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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Extreme saltwater fishing in Florida

Back around 2007, not too long after Youtube was launched, I stumbled on a fishing video going viral. It was one of Captain Ben Chancey and his new "Chew on This" channel. It featured him and some friends going to battle with some huge goliath groupers and monster sharks in Southwest Florida. Upon seeing that clip, I decided that I'd have to try that one day.

Every now and then, I am fortunate enough to be able to make one of my fishing fantasies come true. A couple months ago, I finally decided to go ahead with the Florida saltwater fishing adventure I'd been dreaming about for nearly a decade. I had some airline miles saved up for a free ticket, and though the trip was rather expensive for us Canadians with our low dollar, I figured I could invite a friend along to share the costs. Chatting with my friend Mike, I mentioned my plans and told him I had room if he wanted to come along. Luckily, for both of us, he did.

Our original plan was to fly into Miami on a Sunday afternoon, fish Monday and Tuesday, then fly back on Wednesday. Shortly after booking, the airline cancelled the afternoon flight, leaving us with the option of early morning, or late night flight. With a 150 mile drive to our destination after landing, we opted for the early morning flight. Landing in Miami shortly after 9 AM, we had about half a day to kill in Miami before heading over to Florida's West coast.

We decided to fish on a party boat after having lunch on Sunday afternoon. For those of you unfamiliar with the difference between a party boat and a charter, the party boat costs a lot less, but you share the boat with 25 to 30 other people. I've been on the boats in that fleet in the past (Kelley fleet), so I knew not to expect much other than lots of tangles if the boat got crowded, and high waves if the wind picked up.

We got to Haulover Marina near Bal Harbor well ahead of time. The marina has a section where all the guides, charter boats, and Kelley fleet launch from. The Marina has a park, various attractions with the beach nearby, a long jetty to shore fish from, etc. Nice parking area lined with coconut palms made us feel swaying in the hot wind made us glad to be out of Montreal, which was getting some mid April snow.

When they return, the boats all sell their day's catch to locals waiting for fresh caught fish, which are cleaned and filleted on the spot. As the unused parts of fish get thrown back into the water, the marina is full of species of fish and birds that come to feed there. Unfortunately for us, fishing isn't permitted, as the water is jam packed with tarpons from 4 to 6 feet in length.

After watching the tarpons for a while, we made our way over to the ticket booth, and purchased tickets for the 4 hour drift fishing outing near the gulf stream. Our vessel was the Mucho K, which was quickly filling up with an assorted mix of anglers, from first timers, to regulars that fish on the fleet on a daily or weekly basis.

The rods provided by the fleet are very basic, and designed to get the job done as quickly as possible. Fish caught on the daytime drift outings are typically bonita, kingfish,  mutton snapper, and the odd sailfish, barracuda, or other bottom dwelling fish, depending on the rig being used. Lines are baited with dead or cut ballyhoo,  or squid.

Heading out, we had a good feeling that some of the newbies on the boat may end up sick. Wind was gusting at over 30 km/h, and waves once out on the water were 5 to 6 footers. Sure enough, as soon as we stopped for the first drift and the boat started bouncing in the waves, one of the people vomited all over the boats gunwale. End of trip for him, he sat curled up in fetal position inside the cabin for the remainder of the trip. Eventually, another 4 or 5 out of 25 total people on the boat ended up in the same position.

As for fishing, Mike and I both got rods rigged for bottom fishing, which ended up having tangled a lot less often than most other who were rigged for pelagic species closer to the top of the water column. The day went by, Mike and I didn't even get 1 bite in our 4 hour outing. Aside from the crew that would catch some bonitas speed trolling of the back between drifts, a few people were lucky enough to hook into some smaller fish. Only 2 decent fish landed all day were a small kingfish under 10 lbs, and a decent barracuda in the 10-12 lb range.

So much for our drift fishing excursion, at least it didn't break the bank at $45 each, and I got a picture off the bow of the big fishing boat with Miami Beach in the background.

Getting back on shore, we hopped in the car and made our way West across the sunshine state, driving into the setting sun across the Everglades "alligator alley", then turning North up into Fort Myers, which is where our motel was located.

Next morning, we were up bright and early, and made the 15-20 minute drive into Cape Coral, to finally meet Captain Ben for our real fishing adventure. We got there well ahead of time, and watched the sun rise over Florida while enjoying some classic Black Sabbath.

Captain Ben lives in his own little part of paradise in the self proclaimed fishing capital of the world, and has his boat docked right in his yard.

After meeting our captain and getting on the boat, first order of the day was to catch bait. A cast net is thrown near various structure point like bridge pilings, and soon enough, we had plenty of threadfin shad in the 4-6 inch range in the livewell. 

Next, we we given light tackle spinning rod and reel outfits in order to catch some bigger fish to be used as bait, mainly jacks. Mike managed to land a small jack right away, followed by a bird that took his bait. Apparently common in saltwater.

Fishing for jacks wasn't productive at all, so after a while, our Captain headed back home to get some frozen jacks from his freezer. While casting in front of his home, I managed to catch my first snook.

It put up a powerful fight, and as I hooked it right next to his dock, I really had to horse it to keep it from wrapping up in the pilings. I can honestly say I've never fought anything that strong in freshwater, at least not pound for pound. I'd say the fight is comparable to a supercharged bowfin, for those that have had the pleasure of fighting one.

Heading out again, Captain Ben spotted a ray near the surface, indicating that they were getting into the spawn. We headed over to a shallow bay to see if we'd be lucky enough to find one, and sure enough, they were stacked up in there. Our captain climbed into the crows nest with a heavier rods, outfitted with a weighted treble hook. He proceeded to snag a few rays, which Mike and I took turns fighting into the boat. He was very happy that we found them, as the stingray is apparently one of the best baits for both goliath groupers and big sharks.

I shot some video of Mike fighting one of the rays.

Was quite surprised that our captain opted to land them by hand, with them having a highly venomous sting. Of course, the stingers are removed with  pliers as soon as the rays are landed.

Not that we had bait, it was time to hunt down some trophy sized fish, namely, the goliath grouper. Captain Ben was one of the first of the new wave of anglers to target this species, which were commercially harvested throughout the early to mid 20th century. After being protected in order to preserve the species, few were persistent enough to deliberately target them due to the near impossible mission of landing one. 

The Goliath grouper spends most of it's time hidden in structure like rocks piles, or artificial structures like bridge piling. When the tide comes in, it brings fish with it, following the food chain. The Goliath patiently waits in it's lair until bait shows up, inhales it, and starts again.

Though this makes finding them simple enough, getting them out of the structure without breaking off is next to impossible, even with the heaviest of rod and reel outfits spooled with conventional line. After years of having big fish cut his line, Captain Ben revolutionized the technique. He now uses 468 lbs sailing cable instead of line, spooled onto the most powerful T-rex reels with deliver up to 90 lbs of drag force, mounted on a custom Iron Man rod. The heavy outfit must weigh about 15 lbs, and just figuring out how to use them is quite the learning curve.

Instead of muscling fish with your arms, shoulder,or back, to rod is placed under your right hamstring, and pivots on your left thigh. Rell is buried near your gut, and cranked only when rods is lowered,, as it's next to impossible to reel again a fish that size with that sort of drag force. Here is Mike in classic position with the rod getting ready to drop the bacit next to a bridge piling.

Most often, the second angler on the boat become the "spotter". Without a spotter, you are at extreme risk of going overboard during the fight, as your body weight id resting on a rod being pulled down by a fish that can generate 3 times it's own weight in resistance. With Goliath grouper going up into the 700 lb range, you can imagine that even a "small" one can pull you over in a split second.

So it was game time, and I was up first. Captain cuts a wing off the stingray for bait, to be mounted on the biggest circle hook I've ever seen.

Next, the boat is maneuvered right up to the pilings of a given bridge, and held in position as the bait is dropped right into the spaces between the structure. When the goliath grouper hits, you feel a big thump, and know you're in deep trouble. The heavy rod, pumping adrenaline and hot weather, had me sweating in to time. Sure enough it didn't take long, and I reeled down onto my first fish. Despite putting all my 150 lbs onto the rod and holding on for dear life, I would have been pulled in within a few seconds if Mike wasn't there to spot me as the big grouper made it's initial run. Having a lifelong bodybuilder as your spotter definitely has it's benefits, and there is no way I'd have landed the fish without Mike's help, which despite of, I was nearly gassed from a short battle that probably didn't last more than 90 seconds. 

To my horror, Mike realized that the swivel connecting the main cable to the leader had snapped open, and was barely hanging on by a thread. He quickly put on my glove and grabbed the cable leader, saving the day.

The Goliath grouper wasn't a giant, but at 150 lbs of brute force, it more than doubled my biggest catch ever! Once at the surface, they become very docile, maybe and odd splash or roll here and there. Forbidden to bring on board by law as they are protected, pictures with them have to be taken while they are in the water.

After the mandatory high fiving at my trophy, Mike was up for his. Didn't take very long, and he was into his first goliath grouper as well. I grabbed the rod to spot him, but after a couple lifts, he wanted to go it alone, so I eased off, standing by in case of emergency. Mike managed to land his alone, though it was a lot smaller, somewhere in the 60 lbs range. 

Shot a short clip of him landing it after realizing that he wasn't going to need my help.

As we had both landed our target species for the day and it was getting late, we headed back towards home, stopping to catch some more bait on the way. I hooked into a jack, only to have to stolen by one of the many dolphins surfacing near our boat. Very impressive to see that happen at boatside. The bite was tough, so we headed back in around 4 PM.

Next morning we headed out much further, about 20 miles away near Captiva pass off Sanibel Island to fish for big sharks. In contrast to the previous day, the captain hooked up an entire like stingray a bait, and set the rod into a gunwale holder to drift., while we drifted more shad to try and catch m,ore live jacks. I hooked into to something with the light spinning rod almost instantly, but just as I had it under the boat, it was grabbed by something much bigger that spooled the reel until it broke off. Again reminding me that when fishing saltwater, there is always something bigger ready to take what you've got.

Within minutes, the big rod with the ray got a massive hit, ripping the rod holder mount of of the boat. As captain Ben grabbed the rod, the big fish let go, and the ray swam back up to the surface, right next to our boat, almost intact. This indicated that it was probably attacked a goliath grouper rather than shark, as they are prevalent in the area, and love stingray's as much as sharks do. As the captain turned the boat to retrieve the ray that swam right by us, a huge 250 lbs bull shark splashed up at the surface and stole it in front of our eyes. Just shudder to think what may have happened if the captain was trying to pull it out of the water at the time...

Having only one ray left, the captain chose to use it as cut bait, and mounted it on a more "conventional" boat rod equipped with a huge shimano level wind reel spooled with tons of 80 lb test mono. Unfortunately, nothing was interested in our cut bait, so we fishing for more live bait with the light rods. As we were fishing near some rocks piles, there were many smaller gag grouper in the area. They are considered a game species in Florida, so forbidden to be used as bait, and as they were most of what were were catching, we were stuck without any decent shark sized live bait.

Tough not what we came for, fishing for gag grouper on light tackle is challenging as well. They are powerful fish, and if they aren't pumped/horsed away from their rock piles, they run straight for them to hide when hooked, making them a challenge to land. In addition, with sharks and big goliaths in the same area, you also stand a decent chances of losing them to a super sized predator. 

Mike and I both managed to land a few gag groupers, and much like myself earlier in the day, Mike got spooled by something big while fighting one as well.

After spending a good 4 hours or so without any bite on the cut bait, our captain headed back for one more shot at goliath groupers with the incoming tide slowing down at the shark spot and scheduled to picked up at the goliath spot.

I was up first again, but unlike the previous day, the goliath groupers were much more finicky. I must have missed 5 or 6 hits, and by the time I finally hook one, My arm was aching from keeping the heavy iron man rod in position for a good 45 minutes or so. Mike gave my a hand spotting the rod tip again, and I had my second goliath of the trip, the much smaller than my first one at about 80 lbs.

Mike was up for the last catch of of the day, managed to hook something reel big that almost pulled him over but pulled the hook just as I was about to spot him.

And so ended our Florida saltwater fishing adventure. Reflecting on the trip, I'm extremely happy to have been able to live this experience. Besides for catching my biggest fish ever and getting one of the species that's been on my mind for nearly a decade off my bucket list, I was amazed by entire saltwater experience as a whole. Where everything is constantly running from something bigger in order to avoid becoming dinner, and you're never sure of what's going to happen from one second to the next, I envy people that live in that beautiful part of the continent. Then again, I'd probably never get any work (or anything besides fishing) done if I lived in Florida.

As for fishing the big and mighty goliath grouper, I'm happy to have tried it, but not very sure I'd go back again, at least not under those conditions. Personally, I found this style of fishing to be more brutal than enjoyable, but then again, that's exactly what it take takes to land this unique species of brute. 

I have little doubt that captain Ben Chancey is the best Goliath grouper guide in Florida. He's got his technique down to every last inch and detail, and believe when I tell you he's tried every other method of pulling these monsters out of there holes before ingeniously putting together his current methods / techniques. 

For those of you brave / crazy enough to try catching supersized goliath groupers, I highly suggest Captain Ben Chancey as your guide for and extreme fishing adventure in the sunshine state. 

Captain Ben can be reached at: 

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