sure would like to savor that flavor.
My consolation prize was the trout & snapper dinner, accompanied by a baked sweet potato. I went sleep last night dreaming of that snook and shaking my head that I'd landed it a month too soon.
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