In my mid thirties, I spent two years in Florida. It was a move I never anticipated making. Stowing away my trout gear and leaving the Evergreen State and its sea run cutthroat to move to “The Fishing Capital of The World,” I didn’t know what to expect. I had numerous friends and acquaintances try to lessen the blow of leaving Washington’s anadromous fish behind. “Oh man, the Keys? Bonefish and tarpon now, huh? Let me come and visit!” they would say. The Keys. Tell a fly fisher you’re going to Florida and they only ever hear The Keys. I didn’t bother informing most of them that Florida was a big state, that I would be hundreds of miles from the Keys, and that real Florida Keys style tarpon fishing required a boat that cost at least as much as a year of college. At that point, I didn’t even have a friend with a boat, and I couldn’t even afford a paddle board.
What I was close to was one of the strongholds of snook, in particular, as well as redfish, pompano, cobia, jacks, Spanish mackerel and a handful of other species. We moved within minutes of a variety of structures: beaches, mangroves, pilings, bridges, oyster bars, channels, docks, jetties, rock piles, and various depths of flats. The proximity to actually worthwhile water, unheard of for a Seattle fly fisher, remade my fishing practices. In Washington, I had set aside whole days for fishing, but in my new fishery, I could easily spend an hour or two fishing every day. The only problem was that almost a million people lived just about as close to all of these potential new fishing spots as I did. Kayaks and paddle boards rigged with a dozen rods would appear around seemingly every corner. Wade anglers and cast netters would throw their gear just yards from my wading positions. And if I really expended effort to get away around a distant mangrove point, before long a boat would show up, sometimes throwing chum to call in every fish within a hundred yard radius.
And all of that fishing pressure was on top of the swimmers, paddle boarders, waders, and dog owners who would splash giddily through my targeted redfish flats. Even kite surfers cut across the flats on days with some wind. There were no secrets, and as far as I could tell, there was no etiquette. No matter how crowded it was, however, the profusion of fish in the state, and in my part of it, couldn't just be a myth. There were a lot of fish around to hopefully absorb some of the pressure, and, at least according to Instagram, guides caught plenty of fish in the area. It seemed that if I wanted to catch fish, I just had to get out there and try to figure it out, crowds or not.
I had dozens of potential spots to try out, but it was uncertain which would allow me the freedom to wade around on firm ground and find an open spot to fly cast. Above all, I wondered, “would the local snook and redfish be too traumatized by a daily aerial assault of fake shrimp and bait to eat flies?” After a few fruitless roadside attempts, in which I was sandwiched between kayakers and cast netters, someone I had never met messaged me on Instagram with a tip on a particular rock pile. He said he had done well for snook and redfish on the pile, as well as a line of rock slabs that led from shore up to it.
Within a day I had pulled on my flats boots, dodged a few happy dogs, spooked a couple of herons and waded across a shallow flat to the line of rocks. It was late October and classic “leave New York and fly south” weather. The largely still water had a very faint siltation that gave it a subtle glow in the bright fall sunshine. I had waded, head on a swivel and double-taking at the ubiquitous mullet, across the line of oyster-crusted rocks to the other side of the flat when I saw them. A half dozen snook. I had never seen snook before, but I knew. Apart from being the right size—like trophy trout—they had a lurking, bottom-hugging, almost static formation that just seemed sneaky. They weren’t more than a few rod lengths from me, and I couldn’t tell if they hadn’t seen me or were merely tolerating me temporarily. Heart rate climbing, I carefully unhooked my faint lavender and white mantis shrimp fly, a shrimp I had tied for bonefish, as quickly as I could. With my fly line barely out of the rod tip, I lobbed the fly, like a grenade, in the fish’s direction. The fly landed about six feet from the lead fish, where I let it sink for a few seconds before starting to strip. Three strips into my retrieve, the line came tight as a large head started shaking, stretching the short length of fluorocarbon against my hand, then rose towards the surface, broke it, and gill rattled, splashing towards me. The snook then turned and ran twenty feet, and battled it out with angry head shakes and dogged tugs. After a couple of minutes I worked it into my shadow, grabbed the leader, avoided the razor sharp gill plates, took my camera out of my pack, unlocked it with facial recognition, stabilized the fish with my left hand, and snapped some photos. The fish was in the mid to high twenty inch range, more of a first snook than I deserved.
The fish exhibited a purely brown and metallic paint job, from silver to gold. The overwhelming feature was the black lateral line that screamed, over shiny, outsized scales, up the fish’s mid section and rose towards the head. A seemingly extra, golden fin, foreign to me, lay behind and below the typical pectoral fin. The elongated snout, with a savage underbite, resembled the monstrous pike from the Disney movie “The Sword in The Stone.” It left little doubt that this fish was a pure predator, capable of sucking in large volumes of water and devouring whatever it could fit down its throat.
As I let the fish breathe and watched it swim away, I couldn’t help but notice the abrasion in the twenty pound fluorocarbon tippet, clearly necessitating re-tying my fly. Too much pressure on my part and the fish’s sandpaper mouth would surely have eaten through the twenty pound fluorocarbon.
It was an exhilarating first real Florida catch, and consoling at a time when I longed for sea run cutthroat back home. That fish was the unequivocal target species and a fantastic size for a first snook, a species that by habits, fight and appearance had already captivated me. I was left with a fervent desire to catch many more. Maybe, I thought, I could get used to Florida.