Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Look Back: Ocala National Forest Fishing, 2009

The following is a report from the Ocala National Forest during the summer of 2009:

In mid-July of the summer of 2009, I managed to escape the monotony of my job at a grocery store and drove down to Ocala Florida to do some freshwater kayak fishing with my dad. We decided to fish in Ocala since I had to be in Gainesville for an orientation anyways. Situated just outside of Ocala is the Ocala National Forest. The forest is one of the largest national forests in the state and has many small lakes that are perfect for kayak fishing.

The weather on the way down was iffy at best. The usual summer weather patterns had set in across the state and by the afternoon, huge thunderstorms have boiled up and begin to wander around aimlessly. It rained on and off during the whole trip and I thought that one particular storm at a rest stop looked picture worthy.

We arrived at Silver Springs (the little town between Ocala and the Nat. Forest) later in the day and found an old motel to spend the night in. After dinner, my dad and I sat back and relaxed to watch some TV and recover from the drive. My dad decided to take a shower before he went to bed and it wasn't long before I heard a HUGE crash and a few choice words coming from the bathroom. I opened the door to discover that my dad had successfully destroyed our motel bathroom.

Note to self: Don't put your foot on a sink in order to dry your leg off after getting out of the shower.

Management wasn't particularly pleased, but probably more relieved that we hadn't hurt ourselves and tried to sue. They moved us into a new room and the rest of the night went on uneventful.

The next morning we woke and drove into the forest. I picked out what appeared to be a good looking lake called Redwater lake in the middle of the forest. We missed the turn several times as we weren't looking for a single-laned dirt road. Finally, we arrived and noticed that the water level was down quite a bit. What had once been a boat ramp for small boats was now about 10 feet from the closest wet spot. There was also about a 3 foot drop which would make backing a trailer down the hill impossible. Needless to say, there were no motor boats on the water. In fact, there were no other people. We soon had the kayaks launched and we began fishing.

The first thing I noticed about Redwater lake is the color of the water. Now, I've fished some VERY tannin stained water before, but this lake beats them all. If one could make black coffee...blacker, that might come close to describing this lake. Visibility was about 4 inches...maximum. It was almost creepy how dark the water was as I watched my kayak paddle disappear every time it touched the water. I threw a fly around for about thirty minutes before I gave up on that and resorted to drowning worms (I had yet to be bitten by the fly bug). I soon found a bed of bream and began pulling one after another into the kayak. One of the bluegill I caught was massive and is still, to this day, the biggest bluegill I've ever caught.

Fishing was rather difficult in that I could drop a worm in one spot and catch nothing, then drop the same worm, 6 inches away in a different spot and start to catch fish. I think that the water clarity, or lack there of, contributed to this. We fished Redwater for most of the day until I giant thunderstorm came up and chased us off with its lightning. My dad hooked and lost a nice bass on the fly rod and I caught a few more keeper bluegill.

The next day we fished another lake (who's name escapes me) and didn't have much luck. The water was clearer than Redwater, but certainly not clear. I missed a few bluegill on the fly and finally managed to pull one little bass out before another storm chased us away.

The last day we were down there, my dad and I launched the kayaks at a boat launch that leads into the Ocklawaha river. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the launch actually led into the end waters of Silver Springs just before it meets the river. The water was crystal clear and one could see fish swimming everywhere (although it was mainly all gar). There were "no fishing" signs posted everywhere so we continued paddling through the beautiful water until we met the Ocklawaha. The meeting of Silver Springs and the Ocklawaha was interesting. Crystal clear water meets coffee-tannin stained water and swirls into this bizarre colored mixture before finally turning near-black again. Unfortunately, this was the most interesting part of the day as we caught nothing worth noting aside from about 100 three inch bluegill on a worm.

Overall, the trip to fish the Ocala National Forest was a blast. It was nice to kill two birds with one stone by completing my orientation in Gainesville AND getting to fish the Nat. Forest. From what I've recently read in a magazine, the Ocala National Forest has several long creeks with many sand bars that are perfect for stopping and fishing. It may certainly be worth a float trip in the yaks. I'll just need to make sure I do it before I graduate and move out of Gainesville.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Spanish on the Fly

After our success during the kayak tournament, my dad and I decided to give it another go in the Gulf. This time, however, I decided to bring only my fly rod and a big rod for Cobia.
Once again, we arrived at the beach just before sun rise and found that it was very calm. We soon had the yaks in the water and I began looking for the schools of spanish that we had seen two days prior. To my surprise, I couldn't find any. On Saturday, the Spanish were all over the place. It almost didn't matter where one cast. This day, however, they were few and far between. I decided that my best bet to land a Spanish on the fly would be to troll. I cast my 5 wt out to the side of the yak, stuck the rod in the holder, and went about paddling up and down the beach. It didn't take long before my rod was doubled over and I began fighting a fish. Almost immediately upon hook up, the fish took out drag and I learned the hard way to keep my knuckles clear of the reel handle. After a few minutes of fighting, I discovered that I didn't have my first Spanish hooked up on the fly rod. Instead, it was a Ladyfish.

They still put up a very good fight. The fight got rather interesting when my drag decided to fail. I may have had my drag set too loose, but when the fish finished making a long run, the reel backlashed and turned into a horrible nightmare. Fly line, much like other line or rope, tends to defy all laws of physics and can wrap itself around things in the most impossible ways. This was the case with my reel as I cursed at it in an attempt to untangle the mess. Meanwhile, my Ladyfish was busy attempting to wrap the rest of the line around my rudder directly behind me. After a few minutes I was forced to pull the fish into the boat by hand, release it, disassemble my reel, untangle the mess, and reassemble it.

With my reel now fixed, I went back to trolling and soon had another Ladyfish on. I passed my dad as he trolled the opposite direction of me and he told me that he had almost been spooled a few minutes prior. He said something grabbed his fly, started peeling line, and the hook just popped out when he was through over half his backing.

It wasn't long after this that I hooked, and finally landed, my first Spanish on the fly rod. It was satisfying to me in that I wasn't trolling for it. I had finally found a small school of Spanish and I was able to cast into the school and give the fly a few strips before the fish took it. After snapping a quick picture I let the fish go because I didn't really want to clean more fish.

To my dismay, I watched as the fish took a nose dive, sunk like a rock to the bottom, and flipped upside down...dead as a hammer. I have a problem with people wasting meat and this kinda upset me. I could see the fish rolling slightly in the surf about 10 ft below the yak. I grabbed my cobia rod with the big jig, and dropped it right underneath the boat. I knew it was a long shot, but I gave it a try and to my shock, I snatched the fish right off the bottom and brought it back to the boat. I could never do it again if I tried, and I'm still kicking myself for not taking a picture of -that-.

About an hour and a few fish later, I noticed what looked like a big boat wake a few hundred yards off the beach. I knew, however, that there had been no boats that morning so I started paddling towards it. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a big school of Menhaden. I started casting the Cobia jig into the school in hopes that -something- would pick it up. I was rather surprised that absolutely nothing touched it. Something had the school balled up on the surface, but they weren't interested in a big eel jig. I was kinda tired from the paddle out, so I flipped my fly back out behind the boat and started trolling. I trolled all the way back close to shore and around for about 15 minutes without a hook up. I decided to change flies since that one was obviously not working. When I reeled the line in, I was in for a shock.

A Cigar minnow. I'd never seen a live one before since we always just buy them frozen. I knew people could catch them on Sabiki rigs, but never thought one would hit a trolling fly. I decided to take the Cobia jig off the big rod and tie on a King rig. I hooked the Cig up to the big rod, cast it out behind the boat, and set the bait runner on. I paddled around for a few minutes looking for Spanish to cast the fly at and before I knew it, I heard the bait runner start to take line. My first thought was a King. I re-engaged the drag, set the hook, and started pulling in the fish with unfortunate ease. It ended up being a relatively big Spanish, but nothing more.

I got a chance to test out my underwater camera as well. I hooked a hardtail and didn't really care if I lost it so I stuck the camera in the water and started taking pictures. It was rather difficult, however, to snap good pictures in one hand while fighting a fish in the other.

I also took a short video that turned out pretty good aside from my finger being in the way.

And that ended the day. We kept about 7 Spanish, caught a bunch of Ladyfish, a few hardtails, and my dad discovered what we think was the near-spooling culprit. He handed a small Jack Crevalle and was nearly spooled again before we pulled the yaks out of the water. Chances are, it was big Jacks that he was hooking. The bite turned off pretty early and since the fish weren't as thick as they were two days before, we called it. I certainly can't wait to get back out there later in the summer. Hopefully, the Kings will be a bit thicker then.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gulf Coast Kayak Fishing Association: Spring 2011 Kayak Fishing Tournament

The Gulf Coast Kayak Fishing Association (GCKFA) puts on a spring fishing tournament every year. This year happened the be the 6th annual tournament and my first time participating. It was actually my first time fishing in any sort of tournament.

I waited until the last minute, the VERY last minute to sign up for the tournament. I knew with my luck, the weather would have been absolutely awful if I preregistered, so I waited until the captain's meeting the night before the tournament to sign up. I was surprised at the amount of people who participated in the event. The tally came close to 150 kayakers from the Gulf Coast and some traveled from as far as Arkansas and New York to participate. My dad and I signed up Friday evening and went home to get everything ready that night.

The tournament had 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prizes for the following: Biggest Speckled Trout, Biggest Redfish, Biggest Flounder, Biggest Slam (Trout, Red, and Flounder combined), Biggest Spanish Mackerel, Biggest King Mackerel, and Biggest aggregate pair of King and Spanish. There was also a prize for the Redfish with the most spots.

My dad and I decided that we'd launch the kayaks in the Gulf Saturday morning and try to catch some King and Spanish. I also brought with me a bucket full of small bluecrabs to use for Redfish bait since I knew they were still being caught in the surf. The weather turned out to be beautiful (for the first time since I can remember) and the waves were perfectly manageable at 1 ft. high.

We launched the yaks at 5:45 and I immediately found Spanish ripping through schools of Glass Minnows just between the sandbars. I threw out a Gotcha lure with 3 inches of wire leader and....Nothing. I made another cast into a school of ravenous Spanish and once again...Nothing.

I've personally never had this particular phenomena happen. 99% of the time, you can throw whatever is in the tackle box at Spanish and they'll hit it. I mean anything. Gotchas, diamond jigs, Mr. Champs, Pompano Jigs, Soft plastic worms, Forceps, even an old shoe and they'll still clobber it if it's moving fast enough. I decided that it must have been the wire leader messing things up so I took it off. I immediately began catching fish. I threw a few small Spanish into the cooler before I lost my first lure of the day.

I certainly wasn't planning to go through almost EVERYTHING I had in my tackle box that morning. I put on a 30lb Flourocarbon leader on my lures and was still getting cut off. Spanish Mackerel prove to be a challenge at times because of their awesome set of choppers:

Over the course of the morning I lost 7 lures and had 3 jigs completely destroyed. It seemed like the smaller the lure, the better it worked. I actually started using little jigs for Crappie and Bluegill and soon had the reel screaming as a Spanish inhaled it.

I brought some frozen Cigar Minnows with me along with a big rod for Kings and just in case I ran into a Cobia. The kings weren't out and nothing touched my Cigs nor my dad's. While casting into schools of Spanish, I did hook a small snake King and got cut off. I didn't really worry about it at the time since it was a very small King. For a brief moment while fishing, I thought I was going to catch a Cobia. I looked down in the water at one point to see a big, dark fish swimming below the yak. I near-instantly had a blue crab sinking down toward the fish and it turned to take the bait. It was then that I got a good look at the fish: A remora. The biggest remora I've ever seen. It actually had 3 pilot fish trailing along with it. I wish now that I'd thought to take an underwater picture of the thing, but maybe next time. The Remora followed my yak around for about 30 minutes. I guess it thought I was a big yellow shark and it really wanted to attach itself to my yak's belly. The bite shut down around 10:00 and we headed back to the truck. The wind had also shifted to the south so we decided to go launch in the bay since weigh in's weren't until 3:00.

I've always known my kayak isn't particularly light. In fact, depending on how long of a day it's been, it weighs anywhere from 50 to 200 lbs. My yellow yak has obviously been eating well as my dad and I were forced to take several breaks while carrying it back to the truck. It's amazing how much weight a seat, cooler bag, and some rods and reels weigh. We went ahead and launched into the bay and paddled out to a near by wreck. I flipped out a my bottom rod and tried to catch a grouper. My dad did the same thing with is light spinning gear and it wasn't long before we received a sign...One that all saltwater fishermen know. A Hardhead Catfish.

Catching a catfish means "It's time to go, the fishing is now terrible", so we readied everything and began to paddle back to shore. I trolled a big King lure the whole way back and didn't have a nibble. I decided just before pulling the yak out of the water to try trolling a Gotcha along the drop off into deeper water. After only a few minutes, my drag started screaming and a big Ladyfish was jumping behind the kayak. I turned around and started to fight the fish when something unbelievable happened. An osprey came out of nowhere and dove onto my Ladyfish. I've seen them dive onto free swimming fish before, but never one on the end of my line. It's situations like this that make me wish I had a helmet camera so I could catch it all on film. Luckily, the Osprey missed (not without scratching the fish) and I landed the Ladyfish. Even though they're no good to eat, they put up a good fight and are known for their aerial acrobatics. It's no wonder they're often called "a poor man's Tarpon". I managed to land two more before may arms gave out from trolling and I headed back to the truck.

My dad and I were both exhausted and he wanted to go home to get some sleep so we dropped him off and I went down to Shorline Park in Gulf Breeze to attend the weigh in. I grabbed the two biggest Spanish that we caught and brought them to the scales.

We kept a total of 16 Spanish Mackerel and caught close to 30. Unfortunately, they were all quite small and almost cookie cutter replicas at 13 to 14 inches to the fork. I weighed in my fish and looked at the leaderboard to see that someone had caught a 5.75 lbs Spanish. Holy crap. It must have looked disgusting and misshapen.

Needless to say, I didn't place and the ogre Spanish won that division. I was shocked to find out that only 4 King Mackerel had been caught out of the 150 anglers. It's a shame that I lost that little snake King. Had I landed it, I would have been guaranteed a spot on the leaderboard and a prize (either a fish finder or a new rod and reel). My friend Alex won 2nd place for his 2.5 lbs flounder and 3 brand new Hobie fishing kayaks were given away along with a TON of door prizes. It was good that I went to the weigh in because my dad was drawn for a door prize and won some random kayak gear that I haven't even looked through yet.

Overall, the GCKFA Spring 2011 Kayak Fishing Tournament was a blast. Things were well run and there were great prizes given away. I did, however, feel as though there should be a few more species considered for possibly some smaller prizes. Cobia, Jack Crevalle, Pompano, Sheepshead, Bluefish, etc. I'm thankful that I participated in my first fishing tournament and I will definitely go next year. I think that had it not been for the tournament, I probably wouldn't have ever launched my kayak into the Gulf. It was our first time taking the yaks out into the Gulf and certainly won't be our last.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Speckled Trout Fishing

I made it! Hooray! I survived the semester from hell and made it back to Pensacola Saturday afternoon. As usual, the weather is awful and the wind refuses to lay down. Sunday I just wanted to relax, and Monday was too windy. By today, however, I couldn't stand it any longer and decided to face the gale and go fishing.

Not wishing to take the kayak out for a sailing trip, I opted to wade fish some grass flats near Gulf Breeze. Sunrise was at 6:00am so I set my alarm for 4:45. I was rather displeased when I woke up at 5:20 to find that my alarm hadn't gone off. I quickly threw on some clothes, grabbed my gear (always glad when you pack the night before) and headed out.

Luckily, the horrible weather brought in some clouds and even though sunrise was supposed to be at 6:00, it was still pretty dark when I arrived at the grass flats. I waded out into the sound and started casting my topwater lure in all directions. The wind was already blowing at least 15 mph out of the southwest and the sound was beginning to get a chop to it. I worked my way east and at least got to see a good looking sunrise.

Shortly after snapping some pictures, I had my lure blown out of the water by a trout. A few minutes and several casts later, I hooked and landed a 20 inch Speckled Trout.

The rest of the morning was slow. The wind picked up to 20-25mph and made casting to the southwest almost impossible. I started working my way back to shore where the waves weren't quite as choppy and as soon as I had begun casting into the shallows, I got another strike. This one was from a fish much larger than my first trout. The strike sent water splashing at least ten feet from where the lure was, but the fish missed and I continued to work the lure towards me. Another strike, this time the fish came out of the water. It was a BIG gator trout, easily went over 24 inches. As my luck would have it, he missed it on the second strike. A third strike, this time the lure was sent flying into the air as the fish missed yet again. A fourth strike...the fish still missed. The lure was now chugging its way closer to me and as it got within 10 feet from me, a fifth and final strike hit and missed the lure again. I could have screamed. Unfortunately, topwater fishing is like that most of the time. Huge strikes and low hook up percentages. The increased wave action definitely played a role this morning on my hook up rates as well. Even though I missed the fish, it was exciting to see it and I managed to end the morning with one last, 17 inch trout.

I figured it was about time to call it quits when I was getting hit with white-caps in the chest. It also looked like some storms moving in. Walking back to the Jeep, I managed to find two weighted fishing corks, a hookless topwater lure in perfect condition, and a Pensacola Beach beery coozy with pictures of snapper all over it. It too was in good condition. All of these things had just washed up on the shore.

The kayak fishing tournament is Saturday. I still haven't registered because I'm worried about the weather. I also need to check the tides. I'm afraid it may be on a neap tide and if it is, I won't even bother launching the yak. If the weather clears up in the next few days, I'll probably start kayak fishing some. I'd really like to land a king in the boat with me.