Three fish, one hook

The fly-fishing-from-a-bait-boat spectacle
fly fishing sanibel island bait boat
Photo: Kris Millgate

My bare feet are spread farther than shoulder width apart. That’s my best option while standing in the open bow of a bait boat rolling in the ocean like Popeye’s dingy.

The 1970 Proline is better than a dingy, but it doesn’t feel like it in the soggy weather. We’re barely beyond the beach and already I can’t see a single speck of Sanibel Island because of the fog. It’s out of sight, but not out of mind. The island’s priority is preservation. In fact, 70 percent of the region is protected in its natural state.

“No offense to Miami Beach, it’s fun, but we don’t want to be Miami Beach,” says Tamara Pigott, Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau executive director “We want to be special. We want to have this stamp on our community that makes us different than everyone else.”

Part of that special stamp is off shore. That’s why I’m on the water. I want to see the famed Florida fishery with my own eyes and my own rod so I’m standing upfront playing teeter-totter with the tide. I’m fly fishing with, as the captain ordered, the largest tarpon fly I can toss. It’s a glowing, green tarpon toad because we’re going for big.

“I’ve gotten to the point now where I just like to fish big fish,” says Ryan Kane, Southern Instinct owner and guide. “My favorite frustration is tarpon.”

fly fishing sanibel island bait boat
Photo: Kris Millgate

Since it’s the off-season for tarpon, kingfish, cobia and tuna will do. I’ve never caught any of those on a fly so I’m all in regardless of the wave action and a soaked wardrobe.

The Fly

I throw as much line as I can haul with my 8-weight, let the fly float through the mist and sink into the moisture. I skip the mend and start stripping. A few repeats in and I see something much larger than my home-water trout chasing the toad.

My first concern is my fingers. I wish they were taped. If that beast bites my fly, my fingers are going to bleed. In true Western fashion, I jump the gun and strip the fly right out of reach. I’m fishless. I stomp my bare feet and whip my rod around in a fit. The boys in the back of the boat, Kane and fellow journalist Paul Smith, laugh and start tossing bait. Live bait.

The Bait

The well in the back of the boat holds dozens of threadfin herring. Kane grabs a handful and tosses toward the saltwater. I’m pleased to see my fly looks just like the herring underwater. Bright and twitchy.

Kane rigs up two spinning rods and it’s my turn to watch them. I don’t drop my rod, but I do drop my jaw when a cobia rolls on the herring and Smith’s rod rainbows toward the water.

Smith’s body bows in the opposite direction and the fight is on. Kane calmly issues reeling commands and Smith seems to have the upper hand. Then every action above and under the surface goes slowmo. The cobia swallowed the herring on the hook, but something even bigger is swallowing the cobia. The rod tip touches the water and Smith is alarmingly close to slowly going overboard.

“It’s like trying to lift a barn door out of the depths,” Smith says. “And every so often the barn door jumps off its hinges and runs.”

The Catch

The battle goes ballistic so now I do drop my fly rod. I run to the back end as Smith yanks hard to stay in the boat while fish comes out of the ocean. I can’t believe what my seeking peepers are spying. It’s a 200-pound goliath grouper making Smith’s rod look like a Barbie pole. The herring bait and the cobia bait taker are already deep in the grouper’s gut, the spit hook barely catching its lower lip.

Smith casts with half a century of experience on every continent and this is by far is his biggest catch ever. He’s stunned. Judging by my bulging eyes and the spittle of drool on my chin, so am I.

goliath grouper
Photo: Kris Millgate

Florida-made fishing guide Kane is proud of what his water is offering us. He reaches into the ocean to hold the sizeable swimmer. It’s magnificent and it has a mouthful of old hooks. This goliath gets away more often than not. Kane plucks the hooks while telling us about the gift he’s holding.

Goliath grouper, which can tickle a half-ton on the scale, are protected. Have been since 1990. Word is they taste delicious so overharvest for hearty appetites back in the day shrunk the slow grower to levels that warranted critically endangered status.

The ginormous grouper I’m gawking at is twice my weight and there’s no way we are heaving it out of the water. We don’t need to anyway. Goliath’s are catch and release so once its snout is hook free, we set it free. We watch it slowly roll from back to front and swim away with our herring and our cobia in its belly.

“That’s the circle of life right there. That’s what that is,” Ryan says. “It’s like you gotta get permission from goliaths to take anything from their reef.”

I don’t need to take anything from the reef. Just seeing its life breech the surface is enough for me, even if it’s bait before fly when the action hooks up.