The sun had just cleared the eastern horizon as we loaded our gear into the waiting boat. Our destination: the Gulf of Mexico, 50 miles off the coast on the last day of red snapper season. So, no dawdling.
The official John's Pass farewell party -- he'll be waiting when we get back.
A few minutes later, our 28-foot Contender motored through John’s Pass heading west with Captain Kyle at the controls. More than that I cannot tell you. Good fishing spots fall into the category of “take to your grave” secrets. Plus, Capt. Kyle promised to deep-six anybody who Facebooked our position. I’m pretty sure he was joking. Nevertheless, my lips – and my phone’s GPS – are sealed.
Florida Boy, Rob, in his element.
On board his boat, Captain Kyle had four of us, three landlubbers and a Florida boy truly in his element. At least one of us (ahem), has never been out of sight of land. So watching the hotels lining the shore sink beneath the horizon proved the trip’s first thrill.
We had arranged our trip through Tampa Bay-based iTrekkers. Founder Tom Mulliez recruits local fishing guides for trips off-shore, near-shore or in the flats along the water’s edge. He vets each of his dozen or so captains personally – no one pays to join his stable of guides, something he’s very proud of.
The day's thunderheads, already building over the gulf.
Captain Kyle opened the throttle and we skimmed along the surface of the glassy gulf at more than 30 knots. Where the sea met the sky, the day’s thunderheads piled themselves higher and higher.
After about an hour, Kyle brought the boat to a halt over a patch of shimmering blue sea that held promise.
“We’ll take a break here,” he said as he handed out fishing poles.
"Don't show any numbers," Captain Kyle said when the camera came out.
Thirty miles off the coast of Florida, the Gulf of Mexico is about 100 feet deep. Kyle’s sonar showed the bottom in multicolored lines with rainbow-striped blobs floating above it. The floating blob were the fish. What kind, and how many? We were about to find that out.
Kyle’s mate for the day was his cousin, Alex. They’re both young guys with fishing in their blood. They’re the third generation of their family to run fishing tours out of Tampa Bay. Kyle has been piloting boats half his life. We knew he would steer his right.
Alex loads a frozen threadfin onto the twin hooks.
Kyle and Alex loaded a frozen threadfin onto each of our hooks with a flick of their wrists. After that, the rest was up to us.
Lesson Number 1 of fishing for snapper: No casting. The fish are schooling right under the boat. We just dropped the bait over the side.
Sonar gives us a peek beneath the waves.
Red snapper and red grouper live together on the hard bottom of the Gulf. They also gather around rocky outcroppings and shipwrecks. Kyle had positioned us directly over a piece of clear bottom to make things easy for us first-timers.
The silvery threadfins quickly disappeared into the dark water. Soon after, they hit bottom and the line went slack: Time to start paying attention.
1 minute. 2 minutes. 3 minutes.
Now, I must tell you, I’m a mountain boy from Virginia. I know creeks and rivers and lakes. I’m a freshwater guy. I had no idea what I’d find on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
I quickly learned Lesson Number 2 of snapper fishing: When you feel someone down there tugging on the bait, starting reeling him in – fast.
The fish that hit my line bent my pole double. I cranked like crazy holding the end of the pole – as instructed – in my armpit to get extra leverage. It felt a little silly, but it worked like a charm.
Captain Kyle and the rest of the boat cheered me on. We all wanted to see what was on the end of that line. About 30 seconds later, I had cranked my first red snapper up from the deep. The fish that emerged into the light was bigger and heavier than I’d expected – quite a surprise for a guy used to catching bass and perch.
Alex freed the bright red fish from the hook and held it against the gauge on the side of the boat: A keeper. A door in the bottom of the boat opened to reveal an in-board ice chest. In my snapper went.
One down, lots more to go.
If it was that easy, this was going to be a short day.
But the point of fishing, as any fisherman knows, is not actually the catching of fish. It’s the fun and camaraderie. Over the course of the day on the water, my colleagues spent hours getting to know each other better and building stronger connections outside the office. It really is true that true that a bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.
But this was not going to be a bad day fishing by any means.
By lunch time, everyone had bagged several fish. Captain Kyle kept us moving, guided both by decades of family lore and by a little modern technology. Some spots worked; some spots didn’t. That’s fishing.
Live bait. They have no idea what's ahead for them.
At one point, as the sun climbed overhead, Captain Kyle and Alex decided to try something new. The tiny fish that had been wiling away the morning in the boat’s live well went overboard by the handfuls. Alex tied a lure big as my hand to another pole and cast it far out into the water. We were fishing for amberjack now. Things were about to get serious.
Patrick vs the Amberjack
An amberjack is a large shiny-sided fish that flashes through the water like lightning. Unlike snapper and grouper, amberjack live near the surface and hunt live food. Soon after Alex cast his lure, the amberjack were biting. Patrick quickly found himself on the business end of the pole, a cup-shaped brace for the rod strapped around his waist, reeling for all he was worth. He and the amberjack fought for more than 20 minutes, moving from the port side of the boat to the bow to starboard. Who would exhaust himself first?
Rob 1, Amberjack 0
Ultimately, Patrick won and posed for pictures with his prize. But the victory was short-lived. It wasn’t amberjack season, so back into the sea it went.
Still, Patrick had a real fish story to tell.
Our haul, on ice dockside.
We fished until mid-day. By 2 p.m. or so, the boat’s icy hold held our limit of snappers and groupers along with a few king mackerel and some smaller fish. It was a good day’s work. We turned toward home.
Ninety minutes later, we were back at John’s Pass. Kyle unloaded our catch into a dockside cart then, working quickly at a nearby table, filleted our catch and packed the pieces for us to haul home.
Waiting for their piece of the bounty.
A flotilla of pelicans loitered just beyond the table like kayakers waiting for a home run outside Candlestick Park. They proved equally good catchers.
Baked grouper for dinner.
Nine hours after we left the dock, we were all headed home with a bounty of fish ready for the freezer. My family had grouper for dinner that night. It was light and fluffy and delicious. It was also filled with great memories of my day on the water with iTrekkers- Fishing Charter & Booking Service.