Piscatorial pilgrimage

Paul Worsteling | VOLUME 29, ISSUE 1
Cradling this 150Ib tarpon was a two-man effort. Captain John Johansen (right), and the author.
Titanic tarpon, a deluge of dolphin fish and a bruising broadbill test Paul Worsteling in the waters off the Florida Keys.

Unseasonal bad weather and monsoonal rains followed us on the drive south to the Florida Keys from Orlando. We were in South Florida to tick off a pair of my lifelong piscatorial targets; the area’s famous double-header of tarpon and broadbill swordfish.

As the heavens opened, we passed the acclaimed International Game Fish Association (IGFA) headquarters at Dania Beach, near Miami, with plans to spend a day there on our return. The IGFA is a not-for-profit organisation that is committed to the conservation of game fish. It promotes responsible and ethical angling practices through the use of education and science, and is also active writing guidelines for sport fishing and maintaining records from around the world. It is well worth a visit for keen anglers, showcasing the history and traditions of international game fishing.

We drove on through Key Largo and onto our final destination, Islamorada. Islamorada is commonly recognised as the unofficial game fishing capital of the world and my first impression was this is the ‘fishiest’ place I had ever been to. Boat and marine shops of every type lined the streets, and even the letterboxes were adorned with a remarkable array of sea-life.

I made a beeline to the famous Bud N’ Mary’s Fishing Marina. It was here I would start my next five days. Established in 1944, Bud N’ Mary’s is home to over 40 legendary fishing captains and guides. It also hosts the oldest and largest fishing fleet in the Florida Keys.

TAME TARPON

knowledge of these waters was amazing, as he weaved this way and that through unmarked channels that were invisible to the untrained eye. In search of baitfish, we eventually pulled up to a small island covered in birds and surrounded by mangroves.

Captain John quickly shut down the engine and began whispering instructions. We were on a stealth mission and I was told to steer the

I couldn’t believe my eyes when, within a couple of steps onto the marina, I was confronted by the sight of literally hundreds of tarpon swimming within the marina’s waters. And some of them were giants, easily exceeding 150lb. It turned out the marina was a haven for one of the glamour species of game fishing, and there was a queue of people lined up to hand-feed them. I have always harboured a dream to target tarpon and I was now closer than ever to fulfilling my ambitions.

I was at the marina to meet my guide, Captain John Johansen, whom I had been in contact with via email for 12 months. Johansen was brought up fishing in Florida’s backcountry, with his dad also a fishing guide. As we stood there watching these beautiful fish within arm’s reach being fed by tourists, it seemed almost surreal that I would soon be on a boat targeting them with a rod and reel.

Early the next morning we motored out into the waters of the Florida Flats, a vast shallow plateau of mostly seagrass-covered sand. John’s boat. We were moving in very slowly on schools of surface-flicking mullet, which were our bait of choice. John prepared his cast net and positioned himself on the flat bow of the boat. It was great watching a pro in action and it took only three casts for us to fill two live tanks with our bait for the day.

We were lucky not to lose our skipper in the process though, as a hungry bronze whaler smashed the full cast net just as he was hauling it aboard, the extra weight of the shark pulling him to his knees.

Our Florida Flats tarpon hunting grounds varied from a few inches deep to a maximum of six metres. John knew the channels to target, explaining how tarpon are more ambush predators, which wait for passing baitfish. We chose our location, put out our live baits and chummed with pieces of mullet, which drifted down the channel. If we didn’t have a bite after 20 minutes we changed locations and repeated the process.

After a couple of teasing tarpon encounters, in which I managed to get one fish close to the boat before the hook pulled, we decided to take a lunch break and, as so often happens with fishing, it was while we were distracted that our luck changed for the better. As I’m sure many anglers can relate, if things are slow, just unwrap some food, make a coffee or go to the toilet and the action will immediately heat up.

PULLING POWER

No sooner had I taken a bite, when line started peeling from my spin reel. I let it run, starting the fight with six quick strikes to set the hook, as instructed by John. The sight of this monster jumping clear of the water shaking its head aggressively instantly reminded me of the antics of our barramundi. The power was extraordinary as 100m of line was quickly ripped off the reel. With the drag set high, my forearms burned from holding on. And this was just the beginning.

The tarpon was too big to lift, and with every couple of winds gained it would take 20 back. We chased it with the boat to avoid being spooled, but whenever we managed to get it close it responded by taking off again, as if it was all a big game.

This toing and froing went on for over an hour, testing every angling tool I had in my bag. I couldn’t make an error; I had come a long way for this fish. I had to be totally on the job, not making any mistakes that my foe could exploit.

Captain John gave constant support: “Wind against the pull, that will tire her out”, but the fish’s power was incredible and I actually didn’t really believe I was going to land it.

We continued long and hard, giving all the respect this awesome fish deserved. After an hour and 40 minutes I realised I was never going to beat it with sheer strength; we had to out-think it, so another plan was devised. If we could direct this formidable fish to shallow water, we might finally gain the upper hand.

It was never our aim to bring the tarpon into the boat; it’s not the way it’s done in Florida. The tarpon has earned much respect and John said the practice is to release the fish in as good condition as possible once the fight is over. So that’s what we did.

When we finally had its measure, John and I jumped into the water, cradling my worthy adversary between us for a quick photo. Out of the water she was bigger than I expected. This was a massive team effort.

It measured an impressive 1.88m and we estimated its weight at around 150 pounds (68kg) in the old scale. In my experience at least, very rarely has a species lived up to its reputation like this tarpon lived up to its. It was certainly a landmark experience that I will never ever forget.

LORD OF THE SWORD

But the main reason I had travelled halfway across the globe was to target a piscatorial giant called the broadbill swordfish. This majestic and iconic ocean predator possesses an arsenal of weapons, making it the gold medal prized catch on rod and reel.

In depths of 650m, broadbill have the ability to conserve heat for migratory movements while, by increasing circulation to their eyes, they can match their vision to their depth. They are also unique in being able to spectacularly breach the surface from these depths in mere seconds, suffering no barotrauma effects, unlike most other species.

Physiologically built like a missile on sterioids, this Herculean beast prominently displays a most formidable weapon – its sword. This can make short work of any mono leader and can decimate prey – and fishermen – with the broadbill’s slashing and impaling actions. In short, this is the premier game fish for serious sports fishers and feeling the full force of a broadbill on the end of my line has been a lifelong dream for me, both personally and professionally.

The Stanczyk family are the owners of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina and Captain Nick Stanczyk is a legendary broadbill fisherman. While broadbill had been known as nocturnal feeders, it was Nick who developed the technique that allowed them to be caught in daytime; a previously unheard of practice.

Initially bad weather saw our broadbill mission postponed, but after a couple of days we boarded Nick’s purpose-built 36-foot game boat, the BnM II, and set a course for 70km offshore. While the rain had eased slightly, Nick said these were the worst possible conditions for swords, but with time short we just had to try.

Thirty kilometres out, Nick spotted some man-o-war birds, a telltale sign of dolphin fish feeding in the area. The water soon turned blue/ green with the distinctively coloured dolphin fish; they were that thick I caught my first one foul hooked in the tail. My biggest fish was a cow of around 20lb. Dolphin fish belly flaps make a great sword bait, so we kept a couple and steamed on.

The first day gave me a taste of what was to come, with a tantalising encounter in which the fish dropped the bait after a brief run. The rig was a work of art, comprising around $300 worth of gear, complete with lights and concrete sinkers of around 5kg, used for correct drop speed and to avoid line tangle. Baits were set at between 450m and 550m and Nick constantly repositioned the boat to ensure a successful bait drop. You would be lucky to see eight drops a day, so getting it right is a must.

Venturing to different sword grounds for day two, it was now do or die. The weather was still very average, and now we had lightning to contend with as well.

With some idea of what was involved, I was ready when, on our fourth drop, the simultaneous call “bite” echoed from myself and Nick as the rod tip bounced for the first time.

I pumped hard for 15 winds then dropped it 20 straight away, as instructed by Nick. The line went heavy, I wound hard and fast again, careful not to apply too much pressure and risk pulling the hook. This fish was coming up fast, and I wound as fast as I could to keep up.

“Wind fast Paul, it’s a big fish … its coming up fast Paul, as fast as any I’ve seen. It’s a big fish Paul!” yelled Nick enthusiastically from the wheel.

IN THE ZONE

I soon had 1200 feet back on the reel, but it felt like 20. I was in the zone, though.

“Jump, jump, this is a big fish!” Nick called, as the sword finally bust through the surface with aerial finesse. It was 100m out from the boat.

I kept winding, only stopping to cut the sinker free from the leader.

“One hundred feet Paul, 39 years in the making … here he is!” Nick understood my hunger and was with me all the way, feeling my tension, knowing what this fish meant to me.

Then, the last words I wanted to hear rang through my ears: “He’s dropped off Paul, he’s gone!”

Yes, I was disappointed, but then again it was the best day’s sword fishing of my life. I had come within 30 metres of angling bliss! As I dealt with my mixed emotions, I remembered the carved timber sign next to the gantry back at Bud N’ Mary’s Marina. Penned by US President Theodore Roosevelt, it read: “Far better it is to dare mighty things to win glorious triumphs even though checkered with failure, than to take ranks with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat”.

I had dared to be mighty and came so close to victory. I knew I would be back for more.

If ever you have the opportunity to fish the Florida Keys, make sure you line up some charter time with Captains John and Nick out of Bud N’ Mary’s. They are both top blokes and if the fish are there, they will find them.


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