The unseasonably warm weather, we've all been enjoying these past few weeks, does wondrous things. It brings the throngs of our winter residents to the beaches and the pools; it fills the outdoor restaurants to capacity and brings everything that floats to our waterways crammed with folks getting sun scorched; but ain't it fun when it's 10 degrees, at mid day, back home?
However, it's not all milk and honey. For the angler aching for the line breaking sheepshead action that occurs this time every year; that is not happening. At least not yet. That sun basking warmth has kept the water at least 10 degrees warmer than normal and that creates mayhem in the piscatorial world.
One of the primary triggers for fish behavior is water temperature. They don't know it's January; they just react to conditions. Seventy two degree water, to them, means spring is here. Best description of fish behavior these days would be ... confused.
But our fishing story this week centers on some of our pesky critters that also are confused with the winter warmth and have come to "life" these past few weeks.
Traditionally, summertime excursions into the mangrove islands, brings with it the wrath of insects like the salt marsh mosquito, small black flies and the nastiest one of all, the no-see-um, so named because you literally can't see um but you sure can feel um.
These microscopic creatures technically known as biting midges (great handle) are 98 percent mouth with which they bite you; alway 10 of them at a time leaving reminder welts that you scratch ad infinitum.
So with all that as backdrop, we have a charter with a family from rural Kentucky last week. There's Bubba (not kidding) the father, his wife Gloria and two pre-teens, Johnny and Emily.
Bubba made the arrangements for the trip the prior week, being very specific that he wanted BIG fish or as he so aptly put it ... "not looking to catch 'em little bait fish like 'em snappers." Gloria and Emily had a "hankering" to see some dolphins and Johnny would be fishing with his dad.
The afternoon they picked was sultry warm, with hardly any wind and was right smack in the middle of a terribly slow moving incoming tide. So slow, in fact, that it would prevent us from fishing the far reaches of the mangrove bays until late in the afternoon ... and that's where the big fish would be.
Tried to explain that to Bubba who dismissed the issue with ... "all that's your deal, captain, my deal is big fish". Nice understanding fellow, that Bubba.
We first found our dolphin for Gloria and Emily in the river. They were immediately smitten by these wondrous creatures as they took video of their antics as we held away the dolphin pod while dodged boats and wakes going every which way.
Our first fishing spot was just north of Rookery Bay along the edges of a No-Wake zone, selected for the fish as well as the reduction in wake turbulence from the massive boat traffic. We broke out the rods and bait for the guys while the girls reran the dolphin video.
We had action almost immediately on mangrove snapper that were holding on a deeper hole just off some downed brush. Some of the fish were undersize but three or four were to 12""dinner" size. None of that impressed Bubba. He tossed them all back with a "bait fish" grunt.
Next, we'd try Capri Pass on a drift for pompano and mackerel to see if maybe they met Bubba's big fish standard. The sea conditions in the Pass were horrendous ... wakes slammed into wakes tossing boats like corks. We kept everyone in their seats and worked small tipped jigs up tight to the sand edges by Sand Dollar Island.
Johnny had a couple nice strikes and landed a pair of minimum keeper size pompano. But again, they were released, categorized as "bait fish" by the now very impatient patriarch.
Finally, by three-thirty, we had enough water to get back up inside where I knew we'd have a chance to satisfy Bubba's fish size requirement.
By way of explanation, the unseasonal warmth had not only kept the big sheepshead way offshore but had confused the other big backwater fish targets of snook and redfish. The slot snook were virtually gone and the bigger redfish were so scattered and inconsistent, they were a super long shot. That left the black drum, which went from five to ten pounds consistently, as the best BIG fish target in the backwaters now.
And that was our intended target on this afternoon. We dropped anchor in a beautiful tidal creek and fed shrimp bits on bottom rigs into scattered brush along the creek edge.
The shadows were lengthening in the late afternoon ... the light breeze went dead calm and I heard the first slap from the girls sitting in the front of the boat. Then another ... then Johnny was itching his legs. You could see little yelllow dots whiz by in the sunlight ... the no-see-ums were upon us big time.
Just then Bubba's line went taunt and the drag began to screech. "Big fish on" he yelled to the family now totally engaged in slapping and scratching.
Bubba has a fight on his hands with a sizable black drum but the rest of the family looks like their doing the Macarena. Just then, the drum changes direction, and darts under the boat; Bubba doesn't react quickly enough and the line shears with a snap.
Bubba, now showing the red welts from no-see-um bites too, is nontheless determined ... "Give me another rig, captain. I'm not giving up".
"Not so fast, Bubba" asserts Gloria "We've had it with these bugs ... let's get out of here. Captain, start the engine". I did, pulled the anchor and moved out of the creek.
There was a family meeting in the cockpit with Bubba pleading and Gloria relenting. Even with the warm afternoon Johnny and the girls asked for and donned rain jackets and wrapped their legs with towels and back we went to try for Bubba again.
The no-see-ums were waiting but so were the fish. While the family cowered under the bimini, slapping as necessary, Bubba hooked another drum albeit it smaller than the first and this time got it aboard.
He got all his prideful smiling photos before he released the six pound drum and we quickly headed for home.
Now disrobed of jackets and towels, the family looked like they had just been released from the hospital contagion ward all splotched with itchy red welts. We talked about them getting some anti-histamine at the drug store to ease the itching.
But Bubba just sat there with an uneraseable grin from ear to ear reviewing his smart phone "trophy" pictures.
But the biting midges had extracted some price from the family to get that big fish ... hardly worth it, don't you think?
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.